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Ancient cave may reveal the secret of species extinction
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By Zhou Jing

A large quantity of fossils of the extinct spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) found in Funing County of Hebei Province have attracted media and expert attention. The discovery may reveal why large numbers of animal species became extinct tens of thousand years ago and may throw light on the origin of modern humans.

The Hebei Daily reported in August that two years ago workers at the Banchangyu Scenic Spot in Funing County stumbled upon an ancient cave. Animal bones, teeth and scratch marks aroused the interest of scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology. They identified the fossils as belonging to the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), which had long been extinct in China and across the entire Eurasian continent, surviving today only in Africa.

From 2006 onwards, scientists studied the mysterious cave, named "Lingxian Dong". They found China's first complete skeleton of a spotted hyena. Last autumn, a professional team organized jointly by the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and the China University of Geosciences arrived in Funing to excavate the cave. Recently the experts said that over 40 fossils were discovered; in terms of number and completeness the fossil discoveries were outstanding.

It's estimated the fossils date from about 11,000 years ago, during a period in which a large number of animal species became extinct. Experts said the unearthing of so many fossils proved the spotted hyena not only used to exist in Asia-Europe continent, but had flourished there.

The fossils will help experts learn about environmental and climatic conditions 11,000 years ago, which may in turn help them discover why so many species became extinct around that time. Besides, the cave may also throw light on the origins of modern man.

The vertebrate paleontology expert Dr. Liu Jinyi of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said there are two hypotheses for the origin of modern man: the so-called "Out of Africa" theory, and "Multiregional Evolution". "Out of Africa" maintains modern man originated from Africa and spread over the world 100,000 years ago. However, some fossil materials (mainly in East Asia) do not support the hypothesis, indicating that animal groups in East Asia had no necessary connection and communication with African ones. "Research on the spotted hyena will offer new clues in exploring species migration and communication between the East Asia and Africa," Liu said.

Earlier the Yanzhao Metropolis Daily reported that spotted hyenas were a prehistoric animal distributed extensively. They used to fight for caves and quarries with Beijing ape men. China unearthed a complete skull of a spotted hyena at the Upper Cave (Shandingdong) at Zhoukoudian, but it was lost during the World War II. Similar fossils have also been found in Yunnan Province, but not as complete as the examples in Funing.

(China.org.cn September 11, 2008)

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