Hominins lived in China 2.1 million years ago

Enlarge / Early hominins lived here, near Shangchen in China's southern Loess Plateau, 2.1 million years ago. (credit: Prof. Zhaoyu Zhu)

Early hominins ventured out into the world beyond Africa even earlier than we've given them credit for, according to a new stone-tool find on the southern edge of China's Loess Plateau.

Hominins—the lineage of apes that eventually came to include humans—began making recognizeable stone tools about 3 million years ago. Before that date, we know that our early relatives inhabited a place only if we find their bones or, in rarer cases, their footprints. But stone tools offer a more durable, more abundant calling card. Pick up a stone flake or scraper—or a core of flint or chert with obvious scars from flintknapping—and you know that someone made this object. Someone was here.

And that's exactly what archaeologists led by Zhaoyu Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences found in a 2.1-million-year-old layer of ancient wind-blown sediment in China's southern Loess Plateau: a collection of stone cores, flakes, scrapers, borers, and points, as well as a couple of damaged hammerstones. The tools' style strongly resembles stone tools found at sites of about the same age in Africa, made by early human relatives like Homo erectus.

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