New Analysis of Denisova Material

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May 19, 2013

At a conference  held earlier this month in Cold Spring Harbor NY the leader of the team exploring the ancient cave in Central Asia called Denisova (photo below) announced startling results from the team’s genetic analyses.

In addition to the small finger bone of a purported but unnamed new species of human ancestor announced in 2010, Svanti Paabo of the Max Planck Institute reported the recovery of a Neanderthal toe bone from this now famous cave.  The genetic material contained in this small bone has yielded a more complicated view of our Neanderthal cousins.

Reports of evidence found in this cave was provided on this website several times over the past three years. See: Look Ma, No Bones! 2010; Out of Africa II Refined 2011; Genome of Near Relative Analyzed 2012.

The toe bone from Denisova proved to be richer in genetic material than the three specimens from Croatia analyzed in 2010. It was this DNA from Croatia that enabled the MPI team to sequence the Neanderthal genome for the first time. The genetic analysis of the toe bone was aided by a new technique. When this technique was applied to other specimens from Denisova, some startling revelations emerged, according to Elizabeth Pennisi writing in Science this week. “The analyses paint a complex picture of mingling among ancient human groups... The data suggest inbreeding in Neanderthals, a large Denisovan population, and mixing between Denisovans and an even earlier mystery species.”

The MP I researchers also were able to analyze DNA from an infant rib bone found in a cave in the Caucasus, between the Black and Caspian Seas.  This analysis added to the complexity of the Neanderthal genome.

The higher level of focus on genetic material from the few small fragments from the Central Asian cave shows the people Paabo calls Denisovans – clearly different genetically  from Neanderthals but closely related to them and also to our own species – probably to have formed a larger population than the Neanderthals themselves, as they show a higher degree of variation in their genetic makeup.

Paabo and his fellow researchers have once again raised a number of intriguing questions and those interested in this subject are urged to read the account in Science of the Cold Spring Harbor meeting. It seems we are still in the early stages of understanding the material found in this small cave in Central Asia.