This post was occasioned by a news article, discovered on Howard French’s blog, about a recent Chinese study which “found that Chinese ancestors set off from northeast Africa about 50,000 years ago.” This story is momentous not so much for its contribution to science as it is with regard to the politics of race in China. In order to explain, I need to first provide a brief outline of a debate in physical anthropology between two competing theories regarding human evolution.
While it is generally excepted (by the scientific community, I’ll leave religion out of this) that the earliest ancestors of all modern humans came from Africa at some time in the distant past, there is considerable debate over the timing of that migration. The “out of Africa” hypothesis asserts that Homo sapiens evolved first in Africa
between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago and, some time afterwards, in a relatively recent exodus, began colonizing the rest of the world. According to the single-origin model, these more recent migrants did not interbreed with the scattered descendants of earlier exoduses.
In other words, there is only one “race” of humans, all others having either become extinct before the migration from Africa, or soon afterwards.
The competing theory is the multiregional hypothesis which
holds that some, or all, of the genetic variation between the contemporary human races is attributable to genetic inheritance from hominid species, or subspecies,specifically Homo erectus, that was geographically dispersed throughout Asia, and possibly Europe and Australasia, prior to the evolution of modern Homo sapiens (conventionally dated to at least 70,000, possibly 150,000, years ago).
It is worth noting that most of the evidence for the multiregional hypothesis derives from fossil data which is rather sparse and fragmentary at best, while the “out of Africa” hypothesis is strongly supported by genetic data which is much more prevalent. One piece of fossil evidence which has been particularly important for supporters of the multiregional model is that of Peking Man, discovered in the 1920s. This was immediately seized upon by Chinese nationalists eager to emphasize the exclusiveness of the Chinese people. One Republican Era textbook wrote (cited from The Discourse of Race in Modern China, Dikötter, Frank, Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 163):
Mankind is divid into five races. The yellow and white races are relatively strong and intelligent. Because the other races are feeble and stupid, they are being exterminated by the white race. Only the yellow race competes with the white race. This is so-called evolution […] Among the contemporary races that could be called superior, there are only the yellow and the white races. China is [i.e. belongs to] the yellow race.
This was a point of view that was no doubt partially influenced by contemporary sentiments amongst the colonial authorities. For instance, see this 1873 letter by Francis Galton who proposed encouraging the Chinese to emigrate to Africa in order to “supplant the inferior Negro race.”
Negative attitudes towards Africans continued into the modern era, with the Nanjing 南京 anti-African protests of 1988-89 marking a low point. It may also explain why China is so willing to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Darfur as it seeks to maintain a profitable relationship with the Sudanese government. While Chinese attitudes towards African-Americans are more complex, racist sentiments recently surfaced during Condoleezza Rice’s visit to China.
Up until as recently as 2002 it was not uncommon to read articles in the Chinese press about evidence supposedly supporting the multiregional hypothesis. I’m sure the new genetic evidence won’t put an end to the debate, but it is significant that Chinese scientists are publishing results like these, although it is interesting to note the ways in which the new data is being spun in a nationalistic light:
They evolved into 56 ethnic groups throughout tens of thousands of years, among whom, Han and Tibetan people were the latest to branch out therefore were the closest in terms of blood tie. This provides strong evidence for the concept that “Han and Tibetan people had the same ancestors”.
(Some links found via this Gene Expression post.)
Elsewhere: China’s early African explorers.