Denisova Cave is located in the Altai Montains of Siberia, within the Bashelaksky range. The nearest current inhabited area is the village of Chorny Anui. The local ethnic group, the Altay people, refer to the cave as Bear Cave. K. Kris Hirst, former archaeologist who now writes articles for various science magazines, describes the site as follows:
"The cave, formed from Silurian sandstone, is ~28 meters above the right bank of the Anui River near its headwaters. It consists of several short galleries extending out from a central chamber, with a total cave area of some 270 sq m. The central chamber measures 9x11 meters, with a high arched ceiling." (Hirst)
Since the site was first studied by Soviet scientists, the Denisova Cave has produced evidence of 13 occupations ranging from 30,000 to 125,000 years before present. Most of these dates were provided by RTL, or radiothermoluminescence dating of the sediments within each strata (Hirst). Other sources include radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within two strata (Hirst). The ages identified so far in the Denisova Cava are middle and upper Paleolithic. Tool making cultures include Mousterian and Levallous.
One of the challenges undertaken by researchers was reconstructing the environment to reflect what the oldest inhabitants of the cave possibly interacted with. With the use of palynology, researchers have concluded that forests, particularly birch and pine, were most likely the environment conditions up until about 30,000 years ago, when the current steppe environment was formed (Hirst).
Artifacts recovered from the site are for the most part classified under the Altai Moustarian culture layers. Hirst provides a proper description of the tool manufacture processes used during in this culture.
"Stone tools in this technology exhibit use of the parallel reduction strategy for cores, large numbers of laminar blanks and tools fashioned on large blades. Radial and parallel cores, limited numbers of true blades and a diverse series of racloirs are also identified in the stone tool assemblages" (Hirst).
Artwork has also been found within these same layers. According to Hirst, decorative objects of bone, mammoth tusk, animal teeth, fossilized ostrich egg shell and mollusk shell, and two fragments of a stone bracelet made of drilled, worked and polished dark green chloritolite have been found(Hirst). Of particular note though is a unique artifact found within the Denisova Cave, a set of bone tools including small needles with drilled eyes, awls and pendants, and a collection of cylindrical bone beads (Hirst). This evidence points to Denisova as the earliest site in Siberia to show such process.
In my last post, I highlighted the recent discovery and analysis of a phalanx bone from a unkown female hominid that has now been classified as a new species of humanoid that walked alongside neanderthal and modern human hominids. There has only been a few other human remains found, a few teeth and small bone fragments. Animal remains have been quite diverse, including species long extinct, like the mammoth. Due to the consistent temperature of the cave (about 32 degrees fahrenheit), much of the remains of both human and animal has been preserved to a level in which archaic DNA is examinable.
The Denisova Cave certainly seems to still hold secrets of the past within it. The question remains though, will we find out what we can before it is too late? There could be more remains of the Denisovan hominid somewhere within the cave, but what further clues will they give us about their lifestyle? I for one hope that the world's top archaeologists will find some evidence of how this hominid interacted, if in fact it did, with the ancestors of modern humans and with neanderthals. Signs of trade or possibly conflict could be found within the cave. I also hope for a complete, or at least substantial skeleton to be found, although it seems unlikely, given how incredibly rare the remains so far collected seem to be.
Some pictures of the Denisova Cave, excavations, and objects found:
Region of Altai Mountains where Denisova Cave is located
View of the front entrance
Excavation site where Denisovan phalanx was found
Hirst, K. Kris. "Altai Mountain Paleolithic Site of Denisova Cave." About.com. The New York Times Company. n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.