Although it was over 100 years ago, the ‘Piltdown Man’ saga is still held up as a strong warning not to accept claims of ‘new hominid species‘ without full and proper investigation. The willingness of some experts to readily embrace the hoax which claimed that the missing link had been discovered remains an embarrassment that tends to push people towards caution these days.
And so, when news of the ‘Red Deer Cave People’ emerged in 2012, it was met with a mixture of excitement and scepticism.
Who were the Red Deer Cave People?
According to Darren Curnoe of the University of New South Wales and Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, they were a distinct group of cave-dwelling humans who lived in the south China region between 11,500 and 14,500 years ago. They earned their name from the evidence which suggested that huge numbers of red deer had been cooked and eaten within the caves in which the human bones were discovered.
Were they hybrids?
What makes these human remains potentially groundbreaking, according to the researchers, is that they display features that place them in a category of their own. Considering the age of the bones, one would expect them to resemble ‘anatomically modern’ humans – which they do, to an extent. However, the apparent presence of ‘archaic human’ features suggests something far more mysterious. These people had to be either a hybrid human species or even an isolated one, similar to the Neanderthals, existing apart from other human species until the end of the Ice Age in Southwest China.
How old are the Red Deer cave people
Evidence cited by the researchers claimed that radiocarbon dating set the remains at between 14,000 and 11,000 years old, and yet the anatomy suggested that they resembled hominins up to 100,000 years old, anatomically more similar to Homo Habilis or Homo Erectus. If true, this would shake up the world of palaeontology and challenge some long-established theories.
What is the evidence?
In 1979 and 1989, fragments of skull ‘and other human remains’ were discovered inside caves at Longlin and Maludong in China. It wasn’t until 2012, however, that the ‘mystery species’ was announced, with the emphasis place on a partial femur, found at caves in Maludong (along with sections of jawbones, cranial fragments, and teeth).
Hunters with tools
The presence of an enormous amount of butchered deer bones (from a species now extinct), along with stone tools, suggested that these people were hunters. Based on the size and shape of the skull fragments – representing three or four individuals – the Red Deer Cave People had flattened faces with a broad nose. Their skulls were thick, with a rounded braincase and prominent brow. Their jaws jutted outwards, but with a small chin, and their molar teeth were large. An average body weight of about 50kg has been tentatively suggested, along with the possibility that they had brains of a ‘moderate size’. All of these features would be common in a species far older than the radiocarbon dating allows for.
This evidence places them in a similar category as Homo Floresiensis – otherwise known as ‘the Hobbit’ – which is potentially another distinct human species, though this has been disputed and debated since its announcement in 2004.
Controversy and scepticism
The main problem that most scholars and experts have with the evidence is that it largely hinges on one bone; a partial femur. To hang an entire theory that flies in the face of accepted wisdom and convention on a fragment of bone seems a bold and risky strategy. Admittedly, other bone fragments were discovered – mostly from a different site – but once again the evidence is slim. Curnoe himself confesses this and accepts that many colleagues are finding his proposals difficult to accept. He also points out, however, that most anthropologists and archaeologists (though not all) have come to accept that Homo Floresiensis (mentioned above) is, in fact, a new human species outside of the traditionally accepted fossil record.
Lack of DNA evidence
One fact that forces experts to reserve their judgement is the lack of DNA evidence. Attempts to extract aDNA (ancient DNA) samples have so far proved unsuccessful, This is no surprise, as the process is a difficult one, but doing so would be a boon to Curnoe and his team in supporting his bold theory.
In contrast, there are those who cast doubt on the entire project. For example, Professor Maciej Henneberg has suggested that the femur in question possibly belongs to a deer, and has been misidentified due to the level of decay and degradation.
Whilst the evidence, on the face of it, seems slim, Darren Curnoe deserves respect for his ambition and determination. As he rightly points out, the fossil record is almost entirely based on finds from Africa and Europe, and as such cannot be representative of a world view. In past times, little attention was paid to sites outside of these places with a view to discovering more about our origins. As more work is undertaken in East Asia, it is possible that more weight will be thrown to support Curnoe’s theory. In fact, there are hints that this is already happening; researchers from the Russian Academy of Science in Siberia discovered similar remains, possibly including Neanderthals, at Denisova Cave, except that these were perhaps 30-40,000 years older.
While it is difficult to state with any degree of certainty at the moment that the Red Deer Cave People are a ‘new species of human’, work will undoubtedly continue in an attempt to provide definitive answers. At the moment, the generally accepted theory is that they are hybrid species who interacted and bred with anatomically modern humans.
And whatever the outcome, we welcome the opportunity to learn more about our ancestry and history as a species.