This week I'll be discussing one of the more noticeable events to have occurred in Russian Archaeology, that of the possible new hominid species discovered in one of Russia's most prominent archaeological sites, Denisova Cave (of which I will be discussing about in my next post). In March of 2010, startling news came from German researchers working on the Denisova Cave archaeological site. The news: DNA from a pinkie bone found within the site in 2008, dated to about 40,000 years before recorded time, has revealed a new perspective on the way we look at our ancestry.
What makes the DNA found from this pinkie bone startling? Well, it is because it and other recent findings are now suggesting that, quoting evolutionary biologist Terence A. Brown of the University of Manchester, "40,000 years ago, the planet was more crowded than we thought" (qtd. in Maugh). What this means is that despite the common notion that there was two branches of human evolution, Neanderthal and Modern Human, there is now believed to be 4 distinct species of human-like creatures that once walked the Earth together.
This new species shared a common ancestor to both the Neanderthal and Modern Human about 1,000,000 years ago, 500,000 years older than the last ancestor both shared. This was discovered using a process of DNA sequencing done by a team led by anthropologists Johannes Krause and Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
In their publication in Nature magazine, Krause and his team mention several interesting notes about this discovery.
"We note that the stratigraphy and indirect dates indicate that this individual lived between 30,000 and 50,000 years ago. At a similar time individuals carrying Neanderthal mtDNA4 were present less than 100 km away from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains, whereas the presence of an Upper Palaeolithic industry at some sites, such as Kara-Bom and Denisova, has been taken as evidence for the appearance of anatomically modern humans in the Altai before 40,000 years ago" (Derevianko).
What the team means is that the region that this new hominid was found in was already itself divided into sites that although far apart were similar enough in dating of the artifacts and remains found that Siberia at one period of time was shared in part by three distinct branches of human evolution. This proves a notable departure from the common perception that modern humans eventually replaced other hominids early on. The team notes this as well.
"Although these dates are associated with large and unknown errors, this temporal concurrence suggests that complete and successive replacements of distinct hominin forms, similar to what occurred in Western Europe, may not have taken place in southern Siberia. Rather, representatives of three genetically distinct hominin lineages may all have been present in this region at about the same time. Thus, the presence of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia about 17,000 years ago 29,30 and of the Denisova mtDNA lineage in southern Siberia about 40,000 years ago suggest that multiple Late Pleistocene hominin lineages coexisted for long periods of time in Eurasia" (Derevianko).
Certainly now the fields and archeology and anthropology alike have been changed dramatically from this discovery.
To end this post, I would like to give my final comments about this discovery and provide links to other material related to the subject. Personally, I am thrilled to hear that there are more hominid species than what we have perceived there to be. I have always pondered about what secrets regions like Siberia hold, and now humanity has a chance to discover its past in a region that we still cannot say we know everything about. Will we find full remains of this new hominid species? Will we find some matter of artifact or ecofact that makes their lifestyle different from their neighbors? Only time and the dedicated archaeologists and anthropologists of the Denisova Cave site will tell.
For more information on this discovery, feel free to look through my sources or watch this video from the BBC, which highlights the discovery.
Derevianko, Anatoli P., et al. "The complete mitochondrial DNA genome of an unknown hominin from southern Siberia." Nature 464.7290 (2010): 894+. Academic OneFile. Web. 28 Jan. 2012.
Maugh II, Thomas H.. "A possible new link in human lineage -- all from a little finger." latimes.com. LATimes, 24 Mar. 2010. Web. 28 Jan. 2012