In a groundbreaking discovery in China, a thigh bone found among the remains of the ‘Red Deer Cave people' has raised intriguing possibilities about an ancient human species that may have survived much longer than previously thought. The bone, which is approximately 14,000 years old, bears striking resemblances to some of the earliest members of the Homo genus, such as Homo habilis and early Homo erectus, despite its relatively young age.
The fascinating findings emerged from a meticulous study conducted by a joint team led by Associate Professor Darren Curnoe from UNSW Australia and Professor Ji Xueping from the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology (YICRA) in China. Their research was recently published in the prestigious journal PLOS ONE.
The bone had been overlooked and remained unstudied for over 25 years after its excavation, along with other fossilized remains, from Maludong or the ‘Red Deer Cave' in 1989. However, upon closer examination, it became evident that the thigh bone shared striking similarities with ancient human species from over 1.5 million years ago, which raises intriguing questions about the identity of this enigmatic ancient human.
Professor Ji cautions that while the bone's young age suggests the possibility of primitive-looking humans surviving until a much later period in human evolution, it's crucial to exercise caution and avoid drawing hasty conclusions based solely on this single finding.
This discovery is expected to spark controversy within the scientific community, as it challenges the existing belief that pre-modern humans, such as the Neanderthals in Europe and West Asia, and the ‘Denisovans' in southern Siberia, disappeared around 40,000 years ago after the arrival of modern humans in the region.
The recent discovery suggests the possibility of a pre-modern human species coexisting with modern humans in mainland East Asia, but further bone discoveries are required to build a stronger case, as Associate Professor Curnoe points out.
The thigh bone found in Maludong shares striking similarities with Homo habilis, being small in size with a narrow shaft and reinforced walls. Surprisingly, despite its young age, the individual had a very small body mass compared to pre-modern and Ice Age humans.
The initial announcement of the Red Deer Cave people's remains in 2012 sparked controversy within the scientific community. The team speculated that the bones could belong to an unknown new species or an early population of modern humans that migrated to the region over a hundred thousand years ago.
While the focus was initially on the skull bones, the recent study of the thigh bone revealed even greater primitiveness. It suggests that some of the Maludong bones might represent an enigmatic pre-modern species. In a separate publication, the team proposed the Longlin Cave skull could be a hybrid between modern humans and the unknown archaic group, possibly the one represented by the Maludong thigh bone.
The unique environment and climate resulting from the uplift of the Tibetan Plateau in southwest China could have created a refuge for human diversity, allowing pre-modern groups to survive until relatively recent times.
The ongoing discovery adds to the intrigue of the Red Deer Cave people. The mystery surrounding these Stone Age individuals deepens as researchers question who they were, why they survived for so long, and why they were limited to tropical southwest China. The bones from Maludong continue to unveil an incredible story even after being neglected for 25 years.
Source: University of New South Wales