Remains of three Denisovans and one Neanderthal are uncovered together in a Siberian cave dating back 200,000 years – raising question of whether they lived alongside one another 

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  • Fossils found in Denisova Cave in Altai Mountains, Southern Siberia
  • Researchers use ‘peptide fingerprinting’ to identify its archaic human origin
  • Denisovans were very early humans who lived in Asia at least 80,000 years ago
  • Neanderthals were another human ancestor located in Europe and Western Asia

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Experts have revealed that the remains of three Denisovans and a Neanderthal dating back 200,000 years have been found in a Siberian cave.

The newly found fossils were discovered from the famous Denisova Cave in southern Siberia’s Altai Mountains, which was surrounded by archaeological remains such as stone tools and fossilized food waste.

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Neanderthals were a close human ancestor that lived in Europe and western Asia about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Less is known about Denisovans, another population of early humans who lived in Asia at least 80,000 years ago and were distantly related to Neanderthals.

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Dating back 200,000 years, the new Denisovan bones are some of the oldest human fossils to have ever been genetically sequenced.

The fact that the remains of both Neanderthals and Denisovans were found together raises the question of whether the two archaic human types lived there.

Bone fragments taken from the cave were used for molecular analysis. Analysis revealed three pieces of bone to be Denisovan and one Neanderthal

Neanderthals and Denisovans

Neanderthals were very early (archaic) humans that lived in Europe and Western Asia about 400,000 years ago and became extinct about 40,000 years ago.

Denisovans are another population of early humans who lived in Asia and were distantly related to Neanderthals.

Little is known about the Denisovans because scientists have uncovered fewer fossils of these ancient peoples.

The exact way in which modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans are related, is still being studied.

However, research has shown that modern humans overlapped for a period with Neanderthal and Denisovan populations, and had children (interbred) with them.

As a result, many people living today have small amounts of genetic material from these distant ancestors.

Source: National Institutes of Health

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It is already known that Denisovans diverged from Neanderthals. Both also coexisted with humans about 50,000 years ago, meaning the DNA of early hominids is still alive today.

New findings elaborate Nature Ecology and Evolution by an international team, led by researchers from the Universities of Vienna and Tübingen and the Max Planck Society in Munich, Germany.

In total, five hominin bones were found in the cave, of which four contained enough DNA for mitochondrial analysis and identification – three as Denisovan and one as Neanderthal.

‘It would have been nice to find a new human bone, but five? It exceeded my wildest dreams,’ said study author Samantha Brown at the University of Tübingen.

‘Denisovans are one of our most recent ancestors, and many people today still carry a small percentage of Denisovan DNA,’ Brown said. USA Today, but he noted that there is still ‘very little information’ about this group.

The Denisovans are thought to have appeared at the site during an interglacial – a warm period during which the environment and temperature were similar to today.

They seem to have had a ‘fully developed lithic tradition’, using raw materials found in the alluvium of the nearby Anui River and feral deer, roe and red deer, gazelle and saiga antelope, and Even used to hunt woolly rhinoceros.

Around 130,000 to 150,000 years ago, Neanderthals also appeared at the site, represented by a newly discovered Neanderthal fossil.

The remains were discovered in Denisova Cave (the entrance pictured here) in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia

The remains were discovered in Denisova Cave (the entrance pictured here) in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia

Filipino ethnic group has the most Denisovan DNA, study finds

Modern-day people in the Philippines have the most Denisovan DNA in the world, a 2021 study found.

Researchers in Sweden have found that the Philippine Negrito ethnic group known as the Ayta Magbukon has the highest level of Denisovan ancestry today.

The Ayta Magbucon people who occupy the Bataan Peninsula of the Philippines have more Denisovan DNA than the Papuan highlanders, who were previously known to be the current population with the highest levels of Denisovan ancestry.

Read more: Ayta Magbukon people have the highest Denisovan DNA in the world

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Denisova Cave rose to fame 11 years ago, when genetic sequencing of a fossilized finger bone revealed a new, previously unknown human group – named ‘Denisovans’, in honor of the site.

But identifying further Denisovan remains in the cave has been challenging, as any human remains are fragmentary and are also present in the bones of hundreds of thousands of animals.

Over the course of four years, a team led by anthropologist Katerina Douka at the University of Vienna worked to extract and analyze ancient proteins and DNA from nearly 4,000 bone fragments from Denisova Cave.

The scientists used a biomolecular method called peptide fingerprinting or ‘zooms’ – which uses collagen or other proteins preserved in archaeological artifacts – to identify the species from which they derive.

Such methods are the only means by which scientists could find human remains among the thousands of bones from the site, as more than 95 percent were too fragmentary for standard identification methods.

The team focused on the oldest layers of Denisova Cave, which date back 200,000 years.

Brown analyzed 3,800 bone fragments no more than 1.5 inches in length that were previously thought to be ‘taxonomically unknown’.

However, he eventually identified five bones whose collagen matched the peptide profiles of humans.

“We were stunned to discover new human bone fragments that preserved intact biomolecules from such ancient layers,” Douka said.

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