A first analysis of human remains from two caves in southwest China has prompted researchers to make some astounding claims: These "Red Deer People" are not anatomically modern humans (AMH). Their remains date from 14,500 to 11,500 years ago, far more recent than anything similar ever found on the mainland of Asia. They shared their territory with modern humans just at the time when early agriculture was being developed. And—even more puzzling—they shared anatomical features with modern and archaic humans.
Caption: 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.
Credit: Art copyright by Peter Schouten Usage Restrictions: Image may be used in association with initial news media reports - otherwise seek permission from Peter Schouten: firstname.lastname@example.org
Who were they? The international team of researchers speak of these early humans as the “Red-Deer People,” named for extinct species of deer they hunted and for the Maludong or “Red Deer Cave” where some of the remains were discovered. The team was led by Professor Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales and Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.
But researchers hesitate to draw any conclusions about species. "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," says Professor Curnoe in a press release issued by UNSW. "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."
Although the remains were first discovered in 1979, they remained encased in rock until 2009. While the researchers have been able to compare anatomical features with modern and archaic human remains, they have not been able to extract DNA from the samples. According to the paper, “our ongoing attempts to extract DNA from a specimen from Maludong have so far proven unsuccessful owing to a lack of recoverable genetic material.”
"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," says Professor Curnoe.
The paper is entitled "Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians" and appears in the March 14, 2012 issue of PLoS ONE.