Acta Anthropologica Sinica ›› 2022, Vol. 41 ›› Issue (06): 1069-1082.doi: 10.16359/j.1000-3193/AAS.2022.0036

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Fossil evidence of the emergence of modern humans and their evolution

XING Song1,2()   

  1. 1. Key Laboratory of Vertebrate Evolution and Human Origins, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100044
    2. CAS Center for Excellence in Life and Paleoenvironment, Beijing 100044
  • Received:2021-08-10 Revised:2021-11-27 Online:2022-12-15 Published:2022-12-19


Modern humans (or recent, late or modern Homo sapiens) are characterized by their morphology, behavior, genetics etc. The mode of modern human origins and their evolutionary route has been the focus of many multidisciplinary researches including paleoanthropology, molecular biology, Paleolithic archaeology, environment and chronology. In recent years, findings of new fossil materials and chronological dating have updated the first appearance of modern humans in different continents and to earlier times. Applications of molecular biology reveal common genetic mixing among Neandertals, Denisovans, and modern humans, leading to a complicated scenario of early modern human evolution since the Upper Paleolithic. However, controversies still exist, and in particular, there are still several unsolved issues about how modern humans originated and evolved on the East Asian mainland. This work summarizes the important fossils of modern humans and the key findings about origin mode and evolutionary routes. Pre-modern H. sapiens can be traced back to Marine Isotope Stage 9 (MIS 9) in Africa, where there is relatively continuous fossil evidence through the late Middle to Late Pleistocene. The first appearance of modern humans in Eurasia was pushed back to MIS 6, and after a hiatus of fossil evidence during MIS 5a and MIS 4, modern humans began to widely disperse across the whole Eurasian continent including islands of East Asia, the southeast and Oceania. It is this fossil evidence and chronology that indicates multiple dispersals of early modern humans out of Africa. Based on morphological and molecular evidence, the evolutionary route of Eurasian modern humans during the MIS 3 and MIS 2 is non-linear. Instead, the evolutionary dead end of certain individuals (or the population it represents) and the inter-continent population connections suggest a mode of “net with breakpoints” for the evolutionary route of early modern humans. Future studies focusing on phenomics of fossil hominins and extant modern humans, more fossil evidence and analysis of ancient DNA will shed more light on this emergence pattern and evolutionary mode of modern humans in Eurasia, especially those in the East Asian continent.

Key words: modern human origins, biological anthropology, Homo sapiens, chronology, molecular biology

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