Part modern human, part Neanderthal.
Scientists have discovered two partial human skulls in central China that they say could potentially belong to an unknown archaic human species.
The skulls are 105,000 to 125,000 years old, and they contain a unique mix of modern human and Neanderthal features. Excitingly, they could be the key to filling in some of the missing pieces of the human family tree in east Asia.
According to science alert, there is two possible explanation of where this skulls came, first the team is reluctant to speculate about the owners of the skulls, but they’ve suggested that the remains could potentially represent a new, archaic human species that we haven’t previously stumbled upon.
That’s not as unlikely as it sounds – there are hints in our genetic records that there are still significant missing ancestors on our family tree we’re yet to uncover.
Or something that the researchers didn’t speculate on in their paper is that the skulls could be rare physical evidence of the Denisovans, a mysterious cousin of Neanderthals that are thought to have lived between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago.
It’s estimated that modern humans living in China contain around 0.1 percent Denisovan DNA, which suggests that at some point modern humans lived alongside and bred with the Denisovans.
But other than a lone finger bone and a couple of teeth found in a Siberian cave in 2008, we have very little trace of them in the fossil record, so it’s been hard to piece the story together.
Without further research – DNA evidence in particular – it’s impossible to tell which of these possibilities are more likely: if these skulls belong to a brand new human species, or are rare traces of Denisovans in east Asia. It’s also impossible to rule out other possibilities.
But the discovery has the scientific world pretty pumped.
The two partial skulls, which are pictured at the top of the page, were found at the Lingjing site in Xuchang, in central China’s Henan province, back in 2007 and 2014.
While scientists are beginning to piece together a clearer idea of how human ancestors spread out of Africa, once they reached east Asia the picture has become more blurry.
Which is why the find is so important – these skulls could help us explain how our early ancestors eventually went on to become the modern humans we see living in eastern Eurasia today.
What we know so far
For now, the team has simply labeled the two fossilized skulls as belonging to “archaic Homo” – no DNA has been able to be extracted from the incredibly old samples as yet, so any further identification is impossible.
But what we do know is the physical appearance of the skulls is like nothing we’ve seen in the human fossil record up until now, representing what the researchers call a “mosaic” of human and Neanderthal features.
Like modern humans, the skulls have modest brow lines, lightly built cranial vaults, and large brain capacity.
But they also have the same semicircular ear canals, and an enlarged section at the back of the skull, as Neanderthals.
archaic human that survived on in East Asia to 100,000 years ago
Reluctant to speculate on the Denisovan possibility, one of the researchers, Xiujie Wu from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Science Magazine that the fossils could represent “a kind of unknown or new archaic human that survived on in East Asia to 100,000 years ago”.
The team suggests this unidentified new species might have been part of a population in eastern Asia that lived alongside and interacted with Neanderthals and modern humans and passed down local traits through the generations.
The site that the skulls were found at was thought to be inhabited some 105,000 to 125,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch, when that part of the world was covered in large ice sheets.
The research has been published in Science.