Magazine article Science News

Homo Erectus Shows Staying Power on Java

Magazine article Science News

Homo Erectus Shows Staying Power on Java

Article excerpt

A fossil species often classified as a direct human ancestor survived much longer in Indonesia than previously suspected and may have coexisted for at least several thousand years with Homo sapiens, according to new age estimates for a fossil site in Java.

H. erectus, now estimated to have inhabited the Indonesian island of Java until sometime between 27,000 and 53,000 years ago, died out as H. sapiens more successfully exploited local Stone Age environments, assert Carl C. Swisher III of the Berkeley (Calif.) Geochronology Center and his colleagues. Many researchers have argued that a similar scenario played out in Europe and the Middle East, where Neandertals lived at the same time as H. sapiens before going extinct around 35,000 years ago.

"It looks like independent [H.] erectus and [H.] sapiens lineages evolved in Southeast Asia," holds study participant Susan C. Anton, an anthropologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It wouldn't have taken a huge technological or intellectual advantage for one species to have replaced another over a number of generations."

Investigators familiar with the new results agree on two points: The revised dates require further verification and, if they hold up, they will fuel rather than resolve the ongoing debate over the nature of modern human origins (SN: 6/20/92, p. 408).

Most prior age estimates for these H. erectus finds on Java fell between 100,000 and 250,000 years ago. Given that timing, some researchers argued that in Southeast Asia, H. erectus evolved into H. sapiens.

The revised ages indicate that H. erectus survived so late on Java-at least 250,000 years longer than on mainland Asia and perhaps 1 million years longer than in Africa-that it could not have been a human precursor in Southeast Asia.

Swisher's team estimated ages from analyses of the rate of uranium decay in four animal teeth found in sediment at two sites on Java that had yielded H. …

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