Enigma Man: A Stone-age Mystery

Australian TV ABC-1 Darren-Curnoe
Darren Curnoe with the actor made up for the role of the Red Deer Cave people in the TV program. The latter clearly looks human, even with the imaginative attempt to make ‘another species’. Also, if all you find is fossil bones, how do you know what the skin color was?


This is a TV documentary funded by Screen Australia and the Australian Government, which Australian ABCTV-1 broadcast on 24 June 2014. It purports to show that some fossil skull bones found in China over the last 25 years represent a new human species, and this is discussed within the evolutionary worldview. It features Australian paleoanthropologist Darren Curnoe and Chinese palaeontologist Ji Xueping, who published a paper on it in PLoS One in 2012.1

A skull cap found at Red Deer Cave, Maludong

According to the program, in 1989, mine workers in Maludong, in southern Yunnan, unearthed some human remains alongside bones of red deer, so the site was dubbed the Red Deer Cave. The bones lay in a local museum for almost 20 years until, in 2007, Ji Xueping invited Darren Curnoe to help investigate them.

The principal bone shown was a smoothed skull cap, i.e. “the entire base of the skull had been cut off”, so that the cap could be used as a cup to drink from, and a hole had been drilled in each side of it through which e.g. a fibre could be threaded to carry it (Fig. 1). Anthropologist Professor Paul Taçon of Griffith University says concerning such skull cups: “All the other known examples, past and present, were made from the skulls of modern humans.”

Narrator: “For Paul, this was the handiwork of a sophisticated modern human.”

However, Darren draws attention to the prominent eyebrow bone and the low and very rounded brain case, and opines that the remains “look like they should be 100,000 or 200,000, or maybe even 300,000 years old”. This is because, according to evolutionary theory, expounded by Darren: “The first few million years of our evolution were in Africa. … We appear in the fossil record about 200,000 years ago—modern humans or Homo sapiens, and a subset of us left Africa about 80,000 years ago, settled the rest of the planet, and gave rise to all living people.”

The Hobbit

Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping, Ref. 1. maludong
Fig 1. Skull caps found at Red Deer Cave cut to make drinking cups. The carrying hole can be seen in the top right photo. Each bar indicates 1 cm in all Figs.

The program then shows a small skull of a one-metre-tall female creature found on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2004.2 It was given the name Homo floresiensis and nicknamed ‘the Hobbit’.3 The finders claimed it was a new human species (hence the name), but even some in the evolutionary community have remained skeptical, recognizing that the specimen could be a Homo sapiens suffering from microcephaly, a condition in which the brain fails to grow to normal size.

The reason for showing it in the program appears to be to bolster the proposal that the Red Deer Cave bones should be a new human species. Prof. Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts of Wollongong University (who was involved in the discovery of the Hobbit) says: “If we can find this brand-new species just below the ground today, how many are we missing out there?”

Of course there is a strong incentive for paleontologists to find ‘new species’, because the namer gets his/her name attached to the species name forever. Curnoe had already named another fossil as Homo gautengensis, but that species appears not to have been accepted by other evolutionists. See Gautengensis vs sediba: A battle for supremacy amongst ‘apeman’ contenders, but neither descended from Adam. Now he seems to be trying again.

High profile evolutionary paleoanthropologist Milford Wolpoff has consistently argued that Homo spp., such as H. erectus, Neandertals, etc., should just be regarded as Homo sapiens, and that would certainly include this new species proposed by Curnoe.

See Fossil evidence for alleged apemen—Part 1: the genus Homo.

Pottery at Red Deer Cave

In 2008, Darren and Ji examined the cave and found layers of ash, burnt bones, burnt earth, charcoal, and a fireplace. Darren thought they were from ‘Stone Age’ life, but then says: “My heart sank when we found what we thought was a bit of pottery … a very recent innovation. … We thought maybe the site was just another early farming site.”

At the museum there were sacks of fossils collected from the original excavation.

Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping, Ref. 1. partial-skull
Fig. 2. Partial skull found at Longlin.

Darren: “Every bone had been modified in some way. Some had been cut, some had been burned, and others painted in ochre.” This indicated either cremation (involving some sort of ceremony associated with burial or death), or cannibalism.

A skull with wide cheek ridges, and a jaw, both found at Longlin

Ji then produces a rock that had a skull inside it “discovered by a lone geologist at a place called Longlin, 300 km north-east of Red Deer Cave”. The head had very wide cheek bones that flare out to the side of the face as they curve around the skull (Fig. 2). Ji then produces a jaw (Fig. 3), concerning which Darren says: “It had been put together in such a way that actually made an artificial chin—a fake chin. Ji and I … found the bones fitted together naturally in quite a different way, and we had a very different looking jaw.”

Darren is convinced the skull and jaw belong together, even though the combination gives “a really bizarre mix of features. There were hints of modern human features. There were these really ancient-looking features.” Then: “This confusing mix of features bears a striking resemblance to those found at Maludong [i.e. Red Deer Cave]. So, we felt that the best way to approach this, given that we felt they were quite similar, was to have them in the same population—have them as belonging to the same group.”

Narrator: “They had come face to face with the Red Deer Cave people.”

Comment: The scientific paper (Ref. 1) shows some fragments of two quite smaller jaws unearthed at Maludong (Fig. 4). So it was not necessary to transport ‘chinless’ jaw features from Longlin and add them to the features of the Red Deer Cave people, 300 km away in order to supply a chin (if that was the reason for doing this). Have Darren and Ji never heard of Brontosaurus? This was a skeleton of a dinosaur that when found didn’t have a head, so a head from a different stratum a few kilometres away was added to the skeleton. Unfortunately it was the wrong head, and so Bronty never ever existed. See Thunder lizards.

Recent dating at both sites

Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping, Ref. 1. mandible
Fig. 3. Mandible (jaw) found at Longlin.

Pieces of charcoal at the two different caves gave a carbon-14 ‘age’ of 14,000 years for the Red Deer Cave fossils, and 11,000 years for the Longlin skull found 350 km away.

Narrator: “This means that the Red Deer Cave people were alive at the same time and in the same place as modern human hunter-gatherers.”

Darren: “This means they are either very unusual modern humans or perhaps belong to a different group, different species, but they’re not us. The suggestion of a new human species is arguably the boldest statement an evolutionary scientist can make.”

Narrator: “In March 2012, the team take the daring step to publish this possibility.”

Comment: Not so. A search of their published paper of over 15,000 words (Ref. 1) does not find any mention of the words “new species” or “new human species” or “different species”, nor yet the suggested name “Homo mituanis” (mentioned tentatively later in the TV program). Apparently they were not confident enough of this ‘new species’ to put it in their refereed paper, or it was in there and knocked out by the referees. If it does not pass muster with peer reviewers, then Curnoe really should not be talking about it on this TV program. He should limit his comments to what is in the paper, but then that would not make a very interesting story for TV.

Some words of Darren’s are worth quoting. He says:

“Nobody looks at a fossil with a completely open mind. I suppose to some extent also we see what we think. So, you come to a fossil and you have an idea about the way you think human evolution worked, and the first thing you do is try and fit that fossil into your worldview.”

Hybridization and DNA

This is discussed, giving the programmers opportunity to mention “ancient humans”, “archaic humans”, and “ancient DNA” several times, thereby maintaining the long-age evolutionary storyline, despite the quite modern dating of the fossils and the discovery of pottery at the Red Deer Cave site.

Then viewers are told: “To try to uncover the genetic origins of the Red Deer Cave people, Darren and Ji send samples of the burnt bones for DNA testing.” However, the laboratory was unable to extract any DNA. Darren explains: “There’s very little biological material left in the bones and teeth from Maludong, and this is because they’ve been burnt to such high temperatures. What it means, unfortunately, is that there’s really no chance of getting DNA from them.”

Darren Curnoe and Ji Xueping, Ref. 1. maludong-mandibles-lge
Fig. 4. Two mandibles (left and right) found at Red Deer Cave. Shown at the same scale, they are obviously much smaller than the Longlin jaw in Fig 3.

Comment: Just why he didn’t send any of the unburnt Longlin fossils (which he claims were “the same population”) for DNA analysis we are not told—either in the program or in the scientific paper (Ref.1).

Moving on, the program introduces “scientific heavyweight” Prof. Jeffery Schwartz as “one of the few scientists in the world to have studied virtually the entire human fossil record”. He looks at the Red Deer Cave skull caps, and then the Longlin flared skull, and says: “I would call it a different species.” And then a little later: “There’s more than one hominid on this table.”

Homo mituanis?

Towards the end of the program Darren meets the program’s actor made up to supposedly look like one of the Red Deer Cave people. This prompts Darren Curnoe to say to him: “When you describe a new species, you have to pick a scientific name, a Latin name, and one of the names we’ve proposed with the Chinese colleagues is Homo mituanis. ‘Mituan’ is actually Chinese for ‘enigma’ or ‘great puzzle’. So we think of you as our Enigma Man.” This provided the title of the program.

How should Bible-believing Christians analyze this data?

The purpose of this TV program is not primarily to promote ancestry of humans from apes, but to advocate the finding of a new human species within the evolutionary paradigm. However, in contrast to the evolutionary worldview presented, in the creationist worldview the first humans were Adam and Eve, and all humans that have ever lived have descended from them. This includes all human fossil remains found in Africa or elsewhere, and the Neandertals, and the people from Red Deer Cave and Longlin, and us.

What of the evolutionary ‘dates’ of 11,000 years and 14,000 years? Taking account of the global Flood of Noah, these dates need to be recalibrated and this puts these fossils firmly in the post-Flood era (in reality less than 4,500 years old). See Chapter 15: Where are all the human fossils?

Carl Linnaeus gave the scientific name Homo sapiens to humans, who are made in the image of God. He placed us in the kingdom of animals, in the class of primates, and the order of mammals. This was not an evolutionary classification; in fact Linnaeus intimated his distinction of humans from all other creatures by the name he gave us: Homo sapiens (wise man).


The theory of human evolution requires missing links, so in the post-Darwin era many candidates have been put forward. Not one has stood the test of rigorous investigation. See Fossil evidence for alleged apemen—Part 1: the genus Homo and Fossil evidence for alleged apemen—Part 2: non-Homo hominids.

The Red Deer Cave fossils appear to be the remains of the offspring of a modern human and a robust human, such as Homo erectus, where the modern humans came from a later migration of humans, in another wave of migration after the post Flood human population dispersed from the Tower of Babel. As these are both human, the offspring would also be logically human. Consistent with this, evolutionary paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London, says concerning these fossils, in the program: “I don’t think they represent a distinct species from us, but they really do document the variation in modern human populations … .”

The ‘enigma’ seems to be only in the minds of the discoverers.

Published: 5 July 2014

References and notes

  1. Curnoe, D., Xueping, J., et al, Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Halocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. Public Library of Science One, March 14, 2012; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0031918. Return to text.
  2. Smithsonian.com says it was 2003. Return to text.
  3. After the diminutive villagers in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Return to text.

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