By George Dvorsky
Denisova cave in southern Siberia was home to Neanderthals and Denisovans for thousands of years, but questions remain about the timing of their stay. A pair of new studies traces the history of archaic human occupation at the site, showing who lived there and when—including a possible era during which the two now-extinct species hung out together.
Two papers published today in Nature present an updated timeline for the occupation of Denisova cave by Neanderthals and Denisovans. The new research suggests the Denisovans—a sister species to the Neanderthals—made this cave their home for a longer period than Neanderthals, first venturing into the cave as far back as 287,000 years ago. Neanderthals arrived at the site around 140,000 years ago, possibly sharing the space with the Denisovans for thousands of years. It’s further evidence that Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred—and that this co-mingling happened at or near Denisova.
Archaeologists and paleontologists have carefully sifted through Denisova cave for the past 40 years, pulling out various animal and Neanderthal bones. But the real bombshell came in 2010 with the discovery of a finger bone from previously unknown human species, the so-called Denisovans. Genetic analysis suggests the Denisovans were a related species to the Neanderthals, but pretty much everything else about them remains a mystery, such as when they first appeared on the scene and when they died out.
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