Two bone fragments from the Denisova Cave – the former abode of an 18th century Russian hermit called Denis – in the Altai region of Siberia yielded ancient DNA. One matches that from previously analysed Neanderthal remains and the other a genome that could only be ascribed to a hitherto unknown ancient-human population, now known as the Denisovans. Since their discovery further analysis of both modern and ancient DNA has shown that modern humans living outside of Africa contain a few percent of DNA from both ancient-human groups. Soon after leaving Africa some of their ancestors interbred with both; indeed a 40 ka-old modern-human jaw from Romania revealed genetic evidence that the individual had a Neanderthal great-great grandparent. Their descendants spread far and wide to populate Eurasia, Australasia and the Americas. Using the ancient DNA to peer back in time suggests that Neanderthals and Denisovans diverged from a common ancestor between 470 and 380 ka, itself having split from modern-human ancestry between 770 to 550 ka. Denisovan DNA also contains evidence that its ancestry included segments that could only have come from a totally unknown hominin species. Interestingly, DNA from the Neanderthal bone fragment found at Denisova contains fragments from an anatomically modern-human.
With such riches from tiny fragments of human bones unearthed from the Denisova Cave, it is no surprise that the team led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has subsequently analysed others that showed signs of human proteins. The latest ‘takes the biscuit’. A fragment of limb bone from someone who was at least 13 years old yielded DNA commensurate with their having been the child of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father (Slon, V. and 18 others 2018. The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Nature, v. 560, published on-line; doi: 10.1038/s41586-018-0455-x). Their child was a girl, who has been nicknamed ‘Denny’ by the team, though ‘Denise’ might seem more appropriate. The only clues to what her father, or any Denisovan, might have looked like stem from a few teeth and a skull fragment from the cave that have yielded Denisovan DNA. The teeth are much larger and the skull fragment is thicker than those of Neanderthals, suggesting that Denisovans were distinctly bigger and more robust than even the sturdy Neanderthals.
The father came from a population related to a later Denisovan found in the cave – the first to be sequenced. This suggests long-term occupancy of the area by Denisovans. But his genome also carries traces of Neanderthal ancestry. Surprisingly, the mother is more closely related to Croatian Neanderthals, rather than to an earlier Neanderthal found in the cave. Neanderthals were clearly capable of migrating between Europe and eastern Eurasia; more than 5000 km in this case. Even though very few archaic humans have been genetically sequenced it is beginning to look as if genetic mixing between diverse hominin groups in the last half million years was common, when they actually met. A custom of marrying outside a closely related group (exogamy) has been popular throughout recorded history; indeed it makes sound genetic sense. With the tiny human population density during the Late Pleistocene, it may then have been cause for mutual celebration. As documented in Chapters 2 and 3 of David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here (Oxford University Press, 2018) human origins since about 470 ka until the present chart a history of episodic migrations and genetic mixing that certainly makes nonsense of earlier ideas of ‘racial purity’ and casts doubt even on the term ‘species’ as regards members of the genus Homo.
If we are ever to discover who the Denisovans were and what they looked like, the evidence is likely to come from East Asia at latitudes where climate favours preservation of DNA. Advanced sequencing equipment and techniques are now operational in China, where suspected Denisovan remains have been found
See also: Warren, M. 2018. First ancient-human hybrid. Nature, v. 560, p. 417-418; doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06004-0); Sample, I. 2018. Offspring of Neanderthal and Denisovan identified for first time. The Guardian (22 August 2918).
A revised and updated edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook