Fragment of a finger: This replica of the Denisovan finger bone shows just how small of a sample the researchers had to extract DNA from. Image: Image courtesy of Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Tens of thousands of years ago modern humans crossed paths with the group of hominins known as the Neandertals. Researchers now think they also met another, less-known group called the Denisovans. The only trace that we have found, however, is a single finger bone and two teeth, but those fragments have been enough to cradle wisps of Denisovan DNA across thousands of years inside a Siberian cave. Now a team of scientists has been able to reconstruct their entire genome from these meager fragments. The analysis adds new twists to prevailing notions about archaic human history.
"Denisova is a big surprise," says John Hawks, a biological anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who was not involved in the new research. On its own, a simple finger bone in a cave would have been assumed to belong to a human, Neandertal or other hominin. But when researchers first sequenced a small section of DNA in 2010—a section that covered about 1.9 percent of the genome—they were able to tell that the specimen was neither. "It was the first time a new group of distinct humans was discovered" via genetic analysis rather than by anatomical description, said Svante Pääbo, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute (M.P.I.) for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, in a conference call with reporters.
Now Pääbo and his colleagues have devised a new method of genetic analysis that allowed them to reconstruct the entire Denisovan genome with nearly all of the genome sequenced approximately 30 times over akin to what we can do for modern humans. Within this genome, researchers have found clues into not only this group of mysterious hominins, but also our own evolutionary past. Denisovans appear to have been more closely related to Neandertals than to humans, but the evidence also suggests that Denisovans and humans interbred. The new analysis also suggests new ways that early humans may have spread across the globe. The findings were published online August 30 in Science.
Who were the Denisovans?
Unfortunately, the Denisovan genome doesn't provide many more clues about what this hominin looked like than a pinky bone does. The researchers will only conclude that Denisovans likely had dark skin. They also note that there are alleles "consistent" with those known to call for brown hair and brown eyes. Other than that, they cannot say.
Yet the new genetic analysis does support the hypothesis that Neandertals and Denisovans were more closely related to one another than either was to modern humans. The analysis suggests that the modern human line diverged from what would become the Denisovan line as long as 700,000 years ago—but possibly as recently as 170,000 years ago.
Denisovans also interbred with ancient modern humans, according to Pääbo and his team. Even though the sole fossil specimen was found in the mountains of Siberia, contemporary humans from Melanesia (a region in the South Pacific) seem to be the most likely to harbor Denisovan DNA. The researchers estimate that some 6 percent of contemporary Papuans' genomes come from Denisovans. Australian aborigines and those from Southeast Asian islands also have traces of Denisovan DNA. This suggests that the two groups might have crossed paths in central Asia and then the modern humans continued on to colonize the islands of Oceania.
Yet contemporary residents of mainland Asia do not seem to posses Denisovian traces in their DNA, a "very curious" fact, Hawks says. "We're looking at a very interesting population scenario"—one that does not jibe entirely with what we thought we knew about how waves modern human populations migrated into and through Asia and out to Oceania's islands. This new genetic evidence might indicate that perhaps an early wave of humans moved through Asia, mixed with Denisovans and then relocated to the islands—to be replaced in Asia by later waves of human migrants from Africa. "It's not totally obvious that that works really well with what we know about the diversity of Asians and Australians," Hawks says. But further genetic analysis and study should help to clarify these early migrations.