Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Who were the Red Deer Cave people?

Somehow I missed this when it was published two weeks ago, but it's a very interesting story.

Curnoe et al. published a description of some remarkable human-like fossils from China. The remains consist of a partial skull originally excavated in 1979 and other fragmentary remains (including a skullcap) newly-excavated in China by Curnoe and his team. The skull is visually quite peculiar, with widely flaring cheeks and sort of flat faces. Their analysis indicates that the remains possess a weird mixture of traits found in modern Homo sapiens and other traits considered to be archaic (plesiomorphic). Their radiocarbon dating suggest that the remains are around 14,500 to 11,500 years old, which is comparable to the Homo floresiensis remains from Indonesia.

Curnoe et al. offer two possibilities to explain these fossils:
One possibility is that the Longlin and Maludong remains represent a late surviving archaic population ... Another possible explanation is that the unusual morphology of the Longlin and Maludong remains results from the retention of a large number of ancestral polymorphisms in a population of H. sapiens. The concept of incomplete lineage sorting is commonly invoked to explain morphologically mixed groups where the features of interest are present also in allopatric populations belonging to the same taxon.
That basically means that either it's not Homo sapiens but instead some other species (maybe like the hobbit, H. floresiensis) or it's a very different population of Homo sapiens (maybe a different subspecies?).

As a young-earth creationist interested in human origins, my interpretation is only slightly different from theirs. My main departure from their description would be the date. I would see these fossils as post-Flood (less than 4000 years old). Since I cautiously accept the relative value of radiocarbon dating (i.e., it can tell me what things are older or younger, even though I think the actual "dates" are not accurate), I would accept that these fossils were contemporaneous with populations of what we call "modern" Homo sapiens. These individuals really could be a different species than our own, or they could simply be some unusual subspecies. They might even be the offspring of hybrids between different human species. They are definitely not apes though, nor are they evolutionary intermediates between humans and apes. As a young-earth creationist, I do not accept the evolution of humans from apes. Because I'm a creationist. That's why I see things differently from conventional evolutionary biologists. In case you were wondering.

I really like the cautious interpretations offered in this paper, though. In a field where some researchers are quick to declare their latest findings as new species that totally revolutionize our understanding of human evolution, the understated conclusions of Curnoe et al. are a breath of fresh air, even if they didn't attract a lot of press coverage. Perhaps that's why the "Red Deer Cave people" (as they're being called) almost slipped beneath my radar.

Curnoe et al. 2012. Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. PLoS ONE 7(3): e31918.

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