Documentary: Enigma man

Enigma Man: A Stone-age Mystery
DVD available from Electric Pictures:

Just as we begin to get our heads round the complex relationship of our species to earlier members of the human family, along comes the possibility that another, previously unknown, hominin walked the Earth until just 11,000 years ago.

This film looks at the work of Australian palaeo-anthropologist Darren Curnoe and his Chinese colleague, palaeontologist Ji Xueping, whose study of ancient human remains found in a cave in southwestern China has raised the possibility that this was a new species which lived alongside our ancestors until relatively recently – although as far as we know without any DNA evidence, there was no fraternisation as there was with the Neanderthals.

Judging from their remains, the Red Deer Cave People – so-called because they seem to have eaten little else – had a unique mix of primitive and modern features, anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree, according to Curnoe. They had prominent brow ridges, short broad flat faces and low, very rounded brain cases, but their chins were quite unlike modern humans. As Curnoe tells us, the remains “look like they should be 100,000 or 200,000, or maybe even 300,000 years old”.

Inquiries since then have raised more questions than they have answered, but those questions are fascinating ones.

The bones were unearthed in 1989 by miners in the area and gathered dust in a local museum until 2007 when Ji Xueping asked Curnoe to help investigate the mystery.

Inquiries since then have raised more questions than they have answered, but those questions are fascinating ones. How did they live? Why did they die out? Are they really another species? What do they mean to our own human identity?

Curnoe admits it is difficult to decide whether the Red Deer Cave People should be classified as Homo sapiens or another species. British anthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum believes the find is extremely important, although he does not think they were a distinct species from us. “But they do document the variation in modern human populations in the last 50,000 years,” he says.

The documentary is brought to life by stunning dramatic reconstructions of what life for the Red Deer Cave People and their struggle for survival must have been like.

The film also draws together other significant findings in the region, which anthropologists believe may just be the beginning. This is a mystery so far without definitive resolution, but no less intriguing for that.

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