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Siberian cave studies reveal secrets of our mysterious lost ancestors

Jamie Seidel, January 31, 2019 5:20PM News Corp Australia Network

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There were several species of hominids that lived at the same time. Picture: from BBC series "Walking with Cavemen” media_cameraThere were several species of hominids that lived at the same time. Picture: from BBC series "Walking with Cavemen”

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A lost tribe once walked alongside Neanderthals and prehistoric humans. We know next to nothing about this mysterious species and our hopes of finding out more comes down to a single Siberian cave.

All we have is a tooth, a finger bone, some very old jewellery, a crayon and some DNA*.

New work published in the science journal Nature and involving a team of researchers at the University of Wollongong in NSW is helping us understand more about this species and how it interacted with early humans.

media_cameraA tiny piece of finger bone from a Denisovan found in the Denisova Cave in Russia.

The species is called the Denisovans. They roamed across Asia about the same time as the Neanderthals.

The Denisova cave in Russia is the only place in the world known to have been occupied by all three species: the Denisovans, Neanderthals and early modern humans.

Denisova Cave is hidden among the foothills of Siberia’s Altai Mountains in Russia. We have known for 40 years that it was a place of shelter for ancient people.

media_cameraA tooth from a Denisovan found in the cave.

The cave was in the news in 2010 when DNA recovered from a single finger bone revealed the existence of a previously unknown species of hominin. Hominin is the group of species that includes modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals.

It sparked a worldwide search for further evidence of the Denisova species and any traces of the species’ genes* in modern humans.

media_cameraA bone fragment from a 13-year-old girl with a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father found in the cave. Picture: University of Oxford/Max Planck Institute/AFP/Ian R. Cartwright

But most of what we know comes from this single cave.

In 2018, a simple tiara* made from woolly mammoth ivory was found buried in the cave. It had a hole ground into its rounded end, where a cord was used to tie it at the back of the head. It’s been dated as having been made 45,000 to 50,000 years ago. It was made to keep hair out of its wearer’s eyes.

“Here we likely deal with another, more ancient culture, because there was not a single piece of bone belonging to a Homo sapiens found in the cave”, researcher Alexander Fedorchenk told the newspaper Siberian Times.

Other objects found in the cave include about 30 pieces of mammoth ivory, fragments* of a glistening green chlorite* stone bracelet, beads made of ostrich eggs and an ancient reddish-brown hematite* ‘crayon’, probably used to draw or make marks with.

Also found was a 90,000-year-old bone fragment from a 13-year-old girl with a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father.

Scientists would like to know if the Denisovans mated directly with Homo sapiens or whether their DNA has been passed to Homo sapiens through Neanderthals. Scientists already know that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens mated.

VIDEO: Earlier research found that humans and Neanderthals lived alongside one another

We know Homo sapiens appeared in other parts of Asia about 50,000 years ago and the findings in the cave suggest Denisovans were around at the same time.

“Another open question is whether Denisovans or modern humans made the oldest bone points and personal ornaments (tooth pendants) found in the cave” said study co-author University of Oxford Professor Tom Higham. “With direct dates of between 43,000 and 49,000 years ago, they are the earliest such artefacts known from all of northern Eurasia.”

The international team of researchers that carried out the Nature study carefully sifted the dust found in the cave.

They discovered the site was occupied almost continuously for the past 300,000 years. Occupants at different times left behind different artefacts. Denisovan fossils and DNA found dates from between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.

Neanderthals are known to have been in the cave during the same time period, seeking shelter there between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago.

a, Map of southern Siberia and site location. b, Plan of cave interior showing Main Chamber, East Chamber and South Chamber; the entrance zone was not investigated in this study. Source: Nature media_cameraMap of southern Siberia and the location of the Denisova Cave. Source: Nature

The researchers dated the artefacts using both radiocarbon tests* and optical dating, which reveals the last time an object was exposed to sunlight.

University of Wollongong Professor Zenobia Jacobs contributed to the optical dating of cave sediments. Radiocarbon dating can only date objects as far back as 50,000 years and many of these were older. The optical dating can pinpoint dates up to about 350,000 years ago.

The dating of artefacts and the study of DNA helps create a timeline for how each species related to the others and whether they interbred.

“We had to invent some new methods to date the deepest and oldest deposits and construct a robust* chronology* for the sediments* in Denisova Cave,” said Associate Professor Bo Li, a geochronologist* at the University of Wollongong.

GLOSSARY

  • DNA: the genetic information in genes
  • genes: carry DNA, which decides how we look and how our body works
  • tiara: head jewellery
  • fragments: small pieces
  • chlorite: a type of rock. often green
  • hematite: a type of rock that has iron in it
  • radiocarbon tests: a way of telling the age of something that was once living
  • robust: strong, clear
  • chronology: sequence or timeline
  • sediments: small pieces settled to the bottom
  • geochronologist: scientist who studies the age of rocks and fossils

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QUICK QUIZ

  1. What is the “lost” species called?
  2. What is the group of species called that includes humans?
  3. What is the tiara made from?
  4. Have any traces of Denisovan DNA been found in humans?
  5. What is optical dating?

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CLASSROOM ACTIVITIES
1. Finding Similarities
Despite existing tens of thousands of years ago there are some similarities between this ancient culture and current human cultures. It may not be the same as all modern cultures but could be similar to some cultures. For example, Denisovans were nomadic, which is true of some modern cultures but not necessarily all.

Make a list of the similarities you can find from the information in the article.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, Science, The Humanities – History

2. Extension
Imagine you were the 13-year-old girl whose bone was found. What is ‘your’ life like? Using information in the article, from prior knowledge and reasonable assumptions write a description of what ‘your’ life is like. Include where you live, what your family is like, what you might eat and wear and other cultural practices that you might have.

Time: allow 20 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English, The Humanities – History, Critical and Creative thinking

VCOP ACTIVITY
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s. Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

HAVE YOUR SAY: What did you find most interesting about this story? What would you like to know more about?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking.

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