New Denisovan remains discovered in cave on the Tibetan plateau

Denisovans are an extinct species of ancient human that lived at the same time as Homo neanderthalis and Homo sapiens.

Only a handful of Denisovan specimens have been recovered thus far, from the Siberian Denisova Cave, the Cobra Cave in the Annamite Mountains of Laos, and the Baishiya Karst Cave on the Tibetan Plateau in China.

Zooarchaeologists have now identified the rib bone of a new Denisovan individual from the Baishiya Karst Cave.

Photograph of a piece of bone against a white background
Xiahe 2, a Denisovan rib fragment identified through palaeoproteomic methods from Baishiya Karst Cave. Credit: Dongju Zhang’s group (Lanzhou University).

The rib fragment was found in a layer dating to between 48,000 and 32,000 years ago, a time when modern humans were dispersing across the Eurasian continent.

The research team also studied more than 2,500 animal bones recovered from the cave, which is 3,280m above sea level. Their new analysis, which is published in Nature, explains the Denisovans’ ability to survive in fluctuating climatic conditions — including the ice age — on the Tibetan plateau from around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago. 

“We were able to identify that Denisovans hunted, butchered and ate a range of animal species,” says Geoff Smith, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Reading in the UK who co-authored the study.

A photograph of the mouth of a cave on the side of a mountain
Entrance to Baishiya Karst Cave. Credit: Dongju Zhang’s group (Lanzhou University).

Most of the bones were identified to have belonged to blue sheep, known as the bharal. There were also bones of wild yaks, equids, the extinct woolly rhino, the spotted hyena, small mammals, and birds.

“Our study reveals new information about the behaviour and adaptation of Denisovans both to high altitude conditions and shifting climates,” sats Smith.

“We are only just beginning to understand the behaviour of this extraordinary human species.” 

The questions of when and why they went extinct on the Tibetan Plateau remain unanswered.

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