Researchers successfully sequenced the genome of ancient human fossils from the Late Pleistocene in southern China, suggesting that the mysterious hominin belonged to an extinct maternal branch of modern humans that might have contributed to the origin of Native Americans.
The research behind this discovery started over three decades ago, when a group of archaeologists in China discovered a large set of bones in the Maludong, or Red Deer Cave, in southern China’s Yunnan Province.
Carbon dating showed that the fossils were from the Late Pleistocene about 14,000 years ago, a period of time when modern humans had migrated to many parts of the world.
Researchers recovered a hominin skull cap with characteristics of both modern humans and archaic humans. For example, the shape of the skull resembled that of Neanderthals, but its brain appeared to be smaller than that of modern humans.
As a result, some anthropologists had thought the skull probably belonged to an unknown archaic human species that lived until fairly recently or to a hybrid population of archaic and modern humans.
In 2018, Bing Su, PhD, at Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues, in collaboration with Xueping Ji, an archaeologist at Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, successfully extracted ancient DNA from the skull.
“Ancient DNA technique is a really powerful tool,” Su explained. “It tells us quite definitively that the Red Deer Cave people were modern humans instead of an archaic species, such as Neanderthals or Denisovans, despite their unusual morphological features.”
Genomic sequencing shows that the hominin belonged to an extinct maternal lineage of a group of modern humans whose surviving decedents are now found in East Asia, the Indo-China peninsula and the Southeast Asia islands.
The finding also shows that during the Late Pleistocene, hominins living in southern East Asia had rich genetic and morphologic diversity, greater than that in northern East Asia during the same period. It suggests that early humans who first arrived in eastern Asia had initially settled in the south before some of them moved to the north, Su said.
“It’s an important piece of evidence for understanding early human migration,” he said.
“It’s an important piece of evidence for understanding early human migration.”Bing Su