Chinese fossils may be new human species

Dating from only around 13,000 years ago, fossils from two caves in south-west China have revealed a previously unknown Stone Age people who exhibit a highly unusual mix of ancient and modern anatomical features. The curious mash-up of features has startling implications for theories about the early peopling of Asia.

The international team of researchers behind the discovery was led by Darren Curnoe, of the University of New South Wales, Australia. A detailed report of their work appears in the journal PLoS One.

According to Curnoe, the fossils are between 14,500 and 11,500 years old. This means they would have shared the environment with modern-looking people at a time when China’s earliest farming cultures were just beginning. “These new fossils might be of a previously unknown species, one that survived until the very end of the Ice Age around 11,000 years ago,” said Curnoe. “Alternatively, they might represent a very early and previously unknown migration of modern humans out of Africa, a population who may not have contributed genetically to living people.”

Fossils of at least three individuals were found by Chinese archaeologists at Maludong (or Red Deer Cave) in Yunnan Province in 1989. They remained unstudied until research began in 2008, involving scientists from six Chinese and five Australian institutions.

A Chinese geologist found a fourth partial skeleton in 1979 in a cave near the village of Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It stayed encased in a block of rock until 2009 when the international team removed and reconstructed the fossils. They have been christened the “red-deer people” because of evidence they hunted extinct red deer and cooked them in the cave at Maludong.

Curnoe said the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges and broad noses. Their skulls were thick while their faces were quite short and flat. Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking parietal lobes. The specimens studied also had large molar teeth.

Scientists know little about how modern humans evolved in Asia after our ancestors settled Eurasia some 70,000 years ago. Until now, no fossils younger than 100,000 years old had been found in mainland East Asia resembling any species other than Homo sapiens. It had been thought that the region had been empty of our evolutionary cousins when the first modern humans appeared. The discovery of the red-deer people suggests this might not have been the case after all, and throws the spotlight once more on Asia.

“Because of the geographical diversity caused by the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, south-west China is well known as a biodiversity hotspot and for its great cultural diversity. That diversity extends well back in time,” noted co-researcher Ji Xueping, of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

In the last decade, Asia has produced the 17,000-year-old and highly enigmatic IndonesianHomo floresiensis and evidence for modern human interbreeding with the ancientDenisovans from Siberia. “The discovery of the red-deer people opens the next chapter in the human evolutionary story – the Asian chapter – and it’s a story that’s just beginning to be told,” said Curnoe.

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Source: University of New South Wales , Artist’s impression courtesy Peter Schouten, Photo courtesy Darren Curnoe

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