Fossils of Previously Unknown Stone Age People Found in China

Posted on March 14, 2012

Red Deer People

Fossils of previously unknown Stone Age people having been discovered in two caves in southwest China. The fossils, which may represent a new hominid people, 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. The fossils are 14,500 to 11,500 years old, which means these humanoids would have shared the landscape with modern-looking humans at a time when China's earliest farming cultures were beginning.

The remains of four individuals have been discovered so far. They are being called the Red Deer Cave People because they hunted extinct red deer and cooked them in the cave. An artist's reconstruction of a member of the Red Deer Cave People is pictured above and a skull is pictured below. The skull shows unique features, including a broad nose, large eye sockets and wide check bones.

Red Deer People Skull

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

Professor Curnoe, says, "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. 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."

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 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.

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

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. In the last decade, Asia has also produced the 17,000-year-old Indonesian Homo floresiensis ("The Hobbit" species) and evidence for modern human interbreeding with the ancient Denisovans from Siberia. It is is possible there were multiple species of hominids walking the planet 10,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Professor Curnoe says, "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."

BBC News reports that scientists are still excavating the site at the Maludong cave.

Image: Art copyright by Peter Schouten/Photo: Darren Curnoe