WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Scientists using sophisticated techniques to determine the age of bone fragments, teeth and artifacts unearthed in a Siberian cave have provided a new insight into a mysterious extinct human species that may have been more advanced than previously known.
The entrance to Denis Cave, which contains evidence of previous habitation by extinct human species, in the Anui River Valley in the Altai mountains of Siberia, Russia, is shown in this picture released on Jan. 30, 2019. Richard Roberts / Handout via REUTERS
Research published on Wednesday shed light on the species called Denisovans, known only from scrappy remains from Denis Cave in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in Russia.
While still enigmatic, they have left a genetic mark on our species, Homo sapiens, especially among the indigenous populations in Papua New Guinea and Australia, which retained a small but significant percentage of DNA denied, evidence of past interbreeding between the species.
Fossils and DNA traces demonstrated Denisovans were present in the cave from at least 200,000 to 50,000 years ago, and Neanderthals, and closely related extinct human species, were present there between 200,000 and 80,000 years ago, the new research found. Stone tools indicated that one or both species may have occupied the cave starting 300,000 years ago.
Scientists last year described and Denis Cave bone fragment of a girl whose mother was a Neanderthal and a father and Denisovan, evidence of interbreeding. The girl, nicknamed "Denny," lived around 100,000 years ago, the new research showed.
Pendants made of animal teeth and bone points from the cave were determined to be between 43,000 and 49,000 years old. They may have been crafted by Denisovans, suggesting a degree of intellectual sophistication.
"Traditionally, these objects are associated with the expansion of our species in Western Europe and are seen as hallmarks of behavioral modernity, but in this case Denisovans may be their authors," said Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.
Our species arose in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, later spreading worldwide. There is no evidence Homo sapiens had reached Denis Cave when these objects were made.
Denisovans are known only from three teeth and one finger bone.
"New fossils would be especially welcome, as we know almost nothing about the physical appearance of Denisovans, aside from them having rather chunky teeth," said Zenobia Jacobs, a geochronologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia.
"Their DNA in modern Australian Aboriginal and New Guinean people tantalizingly suggests that they may have been quite widespread in Asia, and even possible in south-eastern Asia, but we have to find some hard evidence of their presence in these regions, story of the Denisovans, "added the University of Wollongong geochronologist Richard" Bert "Roberts.
The research was published in the journal Nature.
Reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Sandra Maler