Our high-altitude ancestors
Four decades ago, a Tibetan Buddhist monk found what he thought was part of a person’s jawbone in a limestone cave some 2 miles above sea level, reports The Washington Post. Now scientists have discovered that the mandible in fact belonged to a 160,000-year-old Denisovan: a member of a mysterious extinct species of Neanderthal-like humans. Until recently, the only known remains of the species—which disappeared 50,000 years ago—came from a single site, the Denisova Cave some 1,400 miles away in Siberia. Scientists had puzzled over why the Siberian Denisovans had a gene mutation—also present in modern Sherpas and Tibetans—that would help them live in low-oxygen, high-altitude environments, when their cave was only 2,300 feet above sea level. The new discovery in Tibet suggests that Denisovans roamed widely across central and eastern Asia, including its great mountain ranges, and likely interbred with prehistoric Homo sapiens. Study co-author Frido Welker, from the University of Copenhagen, hopes to re-examine other Asian fossils that share characteristics with the 160,000-year-old Tibetan jawbone. “Maybe they, too, will one day turn out to be Denisovans,” he says.
Kemal Jufri/The New York Times/Redux, Getty, AP ■