Anatomically unique fossils unearthed in Yunnan could be those of a previously unknown species of human. The remains were first discovered in 1989 inside of southern Yunnan's Maludong cave (马鹿洞), near the city of Jianshui (建水). Until this year the fossils had yet to be studied.
The three specimens have been dubbed Red Deer Cave people after the cave where they were found and the large collection of deer bones located inside it. Radiocarbon dating of ashes found alongside the fossils revealed that they are between 11,500 and 14,300 years old.
Those dates place the find in the Pleistocene era when humans are thought to have evolved into their present form. The specimens from Maludong have traits unique from modern people, yet lived at a time when all other species of human beings were thought by scientists to be extinct.
A team of anthropologists from China and Australia first published their results in the peer-edited journal PlosOne. The group was led by Darren Cunroe, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, and Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.
What makes the find unique for anthropologists are the subjects' facial features. The specimens have broad, flat noses and jutting jaws that lack defined chins. Cunroe, writing for the website Cosmos, says that what is confusing is that the facial characteristics do not fit with current evolutionary understanding:
What stands out in our study is a 'gap' between the anatomical features of the Red Deer Cave people and the modern humans around them that points towards a genetic and historical break.
The bones and teeth of the Red Deer Cave people possess a range of features that are either rare in, or absent from, modern humans. [...] Modern human skulls don't possess this set of characters, whether they are 150 or 150,000 years old, and no matter where they lived.
Publication of the team's findings has led to spirited debate in the anthropological community. Some scientists say the facial anomalies simply point to the diversity of human features and contend that the fossils are not of a new species.
Cunroe believes once he and his team have extracted DNA samples from the cave people's remains, "the exact nature of their relationship to us should be revealed."
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