Symbolic art made by Denisovans (?)

The deep soil by a permanent spring in a vegetable allotment on the edge of the small town of Lingjing near Xuchang City in Henan Province, China has provided a wealth of stone artefacts and bone fragments to a depth of 10 m (see Denisovan(?) remains in the garden, March 2017). Optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of mineral grains shows that the last time that the deepest soils were exposed to sunlight was between 78 to 123 ka. Long before the first arrival of anatomically modern humans (AMH) in China the site had been much as it is today, a human habitation site. Among the bones were fragments of the crania from five human individuals, perhaps either Homo erectus descended from the earliest arrivals in China or more recent Denisovans closely related to the Neanderthals of western Eurasia. Reconstruction of the two most complete crania hinted at the second possibility by resemblance to Neanderthal anatomy yet the complete lack of evidence that Neanderthals travelled so far to the east.

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Top: lines etched through ochre veneer on a rib bone from Lingjing, China; bottom: hashed lines carved on a faceted block of hematite from Blombos Cave (Credit: Li et al 2019; Fig. 3 and Chris Henshilwood)

So far there have been no reports of DNA from these enigmatic fossils, but some of the bones from the deepest layers show etched, roughly parallel lines (Li, Z et al. 2019. Engraved bones from the archaic hominin site of Lingjing, Henan Province. Antiquity, v. 370, p. 886-900; DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.81). Analysis shows that they were deliberately made after the bones had been defleshed: the fragments have thin veneers of red ochre through which the deep scratches reveal white bone. They are not cut marks, but the scratches on previously reddened bone suggest some form of design. This is by no means the earliest symbolic art, for shells associated with Eugene Dubois’s ~500 ka old ‘Pithecanthropus’ (Homo) erectus remains from Trinil, Java are similarly engraved (see Art from half a million years ago. December 2014). Yet the Lingjing engravings predate the oldest know symbolic art from the Blombos Cave of South Africa that was produced by AMH who lived in about 75 ka ago. Neanderthal artistic ability has shown up at many sites (see Human evolution and migrations, March 2011; May 2016; February 2018)

An ability to express mental concepts of some kind in a durable way now seems to have characterised at least four human species over the last half-million years.

See also: Schuster, R. 2019. Prehistoric Art or Doodle? 110,000-year-old Engraved Bones Create New Mystery (Haaretz, 31 July 2019); Denisovan(?) remains in a Chinese garden (Earth-logs, March 2017)

Denisovan on top of the world

Who the Denisovans were is almost completely bound up with their DNA. Until 2019 their only tangible remains were from a single Siberian cave and amounted to a finger bone, a toe bone three molars and fragment of limb bone. Yet they provided DNA from four individuals who lived in Denis the Hermit’s cave from 30 to more than 100 thousand years ago. The analyses revealed that the Denisovans, like the Neanderthals, left their genetic mark in modern people who live outside of Africa, specifically native people of Melanesia and Australia . Remarkably, one of them revealed that a 90 ka female Denisovan was the offspring of a Denisovan father and  a Neanderthal mother whose DNA suggested that she may have come from the far-off Balkans. Living, native Tibetans, whose DNA has been analysed, share a gene (EPAS1) with Denisovans, which regulates the body’s production of haemoglobin and enables Tibetans and Nepalese Sherpas to thrive at extremely high altitudes (see The earliest humans in Tibet).

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The Baishiya Karst Cave in eastern Tibet, with Buddhist prayer flags (credit: Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University )

Part of a hominin lower jaw unearthed by a Buddhist monk in 1980 from a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, at a height of 3280 m, found its way by a circuitous route to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in 2016. It carries two very large molars comparable in size with those found at the Denisova Cave, and which peculiarly have three roots rather than the four in the jaws of non-Asian, living humans. East Asians commonly show this trait. This and other aspects of the fossil teeth resemble those of some uncategorised early hominin fossils from China. Dating of speleothem calcium carbonate with which the jaw is encrusted suggests that the fossil dates back to at least 160 thousand years ago, around the oldest date recovered from Denisova Cave; during the glacial period before the last one. So the individual was able to survive winter conditions worse than those experienced today on the Tibetan Plateau. Further excavation in the cave found numerous stone artefacts and cut-marked animal bones (Chen, F. and 18 others 2019. A late Middle Pleistocene Denisovan mandible from the Tibetan Plateau. Nature, v. 569, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1139-x).

Unfortunately the Tibetan Jaw did not yield DNA capable of being sequenced, so the issues of inheritance of the ‘high-altitude’ gene and wider relatedness of the individual could not be checked. However, one of the teeth did contain preserved protein that can be analysed in an analogous way to DNA, but with less revealing detail. The results were sufficient to demonstrate that the mandible was consistent with a hominin population closely related to the Denisovans of the Siberian cave.

No doubt a path has already been beaten to the Tibetan cave, in the hope of further hominin material. To me the resemblance of the Tibetan fossil jaw to other hominin finds in China, including those from Xuchang, summarised here, is exciting. None of them have been subject to modern biological analysis. Perhaps the ‘real Denisovan’ will emerge from them.

See also: Mysterious ancient human found on the ‘roof of the world’ (National Geographic magazine); Major discovery suggests Denisovans lived in Tibet 160,000 years ago (New Scientist); Finally, a Denisovan specimen from somewhere beyond Denisova Cave (Ars Technica)

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