DISCOVERY OF A NEW HUMAN SPECIES
Scientists of the Siberian branch Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences have discovered a new species of ancient people who lived at the same time as Sapiens and Neanderthals. They were named Denisovans after the cave in Altai, where their remains were found.
In 2010, fellows of the Siberian branch Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IAET SB RAS) made a grand discovery – the remains of ancient people representing a previously unknown species of ancient human related to Neanderthals were found in the Denisova Cave in Altai. It was named Denisovan after the name of the cave (or Altai man) – Homo altaensis.
Excavations started in the early 1980s, when scientists realized that there were suitable natural conditions for prehistoric people to live. The oldest finds from the cave are more than 280,000 years old.
According to the scientists, this cave was an excellent refuge for ancient people. Its largest hall is almost 110 meters long and 270 square meters in area. The Denisova Cave is considered to be the oldest cave dwelling in North Asia and a real treasure trove of ancient history.
After it became clear that a huge number of archaeological finds were concentrated there, IAET SB RAS decided to set up a mobile research camp. Now it is a research center, with its own laboratory. Over 100 scientists of various fields and archaeologists work there.
The Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography is one of the largest humanitarian academic institutions in the SB RAS. It is a multidisciplinary integrated research institution which is widely known for its scientific achievements in the country and abroad and is one of the leading institutions among the world research centres studying the ancient history and culture of human civilisation. It is distinguished by a high level of theoretical, experimental, expeditionary research, the presence of productive scientific schools in the field of archaeology, ethnography and physical anthropology.
One of the key principles guiding the Institute’s research strategy is the broad integration of the sciences, the fusion of archaeological and ethnographic research with the natural and exact sciences, and the development of new methods and techniques in recreation of history, the paleoclimate and the geographical environment in which human development and culture took place.
The main scientific activity of the Institute is the study of cultural and historical processes in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern times on the territory of Eurasia.
After the discovery of the new species of ancient people, whose bone fragments have been found from time to time in the Denisova Cave by the IAET fellows over the past 10 years, specialists from the world’s leading laboratories have focused their research on this archaeological site. Over the past few years, dozens of different studies have been carried out on the materials from the Denisova Cave.
In 2008, the hand phalanx of a girl aged between 7 and 12 was found in the cave. It was also determined that the girl had dark skin and brown eyes. The remains are about 48,000 to 50,000 years old. In 2010, the complete mitochondrial genome of a fossil hominin from Denisova Cave, Altai was sequenced on the basis of mtDNA extracted from this find. The diaphyseal and metaphyseal parts of the phalanx, reflecting different ontogenetic stages, were undergoing rapid growth. The histological pattern of the walls of the diaphysis, specifically the lamellar structure with rare osteons, indicates a stage corresponding to 6–7 years in modern children. The fact that the previously unknown human species lived in Siberia before the territory was inhabited by representatives of Homo sapiens is stated in an article published in the journal Nature on 22 December 2010. The scientists made their conclusions based on the decoding of the genome, which has been preserved in only two samples of the ancient human tissues – the hand phalanx and a molar. According to the scientists, the new human species is related to Neanderthals and lived about 50,000 years ago.
After the discovery of the new species of ancient people, whose bone fragments have been found from time to time in the Denisova Cave by the IAET fellows over the past 10 years, specialists from the world’s leading laboratories have focused their research on this archaeological site.
There are both older and younger samples among the bone fragments of Denisovans, indicating that they inhabited the area for at least 250,000 years. In total, fragments of bones of four Denisovans, two Neanderthals and one hybrid girl were found in the cave. In addition, DNA analysis of the cave deposits evidences that the two populations inhabited the cave.
Analysis of the samples helped scientists of the Siberian Branch Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography RAS to detail the habitation of different species of ancient people in different periods. According to the study, Denisovans were the most ancient inhabitants of the cave. Ancient people inhabited here from the Early Middle Paleolithic (250,000 years ago) to the Early Upper Paleolithic (45,000 years ago). DNA of Homo sapiens was found in all three galleries, bone fragments of which have not yet been found in the cave. 79 of the samples found belonged to Denisovans, 47 to Neanderthals and 35 to Homo sapiens. The oldest of the extracted hominin DNA has been identified as the Denisova’s. This is the earliest genetic evidence of the Denisova Cave settlement.
Scientists have come to the conclusion that the Denisovans are also the first and main creators of stone tool complexes of the Early Middle Paleolithic, whose age exceeds 170 ± 19 thousand years ago. In one of the layers of the Initial Upper Paleolithic of the Eastern Gallery, traces of DNA of all three ancient people were found: Denisovans, Neanderthals and people of modern appearance. They may have lived in the area for some time at the same time.
According to the latest data, the age of the lowest, the most ancient part of the deposits, is more than 300 thousand years. This is of particular interest, because in these deposits, along with stone tools, a deciduous tooth of Denisova girl was also found. Other fragments of Denisovans were found in the upper layers, and they have also been dated more precisely. It turned out that in the Denisova Cave the cultural complex of the Early Upper Paleolithic with Early Upper Paleolithic industry, bone products, stone jewelry and anthropological remains of Denisovans had formed between 60 and 50 thousand years on the local Middle Paleolithic industrial basis, without any noticeable signs of external influences. Unique items stand out among the products of the Denisovans – a stone bracelet made of green translucent chloritolite, a marble ring, various adornments made of mammoth tusk and animal teeth, bone needles with a drilled eye, including the largest needle known in the world Paleolithic archaeology! Thus, according to the archaeological, anthropological and paleogenetic data available today, the cultural complex of the Early Upper Paleolithic in the Denisova Cave is associated with the activities of the Denisovans.