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PORTSIDE  March 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE March 2012, Week 3

Subject:

'Red Deer Cave People' May Be New Species of Human

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Date:

Fri, 16 Mar 2012 20:49:47 -0400

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[Read the journal report of these finding in PlosOne:
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0031918

The Guardian has a slide show of human lineages at
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/gallery/2012/mar/14/anthropology-evolution#/
-- moderator]

'Red Deer Cave People' May Be New Species of Human

     Stone age remains of people with a penchant for
     home- cooked venison could represent a new human
     evolutionary line

Ian Sample, science correspondent
guardian.co.uk, 
Wednesday 14 March 2012 11.11 EDT
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/mar/14/red-deer-cave-people-species-human

A skull, possibly from a new species of human, recovered
from Longlin cave in Guangxi province, China.
Photograph: Darren Curnoe
The fossilised remains of stone age people recovered
from two caves in south west China may belong to a new
species of human that survived until around the dawn of
agriculture.

The partial skulls and other bone fragments, which are
from at least four individuals and are between 14,300
and 11,500 years old, have an extraordinary mix of
primitive and modern anatomical features that stunned
the researchers who found them.

Named the Red Deer Cave people, after their apparent
penchant for home-cooked venison, they are the most
recent human remains found anywhere in the world that do
not closely resemble modern humans.

The individuals differ from modern humans in their
jutting jaws, large molar teeth, prominent brows, thick
skulls, flat faces and broad noses. Their brains were of
average size by ice age standards.

"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."

One partial skeleton, with much of the skull and teeth,
and some rib and limb bones, was recovered from Longlin
cave in Guangxi province. More than 30 bones, including
at least three partial skulls, two lower jaws and some
teeth, ribs and limb fragments, were unearthed at nearby
Maludong, or Red Deer Cave, near the city of Mengzi in
Yunnan province.

At Maludong, fossil hunters also found remnants of
various mammals, all of them species still around today,
except for giant red deer, the remains of which were
found in abundance. "They clearly had a taste for
venison, with evidence they cooked these large deer in
the cave," Curnoe said.

The stone age bones are particularly important because
scientists have few human fossils from Asia that are
well described and reliably dated, making the story of
the peopling of Asia hopelessly vague. The latest
findings point to a far more complex picture of human
evolution than was previously thought.

"The discovery of the Red Deer Cave people shows just
how complicated and interesting human evolutionary
history was in Asia right at the end of the ice age. We
had multiple populations living in the area, probably
representing different evolutionary lines: the Red Deer
Cave people on the East Asian continent, Homo
floresiensis, or the 'Hobbit', on the island of Flores
in Indonesia, and modern humans widely dispersed from
northeast Asia to Australia. This paints an amazing
picture of diversity, one we had no clue about until
this last decade," Curnoe said.

Much of Asia was also occupied by Neanderthals and
another group of archaic humans called the Denisovans.
Scientists learned of the Denisovans after recovering a
fossilised little finger from the Denisova cave in the
Altai mountains of southern Siberia in 2010.

The fossils from Longlin cave were found in 1979 by a
geologist prospecting in the area. At the time,
researchers removed only the lower jaw and a few
fragments of rib and limb bones from the cave wall. The
rest of the skeleton was left encased in a block of
rock, which sat in the basement of the Yunnan Institute
of Cultural Relics and Archaeology in Kunming, Yunnan,
for 30 years. The fossils were rediscovered in 2009 by
Ji Xueping, a researcher at the institute, who teamed up
with Curnoe to examine the remains.

"It was clear from what we could see that the remains
were very primitive and likely to be scientifically
important. We had a skilled technician remove the bones
from the rock, and they were glued back together. Only
then was it clear what we had found: a partial skeleton
with a very unusual anatomy," Curnoe said.

The fossils at Maludong were found in 1989 but went
unstudied until 2008.

Lumps of charcoal uncovered alongside the Longlin
fossils were carbon dated to 11,500 years, a time when
modern humans in southern China began to make pottery
for food storage and to gather wild rice in some of the
first steps towards full-scale farming.

Marta Mirazón Lahr, an evolutionary biologist at
Cambridge University, is convinced the remains are from
modern humans. The unusual features, she said, suggest
the Red Deer Cave people are either "late descendants of
an early population of modern humans in Asia" or a very
small population that developed the traits through a
process known as genetic drift.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural
History Museum, London, was similarly sceptical.

"The human remains from the Longlin Cave and Maludong
are very important, particularly because we do not have
much well-described and well-dated material from the
late Pleistocene of China.

"The fossils are unlike recent populations of modern
humans in several respects, and the mosaic of more
archaic features could indicate the dispersal of a
poorly known and more primitive form of modern human
that left Africa before the main exodus at about 60,000
years. This dispersal could have reached as far as
China, surviving there for many millennia, before
disappearing in the last 12,000 years."

But he added: "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? In the case of the Longlin Cave and Maludong
fossils, the most likely candidate would be the
enigmatic Denisovans who apparently interbred with the
ancestors of modern Australasians somewhere in south
east Asia. Could these Chinese fossils be further
evidence of such hybridisation?"

___________________________________________

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