A University of Illinois professor has reportedly found a skull that is the oldest human fossil ever discovered in Southeast Asia. Research teams led by anthropology professor Laura Shackelford and Fabrice Demeter, of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, found the skull in a cave in the Annamite Mountains in Laos.
The skull has been estimated to be between 46,000 and 63,000 years old. This has led the researchers to believe that humans arrived in Laos some 20,000 years earlier than perviously thought. This would mean that humans left Africa much earlier in history than other records have indicated.
“It’s a particularly old modern human fossil and it’s also a particularly old modern human for that region,” Shackelford said.
The team led by Shackelford began looking for the bones in 2009. Their excavation was the first in Laos since the early 1900s when a few skulls and skeletons were found in the Annamite Mountains. However, the fossils found in the early 1900s were only estimated to be 16,000 years old, much younger than those found today.
Shackelford said that although there have been fossils found from this time period in China and various islands in Southeast Asia, she is not convinced of their authenticity.
“They either are not well dated or they do not show definitively modern human features,” she said. “This skull is very well dated and shows very conclusive modern human features.”
The researchers have yet to find any other artifacts along with the skull. Shackelford said this suggests that the cave was not a living space, but rather the skull was brought into the cave at some other time.
The skull also suggests that the first human migrants did not only move from Southeast Asia to Australia, but also traveled north into new regions.
“Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia,” Shackelford said. “But it is also likely that mainland Southeast Asia was a crossroads leading to multiple migratory paths.”
Genetic laboratories have previously suggested that modern human life inhabited this area over 60,000 years ago. According to Shackelford, the newly discovered skull is the first fossil record to support the genetic data.
“We now have the fossil evidence to prove that they were there long before we thought they were there,” she said
To determine the age of the soil below and around the skull, the research team used radiocarbon dating and luminescence. They then used uranium/thorium dating to find the age of the skull, which they estimated at 63,000 years old. The soil was estimated at a younger 46,000 to 51,000 years old, which supports the theory that the skull was brought into the cave after the person’s death.