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  • The jaw bone was the final piece in the ancient puzzle.

    The jaw bone was the final piece in the ancient puzzle. | Photo: Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI-EVA, Leipzig

Published 1 May 2019
Opinion

Scientists have traced links from the ancient hominin to present-day Asian, Australian, and Melanesian populations.

A 160,000-year-old jawbone from the ancient, and little known hominin group, the Denisovans, may unlock the mysteries of modern-day homosapians, scientists said in a study published in Nature journal Wednesday.

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Archaeology experts have spent a decade studying the world’s oldest evidence of human species discovered outside a cave on a Tibetan plateau and it has finally paid off.

Precious studies conducted on a finger bone found outside the cave in Siberia showed that traces of the human tribe can be found in modern-day Asian, Australian, and Melanesian populations. This evidence proves that Denisovans, a close relation to Neanderthals, though not directly related to present humans, interbred with modern human species.

Studies show Denisovans adapted to high altitudes with the help of the allele, EPAS1, making them resistant to hypoxia (altitude sickness). Considering that the finger bone was found only 700 meters above sea level, this uniquely strong lung capacity confused scientists.

However, the jaw bone and, more accurately, its location, were the final piece in the puzzle — it provides an explanation for the EPAS1 allele in present-day mountain communities.

“Now we have an explanation for that. The Denisovan population, or populations related to them, lived in high-altitude environments for a very long time, and later passed on this gene to modern populations,” lead author and archaeologist,  Jean-Jacques Hublin, said in Nature journal.

“One of the most spectacular aspects of this new discovery is its location on the Tibetan plateau. Nobody imagined that archaic humans lived there — we thought only of modern humans like us,” he said.

Although all usable DNA has long since decayed, the teeth told their own story, offering three new discoveries for the science and history communities: an explanation for the unique genome characteristic to the Denisovan tribe,  the high mobility of the species, and the geographic and interspecies connections they had.

In an email, paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, Chris Stringer, told Gizmodo, “Of course it is early days for this research, and we must remain slightly cautious while both the data from the fossil and from the comparative samples are sparse, but the technique shows great promise for mapping the relationships of fossil hominins where ancient DNA is not preserved.”

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