Experts reveal that three Denisovans’ and one Neanderthal’s remains dating back to 200,000 years were found in a Siberian cave.
The newly-found fossils were uncovered from the famous Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains, southern Siberia, surrounded by archaeological remains such as stone tools and fossilised food waste.
Neanderthals are a human relative who lived between 400,000 and 40,000 years ago in Europe, Western Asia.
The Denisovans are an additional group of ancient humans that lived in Asia approximately 80,000 years ago. These people were not closely related to Neanderthals.
New Denisovan bones, dating back to over 200,000 years old, are among the most ancient human fossils ever genetically sequenced.
It raises the question of whether archaic human beings lived in the area, given that both Neanderthals’ and Denisovans’ remains were discovered together.
The cave contained bone fragments that could be used to perform molecular analyses. An analysis of three bones fragments from the cave revealed that one belonged to Neanderthal and two were Denisovan.
It’s already known that Denisovans diverged from Neanderthals. The DNA of early human ancestors is also preserved today because both bred with them around 50,000 year ago.
The new findings are detailed in Nature Ecology and Evolution by an international team, led by researchers from the Universities of Vienna and Tübingen, and the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany.
In all, five hominin bones were found in the cave, including four that had enough DNA for mitochondrial analysis and identification – three as Denisovan and one as Neanderthal.
“Finding one human bone new would be cool. But five?” This exceeded my wildest dreams,’ said study author Samantha Brown at the University of Tübingen.
Brown explained that Denisovans represent one of the most recent ancestors. However, USA Today still has very limited information about them.
Denisovans are thought to have appeared at the site during an interglacial – a warm period during which the environment and temperatures were similar to today.
The settlers had an “fully-fledged, lithic tradition”, using the raw material from the Anui River’s alluvium, hunting herbivores like bison, roe, red deer, gazelle, saiga, and woolly rhinoceros.
Around 130,000 to 150,000 years ago, Neanderthals also appeared at the site, represented by the one newly-discovered Neanderthal fossil.
These remains were found in southern Siberia’s Denisova Cave. (Entrance shown here).
Denisova Cave rose to fame 11 years ago, when genetic sequencing of a fossilised finger bone revealed a new, previously unknown human group – named ‘Denisovans’ in honor of the site.
It was difficult, however to identify any additional Denisovan remains in the cave. Human remains were scattered and it is hard to find among the hundreds of thousands animal bones.
A team of researchers led by Katerina Douka, an anthropologist at the University of Vienna, worked for four years to analyze nearly 4,000 bones from Denisova Cave.
The scientists used a biomolecular method known as peptide fingerprinting or ‘ZooMS’ – which uses collagen or other proteins preserved in archaeological artefacts to identify the species from which they derive.
These methods were the only way scientists can find human remains in the site’s thousands of bones.
Denisova Cave’s oldest layers were the focus of the team. They date back to around 200,000 years ago.
Brown analysed 3800 bones fragments less than 1.5 inch in length, which were previously considered ‘taxonomically impossible to identify’.
She did however find five bones that had collagen profiles similar to those of the human body.
Douka said, “We were amazed to discover new bone fragments made from human bones that preserve intact biomolecules.
The research at Denisova Cave is continuing through fieldwork, targeted analyses of bone and sediments by a Russian archaeologist team that has camped there almost six months each.
Excavations have been made in Denisova Cave’s eastern chamber. The cave rose to fame 11 years ago, when genetic sequencing of a fossilised finger bone revealed a new, previously unknown human group – the Denisovans
Denisova Cave, the most recent discovery, is still the only one that provides evidence for the regular presence of all three hominin major groups, Denisovans and Neanderthals in the last 200 years.
Earlier this year, scientists reported that DNA discovered in Denisova Cave suggests early modern humans lived alongside Denisovans and Neanderthals at least 44,000 years ago.
Last October, another team reported the discovery of Denisovan DNA in the Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibet.
This was the first discovery of Denisovan DNA from an area other than Denisova Cave in Siberia.
Researchers discovered DNA that belonged to an unidentified ancient ancestor of human beings that had bred with Denisovans back in August 2020.