A team of Chinese and American scientists have uncovered more information about an elusive human ancestor known as the Denisovans. Dating back roughly 125,000 years, these ice age humans are as mysterious as they hard to unearth, with up until recently, only several bone fragments found in Siberia proving their existence.
Two partial skulls found in eastern China have been tentatively confirmed as belonging to our Denisovan ancestors, although it is still the cause of some debate amongst the scientific community as no proper confirmation has been made.
Scientists have described the Denisovans as an eastern, Asian variant of the Neanderthals as both species are closely related – the equivalent of cousins, and it is easy to see why. The two partial skulls have already yielded some information about our long-lost ancestor, with scientists able to confirm that they it had a striking resemblance to the Neanderthals, bearing similar cranial and facial properties such as prominent brow ridges, inner ear bones and a hollow bone at the back of the skull. However, that is where the similarities end, with the Denisovans proving to have a larger brain volume, thinner brow ridges and less robust skull bones, which are traits closer to modern humans than the Neanderthals.
This latest discovery joins several other fossils found in Asia over the past several years that defy easy classification and don’t fit with current evolutionary models. Some of the fossils date as far back as 600,000 years ago and have unique traits compared to the European Neanderthal. Due to the spread of these fossils and inability to match them with our own records, paleoanthropologists have been rife with speculation as to who these bones belong to and how they fit within our evolutionary history.
That being said, the scientists are sure of one thing: Tests indicated that the Denisovans lived for hundreds of thousands of years through genetic isolation prior to eventually mixing with Neanderthals and early modern humans. Although there is still a lot of research to be done in how the Denisovans looked, lived and fit in within our timeline, it is certain that the new skull fragments found in China are helping rewrite the story of human evolution.