Lifestyle & Belief

Southeast Asia's oldest known immigrant


A 63,000-year-old skull, discovered by University of Illinois researchers in Laos, offers some of the earliest evidence yet of ancient human migration through Southeast Asia.


F. Demeter / University of Illinois

An ancient skull pulled from a cave in Laos suggests human beings wandered out of Africa and dispersed through Southeast Asia much earlier than previously thought.

The fairly-intact, 63,000-year-old skull was discovered by a University of Illinois anthropologist, Laura Shackelford, according to a university news release. This find dials back the clock on mainland Southeast Asia's earliest known human migrants by about 20,000 years, according to Shackelford's research.

The takeaway: this discovery suggests that humans didn't always simply follow the coast as they drifted out of Africa. Early migrants also pushed into what Shackelfod calls "very different types of terrain": higher-altitude mountains in Laos, which is quite distant from the nearest sea.

Our understanding of humankind's origins is forever evolving. The "dawn monkey" theory, furthered by an American paleontologist, contends that man's earliest predecessors were extremely tiny primates in Asia that gradually wandered towards Africa where, 5 million years ago, they spun off into breeds that preceded modern human beings.

This syncs with the discovery of a "Siam Ape," a long-extinct 15-pound simian whose bones were found in Thailand. (My interview with the Thai scientist who found the bones is here.)

That could mean the simian spark of humanity began in Asia, laid the foundation for species that later drifted into Africa, where some species evolved into modern humans that then reversed their ancestors' paths and pushed back towards Asia.