Scientists Say: Denisovan

The Denisovans were a recently discovered population of ancient hominids

Denisovans, like the one illustrated here, are an extinct, humanlike group of people who once lived across Asia.


Denisovan (noun, “Deh-NEE-suh-ven”)

Denisovans were an ancient, humanlike population. They are now extinct. But they lived across Asia from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years ago. They are named after Denisova Cave in Siberia. That’s where the first fossil turned up that’s known to come from one of these ancient hominids. Only a few other bits of bones and teeth from Denisovans have been uncovered. They have turned up in Siberia and on the Tibetan Plateau. With such a small fossil record, scientists still don’t know very much about these extinct human cousins.

Denisovans are thought to have shared a common ancestor with humans and Neandertals. That ancestor was an African species called Homo heidelbergensis. Some members of this species may have left Africa for Eurasia around 700,000 years ago. That bunch then split into western and eastern groups. The western group evolved into Neandertals around 400,000 years ago. The eastern group gave rise to Denisovans about the same time. The group of H. heidelbergensis that stayed in Africa later evolved into humans, who then spread across the world.

Over time, humans, Denisovans and Neandertals mated with each other. As a result, some modern humans have inherited traces of Denisovan DNA. These people include Melanesians, native Australians and Papua New Guineans. Indigenous people in the Philippines show the highest levels of Denisovan ancestry. Up to one-twentieth of their DNA is Denisovan. Modern Tibetans also show signs of a Denisovan heritage. One useful Denisovan gene helps them survive the thin air at high altitudes.

In a sentence

Melanesians are the only modern people known to have DNA from two extinct human cousins — Denisovans and Neandertals.

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Maria Temming is the assistant editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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