This skull has a weird mix of ancient and modern traits. It was discovered in a cave in southwest China and dates to between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago. And it might represent the newest humanoid species to coexist with humans.
First, there were the Neanderthals, which were first discovered in Germany 150 years ago and have had a firm place in the public imagination ever since. Next, there were the Denisovans, whose remains were found in Siberian caves back in late 2010. Now, we can add the Red Deer People — so named because they hunted and cooked red deer, naturally enough — to this list of our evolutionary cousins. And it's quite possible that these are far from the last new species of human that we'll discover as we explore more of Asian prehistory.
Admittedly, the term "species" here may be a bit of a misnomer. The classical definition of species, which splits groups apart based on whether or not they can interbreed, doesn't really fit with what we know of Neanderthals and Denisovans, both of whom contributed to the human genome and thus were perfectly capable of reproducing with humans. There's no evidence to suggest the Red Deer People also interbred with other groups, but they likely belong in the same category as Neanderthals and Denisovans. Whether that grouping is species, subspecies, or something else is a grey area, and best left for another day. I'll simply be using the term "species" for the sake of convenience from here on out.
These and other remains recovered from China's Red Deer Cave, or Maludong, are the first bones found in mainland East Asia that are less than 100,000 years old, and not clearly Homo sapiens. This had led some anthropologists to conclude that all non-human hominans had gone extinct by the time our ancestors reached this region.
This new find seriously reverses that view. Not only did the Red Deer People share East Asia with ancient humans, they did so for far longer than Neanderthals lasted in Europe. Based on the age of this skull, the Red Deer People survived until the very end of the last Ice Age 11,000 years ago before they finally went extinct — compared to 30,000 years ago for Neanderthals.
As archaeologist Darren Curnoe of Australia's University of New South Wales explains, the Red Deer People were still around just as humans in China were making the move towards agriculture and a more complex civilization, a bit like if the Neanderthals had survived to see the dawn of Mesopotamian culture:
"The Red Deer People were living at what was a really interesting time in China, during what we call the epipalaeolithic or the end of the Stone Age. Not far from Longlin, there are quite well known archaeological sites where some of the very earliest evidence for the epipalaeolithic in East Asia has been found. These were occupied by very modern looking people who are already starting to make ceramics - pottery - to store food. And they're already harvesting from the landscape wild rice. There was an economic transition going on from full-blown foraging and gathering towards agriculture."
The challenge right now is working out just what the Red Deer People really were. Their skull and teeth show a mix of ancient and modern traits, as well as some wholly unique characteristics, that make them difficult to place in any existing evolutionary family tree. BBC News has a rundown of their unique appearance, which you can also see in the artist's conception above:
In general, the individuals had rounded brain cases with prominent brow ridges. Their skull bones were quite thick. Their faces were quite short and flat and tucked under the brain, and they had broad noses. Their jaws jutted forward but they lacked a modern-human-like chin. Computed Tomography (X-ray) scans of their brain cavities indicate they had modern-looking frontal lobes but quite archaic-looking anterior, or parietal, lobes. They also had large molar teeth.
However, their discovers, led by Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping of China's Yunnan Institute, are being cautious in declaring this find a definite new species. It's possible that they were simply one of the very first Homo sapiens populations to reach East Asia, and that's why they preserved so many strangely archaic features. In that scenario, they went extinct without contributing to the current gene pool, enduring for tens of thousands of years as a completely isolated population.
But the other, rather more exciting possibility is that they indeed were a separate species that evolved independently of Homo sapiens. That means they are descended from one of the hominan species that had already reached Asia, much like Neanderthals likely claim descent from Homo heidelbergensis. There's also some possibility that the Red Deer People represent a hybrid of archaic humans and a later wave of more modern humans, which would explain their mix of features.
It's early days yet, and we will know a lot more about just who the Red Deer People are, once we know more about their genetics. Attempts to extract DNA from the remains is currently underway, and hopefully we will see similar success as we did with the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Whatever the exact identity of the Red Deer People, they represent a huge find just in terms of filling in vital gaps in Asia's prehistory, an entire vast landmass that has often been lost in the shuffle with all the huge finds in Africa and Europe. For more on this remarkable find, you can check out the original paper at PLoS ONE.
Via BBC News. Skull image by Darren Curnoe. Artist's conception by Peter Schouten.