Siberian cave unlocks new clues to the life of Denisovans and Neanderthals

Denisova Cave

Denisova Cave

The Denisova Cave in Siberia is the only place in the world known to have been occupied by both archaic and modern humans. They believe Neanderthals and Denisovans may have lived together in a cave in southern Siberia.

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.

Last year, researchers found genetic evidence of a hybrid of the two species dubbed Denisova II. However, we've only found direct evidence of their existence in a cave called Denisova. New research sheds light on how the group may have lived with other ancient human species like Neanderthals, based on radiocarbon dating from bone, tooth and charcoal fragments recovered at the site as part of the European Research Council's PalaeoChron project.

The new studies show that the cave was occupied by Denisovans from at least 200,000 years ago, with stone tools in the deepest deposits suggesting human occupation may have begun as early as 300,000 years ago.

Researchers have been excavating Denisova Cave, located in the foothills of the Altai Mountains in Siberia, for the past 40 years.

The Denisovans and the Neanderthals may not have shared the space concurrently but recent evidence suggests they did. Now, two new studies reveal a chronology for the cave's inhabitants.

Laser beam used for optical dating at the University of Wollongong, Australia.

Scientists using sophisticated techniques to determine the age of bone fragments, teeth and artifacts unearthed in a Siberian cave have provided new insight into a mysterious extinct human species that may have been more advanced than previously known.

"This new chronology for Denisova Cave provides a timeline for the wealth of data generated by our colleagues in Siberia on the archaeological and environmental history of the cave over the past three glacial-interglacial cycles", Professor Jacobs said.

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Researchers Michael Shunkov, Maxim Kozlikin and Vladimir Uliyanov convene in the south chamber of Denisova Cave.

Moreover, the new statistical model helped "incorporate all of the dating evidence available for these small and isolated fossils, which could easily have been displaced after deposition", study lead researcher Katerina Douka, an archaeological scientist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, said in the statement.

Even so, questions remain about the dated material in the cave.

Professor Higham commented that "it is an open question as to whether Denisovans or modern humans made these personal ornaments found in the cave".

Most of the evidence for Neanderthals at Denisova Cave falls within the last interglacial period around 120,000 years ago, when the climate was relatively warm, whereas Denisovans survived through much colder periods, too, before disappearing around 50,000 years ago. They also confirmed that the cave housed not only Denisovans, but also Neanderthals, who were in the cave from 193,000 to 97,000 years ago. The team couldn't procure any DNA from it, so it's unclear what species the bone belonged to. The female juvenile, who had a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother, lived in the cave 90,000 years ago. The scale bar equals 1 cm.

"The big challenge is that the human remains themselves are microscopic - the biggest one is 2cm high and they are really hard to date because they all fall either just at or beyond the reach of radiocarbon dating", Tom Higham, director of the Oxford University Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and study author told AFP. And pendants and needles made of bone were dated between 49,000 to 43,000 years ago, making them the oldest artifacts found in northern Eurasia.

But Stringer said he would put his money on early modern humans.

We know frustratingly little about the geographic distribution and demography of the Denisovans, except for the head-scratching finding that Aboriginal Australians and New Guineans are the only people alive today with substantial amounts of Denisovan DNA in their genome.

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