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Am J Phys Anthropol. 2002 Aug;118(4):301-23.

Evolutionary significance of cranial variation in Asian Homo erectus.

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Center for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey 08901, USA.


Homo erectus inhabited a wide geographic area of Asia, ranging from 40 degrees north latitude in China to 8 degrees south latitude in island Southeast Asia. Yet variation within Asian H. erectus and its relation to ecological and temporal parameters have been little studied. I synthesize the revised radiometric chronologies for hominid sites in Asia and their relation to new oxygen isotope curves (proxies for climatic fluctuations and landbridge connections). These data suggest substantial opportunities in the later Pleistocene for both regional isolation and gene flow between hominids in mainland and Southeast Asia. They also suggest that the most northerly located Chinese sites (Zhoukoudian and Nanjing) may have been occupied during sequential, interglacial periods. Probably reflecting these periods of isolation, nonmetric features and principal components analysis (PCA) of calvarial shape suggest regional differentiation between northern Asian and Southeast Asian H. erectus. The most recent Southeast Asian fossils (e.g., Ngandong) conform to the Southeast Asian pattern. Except perhaps in brain size, there is no evidence that the temporally intermediate Chinese fossils are intermediate in morphology between older and younger Indonesian fossils. In fact, northern Chinese calvaria are easier to exclude from the larger Asian H. erectus hypodigm than are the Ngandong fossils. The Chinese specimens differ from the others based on their narrower occipitals and frontals for their cranial size. The Chinese sample from Zhoukoudian alone is thus not a good proxy for the morphology and variation seen within Asian H. erectus. Both the Chinese and late Indonesian samples exhibit less variation than does the early Indonesian sample; this along with their shared morphological bauplan suggests a common origin and no more than subspecific differentiation. This shared morphology, despite regional differences, was likely maintained by the increasing intensity of multiple glaciations (and longer-lasting land bridge connections) between mainland and island Southeast Asia during the last million years.

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