The Denisovans have a new address. For the first time ever, bones belonging to the extinct group of hominins, who were related to Neanderthals, have been found outside of their only known home in Siberia, the Denisova Cave. These new fossils were discovered in Tibet.
“I’m very excited—we have a Denisovan that’s somewhere else than Denisova,” Bence Viola, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the new study, told the New York Times. “We’d known about Denisovans for 10 years and hadn’t found them anywhere else.”
The discovery in Tibet makes sense, but also raises several new questions. Beyond their legacy in the Siberian cave, the Denisovans carried genetic markers that can still be seen today in Tibet. Both Tibetan people and Denisovans carry the ability to easily move through higher elevations thanks to a gene called EPAS1.
How the DNA made its way to Tibet is anyone’s guess. “We don’t know the order of events,” Emilia Huerta-Sanchez, a population geneticist at Brown University who was not involved in the study, told the Times. “But Denisovans are such a mysterious group that anything we learn is exciting.”
The fossil, a mandible for chewing, was first discovered in 1980 by a monk. The monk then gave the bone to his teacher, the Sixth Gung-Thang Living Buddha. The teacher recognized the bone’s importance and then donated it to Lanzhou University in northwestern China. Scientists have been studying the mandible (and the area where it was discovered) since 2010.
The bone’s well-preserved primitive shape and particularly large molars indicated to scientists that it was related to Neanderthals, but decidedly different. Dating showed it to be at least 160,000 years old, which gives it a “minimum age that equals that of the oldest specimens from the Denisova Cave,” according to Chuan-Chou Shen from the Department of Geosciences at National Taiwan University, who conducted the dating.
Scientists assume the Denisovans were large, with adult males weighing over 200 pounds. “These are like football players,” Viola said.
Earlier this year, an AI run by a group of European biologists predicted that at some point in the future, a Neanderthal-Denisovan offspring would be found. While there’s no telling what, if anything, else will be discovered about Denisovans in Tibet, having a more geographically diverse population does increase the odds.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics