Denisovans, A Mysterious Kind Of Ancient Humans, Are Traced To Tibet
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The jawbone of a little-known form of ancient human has been discovered in China. I wonder if he's an ancestor of BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. A Buddhist monk found the jawbone. In 2010, scientists began to study it. Now they say it belongs to a human relative that lived as long as 150,000 years ago. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on what scientists make of it.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: The Denisovans are a mystery. Their only remains - a few bone fragments and teeth - were found in a cave called Denisova in Siberia. In 2010, scientists concluded from those fragments and their DNA that Denisovans were slightly different from us, slightly different from Neanderthals, too - in short, a third kind of human. What they didn't know was that 30 years earlier, a Tibetan monk had found part of a jawbone in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, home of the Himalayas. He gave it to the sixth living Buddha, a holy man there, who passed it on to scientists. They started studying it nine years ago. Now they say it's Denisovan
JEAN-JACQUES HUBLIN: The specimen is much more complete than anything else we know in the Denisova cave.
JOYCE: Jean-Jacques Hublin from the Max Planck Institute in Germany is part of a Chinese and European team that announced the discovery this week.
HUBLIN: It's the first time that Denisovans are identified far away from the Denisova cave.
JOYCE: The bone was found in a huge cave almost 11,000 feet up in the plateau.
HUBLIN: It's a big surprise because most people thought that challenging environments like the high altitudes were colonized only by modern humans like us.
JOYCE: But the fact that some Denisovans lived in Tibet makes sense. Here's why. Modern humans have some Denisovan genes. One of those genes gives people the ability to live at very high altitudes with low oxygen levels. And modern Tibetans have that gene. So apparently, some early Denisovans lived on the Tibetan Plateau. The jaw is 160,000 years old. They developed the low oxygen trait and passed it on to humans.
MATTHEW TOCHERI: It's in the modern human gene pool because of interbreeding with Denisovans.
JOYCE: Matthew Tocheri is a paleoanthropologist at Lakehead University in Canada.
TOCHERI: And now this particular jaw that's been identified as Denisovan is actually from the Tibetan Plateau. So it connects these dots.
JOYCE: Tocheri says the discovery reinforces the idea that the human lineage was like a landscape of parallel streams. And some were pretty far off the mainstream, like the 4 foot tall Homo floresiensis or the hobbit. It lived as recently as 50,000 years ago on a remote island in Indonesia and had numerous primitive ape-like characteristics.
TOCHERI: It wasn't that long ago that humans were way more diverse than they are today. And we carry on some of that diversity because we sort of have some of these genes that survive in us.
JOYCE: The research appears in the journal Nature. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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