Fossil discovery in Asia

The remains of at least three individuals were found by Chinese archaeologists at Maludong (meaning Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province during 1989. They remained unstudied until research began in 2008, involving scientists from six Chinese and five Australian institutions, including La Trobe University.

Andy HerriesThe fossils are of a people with a highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features, and are the youngest of their kind ever found in mainland East Asia.

Details of the discovery were published today in the journal PLoS One. The team has been cautious about classifying the fossils because of their unusual mosaic of features.

Dr Andy Herries—Australian Research Fellow and Head of the Australian Archaeomagnetism Laboratory within the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University— was one of the scientists involved in the recent excavations and research.

‘One of the biggest problems in understanding human evolution in East and S.E Asia is that many of the fossils have been found out of context, which has meant that it has been difficult, if not impossible to assess their age.

‘In contrast the Maludong remains were excavated from a small cave, whose deposition occurred over a short time period. As such, they are some of the best dated fossils from the region and date to a warm-wet phase during a period of quite rapidly changing climate at the end of the last glacial period 14,500 to 13,000 years ago,’ says Dr Herries.

Dated to just 14,500 to 11,500 years old, these people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China’s earliest farming cultures were beginning, says 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.

A Chinese geologist found a fourth partial skeleton in 1989 in a cave near the village of Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It stayed encased in a block of rock until 2008 when the international team removed and reconstructed the fossils.

The skulls and teeth from Maludong and Longlin are very similar to each other and show an unusual mixture of archaic and modern anatomical features, as well as some previously unseen characters.

 “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,” says Professor Curnoe.

“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 living people.”

While Asia today contains more than half of the world’s population, scientists still know little about how modern humans evolved there after our ancestors settled Eurasia some 70,000 years ago.

Modern human fossil remains as old as 40,000 years have been found in Australia, Malaysia and northern China but little is known about the rest of East and S.E. Asia at this time. It has been assumed that the region had been empty of our evolutionary cousins when the first modern humans appeared. The new discovery suggests this might not have been the case after all and throws the spotlight once more on Asia.

‘Historically, Europe and Africa have been the focus of intense international research regarding our human origins. However, due to Asia’s massive size and rugged terrain there is likely also a rich record of fossils still waiting to be found that will further overturn what we know about our evolutionary history’ says Dr Herries.

“The Maludong and Longlin remains suggest that it is quite possible that small relict populations of humans from earlier migrations into Asia survived in remote areas until much later than previously thought” 

In the last decade, Asia has produced fossils of the earliest humans to leave Africa, the 1.8 million year old Dmanisi fossils from Georgia, the 17,000 year old and highly enigmatic Indonesian Homo floresiensis (“The Hobbit”) and potential evidence for modern human interbreeding with the little known about Denisovans from Siberia.

‘Because of the geographical diversity caused by the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, south-west China is well known as a biodiversity hotspot and for its great cultural diversity. That diversity extends well back in time’ says Professor Ji.

‘The discovery of the Red Deer Cave people opens the next chapter in the human evolutionary story – the Asian chapter – and it’s a story that’s just beginning to be told,’ says Professor Curnoe.

The research paper—Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians—was published in the journal PLoS One and is available on request.

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Meghan Lodwick

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