Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New human species found in China

Humans living today are of the species Homo sapiens, currently the only one in the genus 'Homo'. Several other species have died out thousands of years ago, including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis. None of these ancient hominids are around today, as only Homo sapiens managed to succeed in survival. We know of a fair few other species that are classified as hominids and therefore have, or had, the potential to turn into modern humans like ourselves. Careful analysis of a skull has recently revealed a human form we have never seen before. It has some characteristics that make it similar to us, but according to scientists, it represents a whole new species.

Red Deer Cave People
The skull was dug up in China more than 30 years ago, but analysis has only been completed recently. It revealed that the skull, belonging to a group of ancient people living in caves, does not fit into any of the Homo species that are currently known to have existed. The skull belongs to a hominid part of the so-called 'Red Deer Cave People'. Chinese scientists named them like that because they were known to hunt deer. It is also known that some of them survived until quite recently. Previous research already revealed how evolution shaped our own modern skulls, by analyzing how its shape changed over time in modern humans.

Scientists still don't know where the Red Deer Cave People fit in the whole evolutionary process. One theory suggests they evolved from Homo sapiens after they had spread to China. This would mean that these newly discovered hominids came to be after the current 'version' of humans had already evolved. The skeletal parts found suggest the Red Deer Cave People were similar to early African hominids, so that when they split up somehow, they got a separate shot at taking the human throne. Modern humans continued to evolve in parallel with the Red Deer Cave People, but somehow only Homo sapiens managed to turn into the humans we see today.

Why the newfound Chinese group did not make it is unknown, but it is an interesting open question that needs answers. According to scientists, they must have managed to survive the latest ice age, where 'famous' hominids like Neanderthals failed. Researchers are trying to analyze DNA from the Red Deer Cave People to see if it provides any clues as to what happened. We know they went extinct around 10.000 years ago, which is like yesterday in evolutionary terms.

Human classification
Because evolution is a very slowly adapting process, it is hard to put hominids into distinct groups. It is rather arbitrary to make groups based on their characteristics, as evolution is a constant process that does not work by suddenly creating a new version of an existing species. Therefore, our current classification system is subject to constant discussion and corresponding changes. However, because the Red Deer Cave People appear to have features that are unlike anything we have seen before, it seems safe to assume that it will acquire a spot somewhere in the Homo genus.

Humans came to be millions of years ago, if you count the ancient humans that we have allowed to be classified as 'Homo'. Modern humans, anatomically speaking, did not come into existence until about 200.000 years ago. A period in which they still rivalled with other Homo species. Many different theories exist about our exact origins, and they are still stirring up controversies. One thing scientists do mostly agree upon, is that nature gave birth to human life somewhere in Africa. Hence the all-famous Out Of Africa hypothesis, that describes how we spread across the Earth. Newly dug up skeletons, molecular data and other evidence has been filling the gaps over the years, but we still lack evidence to tell the complete story of human evolution. It is likely that scientists will unravel more about our ancestors in the coming decades, which includes discovering new species that competed in the struggle for life, but failed somewhere along the way.
If only it were this simple.

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