Another (?)-worthy paper has just appeared in Nature in the heels of the African ancient genome paper. Time will tell how these worldview-altering discoveries will change the story of Mankind, and a degree of skepticism is warranted. In the view I've held for a few years, modern humans expanded to Arabia before 100 thousand years ago, started leaving it 70 thousand years ago as the ecological situation worsened due to desertification and broke through the "Neandertal barrier" between 70-50 thousand years ago when they developed the skills and technology to overcome them.
The new paper claims that modern humans were in China 80 thousand years ago and came to Europe much later because Neandertal represented a barrier to successful entry to Europe. This begs the question of how they reached China without encountering Neandertals, as Neandertals were also in West Asia where -presumably- they passed through to get to China. A coastal route to south China would explain away this problem, but the coastal migration is usually envisioned much later, at around 60 thousand years ago. On top of that, how did Chinese end up having equal (or more) levels of Neandertals admixture if modern humans first went to China and later moved west and successfully outcompeted the Neandertals. How were they able to do so eventually? (There is no evidence that the kind of advantages associated with behavioral modernity first emerged in East Asia). It's possible that there were 80 thousand year-old modern humans in China (just as there were 100 thousand year-old modern humans in Israel), but that the later East Asians are not descended from them.
One would think that science would present an increasingly reasonable and consistent picture of the past, but it seems that we're a very long way from the point where the dust settles and the puzzle pieces start falling into place.
Nature (2015) doi:10.1038/nature15696
The earliest unequivocally modern humans in southern China
Wu Liu, María Martinón-Torres, Yan-jun Cai, Song Xing, Hao-wen Tong, Shu-wen Pei, Mark Jan Sier, Xiao-hong Wu, R. Lawrence Edwards, Hai Cheng, Yi-yuan Li, Xiong-xin Yang, José María Bermúdez de Castro & Xiu-jie Wu
The hominin record from southern Asia for the early Late Pleistocene epoch is scarce. Well-dated and well-preserved fossils older than ~45,000 years that can be unequivocally attributed to Homo sapiens are lacking1, 2, 3, 4. Here we present evidence from the newly excavated Fuyan Cave in Daoxian (southern China). This site has provided 47 human teeth dated to more than 80,000 years old, and with an inferred maximum age of 120,000 years. The morphological and metric assessment of this sample supports its unequivocal assignment to H. sapiens. The Daoxian sample is more derived than any other anatomically modern humans, resembling middle-to-late Late Pleistocene specimens and even contemporary humans. Our study shows that fully modern morphologies were present in southern China 30,000–70,000 years earlier than in the Levant and Europe5, 6, 7. Our data fill a chronological and geographical gap that is relevant for understanding when H. sapiens first appeared in southern Asia. The Daoxian teeth also support the hypothesis that during the same period, southern China was inhabited by more derived populations than central and northern China. This evidence is important for the study of dispersal routes of modern humans. Finally, our results are relevant to exploring the reasons for the relatively late entry of H. sapiens into Europe. Some studies have investigated how the competition with H. sapiens may have caused Neanderthals’ extinction (see ref. 8 and references therein). Notably, although fully modern humans were already present in southern China at least as early as ~80,000 years ago, there is no evidence that they entered Europe before ~45,000 years ago. This could indicate that H. neanderthalensis was indeed an additional ecological barrier for modern humans, who could only enter Europe when the demise of Neanderthals had already started.