The discovery of mysterious fossils in caves in China may have opened another window into the Ice Age, researchers say.
“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,” said researcher Darren Curnoe, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Or the species might indicate a previously unknown migration of modern humans out of Africa, Curnoe told livescience.com
. It is possible that the species might not have contributed to the gene pool of living people, he said.
Miners quarrying limestone at Maludong or Red Deer Cave near Mengzi in southwest China uncovered at least three of the specimens in 1989. However, the fossils remained unstudied until 2008, livescience.com reported. Scientists named the species the Red Deer Cave People because they cooked the now-extinct red deer.
The Red Deer Cave People are difficult to classify as either a new species or an unusual type of modern human because the fossils exhibit modern and ancient human anatomical features. One of these characteristics resembling that of modern humans is a long, broad and tall frontal lobe.
Characteristics of the fossils resemble those “our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago,” Curnoe said.
In contrast, to features of modern homo sapiens, the fossils of Red Deer Cave People exhibit “prominent brow ridges, thick skull bones, flat upper faces with a broad nose, jutting jaws that lack a humanlike chin, brains moderate in size by ice age human standards, large molar teeth, and primitively short parietal bones – brain lobes at the top of the head associated with sensory data,” livescience.com reported Wednesday.
But other features are unique. For instance, the fossils have “a strongly curved forehead bone, very broad nose and eye sockets, and very flat cheeks that flare widely to the sides to make space for large chewing muscles.”
Artifacts found at the Maludong site also show that the Red Deer Cave People knew how to make fire and possibly made tools.
The Red Deer Cave people lived in a climate similar today’s. “The period around 15,000 to 11,000 years ago when they thrived in southwest China is known as the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, and it was a shift to climates and ecological communities the same as those of today,” Curnoe told livescience.com.
The period marked a major shift in the behavior of modern human in southern China, Curnoe said. This is when people began making pottery for food storage and gathering wild rice.
Red Deer Cave People shared the landscape with humans at the time. But researchers do not know whether the Red Deer Cave interacted with humans or competed for resources.
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