In 2012, scientists announced the discovery of the “Red Deer Cave people” in Southwest China, a mysterious human group identified from cranial and jaw bones and teeth discovered in two cave sites in Southwest China. Later, scientists discovered another highly unusual bone from the Red Deer Cave people that confirmed they were a mysterious group of pre-modern humans.
The anatomy of the bones was unlike anything scientists had seen before in modern humans, whether they lived 200,000 or 200 years ago. A team of researchers suggests they could be either a very early modern human population or a late-surviving archaic species, similar to a population of Neanderthals living in isolation until the end of the Ice Age. Some even speculated that they could be hybrids between modern humans and an unknown archaic species.
Now, scientists are treating it as part of a separate group, distinct from the bones from Red Deer Cave or Maludong. The 10,500-year-old specimen is very likely a hybrid, indicating that archaic humans living in Southwest China interbred with modern humans.
To reach their conclusions, researchers focused on a thigh bone from Maludong, located near the Northern Vietnam border. Like the skull bones that were discovered, it also dated to about 14,000 years old—but it provided a much clearer indication of what some of the bones might be. The thigh bone strongly resembles Homo erectus or Homo habilis, which lived 1.5 million years ago in Africa. When scientists reconstructed its body, the individual was very small by pre-modern and Ice Age human hunter-gatherer standards.
So how could such an ancient-looking species have survived? Researchers believe it has something to do with the tectonic uplift of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, which gives Yunnan Province the greatest biodiversity of plants and animals of anywhere in China. It’s complete with high mountains, deep valleys, rift lakes and large rivers. The archaic population could have survived in this biogeographically complex and largely isolated region.
The proposal is not without controversy. Some scientists have found it hard to accept the idea that archaic looking bones could be so young. But the doubts today echo doubts of the past, and most anthropologists and archaeologists have accepted the bones as belonging to a new species. And this conclusion has been further supported by similar things found at Denisova Cave—though those bones are 30,000 to 40,000 years older than at Maludong.
The fact is that we have only scratched the surface of our history in East Asia. We still have a lot to learn about which species were living there when the first modern humans arrived, and how they coexisted together.
Sources: The Conversation, iflscience, sciencemag.com