Excavations in the Denisova cave, in the Altai massif, they started 40 years ago. In the material layers of the Middle Palaeolithic (around 340,000 to 45,000 years ago) and from Early Upper Palaeolithic Many of the keys to the life of some of the hominids that are in the branch of the evolutionary tree of our species, Homo sapiens, have been found.
This site is unique in the world because was occupied by two archaic human groups repeatedly: Neanderthals and Denisovans.
A group of scientists now contributes more accurate data on these hominids with new dates, in which the earliest evidence of its existence in southern Siberia is identified.
«This is the first time that we can confidently assign an age to all archaeological sequences in the cave and its contents.«Says Tom Higham of the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at the University of Oxford (UK).
He is part of the multidisciplinary team made up of researchers from Russia, Australia, Canada and Germany that has worked for five years to date the archaeological site of Denisova Cave.
Results appear in two new studies published in the journal Nature. Both provide a timeline in which Neanderthals and their enigmatic cousins, Denisovans, were present at the site, as well as the environmental conditions they faced before becoming extinct.
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According to their results, the cave was occupied at least 200,000 years ago by Denisovans, with stone tools in the deeper deposits suggesting that human occupation may have started 300,000 years ago.
Neanderthals visited the site between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago, as Denny, the girl of mixed descent, revealed that the two groups of hominids met and interbred in that time period.
Most of the evidence of neanderthals in the Denisova cave is located within the last interglacial period, about 120,000 years ago, when the weather was relatively warm, while Denisovans survived much colder periods, before disappearing about 50,000 years ago.
Modern humans were present in other parts of Asia at that timeBut the question whether or not there was an encounter between them and the Denisovans remains open to speculation, in the absence of any fossil or genetic trace of modern humans at the site.
The genetic history of Neanderthals and Denisovans
In 2010, this cave aroused interest when the genome obtained from the finger bone of a girl was published. belonged to a group of unidentified human beings previously in the paleoanthropological record: Denisovans.
Later, other investigations continued to provide data on the Genetic history of Denisova and Altai Neanderthals, based on the analysis of the scarce and fragmented remains of hominids that were found in the cave.
Last year, from a bone fragment discovered by researchers at the Universities of Oxford and Manchester, the genome of the daughter of the crossing of Neanderthals and Denisovans was analyzed. Was the first direct evidence of mating between the two groups of archaic hominids.
However, the dating of the hominin fossils recovered from the cave was unclear, as were the dates for the DNA, artifacts, and animal and plant remains recovered from the sediments.
The excavations led by Anatoly Derevianko Y Michael Shunkov from the Institute of Archeology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk, revealed the longest archaeological sequence in Siberia.
In these new investigations, which are part of the PalaeoChron projectFifty radiocarbon dates have been obtained from fragments of bone, teeth and carbon recovered from the upper layers of the deposit.
In addition, researchers at the University of Wollongong in Australia obtained more than 100 luminescence optical ages for the cave sediments, most of which were too old to use the radiocarbon technique.
Another Australian team also obtained the minimum age for the mixed Neanderthal and Denisovan bone fragment using uranium series dating.
Did Denisovans and Modern Humans Coexist?
To determine the most likely ages of archaic hominin fossils, the Oxford team developed a novel Bayesian model that combined several of these dates with information on the stratigraphy of the deposits and the genetic ages of the Denisovan and Neanderthal fossils.
The last one was based on the number of substitutions in mitochondrial DNA sequences, which were analyzed by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany.
The age estimates "incorporate all available dating evidence for these small, isolated fossils, which can sometimes be displaced after deposition in a cave sequence," he explains. Katerina douka from the Max Planck Institute.
«This new chronology of Denisova cave provides a timeline for the large amount of data generated by our Russian colleagues on the archaeological and environmental history of the cave during the last three glacial-interglacial cycles, ”said lead author of the optical dating study, Professor Zenobia Jacobs from the University of Wollongong in Australia.
The scientists also identified the earliest evidence yet of modern humans in northern Eurasia, when bone tips and pendants made of animal teeth appear that generally indicate the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. The remains date from between 43,000 and 49,000 years ago.
Richard ‘Bert’ Roberts, co-author of both articles, notes: “As the new work brings to light some of the Denisova cave mysteries, there are other interesting questions to answer ”.
Higham also states that it is an open question “whether Denisovans or modern humans made these personal ornaments found in the cave. We hope that, in due course, the application of sediment DNA analysis will allow us to identify the creators of these elements, which are often associated with symbolic and more complex behavior in the archaeological record.
Katerina Douka et al. "Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave" Nature, January 30, 2019.
"Timing of archaic hominin occupation of Denisova Cave in southern Siberia" Nature, January 30, 2019.
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