Mystery human fossils put spotlight on China

Mar 14, 2012
An artist's reconstruction of fossils from two caves in southwest China have revealed a previously unknown Stone Age people and give a rare glimpse of a recent stage of human evolution with startling implications for the early peopling of Asia. The fossils are of a people with a highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features and are the youngest of their kind ever found in mainland East Asia. Dated to just 14,500 to 11,500 years old, these people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China's earliest farming cultures were beginning, says an international team of scientists led by associate professor Darren Curnoe, of the University of New South Wales, and professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology. Credit: Art copyright by Peter Schouten

Fossils from two caves in south-west China have revealed a previously unknown Stone Age people and give a rare glimpse of a recent stage of human evolution with startling implications for the early peopling of Asia.

The fossils are of a people with a highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features and are the youngest of their kind ever found in mainland East Asia.

Dated to just 14,500 to 11,500 years old, these people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China's earliest farming cultures were beginning, says an international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, of the University of New South Wales, and Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

Details of the discovery are published in the journal . The team has been cautious about classifying the fossils because of their unusual mosaic of features.

"These new fossils might be of a previously , one that survived until the very end of the Ice Age around 11,000 years ago," says Professor Curnoe.

"Alternatively, they might represent a very early and previously unknown migration of out of Africa, a population who may not have contributed genetically to living people."

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

A Chinese geologist found a fourth 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.

The skulls and teeth from Maludong and Longlin are very similar to each other and show an unusual mixture of archaic and modern , as well as some previously unseen characters.

While Asia today contains more than half of the world's population, scientists still know little about how modern humans evolved there after our ancestors settled Eurasia some 70,000 years ago, notes Professor Curnoe.

The scientists are calling them the "red-deer people" because they hunted extinct red deer and cooked them in the cave at Maludong.

The Asian landmass is vast and scientific attention on human origins has focussed largely on Europe and Africa: research efforts have been hampered by a lack of fossils in Asia and a poor understanding of the age of those already found.

Until now, no fossils younger than 100,000 years old have been found in mainland East Asia resembling any species other than our own (Homo sapiens). This indicated the region had been empty of our evolutionary cousins when the first modern humans appeared. The new discovery 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" says Professor Ji.

In the last decade, Asia has produced the 17,000-year-old and highly enigmatic Indonesian Homo floresiensis ("The Hobbit") and evidence for modern human interbreeding with the ancient Denisovans from Siberia.

"The discovery of the 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," says Professor Curnoe.

Explore further: How dinosaur arms turned into bird wings

Related Stories

The 'spread of our species'

Nov 08, 2005

Modern humans arrival in South Asia may have led to demise of indigenous populations. In a major new development in human evolutionary studies, researchers from the University of Cambridge argue that the dispersal of m ...

Shared genes with Neanderthal relatives not unusual

Oct 31, 2011

During human evolution our ancestors mated with Neanderthals, but also with other related hominids. In this week's online edition of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), researchers from Uppsala Univer ...

Family tree branches out

May 20, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- UNSW anthropologist Dr Darren Curnoe has identified another new early human ancestor in South Africa ? the earliest recognised species of Homo.

Ancient bone find may change Filipino history

Aug 03, 2010

Archaeologists have found a foot bone that could prove the Philippines was first settled by humans 67,000 years ago, thousands of years earlier than previously thought, the National Museum said Tuesday.

Recommended for you

How dinosaur arms turned into bird wings

23 hours ago

Although we now appreciate that birds evolved from a branch of the dinosaur family tree, a crucial adaptation for flight has continued to puzzle evolutionary biologists. During the millions of years that elapsed, wrists went ...

User comments : 9

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

hb_
4.9 / 5 (7) Mar 14, 2012
Fascinating! I wonder just what those "archaic anatomical features" were. What about brain volume? Usage of tools?
210
3.2 / 5 (6) Mar 14, 2012
BOY! Those Africans get around don't they! Hey, we ARE each other, let's get along!
Peace, Love, and SSSooouulll Trraaiiinn!
Jayded
Mar 14, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
kaasinees
2.3 / 5 (9) Mar 14, 2012
From this picture i have just figured out why we have cutting teeth on the front. So we can trim our own beards with our teeth.
This way less creatures get stuck in your beard and you live healthier.
Norezar
Mar 14, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
barakn
4.8 / 5 (6) Mar 14, 2012
Yay. Way to mention the "highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features" without describing a single one.
Callippo
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2012
Yay. Way to mention the "highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features" without describing a single one.
It's a way of presentation combining the archaic and modern features, typical for whole China. The original PLOS article is here
RitchieGuy
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 14, 2012
Clicking on the link in the article took me to a Physorg page with a link for the UNSW, which went to theUniversity of New South Wales page and that had a link to the article from UNSW which is basically the same as this article. I thought there would be more also. There isn't. :(
aroc91
not rated yet Mar 14, 2012
Clicking on the link in the article took me to a Physorg page with a link for the UNSW, which went to theUniversity of New South Wales page and that had a link to the article from UNSW which is basically the same as this article. I thought there would be more also. There isn't. :(


What about Callippo's link?
rwinners
5 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2012
There really isn't any mystery. Human (the ancestors of the modern, or the progeny of the monkeys) beings were scurrying around this planet hundred of thousands of years ago, interbreeding and otherwise carousing.
Sub-species have developed and either died out or been absorbed into what is now the reality.
Why is this so hard to understand?
More, do you understand that this is a process that is ongoing?
neanderthal420
5 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2012
At this date it can only be homo sapiens sapiens.
The skull has a strange mix of neanderthals and sapiens.

Eye sockets are neanderthal like, but the cranium is very sapiens in morphology (from the front at least), and as for those cheek bones where the fuck did they come from?!?

There's no hominid with cheek bones like that for at least a million years! A very strange derived feature that casts a doubt in my mind to the authenticity or dating of these finds.

The DNA will reveal all.
Valik
Mar 19, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.