Meet the other ancestors

Fossilised remains of China's 'red deer cave people' may represent a whole new human species. Steve Connor on a discovery that radically complicates the story of our origins

A distinct group of prehistoric people who lived in what is now south-west China more than 11,500 years ago could be a new human species, according to scientists who have completed a detailed analysis of their fossilised skeletons and skulls.

Researchers said the unique anatomy of what they call the "red deer cave people" meant they were either a very ancient tribe of Homo sapiens that had become isolated for tens of thousands of years from the rest of humanity, or a completely new human species.

A new species would add a further complication to the already complex story of human origins. It would mean there was a time when our own species, H. sapiens, shared the same non-African landscapes with at least four other human species until each in turn became extinct, allowing just one type of human to dominate the globe.

The red deer people hunted and cooked an extinct ice-age species of giant deer that lived in the area of Yunnan province in southern China. The remains of at least four red deer people, and their skulls, were excavated from two cave sites, one near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan and the other near the village of Longlin in the neighbouring region of Guangzi Zhuang.

Charred deer bones suggest that this extinct ice-age animal was a principal source of food, said Professor Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales in Australia, who carried out the study with Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, published in PLoS One, a journal produced by the Public Library of Science in the United States.

"The unique anatomy of the skulls of the red deer cave people shows they represent a previously unknown prehistoric population. 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," Professor Curnoe said.

"We have dated the remains to between about 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, which means that these people are the youngest population to be found anywhere in the world whose anatomy doesn't comfortably fit within the range of modern humans," he said.

"While finely balanced, I think the evidence is slightly weighted towards the red deer cave people representing a new evolutionary line. They look very different to all modern humans, whether alive today or in Africa 150,000 years ago," Professor Curnoe added.

There were at least three other extinct human species living alongside H. sapiens in Europe and Asia, but until a decade ago only one of them was known to science – the Neanderthals, who inhabited a large territory extending from the Middle East to western Europe. Neanderthals lived from around 400,000 years ago until they became extinct about 30,000 years ago.

More recently, scientists discovered two more distinct human species that had lived outside Africa at the same time as H. sapiens. The Denisovans, who occupied a cave site at Denisova in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, died out about 40,000 years ago, while the miniature "Hobbits" (Homo floresiensis) lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until about 18,000 years ago.

The only other species of human found in Asia is the much older Homo erectus, which predated H. sapiens. While H. erectus emerged from Africa about 1.9 million years ago, H. sapiens migrated only about 70,000 years ago.

Professor Curnoe said the red deer people show little close similarity to any of these other humans species. "They don't show any particular resemblances to the Neanderthals. If anything, they show a mix of H. sapiens-like and H. erectus-like features, as well as some unusual traits," he said.

"Their skulls are an unusual mosaic of primitive features, like those seen in our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, some modern traits, similar to living people, and several unusual features. In short, they're anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree," he said.

"The main ways they differ from modern H. sapiens are in their prominent brow ridges, thick skull bones, flat upper faces with a broad nose, and jutting jaws that lack a human-like chin," he added.

Further studies will clarify the type of stone tools these people used to hunt and butcher their quarry, which they cooked over fires. "They clearly had a taste for venison, with evidence they cooked these large deer in the cave," Professor Curnoe said.

They must also have been tough enough to survive the harsh climate at the end of the last Ice Age. "They survived the final, and one of the worst, cold episodes: the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years ago," he said.

"This time also saw a major shift in the behaviour of modern humans in southern China, who began to make pottery for food storage and to gather wild rice. This marks some of the first steps towards full-blown farming."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent