Three becomes four. The extraordinarily sparse fossil record of the Denisovans – an ancient form of human – has gained one more specimen: a tiny, worn tooth belonging to a young girl.
It adds to evidence that the Denisovan population in what is now Siberia remained small for tens of thousands of years.
The Denisovans are perhaps the most mysterious of all ancient humans...The DNA from a 50,000-year-old fragment of finger bone was so different from any known Neanderthal genetic sequence that the researchers concluded it represented a separate group of humans.
Later, Denisovan DNA turned up in two teeth recovered from the cave. Now, Viviane Slon at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues have added a worn milk tooth lost by a girl aged 10 to 12 years old.
Judging by the accepted rate of mutation build-up, the girl probably lived 20,000 to 40,000 years earlier than any of the three previously known Denisovans.
Despite these differences, the DNA in the new specimen is remarkably similar to that extracted from the three younger fossils. This fits with the idea that the Denisovan population was small and had a low genetic diversity throughout its long history.
[Read the full study here (behind paywall)]
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