Wednesday, June 20, 2012

New Hominid Fossils Found in China

Today while working the museum I had several quality conversations and interactions. Thanks to all of you who participated in these conversations. One conversation divulged that a new hominid fossil was found in China. I decided that I want to know more about it, so today's blog posting will serve as the excuse for learning.

In March of this year scientists announced that four skeletens have been found in
two separate caves in China. Up until this year, no hominid (non-homo sapien) fossils younger than 100,000 years old have been found in mainland East Asia resembling any species other than Homo sapiens. Analysis of the new fossils is underway, but f this is a new species it would re-write the assumption that the land was empty until we migrated into Asia. At this point scientists believe that the new fossils date between 11,500 znc 14,300 years ago.

Here is an artist's conception of what we think this new hominid looked like:

The bones include a partial skull, skull cap, jaws and teeth. They were uncovered from Longlin Cave in Guangxi Province and Malu Cave in Yunnan Province. In comparing the Chinese bones with those of modern man as well as with homo sapiens living during the Pleistocene, Neanderthals and Homo erectus, the researchers concluded the Chinese fossils have a unique mix of modern features and traits rarely, if ever, seen in recent and Pleistocene humans, such as a very broad face and a protruding jaw.

The most dramatic interpretation of the fossils is that they represent a newly discovered species. It is also possible that the fossils are related to others found a few years ago in a cave in Siberia. These latter fossils, called the Denisovans, have been dated to 30,000 to 48,000 years ago. The DNA didn’t align with that of modern humans or Neanderthals, the only species known to inhabit the area at the time. Researchers are in the process of trying to retrieve DNA from the Chinese fossils to classify and compare the DNA with homo Sapien  as well as other known hominid species. It may be that this is a new branch of the Homo Sapien  family tree, or even that the remains are the product of interbreeding between archaic and modern man.

Another hypothesis is that these hominids, being called the "Red Deer People" because of the animals they hunted, were members of an early, unknown migration of Homo Sapien out of Africa. (Genetic evidence indicates there were at least two migrations into Eurasia: one at 60,000 to 70,000 years ago and another at 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.) Once these people settled in East Asia, they somehow remained isolated from other human populations for thousands of years and eventually died out without leaving behind descendants. Under this scenario, the population’s unusual features suggest our species was more diverse thousands of years ago than it is today. This possibility is supported by other fossils found in Africa.

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