Stone tools over 2.1 million years old that were found in central China are the earliest known evidence of humans or their ancestors living outside Africa, a new study suggests.
The tools are 270,000 years older than the 1.85 million year old skeletal remains and stone tools from Dmanisi, Georgia, which were previously the earliest evidence of humanity outside Africa.
"Our discovery means it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa," said study co-author Robin Dennell, an archaeologist from Exeter University in the United Kingdom.
The 96 artifacts discovered include scrapers, hammer stones and pointed pieces. The tools were distributed throughout layers of dirt, suggesting our unidentified ancient relatives came back to the same site over and over, possibly following animals to hunt.
“It’s absolutely a new story,” said archaeologist Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who did not participate in the study. “It means that early humans were getting out of Africa way earlier than we ever realized.”
The artifacts were dug up in an area known as the Loess Plateau, north of the Qinling mountains, which divide the north and south of China.
Hominins – members of the evolutionary tree that includes humans, extinct species of the genus Homo and other closely related bipedal species – originated in Africa possibly more than 6 million years ago, according to University of Texas anthropologist John Kappelman.
These early hominins eventually moved out of Africa into unknown territories, to eventually populate the planet, Kappelman noted in a commentary that accompanied the study. That exit from Africa came long before our own species, Homo sapiens, even appeared.
The study was published in Nature, a peer-reviewed British journal.
Contributing: The Associated Press