Remains of archaic hominins from southwest China (Curnoe et al, 2012). They were around when villages and towns were arising in the Middle East.
Recent findings have confirmed the ‘Out of Africa’ model of human origins, but only in part. The model diverges from actual prehistory on two main points. One is that modern humans picked up archaic admixture as they spread out of Africa and into Eurasia. Thus, modern Eurasians have 1-4% Neanderthal admixture, and Melanesians an additional 4-6% from the mysterious Denisovans (Reich et al, 2011). As for modern sub-Saharan Africans, they seem to be the most admixed of all. About 2% of their gene pool comes from a population close to Homo erectus and a further 13% from a population probably related to the Skhul-Qafzeh hominins (Hammer et al., 2011; Watson et al., 1997).
And the second point? It appears that modern humans didn’t immediately replace archaic hominins, at least not everywhere. Some of the latter held out in different places of refuge until the Holocene, and perhaps even later. At a time when villages and towns were arising in the Middle East, archaic hominins continued to hold out in western and southern Africa (Harvati et al., 2011; Stringer, 2011).
Now, we have evidence of another refuge area. Southwest China has yielded archaic cranial remains that date to ~14.3-11.5 thousand years ago. The remains actually show a mixture of archaic and modern traits, reminiscent of the Skhul-Qafzeh hominins of the Levant (120,000 – 80,000 BP) and other ‘almost moderns’ from North Africa.
Who were they? The authors offer two explanations:
Our analysis suggests two plausible explanations for the morphology sampled at Longlin Cave and Maludong. First, it may represent a late-surviving archaic population, perhaps paralleling the situation seen in North Africa as indicated by remains from Dar-es-Soltane and Temara, and maybe also in southern China at Zhirendong. Alternatively, East Asia may have been colonised during multiple waves during the Pleistocene, with the Longlin-Maludong morphology possibly reflecting deep population substructure in Africa prior to modern humans dispersing into Eurasia (Curnoe et al., 2012).
The two explanations aren’t that far apart. Different authors have alternately described the Skhul-Qafzeh remains as either late archaic or early modern. In the case of the Chinese remains, an obvious candidate would be the Denisovans, an archaic population that inhabited East Asia around the time that Neanderthals inhabited Europe and central Asia. But the authors evoke this possibility only in passing:
DNA extracted from a >50 ka hominin fossil from Denisova Cave in Central Asia belonging within the Neandertal lineage shares features exclusively with Aboriginal Southeast Asians and Australasians. This has been interpreted as: 1) evidence for interbreeding between the ‘Denisovans’ and the earliest modern humans to colonise the region; and 2) implying occupation of Southeast Asia by this archaic population during the Upper Pleistocene.
In fact, we have good evidence that Denisovans were present in Southeast Asia. Reich et al. (2011) found Denisovan admixture in some but not all of the oldest indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. Such admixture was present in Aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, and a Negrito people from the Philippines. It was absent, however, in Negrito groups farther west. The authors thus concluded:
Our finding that descendants of the earliest inhabitants of Southeast Asia do not all harbor Denisova admixture is inconsistent with a history in which the Denisova interbreeding occurred in mainland Asia and then spread over Southeast Asia, leading to all its earliest modern human inhabitants. Instead, the data can be most parsimoniously explained if the Denisova gene flow occurred in Southeast Asia itself. Thus, archaic Denisovans must have lived over an extraordinarily broad geographic and ecological range, from Siberia to tropical Asia.
If the Denisovans lingered on into historic times, the same might be true for other archaic groups, like the Neanderthals in Europe. Perhaps those stories about hairy wild men were not pure imagination.
Deusen (2001) mentions that the Tungus peoples of far eastern Siberia remember the existence of ‘monkey people’ in their region. One folk-tale describes how these monkey people abducted a man:
So the older sister took the shaman’s drum. She started to sing and then said, “Brother, when you go hunting in the taiga tomorrow, you’re going to meet two people. Check out their breasts, and then marry them.”
The next day, he woke up and set out to go hunting. He walked and walked and came to a hill, a mountain. There were big rocks. He looked up, and then went on. Suddenly he saw two people sitting there. He approached and at that time the ties on his skis broke.
He came up to those people and felt their breasts and they were women. And they took him along with them.
At home time went by. A day passed and another, and still he was gone. Many days went by. And then the younger sister said, “Sister, you made this happen. Now you bring him back. Those two monkeys in the mountain came and took him away and now they are keeping him in the mountains, sucking his blood. He’s become just skin and bones.”
… So the younger sister sang and drummed, flying to her spirits, but she couldn’t get there. She tried a second time and still didn’t have the strength. The third time she gathered all her strength and flew to those rocks. She took her brother and dragged him out of there. He flew, looking thin as a shirt. They got him back and healed him. And that’s how the younger sister brought her brother back from those monkeys.
… So that’s it about the monkeys. They lived in the rocks and when they rolled back and forth, they called, “Tsyoo, tsyoo, papandasyoo!!” (Deusen 2001:126-128)
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