Tracking East: Human dispersals and the early peopling of East Asia and Australasia

Photo: The 11,500 year old Longlin skull, with its resemblances to Darth Vadar,represents the first Holocene "archaic" human species to have been found (Photo: D. Curnoe).

Project details

The evolution of our species (Homo sapiens, or modern humans) remains a key question in evolutionary biology today. My research focuses on understanding our beginnings in Africa, more than 200,000 years ago, through to the later settlement of East Asia and Australasia by modern humans 60,000-50,000 years ago.

One of my main activities is a project in China I co-lead with Professor Ji Xueping (Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, Kunming) examining the human fossil, archaeological and palaeoecological records of Southwest China. Our aim is to better understand this crucial evolutionary episode, including identifying the earliest modern humans, understanding the timing of their settlement, and any interactions they may have had with other (non-sapiens) hominins. We also collaborate with geneticists Professor Su Bing and Associate Professor Shi Hong (Kunming Institute of Zoology, Kunming) examining DNA evidence for living people and from ancient bones and teeth.

A key finding of our research to date has been the discovery of one or more “archaic” (non-H. sapiens) populations surviving in Southwest China between around 14,5000 and 11,500 years ago (probably even more recently). Dubbed the “Red Deer Cave people”, fossil from the sites of Maludong (Yunnan Pr.) and Longlin Cave (Guangxi Pr.) are unlike any human fossils found anywhere else in the world, including contemporary modern humans in East Asia. They possess a highly unusual mixture of ancient (plesiomorphic) features, some H. sapiens traits, and some unusual (unique) features. While some of our colleagues think they might be hybrids between H. sapiens and the Denisovans or Neandertals, we think that the best explanation for their unusual features is that they sample one or more new species of “archaic” human.

Other major collaborators in the project include Professor Paul Taçon (Griffith University) and Professor Jeffrey Schwartz (University of Pittsburgh). Other members of EERC and BEES have also been involved in our work including Professor Gerry Cassis and Dr Will Parr.