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Defining ‘human’ – new fossils provide more questions than answers

By Darren Curnoe

Study finds evidence for new evolutionary line of prehistoric humans in East Asia.

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The origin of the human species remains one of the most fascinating and difficult topics of modern science.

One of the main reasons for this is a continuing lack of agreement about how we should define ourselves. In other words, what is it that makes us human (or, scientifically, Homo sapiens)?

The father of biological classification, 18th century Swede Carl Linnaeus, wrote in his Systema Naturae the words “nosce te ipsum”, or “know thy self”: a statement at once prescient and frustratingly uninformative.

More annoying, the issue of how we define “human” seems to get more complicated the more fossils we unearth.

A new study published by a team of Australian and Chinese scientists – led by my colleague Ji Xueping and I – opens a new chapter in the story of human evolution in East Asia.

Our team investigated the recent phases of our evolution in southwest China, including the origins of modern humans in the region. In our paper we describe and compare human fossils from two sites in the region: Maludong, near the city of Mengzi, Yunnan Province, and a cave almost 300km, away located near the village of Longlin in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous...

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Darren Curnoe is a human evolution specialist at the University of NSW. This article was originally published at The Conversation.