Science

160,000 year-old remains of human relative found in Tibet

160,000 year-old remains of human relative found in Tibet”

"Given that Denisovan DNA is found in present-day people all over Asia, it was nearly a matter of time until someone would find a Denisovan at some other place than Denisova Cave", Svante Pääbo, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who led the team that first discovered the Denisovan species, writes in an email to The Scientist.

Contemporaries of the Neanderthals - and like them, possibly wiped out by anatomically modern man, Homo sapiens - the Denisovans first came to light a decade ago.

To quickly recap this breaking news, a partial jaw bone found in Baishiya Karst Cave on the Tibetan Plateau in Xiahe, China, has been identified as belonging to the mysterious Denisovan hominins, a sister species to the Neanderthals that went extinct about 50,000 years ago. In 2016, they initiated a collaboration with the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA and have since been jointly analyzing the fossil.

Scientists found that this mandible is preserved well and has a robust primitive shape with large molars still attached to it.

The age and features of the fossil are also similar to those of the oldest known Denisovan fossils from Denisova Cave, which suggests that the populations were closely related. Thankfully, as Hublin explained to Gizmodo, a layer of carbonite crust on the mandible allowed his team to date the fossil, which means they might be able to link it with a particular stratigraphic layer.

The Xiahe mandible, only represented by its right half, was found in 1980 in Baishiya Karst Cave.

Scientists believe that the specimen found at an altitude of 3,280 meters (10,761 feet) is around 160,000 years old.

"This minimum age makes the Xiahe mandible comparable in age to Denisova 2, chronologically the oldest Denisovan fossil that is now known from Denisova Cave", said co-author Dr. Chuan-Chou Shen, a scientist in the Department of Geosciences at National Taiwan University. "It is at least 120,000 years older than the oldest known Paleolithic sites in the region", said first author Dr. Fahu Chen, Director of the Institute of Tibetan Research.

The researchers were unable to extract DNA from the fossil, but extracted proteins from one of the molars to determine its Denisovan identity. "Previous genetic studies found present-day Himalayan populations to carry the EPAS1 allele in their genome, passed on to them by Denisovans, which helps them to adapt to their specific environment".

"Archaic hominins occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and successfully adapted to high-altitude low-oxygen environments long before the regional arrival of modern Homo sapiens", says Dongju Zhang.

The discovery shows that Denisovans lived in East Asia and adapted to the conditions there."Our analyses pave the way towards a better understanding of the evolutionary history of hominins in East Asia", study author Jean-Jacques Hublin said.



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