Quirks & Quarks

Denisovan Dentition and DNA

New fossils teeth and DNA reveal more about the Denisovans who likely lived in much of Asia while the Neanderthals dominated Europe and the Middle East.

Mysterious Siberian human cousins were contemporary of Neanderthals

Denisova cave in Siberia's Altai Mountains (Bence Viola)
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The Denisovans were a mysterious group of humans who lived through at least part of the age of Neanderthals, likely 400,000 to about 50,000 years ago. They are known only by fragmentary remains from a single cave in Siberia. But ancient DNA extraction from bony remains, and new analysis of two teeth from Denisovans (also containing DNA) are giving us more insight into who these people were.

Dr. Bence Viola, from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, studied the teeth, which are larger than both human and Neanderthal teeth, and suggest the Denisovans were large and robust people. Their DNA, now identified from three individuals living 60,000 years apart, suggests long residence near the cave. It also suggests considerable genetic diversity.

Traces of Denisovan DNA are also found in modern-day Melanesian populations in Papua New Guinea and Australia, suggesting the Denisovans live on today, in the same way European and Middle Eastern derived populations carry Neanderthal DNA.

Related Links

Paper in PNAS
CBC News story
National Geographic story
- New York Times story
- Quirks feature interview with co-author Svante Paabo