Exclusive: CAS academician proposes research to explore the connection between ancient humans discovered in China with ancestors of modern Chinese people
Published: Jul 02, 2024 10:48 AM
Courtesy of Chen Fahu

Courtesy of Chen Fahu

As the 21st century discovery of ancient human fossils across China has increased international attention on the origin and evolution of humans in East Asia, relevant findings have propelled the field of paleoanthropology into new directions and debates.

Are the ancient humans discovered within China the ancestors of modern Chinese people?

Chen Fahu, a fellow researcher with the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and a CAS academician, discussed the topic with the Global Times. 

From a global perspective, the period around 300,000 years ago is crucial for studying the origin of modern humans and their interactions with contemporary archaic humans, such as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Around 300,000 years ago, the earliest modern human fossils were found in Africa, while vast regions of Eurasia and Western Asia were primarily inhabited by Neanderthals. In East Asia, known ancient humans include Denisovans and the "Dragon Man" among others, according to Chen.

"Therefore, from a cross-regional perspective, comprehensive research on ancient human fossils and related archaeological cultural remains found in China dating back approximately 300,000 years, including physical characteristics, lithic technology, bone tool technology, strategies for utilizing plant and animal resources, subsistence patterns, ancient human DNA, and ancient proteins, is essential for exploring and elucidating the origins of the ancestors of modern Chinese people,” he said.

Whether ancient hominids found in China were the ancestors of modern Chinese populations, proposed by the Paleontological Society of China, was selected as one of the 10 top frontier scientific questions recently released by the China Association of Science and Technology (CAST.)

Experts believe solving this question has significant value in enriching the history of human evolution and tracing the evolutionary history of the Chinese people. 

The key to answering this question lies in discovering more ancient human fossils and conducting in-depth research on existing fossils. Researchers focus on ancient human fossils from East Asia and Holocene human remains, employing various methods to systematically study the characteristics, chronological changes, and regional variations of different fossil categories. 

Such studies and researches aim to determine whether there is continuity between ancient humans and modern Chinese populations in terms of chronology and morphology. Furthermore, it seeks to address the contentious issue of whether modern Chinese populations are the direct descendants of local archaic humans. Ultimately, this research aims to reveal the patterns of human evolution in East Asia and clarify the evolutionary lineage of the Chinese people.

While the academic community generally acknowledges that Homo erectus first appeared in Africa and migrated to Asia and Europe around two million years ago, the exact time when Homo erectus arrived in China and whether there were ancient human members in China before Homo erectus remain unclear. Whether these Homo erectus evolved directly into modern humans is also a debatable issue. 

Chen stated that discovery of  the origins of the ancestors of modern Chinese people through fossils, DNA, and archaeological evidence is not only a focal point in academia but also a topic of great interest to the general public. However, there are often vastly differing opinions on this issue, making it necessary for scientists to continue in-depth research and discussion on the matter.

Chen emphasized that answering this scientific question requires evidence from various fields, including paleoanthropology, paleogenomics, paleoenvironment and archaeology, necessitating interdisciplinary collaboration.

Due to significant differences in these disciplines, there is still a gap that needs further communication and integration to develop more comprehensive and factual scientific theories. Additionally, there is a need to intensify fieldwork efforts to discover more key archaeological sites and materials, he said.

"Research on the origin of modern humans has long been a major scientific issue in archaeology. Additionally, the country currently provides significant support and attention to archaeological work. I believe that with strong national support, more young talents will join the research team, producing a series of research outcomes with significant international impact," Chen told the Global Times. 

He noted that the rapid development of scientific archaeology in China has brought new methods and approaches to the study of human origins. There is already a consensus on the urgency of interdisciplinary communication and integration, which is showing promising development trends. With these conditions in place, the answer to this scientific question will become clearer.