The significance of the new East Asian fossil human Penghu 1

A new early human fossil has been reported, recovered from the seabed near Taiwan. We are calling it Penghu 1.

Simply put, it is the lower right jaw of a hominid (hominine) that most resembles either a form of Homo erectus or Archaic Homo sapiens (kin to, but not, Neanderthal). Teeth are fairly useful for categorizing hominids into groups that can be thought of as species. This hominid does not look like modern humans (teeth are way too big and the enamel is not right). It does not look like African Homo ergaster or Asian Homo erectus. It does not look like Neanderthal or so called Denisovan. It looks most like Hexian, a middle pleistocene hominid (about a half million years old) from China, but not exactly. But close. Hexian, for it's part, looks like earlier Homo erectus but changed over time to be distinctly different from other contemporary (late) Homo erectus from East Asia.

I'll provide more information about the fossil below, but since the paper that reports it is available on line you might as well go read the original. Rather, I'd like to say a couple of things about the possible significance of this find.

First, this is probably a new species, though it could end up getting lumped with Hexian. But, the new fossil probably dates to the last interglacial (120,000 years go) or later. I'm guessing later if its presence on the sea floor indicates that the original possessor of the mandible lived during times of lower sea level. (I suppose this could be an individual that died and floated down a river. Or fell out of a boat!?!?!?)

Let's assume for a moment that Penghu 1 is a new species, in the sense that we see Neanderthals, Denisovans, and various variants of Homo erectus or Archaic homo as different species (we'll put aside species-population differences and arguments for now). If so there is one obvious very significant (provisional) conclusion that could be advanced, and a second less obvious (and more provissional).

The obvious significance is that Penghu is yet another indicator that multiple different hominids lived on the Earth at the same time after the rise of Homo erectus. We see lots of different hominids, mainly called Australopithecus, in Africa prior to about two million years ago, which is interesting but also known for some time now. But for a long time it looked like there was not too much diversity in the fossil record after that, though we've always seen some. Over the last couple of decades, though, the evidence for Pleistocene diversity in Eurasia appears to have grown, with Homo floresiensis and Hexian in the east, Denisova Cave in the middle, and the hominid from the Republic of Georgia in the west. The idea of a high level of diversity is not new, but it is a relatively recent concept and is growing. (I'll also mention that finding a new hominid on the sea floor underscores the problem we have that so many of the great places for early humans to live are inundated!)

The less obvious and much more conjectural significance is in the shift of diversity from one region of the world to another. Prior to about 2.0 million years go, we see great diversity in hominids in Africa (where, for the most part, most of the hominids lived). Over time, African diversity dwindles as modern humans, or a hominid just precedent to modern humans, seems to have more or less taken over and replaced their contemporaries. Archaic hominids, however, which had already spread into Eurasia, continued the diversification earlier hominids had achieved, and this diversity was manifest in the absence of those pesky moderns.

Putting this another way, one could say that hominids, including pre- and post-Homo forms, have as one of their characteristics a propensity to diversity. This is true of many (but not all) primates. It may have to do with ecological and social/cultural characteristics of the various species, or perhaps basic demography. Adherence to ecological zones that are patchy and spread apart would encourage more speciation than might occur if populations were more connected or continuous. Related (or alternatively, depending) great increases and decreases of population size, causing separation of subgroups, might enhance this. At the same time, evolutionary stasis is repressed; separate groups change fast enough to be noted by us on time scales of several thousand years.

In contrast, modern or near-modern humans seem not to have had this propensity.

The most obvious explanation for this difference is, it seems to me, the degree of cultural buffering found in modern humans being much higher than in these other hominids.

OK, enough of the wild speculation. Here is the abstract from the paper:

Recent studies of an increasing number of hominin fossils highlight regional and chronological diversities of archaic Homo in the Pleistocene of eastern Asia. However, such a realization is still based on limited geographical occurrences mainly from Indonesia, China and Russian Altai. Here we describe a newly discovered archaic Homo mandible from Taiwan (Penghu 1), which further increases the diversity of Pleistocene Asian hominins. Penghu 1 revealed an unexpectedly late survival (younger than 450 but most likely 190–10 thousand years ago) of robust, apparently primitive dentognathic morphology in the periphery of the continent, which is unknown among the penecontemporaneous fossil records from other regions of Asia except for the mid-Middle Pleistocene Homo from Hexian, Eastern China. Such patterns of geographic trait distribution cannot be simply explained by clinal geographic variation of Homo erectus between northern China and Java, and suggests survival of multiple evolutionary lineages among archaic hominins before the arrival of modern humans in the region.

The citation and link:

Chun-Hsiang Chang, Yousuke Kaifu, Masanaru Takai, Reiko T. Kono, Rainer Grün, Shuji Matsu’ura, Les Kinsley & Liang-Kong Lin. The first archaic Homo from Taiwan. Nature Communications. 27 January 2015.

The location:

And above the post is a picture of the fossil.

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My speculation concerns sea level (and thus climate.)

When sea levels were significantly lower, climate was probably several degrees colder. Thus, living conditions for primates must have been more difficult. My guess would be that this made intermingling harder and encouraged diversification. As you noted, much of the evidence of such diversification would now be under water.

Could we be seeing the birth of a new specialty — marine archaeology?

By Christopher Winter (not verified) on 27 Jan 2015 #permalink

Sure... Just don't get on about the "aquatic ape" drivel!

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 27 Jan 2015 #permalink

Greg - would it make sense to try and draw coastline maps at different time intervals, so different sea level heights, and then project from there what the most likely places for settlements would be then search those spots today via underwater archaeology techniques?

Could we pinpoint the coastline and it's likely features that well that far back?

By Doug Alder (not verified) on 27 Jan 2015 #permalink

Christopher, the archaeological record, where it speaks to this, suggests that for modern humans large areas became unoccupied during glacial maxima, suggesting that people would have been spread pretty far apart. If it affected modern humans that way it must have severely affected other hominids that way.

Marine archaeology has been going on for a long time, actually! It is just very hard to do.

Brainstorms: I expect to be hearing from the aquatic ape folks any minute now...

Doug, I worked on a huge project that tried to do that for the US coast from the Bay of Fundy south to the Carolinas. This sort of thing has been tried in other places. The problem is that all of the underwater areas were for a while erosional beaches. That messed things up quite a bit. But you do find preserved remains where people built things, i.e., off the coast of Israel (also, there, the sea is less violent).

Don't worry, they'll be accusing them of hiding the fossilized gills...

By Brainstorms (not verified) on 27 Jan 2015 #permalink

Indeed. But also keep in mind that the dredging that brought up this bone was in an area that would have been a broad inland valley nowhere near the sea at the time of lowest sea levels!

If it was in a broad inland valley, that tells me it is a highly likely site of some gathering by those hominids. I don't believe so much in coincidence, it would seem more exploration there, ie dredging, may yield more. Even under beaches there are stratified layers of soil and rock. Wave action most likely brought the bone to surface over the many years. Honestly, we need machines to turn vast amounts of sea water to drinkable stored water, lower sea levels to past levels, allowing archeological investigation as they recede and more land for people to colonize. Bill gates turns poop into water, and why not sea water instead of sewage? Also, would it not be possible to make machines to help produce ozone or decrease atmospheric temperatures? Guess we're too busy looking at Mars. Apple just announced they have 178 billion cash, gee, why don't they think of a new phone or computer to make? These are exciting discoveries, wish we could make more in areas we cannot look, think what's there.

By Roderick scott (not verified) on 29 Jan 2015 #permalink

In "Good bye and thanks for all the Fish" they say that the Porpoise has that silly grin whenever people see them because the first time they saw a human he was paddling along on a log headed out to sea looking for something to eat.

Since Cognitive Science depends on intersubjective agreement to establish self awareness, I wonder if a hominid as primitive as the one found here could convince a modern human that he was a self aware being rather than a lower animal governed only by instinct?
I figure humanity is measured by the mind and the brain structures that allow abstract thought. Anything else is just a humanlike frame with an animal mind.

There are legends of humans encountering what they believed to be non human intelligent beings. Often these were called Cynocephali ( dog headed men) which could be a sign of early human experience with fossilized hominid skeletons and skulls.
An ancient Greek text has an illustration of a Cynocephali which looks like a unusually robust humanlike body with the head of a hound. On closer examination the body looks to have been based on examination of a Neanderthal skeleton, the head being a fanciful interpretation probably of a damaged or incomplete skull.
The term Cynocephali has also been associated with some all too human peoples of ancient times that struck fear in those they preyed on.

I will say that its obvious to me that dogs and cats and many other creatures are self aware even if most scientists don't share that opinion.
Animals can communicate without speech, express true emotion ,and they can solve problems.

Makes me wonder whether new remains of Gigantopithecus will be unearthed on this site. What's your opinion on this, Greg?

By Jim Cartfield (not verified) on 02 Feb 2015 #permalink

Jim, just to be clear, Penghu is nothing like Gigantopithecus. I know you are not saying that but it should be clear.

Unfortunately this "site" is kind of vague and not really located precisely. But, now that an important hominid fossil has been dredged up hopefully there will be people looking for more!

A few days ago I sent this to Nature Communications:
"Thanks a lot for this exciting paper. The supplementary information suggests this archaic Homo (Penghu 1) dwelt in "marshlands in a hot and humid climate ... relatively wet environments with rivers, ponds and/or lakes ... relatively open wet woodland", e.g. Trionyx are soft-shell freshwater turtles in lakes, estuaria and large rivers, and Chinemys are semi-aquatic pond turtles in marshes, relatively shallow ponds, streams and canals with muddy or sandy bottoms. This once more confirms that Pleistocene Homo did not run over open plains or savannas as many paleo-anthropologists still assume (the Endurance Running hypothesis is paleontologically and physiologically impossible, google "original econiche Homo"). Instead, archaic Homo simply followed the African and Eurasian coasts and large rivers, beach-combing, diving and wading bipedally for different sort of littoral, shallow aquatic and waterside foods, including molluscs, rich in brain-specific nutrients such as DHA (which helps explain Homo's drastic brain enlargement, see the work of Stephen Cunnane and Michael Crawford). This early-Pleistocene Coastal Dispersal model (term of Stephen Munro, who discovered the Javan shell engravings, see José Joordens cs 2014 doi 10.1038/nature13962) seems to be confirmed in several recent publications, e.g. Stephen Munro 2010 "Molluscs as Ecological Indicators in Palaeoanthropological Contexts" PhD thesis Austr.Nat.Univ Canberra; Mario Vaneechoutte cs eds 2011 "Was Man More Aquatic in the Past?" Bentham Sci.Publ.eBook; the proceedings of the symposium on human waterside evolution ?Human Evolution: Past, Present and Future? (London 8-10 May 2013, with Peter Rhys Evans, Michael Crawford, David Attenborough and Don Johanson) in 2 special editions of Hum.Evol. (2013-2014); Marc Verhaegen and Stephen Munro 2011 "Pachyosteosclerosis suggests archaic Homo frequently collected sessile littoral foods" HOMO J.compar.hum.Biol. 62:237-247. For a summary of recent insight in Homo's waterside evolution, see my 2013 paper "The aquatic ape evolves: common misconceptions and unproven assumptions about the so-called Aquatic Ape Hypothesis" Hum.Evol.28:237-266, google "researchGate marc verhaegen"."
Today 14:59, I got this email from Nature Communications:
"Dear Marc Verhaegen, The following post you wrote on the Nature Communications website has been approved by the moderator: "(see above)". Thank you for contributing, -Nature Communications editors"
10 minutes later, I got:
"Dear Marc Verhaegen, The following post you wrote on the Nature Communications website has been hidden by the moderator in accordance with our terms and conditions: "(see above)". -Nature Communications editors"
I'm afraid PA minds (or at least their terms & conditions) are still not ripe for discussing the possibility of a waterside human past...

By marc verhaegen (not verified) on 06 Feb 2015 #permalink

That's crazy. I mean, you might be totally wrong, but that is not a reason to kill the comment.

How do we know that Penghu 1 "does not look...Denisovan"?

My understanding is that the only fossilized remains we have of Densiovans are a few finger bones, from which the amazing genetic analysis was done. My understanding is that we know very little about the MORPHOLOGY of Denisovans.

Can someone explain this comment?

By Mark Luce (not verified) on 18 Feb 2015 #permalink

Aha, good question! I should have been more clear, or maybe, less clear.

It does not look like the grade of hominid we assume (rightfully) Denisovans would have been given what we know about their genetic relationships to modern humans and neanderthals, etc. It is speculative without actual morphology, but Denisovans should look like an archaic Homo Sapiens. Thus "It does not look like Neanderthal or so called Denisovan."

Intriguing... but only one branch on the hominin bush, made it to the present day, the ones in north-east Africa, the ones
who left their bones in the valley of the Awash. No matter
how many remains of the other branches on the bush pop
up in the far-east or in southern Africa, only one branch
gave rise to the species of which one only survives today.

Frasiel, you statement is not supported by the evidence. Broaden that geography to include eastern and southern Africa and you are likely correct. In the future this could be narrowed down but not yet.


Would disagree Greg, Ethiopia, Eretria the valley of Awash
is where our particular branch on the hominin bush and its various other now extinct twigs (like the Neanderthals) originated. There's more evidence there in north-east
Africa than elsewhere on this small planet, for our perilous
origins as an inquisitive opportunist biped with love
of running...

First, there is the lamp post effect. The Eastern Rift is very good at preserving material, and the NE Rift has excellent debated deposits.

There is a nearly fully modern human skull from southern Africa that is associated with material that may be about 385,000 years old, but the date is not secure. If that date turns out to be correct, then suddenly we have to change your assertion to say that modern humans arose in Southern Africa, not NE Africa. One skull with one good date could do that. There is archaeological evidence that major changes in cognitive abilities happened with the origin of the MSA. The ESA/MSA transition is dated everywhere to close to 250K. But a key feature of the MSA, that makes us think about important cognitive changes, is also found in the ESA at closer to 400K in southern Africa, and is absent in E. Africa. So, again, a very valid interpretation of the record shows the origin of modern humans being older in S and not E Africa.

I'm not saying that modern humans arose in S. Africa. I'm saying something more conservative: That you can't assume NE Africa.

That is what the fossil and archaeological record requires us to consider. Similar arguments can be made about earlier time periods and other "branches" of human/human ancestor.

More evidence v.s. less evidence is not evidence of anything but differential taphonomy. Earlier evidence vs. clear lack of earlier evidence when there could be earlier evidence is the only thing you can use to infer origins at this scale of geography. The vast majority of Africa is utterly unknown wrt early hominins. Your argument requires that early hominins or early h. sapiens knew our best evidence would come from the volcanically active E Rift, so they clustered there to keep their amazing evolutionary story in line with the preservational environment. If only!



Thank you for the post.
I believe in creation and perhaps the following website provides some useful information

[Link to anti science site deteted as per blog policy.]