Science

Archaeology breakthrough: 130,000-year-old tooth unlocks early human species mystery


Researchers found this ancient child’s tooth in a cave in Laos, offering proof that Denisovans, which was extinct species of early humans, lived in the warm tropical regions of southeast Asia. Very little is currently known about the Denisovans- which were a cousin species to Neanderthals– including what they looked like. Archaeologists first discovered this species in a Siberian cave in 2010 after they found a finger bone of a girl belonging to a previously unidentified group of humans.

Analysing the finger bone and a molar found in the cave, the researchers extracted an entire genome of the group.

Much later, in 2019, a jawbone in the Tibetan plateau proved that the species existed in China around the same time as well.

The Denisovans left little to no trace of their existence before they went extinct, aside from these rare fossils.

However, the group has left some trace of DNA evidence in modern humans after interbreeding with Homo sapiens.

Today, traces of Denisovan DNA can be found in populations of southeast Asia and Oceania.

In aboriginal Australians and people in Papua New Guinea, up to five percent of their DNA could be traced back to the ancient species.

Clement Zanolli, a paleoanthropologist and co-author of the study published Tuesday in Nature Communications noted that “these populations’ modern ancestors were ‘mixed’ with Denisovans in Southeast Asia”.

A researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, he told AFP that until this latest discovery, scientists had no “physical proof” of their presence in this part of Asia.

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Scientists discovered this child’s tooth while searching in the Cobra Cave in northeast Laos, which was near another area where the remains of ancient humans had already been found.

Mr Zanolli explained that the tooth immediately appeared to have a “typically human” shape.

According to the study, based on ancient proteins, the tooth belonged to a child, likely female, aged between 3.5 and 8.5 years old.

Paleoanthropologist and study co-author Fabrice Demeter noted that the tooth is far too old to go through the carbon-dating process, while heat and humidity of the area meant that the DNA had been badly preserved.

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