This Tooth Holds New Clues About Our Prehistoric Relatives

Thanks to a single tooth, scientists are now sinking their teeth into a human family tree mystery — exactly who were the Denisovans?

Our distant cousin the Denisovan, an extinct hominid species, came to light in 2008 when a fossilized tooth and a piece of finger bone was discovered at Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia. And in 2010, another fossilized tooth was found.

Since the discoveries, the species has remained somewhat of a mystery. However, a new analysis of one of the molars, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is offering unprecedented insight into the strange species. The research shows that they may have interbred with Neanderthals, early Homo sapiens, and possibly even another group of ancient hominins that has yet to be identified.

“Together with Neanderthals, their sister group in western Asia and Europe, they are the closest relatives of all people alive today,” Svante Pääbo, geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and a co-author of the research, told The Huffington Post in an email. “So they are one of our closest relatives, but not our ancestors.”

Pääbo and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth, called Denisova 8, by using a sterile dentistry drill to take out a few milligrams of material from the fossil. They then sequenced the DNA found in the molar.

The researchers were surprised to discover that Denisova 8 dates back as far 110,000 years, making it much older than the other molar and finger fossils, which are about 50,000 years old.

“One of the three individuals we studied lived perhaps as much as 60,000 years earlier than the other two individuals,” Pääbo said. “This shows that the Denisovans were present in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia over a —> Read More