Deep in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia sits a very choice piece of real estate. It’s nothing so newfangled as a ski lodge or one of the traditional wood houses that dot the local countryside. Rather it’s a primeval limestone cave, called Denisova, that overlooks a rushing river and the surrounding forest. Multiple human species, or hominins, have sought shelter in this cave over the past 300,000 years, such is its allure. Artifacts, bits of bone and ancient DNA found in its chambers testify to the presence of these peoples. The site thus offers a rare window on a particularly fascinating period of human evolution, one in which other human species coexisted with our own kind.
Researchers have long wondered how these groups interacted and influenced one another culturally when they met up, and Denisova could be a key to answering this question. But figuring out which hominin species was present when at the cave and which artifacts they made has proved challenging. Now new efforts to date the remains from Denisova are at last bringing that picture into sharper focus. Two studies published in the January 31 Nature provide a time line of human occupation of the cave. The results raise intriguing questions about the origins of symbolism and certain technologies traditionally considered to be inventions of Homo sapiens alone. [Continue reading…]