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January 06, 2022 4 min read

Have you heard of the Denisova Cave in Siberia? Nestled in the Bashelaksky Range of the Altai Mountains, the Denisova Cave is at the centre of significant paleoarchaeological and paleontological interest. Why? Because it appears to have been occupied by Siberian giants - or the Denisovans as we have come to know them.

Who were the Denisovans?

Around 100,000 years ago there were various groups of early humans roaming the earth, including but not limited to, Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans. According to Professor Liran Carmel, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Denisovans resembled Neanderthals but in some traits they resembled us and in others they were unique.”

Interestingly, Denisovans are thought to have lived in Siberia and eastern Asia. Evidence of Denisovans suggests that they lived at high altitudes, like in the Siberian mountains and Tibet.

It’s been suggested that they may have passed on a gene that helps modern humans cope at similar elevations. Currently, no one knows why they became extinct some 50,000 to 30,000 years ago.

What evidence do we have of Denisovans?

Back in 2010, the Denisova Cave rose to fame when Denisovan remains, including a finger bone and a tooth, were discovered. DNA testing revealed that the finger bone was that of a girl, around the age of 13, who was part Neandertal and part Denisovan - proving that interbreeding between the two groups of early-human took place.

Additionally, the tooth measured 2.5 times the size of a human tooth - leading researchers to believe that Denisovans were much larger than us and potentially even ‘giants.’

Just this year, more fossils were discovered at their former stomping ground in Siberia, and are thought to be the oldest yet of the Denisovan species.

Katerina Douka, an evolutionary anthropologist from the University of Vienna, and her colleagues found the fossils while studying the oldest layers of the cave (dated roughly 200,000 years old,) which up until now hadn’t produced any human fossils. Amazingly, five human fossil fragments were uncovered amongst the many animal fragments, including three Denisovan, one Neanderthal and one that has yet to be identified.

While the researchers could not identify the fragments through manual inspection, they were able to do so using a biomolecular method, known as peptide fingerprinting. The five human fossils were found to contain collagen consistent with the peptide profiles of humans.

denisova-appearance

Image credit: Nature.com

What did Denisovans look like and were they giants?

We still know very little about how Denisovans looked, moved and behaved. However, using complex DNA analysis of the remains uncovered, scientists have developed reconstructions of what they might have looked like.

There is evidence to suggest that the Denisovan skull was wider than modern humans and Neanderthals, and they were unlikely to have a chin. They are also thought to share many physical traits of Neanderthals, including a sloping forehead, long face and large pelvis. Other traits, like a large dental arch, are unique among humans.

Without leg bones or additional skeletal remains, it's hard to determine just how tall Denisovans were and whether they could in fact be classed as ‘giants.’ However the size of the molar found in the Denisova Cave proves they had much larger teeth than modern humans.

What else do we know about Denisovans?

Although Denisovan fossils are few and far between, further evidence has been found in the cave’s soil, which contains human mitochondrial DNA. Scientists have used a handful of samples to construct full mitochondrial sequences and compared them to known genomes of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans. From this, they have been able to form an approximate timeline of who occupied the Denisova Cave some 250,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Current evidence suggests that Denisovans were the earliest occupants of the cave 250,000 to 170,000 years ago. Researchers then believe Neanderthals emerged and shared the space with them for a while, before taking over as the main group in the cave. The timeline of this coincides with changes in the outside world, when it went from being relatively warm to the ice age.

Finally, some 45,000 years ago evidence shows overlap with modern humans. While the timeline is still up for deliberation, evidence suggests that all 3 groups may have been present in the cave and used it together at one time.

Where do we go from here?

As a new paper on ‘The earliest Denisovans and their cultural adaption’ states, the Altai Mountains appear to be ‘an overlapping zone for both Denisovan and Neanderthal groups for over 150,000 years, witnessing and possibly facilitating population [interbreeding] as well as sustaining distinct hominin populations over this long period.’ 

Scientific testing on the 3 Denisovan bones discovered this year will likely reveal more in years to come, as will the Denisova Cave in general and we look forward to finding out more about these mysterious individuals.

If you are interested in learning more about the Denisova Cave, we highly recommend checking out the links below:

The People Who Lived in Denisova Cave - SciShow

Siberian Cave Yields Oldest Fossils Belonging to Enigmatic Human Species - Gizmodo

Thomas Sharp
Thomas Sharp


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