Siberian Caves Provide New Insight Into Mysterious Extinct Human Species

Denisova Cave

Denisova Cave

The cave was so popular that hominins (a group that includes humans, our ancestors and our close evolutionary cousins like chimps) lived there nearly continuously over both warm and cold periods during the past 300,000 years, the researchers found. However, we've only found direct evidence of their existence in a cave called Denisova.

In the lush but cold forests of the Altai Mountains in Siberia, there lies a unique cave. In 2018, a bone fragment from the cave yielded the genome of the daughter of Neanderthal and Denisovan parents. The excavations and subsequent studies have already provided many insights into this population, but the complex and intricate cave has made it hard to map the entire timeline of the occupation.

In two new studies published in the journal Nature, researchers investigated who lived in the cave and when, and identified an era when the Neanderthals and the Denisovans possibly mingled together.

"Denisova Cave, uniquely, contains stratified deposits that preserve skeletal and genetic evidence of both hominins, artefacts made from stone and other materials, and a range of animal and plant remains", write Zenobia Jacobs, Richard Roberts, and colleagues, who authored the first paper.

"The evidence suggests that the most likely explanation is that Denisovans are making them".

In one study, researchers in Australia and Russian Federation used optical dating to determine the age of the cave's sediments. In contrast, optical dating allows scientists to find out when quartz and feldspar grains in the soil were last exposed to sunlight. Overall, the authors analyzed the remains of 27 species of large vertebrate, 100 species of small vertebrate (such as mammals and fishes) and 72 species of plant.

Their results showed Denisovans occupied the cave around 287,000 years ago and stayed until about 55,000 years ago.

Modern humans were present in other parts of Asia by this time, but the nature of any encounters between them and Denisovans remains open to speculation in the absence of any fossil or genetic traces of modern humans at the site.

Denisovans - a cousin of Neanderthals - were discovered in 2010 when scientists working in a cave in southern Siberia obtained a finger bone of a girl belonging to a previously unidentified group of humans.

In the new research, the Oxford team obtained fifty radiocarbon ages from bone, tooth and charcoal fragments recovered from the upper layers of the site, as part of the ERC funded "PalaeoChron" project.

"Although there might still be some uncertainty about the detailed ages of the remains - given the nature and complexity of the deposits and the dating methods used - the general picture is now clear", Robin Dennell said in an article accompanying the Nature studies.

"While these new studies have lifted the veil on some of the mysteries of Denisova Cave, other intriguing questions remain to be answered by further research and future discoveries", Richard Roberts, co-author of both studies and director of the University of Wollongong's Centre for Archaeological Science, said in a statement. Based on the distribution and dating of Denisovan fossils, they conclude that the population inhabited the cave since at least 195,000 years ago. Notably, carbon dating of bone points and tooth pendants indicate an age of 43-49,000 years old, which would make them the oldest artifacts ever unearthed in northern Eurasia.

We are just scratching the surface of who the Denisovans were, researchers emphasize.

"There is still much to learn from Denisova. The work by Douka, Jacobs and their respective colleagues creates an important foundation for such efforts by providing a rigorous and compelling timeline for the cave sediments and its contents", Donnell concludes.

The research provided an updated timeline for the occupation of the Denisova cave by the two species, suggesting the Denisovans lived in the cave for a longer period than the Neanderthals.

Douka et al. "Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave".

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