The fossilised remains of three people found in southwest China could belong to an unknown species that was related to modern humans and survived until the end of the Ice Age 11,000 years ago.
The discovery by Australian and Chinese researchers of the “red deer people” - so called for the food they ate - could shed new light on how modern humans evolved in Asia, home to more than half of the world’s population.
Until now, no human-like fossils younger than 100,000 years old have been found in mainland east Asia resembling any species other than our own, Homo sapiens. This indicated the region was empty of our evolutionary cousins when the first modern humans appeared. But the new discovery suggests this might not have been the case after all, the researchers said.
The fossils, found in two caves and dated to between 14,500 and 11,500 years ago, belong to a people with an unusual mix of ancient and modern anatomical features. These Stone Age people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China’s earliest farming cultures were beginning, said the international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, of the University of New South Wales, and Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.
The scientists have dubbed the individuals “red deer people” because they hunted extinct red deer and cooked them in a cave.
Details of the discovery are published in the journal PLoS One.
Professor Curnoe said the team had been cautious about classifying the fossils because of their unusual mosaic of features.
“These new fossils might be of a previously unknown species, one that survived until the very end of the Ice Age around 11,000 years ago,” he said.
“Alternatively, they might represent a very early and previously unknown migration of modern humans out of Africa, a population who may not have contributed genetically” to people living in Asia today.
The remains of at least three individuals were found by Chinese archaeologists at Maludong - or Red Deer Cave - near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province during 1989. They remained unstudied until research by Australian and Chinese scientists began in 2008.
A Chinese geologist found a fourth partial skeleton in 1979 in a cave near the village of Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It stayed encased in a block of rock until 2009, when the international team removed and reconstructed the fossils.
The fossils from Maludong and Longlin are similar - they feature ancient traits, such as big teeth and thick skulls, but also suggest their owners had modern characteristics, such as brains with modern-looking frontal lobes.
Scientists know little about how modern humans evolved in Asia after our ancestors settled Eurasia some 70,000 years ago, Professor Curnoe said.
He sais the study of human origins had focussed largely on Europe and Africa, and research in Asia had been hampered by a lack of fossils and a poor understanding of the age of those already found.
Professor Ji, of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology, said: “Because of the geographical diversity caused by the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, southwest China is well known as a biodiversity hotspot and for its great cultural diversity. That diversity extends well back in time.”
In the past decade, researchers working in Asia have uncovered remains belonging to the 17,000-year-old Indonesian Homo floresiensis (“The Hobbit”) - although scientists continue to argue over whether this was a distinct species or simply a stunted human - as well as evidence for modern human interbreeding with the ancient Denisovans, thought to be another human-like species.