A skull from a specimen, recovered from Longlin cave in China, belonging to the Red Deer Cave people - possibly a new species of human. (c) Darren Curnoe

Mysterious hominid fossils found in China hint towards a new human species

A skull from a specimen, recovered from Longlin cave in China, belonging to the Red Deer Cave people - possibly a new species of human. (c) Darren Curnoe

A skull from a specimen, recovered from Longlin cave in China, belonging to the Red Deer Cave people - possibly a new species of human. (c) Darren Curnoe

An incredible find was publicized just earlier  – fossils remains from stone age people were unearthed from two caves in China. Upon further inspection it was found that the bone features, particularly skulls, were unlike any other human or early ancestor remains ever found, suggesting that the researchers may have actually found a new species of human.

Bones, including partial skulls, have been unearthed from at least four individuals, which were estimated to have lived some 14,300 to 11,500 years ago. Presenting anatomical features which mix both archaic and modern human complexion, the Red Deer Cave people, as they’ve been called after the name of the location they’ve been found in, have simply stunned researchers.

“They could be a new evolutionary line or a previously unknown modern human population that arrived early from Africa and failed to contribute genetically to living east Asians,” said Darren Curnoe, who led the research team at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

“While finely balanced, I think the evidence is slightly weighted towards the Red Deer Cave people representing a new evolutionary line. First, their skulls are anatomically unique. They look very different to all modern humans, whether alive today or in Africa 150,000 years ago,” Curnoe told the Guardian.

“Second, the very fact they persisted until almost 11,000 years ago, when we know that very modern looking people lived at the same time immediately to the east and south, suggests they must have been isolated from them. We might infer from this isolation that they either didn’t interbreed or did so in a limited way.”

The fossils were retrieved from two cave sites in China, Maludong, or Red Deer Cave, near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan province, and Longlin cave,  in southwest China. Curiously enough, the fossils were initially found encased in blocks of rock, which hid their features and thus lead them to be ignored. The Red Deer Cave remains were found 1989, while the Longlin cave remains were found in 1979, however they remained unstudied until 2008. Were it not for the inherent curiosity of the researchers involved in the project to study these fossils, they simply would’ve remained to this day in some warehouse, gathering dust as they did for millennias.

“In 2009, when I was in China working with co-author Professor Ji Xueping, he showed me the block of rock that contained the skull,” Curnoe recalled. “After picking my own jaw up from the floor, we decided we had to make the remains a priority of our research.”

Quite possibly a new species of human. How were they different?

Artist impression of what the Red Cave People might have looked like between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago. (c) Peter Schouten

Artist impression of what the Red Cave People might have looked like between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago. (c) Peter Schouten

The individuals have, in some respects, unique features to humans. For instance, strongly curved forehead bone, a very broad nose and eye sockets, large molar teeth, prominent brows, thick skulls and flat faces, which flare widely on the side making wide for very strong chewing muscles. Their brains were average sized by ice age standards, and they used to cook their meals, judging from the number of mammal skeletons found nearby the remains, all of them species still around today, with the exception of the giant red deer.

The Red Deer People are the earliest population found so far, which does not adhere to modern human anatomical conformity. In fact, they’re unique in respect to any other species in the human evolutionary tree. Fact most curious, when considering that their location was surrounded by modern human populations, as attested by fossil evidence from the same period. The researchers suggest that they either stayed extremely isolated or kept interbreeding off-grounds.

This is the latest, although not yet confirmed as a new species, of a wave of new identified human species found only in these recent past years. Homo floresiensis or the “hobbit”, which lived on the island of Flores, Indonesia, until as recently as 17,000 years ago, was first discovered in 2007. The Denisovans lived around 30,000 years ago and the first and only trace of them so far was found in the Denisovan Caves of Siberia in 2010. All of them found in Asia, along with past Neanderthal sites and this latest one in China.

Curnoe and colleagues have a couple of possible scenarios concerning the existence of these Red Deer Cave people. One is that they’re part of very early migration of a primitive-looking Homo sapiens that lived separately from other forms in Asia before dying out, while another assumes that they were indeed a distinct hominid species, which evolved in Asia and lived near modern human populace. The last hypothesis is the most interesting, as well – they were hybrids.

“It’s possible these were modern humans who inter-mixed or bred with archaic humans that were around at the time,” explained Dr Isabelle De Groote, a palaeoanthropologist from London’s Natural History Museum.

“The other option is that they evolved these more primitive features independently because of genetic drift or isolation, or in a response to an environmental pressure such as climate

The findings were reported on March 14 in the journal PLoS ONE.

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