20 March 2012

Welcome to the family, Red Deer Cave People

Fantastic news this week of the discovery of yet another archaic hominin, this time in southwest China and shockingly recent (via The Guardian):
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)
The full article is at the Public Library of Science. The fossils were found by geologists in 1979, but they were encased in rock and not analyzed until 2008. When Ji Xueping and his collaborator Curnoe analyzed the fossils, they were stunned by the combination of unusual anatomical features and its extremely recent age (derived from C14 dates from charcoal deposited within the skull). These people were contemporaneous with the oldest known temple complexes at Göbekli Tepe, and lived a few thousand years after people settled South America. They outlived Neanderthals by several millenia.
Artist's reconstruction (Livescience)
Suddenly the world of early humans is diverse and complex. In the last few years we've learned about the "Hobbits" of the Indonesian island of Flores, the Denisovans (who got around all over Eurasia), an unnamed African hominin, and now the Red Deer Cave people. There's probably more out there somewhere waiting for us. I call them 'humans' because a lot of modern people are their descendants. Eurasian people get 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals, Melanesians 4-6% from Denisovans, and African people 2% from an as-yet-unnamed hominin (see this article and this article for more). The Red Deer Cave people and - who knows? - even the Hobbits could be in the mix somewhere too.

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 

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