The Dali cranium was discovered in 1978 embedded in a loess terrace near Jiefang Village, Dali County, Shaanxi Province. Initial reports of the Dali site can be found in Wang et al. (1979) and Wu and You (1979), with Wu Xinzhi (1981) describing the cranium. Additional comparative information can be found in Wu (1989) and Wu (1988b) and an English language description in Wu and Poirier (1995). Uranium series dating of ox teeth from the site obtained a date of 209,000 ±23,000 years (Chen et al., 1994), however, the nature of the association between the hominid cranium and the ox teeth remains uncertain. Given what is known about the Chinese hominid fossil record, for instance the consistent dating results for Zhoukoudian Locality 1, a date of this magnitude would not seem unreasonable. A number of small stone artefacts, primarily scrapers, were also recovered from the site.

Dali is reasonably complete and well preserved, with damage restricted to postdepositional crushing and displacement of the palate and left maxilla. A large section of the right parietal is missing, as are the maxillary teeth and left zygomatic arch. Wu (1981, 1989) found that most of the cranial dimensions and morphological features of Dali were intermediate between Homo erectus and H. sapiens, with Dali assigned to archaic H. sapiens. Craniofacial anatomy and vault shape are distinct from European Neandertals and earlier European hominids like Petralona and Atapeurca.

Dali cranium Dali face
   

The Dali frontal has relatively robust supraorbital development, with the torus particularly thickened mid-orbit and thinning laterally. There is a median ridge which extends into a slight pre-bregmatic eminence and very slight cruciate eminence. When viewed laterally the parietals are long and low. Unlike Homo erectus maximum cranial breadth is located on the posterior-superior temporal, rather than the cranial base. From a posterior viewpoint the parietals do not have a circular profile. The remaining parietal tuberosity is distinct. Most of the vault superstructures in the temporal, occipital and frontal regions are robust. The mastoid process is small. The occipital and nuchal plane form a sharp angle similar to H. erectus and endocranial volume is around 1100-1200 ml.

While Dali's vault is relatively robust, with a mixture of H. erectus and H. sapiens traits, the facial skeleton is much more like those in modern H. sapiens. This is particularly noticeable for the zygomatics, which apart from their thickened frontal processes, are quite delicate. Digital reconstruction of the damaged facial skeleton suggests that facial height was not great, although the alveolar region was well developed. The better preserved right orbit is quadrangular in shape, with smooth and rounded margins. The nasal bones are not particularly broad, but are flattened and the nose of Dali would have been broad and low. The inferior border of the malar region has an angular junction with the alveolar portion of the maxilla as is common in H. sapiens.

What makes Dali, as well as Jinniushan (Lu, 1989; Wu, 1988a), particularly important is that both of their facial skeletons are reasonably complete. This is an unusual situation in China as the only other middle Pleistocene hominids to have faces in China are the Yunxian Homo erectus (Li and Etler, 1992), which are both very distorted. Originating in the pioneering research of Weidenreich (1939a, 1939b, 1943) at Zhoukoudian, there has been strong support by Chinese Palaeoanthropologists for evolutionary continuity between Chinese H. erectus and modern humans in China. It has been argued that this is most clearly expressed in the architecture of the facial skeleton (Wolpoff et al., 1984). East Asian traits have been argued to include lack of anterior facial projection, angulation in the zygomatic process of the maxilla and anterior orientation of the frontal process, pronounced frontal orientation of the malar faces, and facial flatness. While some of these traits may occur at high frequency in modern East Asians (cf Lahr, 1996) they are not present in late Pleistocene East Asians, for instance Upper Cave 101 and Liujiang (Brown, 1999), or more apparent in Dali and Jinniushan than archaic H. sapiens from Africa or Europe.

Recently there has been a tendency to link a group of Chinese hominin fossils, including Dali, Maba, Xujiayao, and Jinniushan, previously considered by some researchers to be "archaic Homo sapiens", with the Denisovians (Reich et al. 2010; Martinón-Torres et al. 2011) (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v468/n7327/full/nature09710.html). However, apart from a few teeth, the Denisovians are only known from palaeo DNA. There is also a great deal of anatomical variation in the Chinese "archaic Homo sapiens" group. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next decade, or so.

 
 Comparison of Dali and Jinniushan archaic Homo sapiens.

Access to Dali

Access to Dali is restricted. The Dali cranium is housed in the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Beijing, China. Research workers interested in seeing Dali should write to Professor Wu Xinzhi, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Academia Sinica, PO Box 164, Beijing, Peoples Republic of China.

References

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Chen T, Yang Q, and Wu E (1994) Antiquity of Homo sapiens in China. Nature 368:55-56.

Lahr, M.M. 1996. The evolution of modern human diversity. Cambridge University Press.

Li T, and Etler DA (1992) New Middle Pleistocene hominid crania from Yunxian in China. Nature 357:416-419.

Lu Z (1989) Date of Jinniushan man and his position in human evolution. Liaohai Wenwu Xuekan 1:44-55.

Martinón-Torres M, Dennell R, and Bermúdez de Castro JM. 2011. The Denisova hominin need not be an out of Africa story. J Hum Evol 60(2):251-255.

Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Viola B, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PLF et al. . 2010. Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature 468(7327):1053-1060.

Wang Y, Xue X, Jue L, Zhao J, and Liu S (1979) Discovery of Dali fossil man and its preliminary study. Kexue Tongbao 24:303-306.

Weidenreich F (1939a) On the earliest representatives of modern mankind recovered on the soil of East Asia. Bulletin of the Natural History Society of Peking 13:161-174.

Weidenreich F (1939b) Six lectures on Sinanthropus and related problems. Bulletin of the Geological Society of China 19:1-110.

Weidenreich F (1943) The skull of Sinanthropus pekinensis: a comparative study of a primitive hominid skull. Palaeontologica Sinica D10:1-485.

Wolpoff MH, Wu X, and Thorne AG (1984) Modern Homo sapiens origins: a general theory of human evolution involving the fossil evidence from east Asia. In FH Smith and F Spencer (eds.): The origins of modern humans: a world survey of the fossil evidence. New York: Alan R. Liss, pp. 411-483.

Wu R (1988a) The reconstruction of the fossil human skull from Jinniushan, Yinkou, Liaoning Province and its main features. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 7:97-101.

Wu X (1981) A well-preserved cranium of an archaic type of early Homo sapiens from Dali, China. Scientia Sinica 24:530-539.

Wu X (1989) Early Homo sapiens in China. In X Wu and S Shang (eds.): Early humankind in china. Beijing: Science Press, pp. 24-41.

Wu X, and Poirier FE (1995) Human evolution in China. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wu X, and You Y (1979) A preliminary observation of the Dali man site. Vertebrata PalAsiatica 17:294-303.

Wu X (1988b) Comparative study of early Homo sapiens from China and Europe. Acta Anthropologica Sinica 7:292-299.