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Fossilized tooth proves extinct Denisovans lived in southeast Asia

Fossilized tooth proves extinct Denisovans lived in southeast Asia
An ancient tooth found in southeast Asia links extinct Denisovans to modern day humans, according to findings published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications. A close-up of the 3D printed reconstruction of a female Denisovan. File Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

May 17 (UPI) -- A fossilized tooth dug from a mountain cave in northern Laos is the first evidence to show the extinct human species, the Denisovans, lived in southeast Asia.

Scientists published their findings Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications and said the large ancient molar, found in Cobra Cave, appears to be from a young Denisovan girl who died between 164,000 and 131,000 years ago.

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"We've always assumed that Denisovans were in this part of the world, but we've never had the physical evidence," said study co-author Laura Shackelford, a paleoanthropolotist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. "This is one little piece of evidence that they were really there."

Denisovan teeth and finger bones were first discovered in Siberia and Tibet in 2010. DNA testing revealed these extinct hominids interbred with Neanderthals and modern humans, and are among the ancestors to current populations in Australia and the Pacific. But until now, scientists could not track the ancient species to the area.

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Tuesday's published discovery of a Denisovan fossilized tooth in southeast Asia provides the geographical link between these ancient hominids and people living today.

It also shows the Denisovans occupied a wide range of areas and were able to adapt to different climates. It shows that 131,000 years ago the Denisovans could survive in temperate conditions as well as frigid temperatures, making them more similar to our own species.

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University of Toronto researcher Bence Viola said the molar was in the "right place and right time" to belong to a Denisovan. "In its size, it is comparable to hominins that lived two or three million years ago... but the age of it shows that it is very recent."

Scientists were convinced five years ago there were Denisovan fossils in southeast Asia.

"The genetic data shows that these guys were spread over large parts of Asia, so we must have them," Viola said in 2017.

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