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K. Kris Hirst

Update on Denisova Cave

By December 27, 2010

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Last week the journal Nature reported additional data supporting the astonishing idea that a previously unidentified hominid lived among us up until at least 30,000 years ago. The data were recovered from Denisova Cave, in the Altai Mountains of Siberia. The new data include DNA analysis of a finger bone reported earlier, mtDNA analysis on a tooth from a different individual, and a search of modern gene data for descendant remnants.

Denisova Cave Exterior View
Exterior view, Denisova Cave
Photo Credit: Bence Viola

You may remember that in March 2010, Svante Pääbo and associates described the initial mtDNA analysis of a small finger bone. The finger bone was from a child, and it dated to approximately 30-45,000 years ago. Most astonishingly, the bone's mtDNA profile did not match either Early Modern Human (EMH--that's our direct ancestor) or Neanderthals, the two hominids that, up until March, we believed were the two dominant hominids on the planet at the time.

The latest information comes from regular DNA (not mitochondrial) and the team has identified that the Denisovans (as scholars have decided to name them) and Neanderthals come from a common lineage. Data suggests that a small percentage of the modern genes of present-day Melanesians show some commonalities to the Denisovans, leading scholars to believe that the Denisovans may have been widespread over Asia.

Further, a tooth found at Denisova in 2000 from a young adult was analyzed, and its mtDNA also reflects the Denisovan pattern. The tooth is a large molar, and it is outside the normal size range for most members of the Homo family, and closest to Australopithecus in size. It is most definitely not a Neanderthal tooth. Scholars believe the young adult was part of the same hominid population as the child.

Morphology of the Denisova molar. a, b, Occlusal (a) and mesial (b) views.
Morphology of the Denisova Molar. Image courtesy David Reich, Nature

All of the Denisovan remains are from Layer 11 at Denisova, and that's a bit of a problem. Radiocarbon dates from this layer suggest that there are at least two and perhaps more occupations in the same layer, one older than 50,000 (the upper limit of C14 dating) and one between 23,000-30,000 years ago. The phalanx and molar both appear to be from the earlier occupation.

Why didn't we know about them?

It may surprise you that there could have been a completely unrecognized species of human running around the planet as recently as 30,000 years ago that scientists were unaware of: but the truth of the matter is that there are inconsistencies which have been noted in the fossil record that simply never fit into the "neanderthal" or "early Homo sapiens" categories, inconsistencies that are potentially solvable with new genetic techniques.

So, welcome, Denisovans! (Are you really there?)

More Information

Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Bence V, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PLF et al. 2010. Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature 468:1053-1060.

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December 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm
(1) Petr Jandacek says:

All of the most recent anthropological info suggests that Multi-
regional hominid/hominin evolution trumps “Out of Africa”. Denisovan molar is Australopithecus-like. Floresiensis is a Latter Day Australopithecus. Chimpanzee-like Dryopithec apes lived in Eurasia. Georgian hominins are slightly more advanced than Flores Island “Hobbits”. The EXTANT populations of chimpanzees and bonobos still suggest (exclusive) African origins but it is uncalled for to relate us only to the African chimpanzoids of today when we parted ways long before such became extinct in Eurasia.
For more such reflections see http://www.jandacek.com

December 29, 2010 at 8:28 am
(2) Kris Hirst says:

Actually, it doesn’t, you know. When the scientists talk about “4-6% Denisovan genes in Melanesians” and “1-4% Neanderthal genes in Europeans”, the rest of those genes are African H. sapiens.

In other words, after we left Africa, we, um, mingled with the people we found, but all living humans today are Homo sapiens sapiens, originating from Africa.

December 29, 2010 at 9:15 pm
(3) rick doninger says:

Kris, it is just amazing to me that you can make such a statement like it is absolutely true and proven fact…

“In other words, after we left Africa, we, um, mingled with the people we found, but all living humans today are Homo sapiens sapiens, originating from Africa.”

Recent finds in Israel may challenge your declaration, time will tell, but I must say you speak with the confidence of someone who knows where of they speak. How can you be so sure with all the assumption and speculation involved in such a theory, it is still a theory isn’t it? Or have we all missed the evidence that proves the absolute truth in your statement?

December 30, 2010 at 4:57 pm
(4) john goldsworthy says:

If this is true and the facts are what they are, then this is just one in a series of many discoveries that not only prove, but set the standard for what we really need to be looking at. I really think geology and archeaology will merge, soon… in a definitive discipline that looks back farther then we ever did before. Considering there is fosilized foot prints found in the U.S. that place humans back much later then we ever thought possiable! this is a great find and sets the standard for our quest for the true origans of the human race! Good job on the report guys!

January 1, 2011 at 12:36 pm
(5) Petr Jandacek says:

Hi Kris, Rick & John et al, Thanks for your input. I believe that the oldest Primate fossils are Teilhardina (Tarsiroids) from North America. These are certainly too distant to call for “Out of North
America ;-) ”. Still, I focus on hilobatid-Siamangs-Gibbons getting the ball stared with Orangs & company migrating towards
Africa and spawning Dryopithecenes along the way. The “Dryos” could be the foundation stocks for Australopithecenes from Flores Is. to S. Africa. Select wild canines on most continents were domesticated. Same with Hominization of Dryopits & Australopits. All migrated into and OUT OF AFRICA. Bottlenecks in Ethiopia,Levant and other migratory routs between the 3 part
“Afroeurasia” selected disproportionately for smarts & big brains.

January 1, 2011 at 3:35 pm
(6) Kris Hirst says:

The preponderance of archaeological and paleontological and genetic data indicates that all modern humans are descended from a small population of Homo sapiens who lived in Africa (or possibly Israel-there was just a story about Qesem Cave that I’m looking into right now).

There is no credible evidence for homo sapiens evolution in the Americas.

January 2, 2011 at 12:38 pm
(7) rick doninger says:

Kris, I never suggested that there was any “evolution” of homo sapiens in the Americas. The question was how can you make such statements on our origins as absolute truth? A preponderance of evidence indicates to some. C’mon Kris, Are you saying it is no longer theory? That we now have proof or just evidence that leads “some” researchers to promote such a theory. Is it still just a theory or not?n In a civil court, a preponderance of evidence is sometimes sufficient to gain an award but since when has that criteria been enough to establish scientific “fact” to be promoted and taught as “fact”. Is it still theory or not?

January 2, 2011 at 6:29 pm
(8) Kris Hirst says:

Well, Rick, I have no concrete proof that you exist, do I? Sometimes I think you were invented by a collective alien from the Beta Lyrae system to teach me how to control my inner snark. But, since I’m clearly failing in that attempt, I can only say, Mm hmm, science is always a matter of hypotheses, and leave it at that.

January 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm
(9) rick doninger says:

Kris, Now we are finally getting somewhere and yes I do in fact exist concretely for now. Is invented the same as “created”? If so you are starting to nail down my origin and in fact I am the product of a “collective alien” so to speak. Collective in the sense that the inventor is actually a three in one entity whose Light and brightness exceeds even that of the Beta Lyrae. Controlling the inner snark can only be done successfully with the help of your “Inventor”. You are clearly the teacher on this site and you have taught me a great deal, more than you know and I thoroughly enjoy the knowledge you share so freely and I believe personnaly you were “invented” for that purpose. We all have a purpose for why we are “invented”, mine is simply to affirm to you and others that you were “invented” and that you are loved by your “Inventor.” oh! what’s your take on that point i posted, any input would be helpful?

January 2, 2011 at 9:56 pm
(10) Petr Jandacek says:

I erred with TYPO – Denisova genes are Neanderthaloid. SORRY!
Still, ARGUE OR AGREE with me. Latter Day Australopithecus survived on Flores Is. Indonesia till 13,000 years ago – perhaps later as OrangPendek. Denisovan genes survive in New Guinea. Non-Africans have a modicum of Neanderthal genes. Today we are ALL one species. WHY NOT FOR THE LAST 2,000,000 years?
Wolves,dingos & dachshunds interbreed and produce fertile progeny. So do Watusi,Pygmy,Aborigine & Eskimo. Why is it so difficult to accept the brotherhood and sisterhood of ancient hominins. Where the 3 parts of Afroeurasia come together – Levant, Ethiopia etc. chance favored the prepared larger mind/
brain. www,jandacek.com

January 20, 2011 at 7:09 pm
(11) howell clark says:

peter its not . most people do not want to think about intermingling it interrupts their sensibilities of how they think things should be. all dogs and wild dogs can interbreed as they share 96% or more of the same genes. like wise for modern man but man to chimp or great ape is 6 or more % and is a no go even if you wanted to. i used to get in a lot of trouble for suggesting that neanderthals where still amongst us. they simply got bred out of existence by a more numerous and prolific homo.

September 10, 2013 at 8:13 am
(12) Dennis Worthley says:

There has never been speciation proof for humans (Homo),that is never ever,all subjective speculation and rampant in Zoology as well. In Zoology all you need to have your name immortalized for naming a new species is a different skin color upon the rump of a lesser ape. It is all about the vanity of so-called experts and the more eminent the scholar the more dizzying the pace of canonization! Enough of species,there has only been but one in the last 2 million years,but many regional variants or races (that hush-hush word). Consider genetics,the recently deceased African-American male with Y haplogroup A00 @ 450,000 kya;or A0 @ 265,000 these living humans didn’t get the CF @ 100,000 kya clearance memo about Adam & Eve or is it three Eves (L1,L2,and L3)? And don’t get me started about the never out of Africa Y haplogroups A & B ! How about the Middle Eastern Y-DE split @ 55,000 kya with Y haplogroup D East & E West. The Back to Africa movement!

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