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.
|At work in Red Deer Cave (Livescience)|
|Artist's reconstruction (Livescience)|
We can't talk about 'us' and 'them' anymore: we're all descended from some of these early human variants. This is despite the technical genetic difficulties involved: one estimate is that perhaps only 2% of Neanderthal-modern human liaisons produced children. Getting so much DNA into the gene pool must have required some mating persistence. Racists beware: in the long run, physical differences are no match for the human sex drive. This image of richness and complexity in human origins is a beautiful thing.
For more on archaic sexy time, read: A Third Archaic Human Population: and Yes, We Bonked Them