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11.7: Denisovans

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    • Amanda Wolcott Paske & AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros

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    Small fossilized finger bone sitting atop a chalk outline of hand bones.
    Figure 11.14: Reproduction of Denisovan finger bone. Credit: Denisova Phalanx distalis (image from Museum of Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium) by Thilo Parg is under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

    While Neanderthals represent one regionally adapted branch of the Archaic Homo sapiens family tree, recent discoveries in Siberia and the Tibetan Plateau surprised paleoanthropologists by revealing yet another population that was contemporary with Archaic Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and modern Homo sapiens. The genetic analysis of a child’s finger bone (Figure 11.14) and an adult upper third molar (Figure 11.15) from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia by a team including Svante Pääbo discovered that the mitochondrial and nuclear DNA sequences reflected distinct genetic differences from all known Archaic populations. Dubbed “Denisovans” after the cave in which the bones were found, this population is more closely related to Neanderthals than modern humans, suggesting the two groups shared an ancestor who split from modern humans first, then the Neanderthal-Denisovan line diverged more recently (Reich et al. 2010).

    Molar tooth with wear, large surface area, and large roots.
    Figure 11.15: Reproduction of Denisovan molar. Credit: Denisova Molar by Thilo Parg is under a CC BY-SA 3.0 License.

    Denisovans share up to 5% of their DNA with modern Melanesians, aboriginal Australians, and Polynesians, and 0.2% of their DNA with other modern Asian populations and Native Americans. Additional studies have suggested one (Vernot et al. 2018) or two (Browning et al. 2018) separate points of time when interbreeding occurred between modern humans and Denisovans.

    Genetic analysis reveals that Denisovans (potentially three distinct populations) had adaptations for life at high altitudes that prevented them from developing altitude sickness and hypoxia in extreme environments such as Tibet, where the average annual temperature is close to 0℃ and the altitude is more than a kilometer (about 4,000 feet) above sea level. Through protein analysis of a jawbone, one study (Chen et al. 2019) has placed Denisovans in Tibet as early as 160,000 years ago. Genetic evidence of interbreeding has linked modern Tibetan populations with Denisovans 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, which implies that the unique high-altitude adaptations seen in modern Tibetans may have originated with Denisovans (Huerta-Sanchez et al. 2014).

    Other research suggests tantalizing new directions regarding Denisovans. Stone tools similar to those found in Siberia have been uncovered in the Tibetan plateau suggesting a connection between the Denisovan populations in those two areas (Zhang et al. 2018). The molar of a young girl, possibly Denisovan, has been found in Laos and shows strong similarities to specimens from China (Demeter et al. 2022). And DNA sequencing from discoveries in the Denisova Cave have yielded a genome that has been interpreted as the first-generation offspring of a Denisovan father and Neanderthal mother (Slon et al. 2018). While this research is not yet conclusive and is still being interpreted, exciting new possibilities are being revealed. To stay up-to-date with new discoveries, consider following organizations such as the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program on social media.

    How Do These Fit In? Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis

    Recently, some fossils have been unearthed that have challenged our understanding of the hominin lineage. The fossils of Homo naledi and Homo floresiensis are significant for several reasons but are mostly known for how they don’t fit the previously held patterns of hominin evolution. While we examine information about these species, we ask you to consider the evidence presented in this chapter and others to draw your own conclusions regarding the significance and placement of these two unusual fossil species in the hominin lineage.

    Homo naledi

    A nearly complete skeleton surrounded by off-white bone fragments on a black table.
    Figure 11.16: A sample of some of the 1,550 bones found representing Homo naledi. Credit: Dinaledi skeletal specimens (Figure 1) by Berger et al. 2015 is under a CC BY 4.0 License.

    In 2013 recreational spelunkers uncovered a collection of bones deep in a cave network in Johannesburg, South Africa. The cave system, known as Rising Star, had been well documented by other cavers; however, it appears few people had ever gone as far into the cave as these spelunkers did. Lee Berger, paleoanthropologist at University of Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, immediately put out a call for what he termed “underground astronauts” to begin recovery and excavation of the fossil materials. Unlike other excavations, Berger and most other paleoanthropologists would not be able to access the elusive site, as it was incredibly difficult to reach, and at some points there was only eight inches of space through which to navigate. The underground astronauts, all petite, slender female anthropologists, were the only ones who were able to access this remarkable site. Armed with small excavation tools and a video camera, which streamed the footage up to the rest of the team at the surface, the team worked together and uncovered a total of 1,550 bones, representing at least 15 individuals, as seen in Figure 11.16. Later, an additional 131 bones, including an almost-complete cranium, were found in a nearby chamber of the cave, representing three more individuals (Figure 11.17). Berger called in a team of specialists to participate in what was dubbed “Paleoanthropology Summer Camp.” Each researcher specialized in a different portion of the hominin skeleton. With various specialists working simultaneously, more rapid analysis was possible of Homo naledi than most fossil discoveries.

    Photograph of four different views of the LES1 Homo naledi skull set against a black background.
    Figure 11.17: Several angles of the nearly complete LES1 Homo naledi skull. Credit: LES1 Cranium (Figure 5) by Hawks et al. 2017 is under a CC BY 4.0 License.

    While access to the site, approximately 80 m from any known cave entrance or opening, was treacherous for researchers, it must have been difficult for Homo naledi as well. The route included moving through a portion that is just 25 cm wide at some points, known as “Superman’s Crawl.” The only way to get through this section is by crawling on your stomach with one arm by your side and the other raised above your head. Past Superman’s Crawl, a jagged wall known as the Dragon’s Back would have been very difficult to traverse. Below that, a narrow vertical chute would have eventually led down to the area where the fossils were discovered. While geology changes over time and the cave system likely has undergone its fair share, it is not likely that these features arose after Homo naledi lived (Dirks et al. 2017). This has made scientists curious as to how the bones ended up in the bottom of the cave system in the first place. It has been suggested that Homo naledi deposited the bones there, one way or another. If Homo naledi did deposit the bones, either through random disposal or intentional burial, this raises questions regarding their symbolic behavior and other cultural traits, including the use of fire, to access a very dark cave system. Another competing idea is that a few individuals may have entered the cave system to escape a predator and then got stuck. To account for the sheer number of fossils, this would have had to happen multiple times.

    The features of Homo naledi are well-documented due to the fairly large sample, which represents individuals of all sexes and a wide range of ages. The skull shape and features are very much like other members of the genus Homo—including a sagittal keel and large brow, like Homo erectus, and a well-developed frontal lobe, similar to modern humans—yet the brain size is significantly smaller than its counterparts, at approximately 500 cc (560 cc for males and 465 cc for females). The teeth also exhibit features of later members of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals, including a reduction in overall tooth size. Homo naledi also had unique shoulder anatomy and curved fingers, indicating similarities to tree-dwelling primates, which is very different from any other hominin yet found. Perhaps the greatest shock of all is that Homo naledi has been dated to 335,000 to 236,000 years ago, placing it as a contemporary to modern Homo sapiens, despite its very primitive features. An additional specimen of a child, found in 2021, not only shares many of the unique features found in the adult specimen but will also add insight into the growth and development of individuals of this species (Brophy et al. 2021).

    Homo floresiensis

    In a small cave called Liang Bua, on the island of Flores, in Indonesia, a small collection of fossils were discovered beginning in 2003 (Figure 11.18). The fossil fragments represent as many as nine individuals, including a nearly complete female skeleton. The features of the skull are very similar to that of Homo erectus, including the presence of a sagittal keel, an arching brow ridges and nuchal torus, and the lack of a chin (Figure 11.19). Homo floresiensis, as the new species is called, had a brain size that was remarkably small at 400 cc, and recent genetic studies suggest a common ancestor with modern humans that predates Homo erectus.

    View from inside a large cave with people standing near a dug-out square of dirt.
    Figure 11.18: Liang Bua Cave on the island of Flores, in Indonesia, where a collection of Homo floresiensis specimens were discovered. Credit: Homo floresiensis cave by Rosino is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 License.
    Photograph of a gray and off-white cast Homo floresiensis skull.
    Figure 11.19: Homo floresiensis had a brain that was remarkably small at 400 cc. Recent genetic studies suggest a common ancestor with modern humans that predates Homo erectus. Credit: Homo floresiensis Skull (Flores Skull LB1) by ©BoneClones is used by permission and available here under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    The complete female skeleton, who was an adult, was approximately a meter tall and would have weighed just under 30 kg, which is significantly shorter and just a few kilograms more than the average, modern, young elementary-aged child. A reconstructed comparison between an anatomically modern human and Homo floresiensis can be seen in Figure 11.20. The small size of the fossil has earned the species the nickname “the Hobbit.” Many questions have been asked about the stature of this species, as all of the specimens found also show evidence of diminutive stature and small brain size. Some explanations include pathology; however, this seems unlikely as all fossils found thus far demonstrate the same pattern. Another possible explanation lies in a biological phenomena seen in other animal species also found on the island, which date to a similar time period. This phenomenon, called insular dwarfing, is due to limited food resources on an island, which can create a selective pressure for large-bodied species to be selected for smaller size, as an island would not have been able to support their larger-bodied cousins for a long period of time. This phenomenon is the cause of other unique species known to have lived on the island at the same time, including the miniature stegodon, a dwarf elephant species.

    Black-and-white drawing of a large nude woman and a much smaller man.
    Figure 11.20: A reconstructed comparison between an anatomically modern human and Homo floresiensis. As an adult, Homo floresiensis was approximately 1 meter tall and would have weighed under 30 kg. Credit: Anatomically modern human and Homo floresiensis (Figure 11.19) original to Explorations: An Open Invitation to Biological Anthropology by Mary Nelson is under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

    There is ongoing research and debate regarding Homo floresiensis’ dates of existence, with some researchers concluding that they lived on Flores until perhaps as recently as 17,000 years ago, although they are more often dated to 100,000 to 60,000 years ago. Stone tools from that time period uncovered at the site are similar to other hominin stone tools found on the island of Flores. Homo floresiensis would have hunted a wide range of animals, including the miniature stegodon, giant rats, and other large rodents. Other animals on the island that could have threatened them include the giant komodo dragon. An interesting note about this island chain is that ancestors of Homo floresiensis would have had to traverse the open ocean in order to get there, as the nearest island is almost 10 km away, and there is little evidence to support that a land bridge connecting mainland Asia or Australia to the island would have been present. This separation from the mainland would also have limited the number of other animals, including predators and human species, that would have had access to the island. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens arrived on the island around 30,000 years ago and, if some researchers’ later dates for Homo floresiensis are correct, both species may have lived on Flores at the same time. The modern population living on the island of Flores today believes that their ancestors came from the Liang Bua cave; however, recent genetic studies have determined they are not related to Homo floresiensis (Tucci et al. 2018).

    This page titled 11.7: Denisovans is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Wolcott Paske & AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros (Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.