Who were they?
The Denisovans are an extinct species of human that appear to have lived in Siberia and even down as far as southeast Asia.
The individuals belonged to a genetically distinct group of humans that were distantly related to Neanderthals but even more distantly related to us.
Although remains of these mysterious early humans have mostly been discovered at the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia, DNA analysis has shown the ancient people were widespread across Asia.
Scientists were able to analyse DNA from a tooth and from a finger bone excavated in the Denisova cave in southern Siberia.
The discovery was described as ‘nothing short of sensational.’
In 2020, scientists reported Denisovan DNA in the Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibet.
This discovery marked the first time Denisovan DNA had been recovered from a location that is outside Denisova Cave.
How widespread were they?
Researchers are now beginning to find out just how big a part they played in our history.
DNA from these early humans has been found in the genomes of modern humans over a wide area of Asia, suggesting they once covered a vast range.
They are thought to have been a sister species of the Neanderthals, who lived in western Asia and Europe at around the same time.
The two species appear to have separated from a common ancestor around 200,000 years ago, while they split from the modern human Homo sapien lineage around 600,000 years ago.
Last year researchers even claimed they could have been the first to reach Australia.
Aboriginal people in Australia contain both Neanderthal DNA, as do most humans, and Denisovan DNA.
This latter genetic trace is present in Aboriginal people at the present day in much greater quantities than any other people around the world.
How advanced were they?
Bone and ivory beads found in the Denisova Cave were discovered in the same sediment layers as the Denisovan fossils, leading to suggestions they had sophisticated tools and jewellery.
Professor Chris Stringer, an anthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said: ‘Layer 11 in the cave contained a Denisovan girl’s fingerbone near the bottom but worked bone and ivory artefacts higher up, suggesting that the Denisovans could have made the kind of tools normally associated with modern humans.
‘However, direct dating work by the Oxford Radiocarbon Unit reported at the ESHE meeting suggests the Denisovan fossil is more than 50,000 years old, while the oldest ‘advanced’ artefacts are about 45,000 years old, a date which matches the appearance of modern humans elsewhere in Siberia.’
Did they breed with other species?
Yes. Today, around 5 per cent of the DNA of some Australasians – particularly people from Papua New Guinea – is Denisovans.
Now, researchers have found two distinct modern human genomes – one from Oceania and another from East Asia – both have distinct Denisovan ancestry.
The genomes are also completely different, suggesting there were at least two separate waves of prehistoric intermingling between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.
Researchers already knew people living today on islands in the South Pacific have Denisovan ancestry.
But what they did not expect to find was individuals from East Asia carry a uniquely different type.