HOMO ERECTUS, one of modern humans’ direct ancestors, was a wandering bunch. After the species dispersed from Africa about two million years ago, it colonized the ancient world, which included Asia and possibly Europe.
But about 400,000 years ago, Homo erectus essentially vanished. The lone exception was a spot called Ngandong, on the Indonesian island of Java. But scientists were unable to agree on a precise time period for the site — until now.
In a new study published in the journal Nature, an international team of researchers led by the University of Iowa; Macquarie University; and the Institute of Technology Bandung, Indonesia, dates the last existence of Homo erectus at Ngandong between 108,000 and 117,000 years ago.
The researchers time-stamped the site by dating animal fossils from the same bonebed where 12 Homo erectus skull caps and two tibia had been found, and then dated the surrounding land forms — mostly terraces below and above Ngandong — to establish an accurate record for the primeval humans’ possible last stand on Earth.
“This site is the last known appearance of Homo erectus found anywhere in the world,” says Russell Ciochon, professor in the Department of Anthropology at Iowa and co-corresponding author on the study. “We can’t say we dated the extinction, but we dated the last occurrence of it. We have no evidence Homo erectus lived later than that anywhere else.”
The research team presents 52 new age estimates for the Ngandong evidence. They include animal fossil fragments and sediment from the rediscovered fossil bed where the original Homo erectus remains were found by Dutch surveyors in the 1930s, and a sequence of dates for the river terraces below and above the fossil site.
In addition, the researchers determined when mountains south of Ngandong first rose by dating stalagmites from caves in the Southern Mountains. This allowed them to determine when the Solo River began coursing through the Ngandong site, and the river terrace sequence was created.
“You have this incredible array of dates that are all consistent,” Ciochon says. “This has to be the right range. That’s why it’s such a nice, tight paper. The dating is very consistent.”