Tools from China are oldest hint of human lineage outside Africa

By Colin Barras

Hominins reached Asia at least 2.1 million years ago, researchers assert in an 11 July Nature paper1. Stone tools they found in central China represent the earliest known evidence of humans or their ancient relatives living outside Africa.

Other scientists are convinced that the tools were made by hominins and are confident that they are as old as claimed. And although the tools’ makers are unknown, the discovery could force researchers to reconsider which hominin species first left Africa — and when. “This is a whole new palaeo ball game,” says William Jungers, a palaeoanthropologist at Stony Brook University, New York.

Most researchers say that hominins — the evolutionary line that includes humans — first left their African homeland around 1.85 million years ago. This is the age of the oldest hominin fossils discovered beyond Africa — from Dmanisi, Georgia, in the Caucasus region of Eurasia. The oldest hominin remains from East Asia, two incisors from southwest China, are around 1.7 million years old (see ‘Travelling Hominins’).

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