A prehistoric skeleton found more than 50 years ago by Chinese farmers is neither the oldest or best-preserved human remains found in that country -- but they are historically significant in another way.
Farmers uncovered the remains in 1958 in a remote Guandong township while digging out limestone caves, and researchers later pieced together the fragments to form much of the skull of an early human who lived in the area more than 130,000 years ago, reported the South China Morning Post.
The skull had features similar to a Neanderthal, a humanoid species that lived in Europe before modern humans arrived from Africa -- and researchers believe the human ancestor might have roamed to China like a prehistoric Marco Polo.
A team of Spanish and Chinese researchers scanned the specimen, which was missing the lower face and some portions of the brain casing, and filled in the gaps with digital technology.
They found the Maba specimen's face looked like a Neanderthal's, but its brain casing seemed to be from a much earlier human ancestor.
Similar combinations have been seen in another hominid, Homo heidelbergensis, a possible ancestor to Neanderthals that lived in Spain about 300,000 years ago.
The researchers decided the Maba specimen was either an early Neanderthal, which meant that species ranged all the way to eastern Asia, or it shared the same ancestor as Neanderthals.
Either theory would point to the possibility of an "unknown Euro-Asian evolutionary process," said Emiliano Bruner, co-author of the study at the National Research Center for Human Evolution in Spain.
That would mean the Maba specimen was an early "Marco Polo" who came from Europe but stayed in south China for generations -- which is more likely than the possibility of a native species developing the same features in parallel evolution.
The real Marco Polo was an Italian merchant who chronicled his travels from Venice to China in the late 1200s, inspiring Christopher Columbus to make his own journey about 200 years later.
“But unlike Marco Polo, who completed his journey in a lifetime, the Maba arrived in south China after many generations of constant migration east, each generation passing their genes and distinct physical traits to the next,” said co-author Professor Wu Xiujie, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing.
Many recent discoveries have suggested that modern humans arrived in China more than 100,000 years ago, which contradicts the popular theory that migrants from Africa wiped out all native human species in East Asia when they arrived there about 60,000 years ago.
The Maba specimen, which shows signs of serious skull injuries, could be evidence of an early conflict between those early humans and their Neanderthal relatives.
But the researchers cautioned against speculating on specific conflicts, saying more fossil specimens would be necessary to draw those types of conclusions.
The team published their research findings earlier this year in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.