Study focuses on lifestyle of mysterious extinct humans

Study focuses on lifestyle of mysterious extinct humans

An undated artist's impression of members of the extinct archaic human species called Denisovans in the landscape of the Ganjia Basin on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in Gansu Province, China, depicting some of the animals whose bones were found in the Baishiya Karst Cave.

An unidentified artist's impression of members of an extinct ancient human species called Denisovans in the landscape of the Ganjia Basin on the northeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in Gansu province, China, showing some of the animal bones found in the Baixia Karst Cave. | Photo: Reuters

Thousands of bone fragments found in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau in China have provided rare insight into the lives of Denisovans, mysterious extinct cousins โ€‹โ€‹of Neanderthals and our own species. They suggest they hunted a variety of animals in this high-altitude habitat, from sheep to woolly rhinoceros.

The researchers studied more than 2,500 bones found inside the Baishiya Karst Cave, which is located 10,760 feet (3,280 meters) above sea level and where Denisovan fossil remains were previously found.

They used ancient protein analysis on these remains to uncover that Denisovans exploited a variety of animals for their meat and skins, and also excavated a rib bone from a Denisovan individual dated to 48,000โ€“32,000 years old โ€“ the youngest Denisovan fossil known to date.

Most of the bones were identified as belonging to blue sheep, also known as bharal, a goat species that is still found on the high slopes and cliffs of the Himalayas. Other bone remains belong to woolly rhinoceros, yak, small mammals like marmot, birds and even spotted hyena, a large carnivorous animal that roamed the area known as Ganjaia Basin.

It was a grassland with small forests, which teemed with life despite the harsh conditions. Animals were butchered for meat, based on cut marks found on various bones, and there was evidence of bone marrow extraction and skinning activities. The researchers also found four tools made from animal bones, which were used to process animal carcasses.

“This is the first time we have an understanding of the subsistence behaviour of Denisovans, and it shows us that they were highly capable of accessing and using a wide range of animal resources,” said molecular anthropologist Frido Welker of the University of Copenhagen, one of the leaders of the research published Wednesday in the journal Biology. Nature,

“I believe the diverse faunal remains found in Baishiya Karst Cave indicate that this place provided relatively better resources than the neighboring High Tibetan Plateau to the west and the Chinese Loess Plateau to the north, especially during the Ice Age,” said archaeologist Dongju Zhang of Lanzhou University in China, one of the other leaders of the study.

The existence of Denisovans was unknown until researchers announced the discovery of their remains in Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2010, with genetic evidence showing they were a sister group to Neanderthals, extinct archaic humans with robust stature who lived in parts of Eurasia. Both experienced significant contact with Homo sapiens, including interbreeding, but disappeared shortly after for reasons not fully understood.

“We know from genetics that they split off from Neanderthals about 400,000 years ago,” Welker said.

Denisovans are known only from dental remains and bone fragments from the Baishiya Karst and Denisova Caves, and Cobra Cave in Laos, though their existence at those three far-flung locations suggests a wide geographic dispersal.

Their presence at high latitudes in Siberia, high altitudes on the Tibetan Plateau and a subtropical location in Laos “indicates that Denisovans had a high flexibility to adapt to different environments,” Zhang said.

The lower jaw of a Denisovan juvenile previously found in the Baishiya Karst is 160,000 years old. Researchers suspect that Denisovans were already present there as early as 200,000 years ago. Recently identified rib fragments suggest that Denisovans were also present as early as 48,000-32,000 years ago.

“We don't know if the ribs belong to an adult or a child, nor do we know what gender it is. This is the first time a rib has been identified as Denisovan. All the remains that have been found before this are either dental or skull or lower jaw,” Welker said.

Our species, Homo sapiens, was not discovered on the Tibetan Plateau until about 40,000 years ago, having first appeared in Africa a little over 300,000 years ago.

So what happened to the Denisovans?

“That's a great question. We know very little,” Welker said. “We know that Denisovans mated with modern humans. We know this based on Denisovan DNA that is present in the genomes of some modern humans living today. But we know next to nothing about when, where and why the Denisovans ultimately went extinct.”

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