Darren Curnoe in Science:
It's been an exciting year for human evolution with several discoveries dramatically rewriting major episodes of our ancient past. Some of this progress stems from major advances in fields like ancient genomics, while much has resulted from new fossil and archaeological discoveries made in Africa and China. What's interested me the most has been the discovery of archaic humans living in northern China until perhaps 70,000 years ago and the oldest anatomically modern humans in the region appearing at least 80,000 years ago. This is because they fall squarely within my own area of research: human evolution over the past few hundred thousand years in East Asia and Australasia.
Unlike anything else
In 2012, we announced the discovery of the 'Red Deer Cave people' in Southwest China, a mysterious human group we identified from cranial and jaw bones and teeth from two cave sites located in Southwest China. Today, a team I co-lead with Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and involving colleagues from a range of institutions in China and Australia, announced the discovery of yet another highly unusual bone from the Red Deer Cave people. And it seems to confirm they were a mysterious group of pre-modern humans. Our previous work showed that the features of their bones and teeth possess a remarkable number of similarities to archaic humans. This is despite them having lived only between about 14,000 and 11,000 years ago from radiocarbon dating of charcoal. Their anatomy was nothing like we'd seen before in modern humans, whether they lived 200,000 or 200 years ago: they were truly unique and a real mystery to us and many of our colleagues. We suggested they could represent either a very early modern human population, perhaps one that settled the region more than 100,000 years ago and became isolated. Or, they could be a late surviving archaic species, akin to a population of Neanderthals surviving in isolation until the end of the Ice Age in Southwest China.