A trove of 47 fossil human teeth from a cave in southern China is rewriting the history of the early migration of our species out of Africa, indicating Homo sapiens trekked into Asia far earlier than previously known and much earlier than into Europe.

Scientists on Wednesday announced the discovery of teeth between 80,000 and 120,000 years old that they say provide the earliest evidence of fully modern humans outside Africa.

The teeth from the Fuyan Cave site in Hunan Province's Daoxian County place our species in southern China 30,000 to 70,000 years earlier than in the eastern Mediterranean or Europe.

"Until now, the majority of the scientific community thought that Homo sapiens was not present in Asia before 50,000 years ago," said paleoanthropologist Wu Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology.

Fuyan Cave

An illustration shows the geographical location of the Fuyan Cave. The plan view of the excavation area with stratigraphy layer marked is seen in the centre. On the right are the excavated regions and a researcher finding a human tooth. ( Y-J Cai, X-X Yang, and X-J Wu)

Our species first appeared in East Africa about 200,000 years ago, then spread to other parts of the world, but the timing and location of these migrations has been unclear.

University College London paleoanthropologist Maria Martinon-Torres said our species made it to southern China tens of thousands of years before colonizing Europe perhaps because of the entrenched presence of our hardy cousins, the Neanderthals, in Europe and the harsh, cold European climate.

"This finding suggests that Homo sapiens is present in Asia much earlier than the classic, recent 'Out of Africa' hypothesis was suggesting: 50,000 years ago," Martinon-Torres said.

Liu said the teeth are about twice as old as the earliest evidence for modern humans in Europe.

"We hope our Daoxian human fossil discovery will make people understand that East Asia is one of the key areas for the study of the origin and evolution of modern humans," Liu said.

Neanderthals may have been barrier in Europe

Martinon-Torres said some migrations out of Africa have been labeled "failed dispersals." Fossils from Israeli caves indicate modern humans about 90,000 years ago reached "the gates of Europe," Martinon-Torres said, but "never managed to enter."

It may have been hard to take over land Neanderthals had occupied for hundreds of thousands of years, Martinon-Torres said.

"In addition, it is logical to think that dispersals towards the east were likely environmentally easier than moving towards the north, given the cold winters of Europe," Martinon-Torres said.

Paleoanthropologist Xiujie Wu of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology said the 47 teeth came from at least 13 individuals.

The research appears in the journal Nature.