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Oldest human bones unearthed in Southeast Asia

Washington, Aug 21 (): Researchers have unearthed the ancient skull in a cave in Laos in Southeast Asia. The skull found in the Annamite Mountains in northern Laos is the oldest modern human fossil believed to be between 46,000 and 63,000 years old.

The discovery reveals that the first modern humans to leave Africa spread around the world much earlier than was previously believed. The findings suggest that early humans did not simply follow the Asian coast as they travelled from Africa to Australia, as some researchers have argued, but that some also moved interior into unknown terrain. These data suggest that modern humans rapidly migrated out of Africa and into Southeast Asia by at least 60,000 years ago.

Prof Laura Shackelford, an anthropologist who led the survey said, “Given its age, fossils in this vicinity could be direct ancestors of the first migrants to Australia.”

Shackelford began looking for the bones in 2009 in Laos. Their archaeological mining was the first in Laos since the early 1900s when a few skeletons and skulls were found in the Annamite Mountains. Earlier, the fossils found in the early 1900s were only predicted to be 16,000 years old, much younger than those found today. She added, “It is more likely that the person died outside and the body washed into the cave sometime later.”

The partially unearthed skull includes the upper part of the brain case as well as jaw bone and teeth, which have the distinct anatomical characteristics of modern human.

Dr Shackelford said, “This skull is very well dated and shows very conclusive modern human features… [it] would have looked just like us, although this individual was very small relative to recent humans.”

The discovery also boosts genetic studies that specify that modern humans occupied that part of the world at least 60,000 years ago, she said.

Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London, said, “It thus confirms the expectation from DNA studies that modern humans were in south-east Asia by 50,000 years ago, since they arrived in New Guinea and Australia only a few thousand years later,” as the skull was important because it shows that modern humans had colonised Asia at least 50,000 years ago.