Four prehistoric hominids, who met their deaths in a cave in southwestern China between 14,300 and 11,500 years ago, are further broadening our knowledge of the ever-more-complex story of human evolution. Darren Curnoe from the University of New South Wales in Australia and his colleagues have been analyzing the fossilized bones of these stone-age people. Close study of fragments of skulls, jaws, teeth, ribs, and limbs, from these individuals shows that they most likely occupy their very own branch on the ancient human tree of life, as has been suggested for Homo floresiensis, AKA the ‘Hobbit’, on the island of Flores in Indonesia. The “Red Deer Cave People,” a name coined from evidence that they ate an extinct mammal called the Giant Red Deer (and most of the fossils being found at Maludong, or Red Deer Cave, near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province), differ from modern Homo sapiens, a species that dates back to 150,000 years ago, in a number of ways. Individuals had flat faces with jutting jaws, prominent brows, large molars, and extra thick skulls. Scientists know that the Red Deer Cave People lived concurrently with hominids that were our direct ancestors, but their dissimilarity to modern humans probably means they had little, or no, contact and did not contribute to the modern-day human genome. The Red Deer Cave People disappeared until the dawn of agriculture, approximately 11 thousand years ago.

Red Deer
An artist’s impression of the potential new human species, dubbed the Red Deer Cave People. Photograph by Peter Schouten.

The Red Deer Cave People have not yet been given a new species name. In fact, some scientists are skeptical, claiming that these people were in fact merely a variety of Homo sapiens. Chris Stringer, head of human origins at The Natural History Museum, London, said “There might be another possible explanation for the more archaic features. Could these alternatively be attributed to gene flow from a more archaic population that survived alongside modern humans? [such as the enigmatic Denisovans who apparently interbred with the ancestors of modern Australasians somewhere in southeastern Asia] … these Chinese fossils [could] be further evidence of such hybridisation.”

Read more at The Guardian.

Access the original paper in the journal PLoS One.

Published On: April 18, 2012

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