To be, or not to be? Scientists disagree about whether new fossils are evidence of a new type of human.
To be, or not to be? Scientists disagree about whether new fossils are evidence of a new type of human. Reuters

Scientists may have uncovered a whole new branch on the Homo sapiens family tree.

Three fossils excavated from a cave in China seem to belong to a whole new type of hominid, reports a study in the journal PLoS ONE. The discovery could change the way we trace the path of human evolution.

What's shocking about the remains is their relative youth; it appears these hominids lived as recently as 11,000 years ago. That means they were alive long after modern humans had already evolved, but for some reason were isolated or did not interbreed.

In short, they're anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree, said Darren Curnoe, co-author of the study, to National Geographic.

The fossils exhibit interesting features, mixing modern attributes with archaic ones. Like us, these people had long frontal lobes and were apparently capable of building fires. Like Neanderthals, they had jutting jaws, prominent brow bones and flared cheeks.

Also unique is the fossils' location; no fossil under 100,000 years old (other than those belonging to anatomically modern humans) has ever been found in mainland East Asia, reports MSNBC. The discovery of the Red Deer Cave People opens the next chapter in the latest stage of the human evolutionary story, the Asian chapter, Curnoe said. It's a story that's just beginning to be told.

Researchers have dubbed them Red Deer Cave People, because they were clearly fans of the local venison. Not far from their fossils was a heap of giant deer bones, along with tools for preparing meat and evidence of a controlled fire for cooking.

Do these hominids qualify as a new human species? That's a complicated question, according to Curnoe. One of the major ongoing questions for scientists studying human evolution is the lack of a satisfactory biological definition of our own species, Homo sapiens. This is one of the main reasons why we have been cautious about classifying the Red Deer Cave People at this time, he said.

Critics of the new study have suggested that calling these creatures a whole new species may be jumping the gun. Philipp Gunz, a physical anthropologist, told National Geographic that this discovery may simply mean that that early modern humans were more diverse than we thought.

Modern humans are exceptionally variable, especially if you compare modern humans to our closest fossil relatives, the Neanderthals, who seem to have had a comparatively narrow range of appearances, he said. I would be surprised if it really was a new human group that was previously undiscovered.

There's only one way to find out for certain, he added. It should be fairly easy to extract DNA from these fossils, and then we will know for sure how related they are to us as a modern human species.

Curnoe and his team have so far been unsuccessful in their attempts to extract a usable DNA sample, but they're still trying.