Denisovans roamed Tibetan Plateau 160,000 years ago

Excavating a trench in Baishiya Karst Cave in 2018

Denisovans - an extinct sister group of Neandertals - were discovered in 2010, when a research team led by Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) sequenced the genome of a fossil finger bone found at Denisova Cave in Russian Federation and showed that it belonged to a hominin group that was genetically distinct from Neandertals. The cave faces the southeast, sitting about 40 meters above the modern Jiangla riverbed.

Since 2010, researchers Fahu Chen and Dongju Zhang from Lanzhou University have been studying the area of the discovery and the cave site from where the mandible originated.

Traces of Denisovan DNA have been detected throughout Asia, spanning as far as Australia and in present day Australia and Melanesia. They are also known indirectly from their genetic legacy through gene flow into several low-altitude East Asian populations and high-altitude modern Tibetans.

"Previous fossil remains of Denisovans were limited to some teeth and part of a pinkie bone", said NYU anthropologist Shara Bailey.

This suggests they may once have been widespread but evidence to prove this has never before been found.

In 2010, scientists concluded from those fragments and their DNA that Denisovans were slightly different from us - Homo sapiens - and slightly different from Neanderthals, but that they lived contemporaneously. He said numerous Xiahe locals remember the discovery made by the monk almost four decades ago, and that it would be "weird" for a monk to find a mandible somewhere else and then claim to have found it in the Baishiya Karst Cave.

Chuan-Chou Shen from the Department of Geosciences at National Taiwan University, who conducted the dating, says: "This minimum age equals that of the oldest specimens from the Denisova Cave".

The jawbone represents the most complete remains yet from the Denisovans and is also the first Denisovan specimen found outside the Siberian cave in which the hominin was found in 2010 - confirming suspicions that Denisovans were more widespread than the fossil record now suggests. The mandible is so well preserved that it allows for a virtual reconstruction of the two sides of the mandible. The 160,000-year-old jawbone was uncovered by a Buddhist monk in a Chinese cave almost 40 years ago-an aspect of this story that's as intriguing as it is frustrating. A Denisovan genome was sequenced in 2012 and compared with that of modern humans, revealing the trait. "And now this particular jaw that's been identified as Denisovan is actually from the Tibetan Plateau, so it connects these dots". And some were pretty far off the mainstream, like the 4-foot-tall Homo floresiensis, or Hobbit.

In fact, "it's a big surprise" that any human relative could live in the cold climate and thin air of the plateau at that time, more than 100,000 years before our species showed up there, he told reporters.

"It wasn't that long ago that humans were way more diverse than they were today", says Tocheri, "and we carry on some of that diversity because we. have some of these genes that survive in us".

"Clearly, modern humans have reaped the benefit of these adaptations that they acquired", Tocheri says. When scientists applied U-series to the mandible, they found that the mandible is about 160,000 years old.

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