Tag: Neanderthals

In A Lost Baby Tooth, Scientists Find Ancient Denisovan DNA

Denisovans

More than 100,000 years ago in a Siberian cave there lived a child with a loose tooth. One day her molar fell out, and fossilized over many millenniums, keeping it safe from the elements and the tooth fairy.

But she wasn’t just any child. Scientists say she belonged to a species of extinct cousins of Neanderthals and modern humans known today as the Denisovans.

And in a paper published last Friday in the journal Science Advances, a team of paleoanthropologists reported that she is only the fourth individual of this species ever discovered.

“We only have relatively little data from this archaic group, so having any additional individuals is something we’re very excited about,” said Viviane Slon, a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and lead author of the study.

Denisovans cave

The scant fossil record for these ancient hominins previously included only two adult molars and a finger bone. The Denisovans were only correctly identified in 2010 by a team of researchers led by Svante Paabo.

Scientists exploring Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains discovered the worn baby tooth in 1984 and labeled it ‘Denisova 2.’ At the time, its origins were a mystery.

But now, after performing DNA analysis on the deciduous, or baby tooth, researchers say it was one of the elusive Denisovans.

“We think based on the DNA sequences that ‘Denisova 2’ is at least 100,000 years, possibly 150,000 years old. Or a bit more,” said Ms. Slon. “So far it makes it the oldest Denisovan.”

Denisovans

To determine the origins of ‘Denisova 2’ the team first performed a CT scan of the tooth to preserve its structure for future studies.

After sequencing the DNA she compared genetic information from the sample with genetic data already collected from Denisovans, Neanderthals and modern humans.

“We saw it was most similar to Denisovan mitochondrial genomes,” she said. “That was exciting because that was a good indication that this was another Denisovan individual.”

Bence Viola, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Toronto and an author on the paper, said there was not too much to be learned from studying the tooth’s morphology or appearance.




The genetic analysis, on the other hand, provided the keys to learning more about the species. He said the genetic study was something the team most likely could not have done five years ago without destroying the tooth.

“For a long time we didn’t want to work on it because it’s such a small specimen,” he said.

But by drilling into the tooth and performing the genetic analysis the scientists were able to not only figure out who it belonged to, but also provide relative dates for when the Denisovan lived.

The study also suggests that the species had less genetic variability than modern humans, but more genetic diversity than seen in Neanderthal nuclear DNA.

Dr. Bernard A. Wood, a professor of human origins at the Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology at George Washington University, said the paper demonstrated the power of molecular biology as a tool for paleoanthropology.

“Talk about extracting blood from a stone,” he said, “this is extracting treasure from a tooth.”

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Neanderthals: We Were Not Alone

Neanderthal spear.

The three human subspecies known to have hybridised to produce the present human population of the planet, Neanderthals, Homo sapiens and Denisovans, last had a common ancestor more than half a million years ago.

Until now it has been assumed that the only branch of her descendants to think symbolically was us, Homo sapiens.

In fact, until the development of sequencing techniques sensitive enough to work on ancient DNA, it was thought that the other two species had died out entirely, rather than leaving portions of their genome in European and Melanesian populations respectively.

But the discovery, reported last week, of palaeolithic art at four sites in Spain that dates from the time when the peninsula was occupied only by Neanderthals, shows that they worked with symbols of stone and paint.




We have no idea what these markings mean. That is in the nature of symbolism, and indeed of language: the meaning of a sound, or a marking on the wall, is given by the community that uses it; it can’t be read by outsiders.

We already know that Neanderthals were anatomically equipped for speech; their use of painted symbols suggests that they could make audible symbols and not just visible ones.

One of the effects of the discovery reported last week has been to push one of the standard tropes of science fiction 40,000 years into our past.

That was when Homo sapiens met Homo neanderthalensis, another symbolically intelligent species, and our ancestors realised that they were not alone in the universe.

We can deduce that these encounters must have been reasonably peaceable, because Europeans and all other populations outside Africa carry some Neanderthal DNA.

Animal studies have shown that almost all of the capacities that we once considered uniquely human are shared with animals.

Some birds are capable of choosing and using wooden tools, chimpanzees use stone ones, and even sheep recognise one another as individuals.

Many creatures communicate with sounds, as well as with smells and expressions. But only humans have symbolic language, so far as we know.

Only humans form concepts and combine them as if they were physical tools before using them to shape the world. Now it seems that to be human in this sense is an older and stranger thing than anyone had earlier dared to dream.

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Neanderthals Used Fire To Create Wooden Tools For Hunting And Foraging 170,000 Years Ago

Neanderthals in southern Tuscany used fire to manufacture wooden tools used for foraging and hunting around 171,000 years ago, experts have found.

Experts used radiometric dating, which measures the decay of radioactive particles, to establish the age of a trove of wooden implements and bones they uncovered.

The finds furnish some of the earliest evidence of wood processing and fire use by Neanderthals.

The find was made by a team of researchers, including the Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities in Florence.

In 2012, excavations for building thermal baths at Poggetti Vecchi, nestled at the foot of a hill in Grosseto in southern Tuscany, turned up the collection of ancient artefacts.




This included wooden sticks and the fossilised bones of a straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. Most of the wooden implements were hewn from boxwood branches and likely used as digging sticks.

Such digging sticks have been known to be used for gathering plants and hunting small game.

The ends of the metre long (40 inch) sticks were fashioned into blunt points and had rounded handles useful for foraging.

Cut marks and striations, a series of linear marks, on the sticks bear witness to the manufacturing process.

Signs of superficial charring and microanalysis of blackened surfaces suggest the use of fire, in addition to stone tools, to scrape and shape the sticks.

Boxwood is among the hardiest and heaviest of European timbers. It choice as a preferred material suggests the technical mastery of toolmaking by early Neanderthals.

The find also provides some of the earliest evidence for the use of fire for fabricating wooden tools.

Writing in the report, its authors said: ‘Wood is a widely available and versatile material, which has admittedly played a fundamental role in all human history.

Wood, however, is most vulnerable to decomposition. Hence, its use is very rarely documented during prehistory.

The present study yields new insights into the cognitive abilities of the early Neanderthals in wooden tool production and pyrotechnology.

The early Neanderthals from the late Middle Pleistocene site of Poggetti Vecchi were able to choose the appropriate timber and to process it with fire to produce tools. 

“The artefacts recall the so-called “digging sticks,” multipurpose tools used by all hunter-gatherer societies.”

The full findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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