Cave discovery in Laos could unlock more about human evolution's biggest mystery

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A tooth unearthed from a remote cave in Laos is helping to sketch an unknown chapter in the human story.

Researchers believe the tooth belonged to a young female who lived at least 130,000 years ago and was likely a Denisovanan enigmatic group of early humans first identified in 2010.
The lower molar is the first fossil evidence placing Denisovans in Southeast Asia and may help untangle a puzzle that had long vexed experts in human evolution.
    The only definitive Denisovan fossils have been found in North Asiain the eponymous Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains in Russia. Genetic evidence, 然而, has tied the archaic humans most closely to places much further south — 在 what’s now the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia.
      This demonstrates that the Denisovans were likely present also in southern Asia. And it supports the results of geneticists who say that modern humans and the Denisovans might have met in Southeast Asia,” said study author Clément Zanolli, a researcher in paleoanthropology at CNRS, 的 French National Center for Scientific Research and the University of Bordeaux.
        Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 160 英里 (260 公里) north of Laos’ 首都, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018. 研究, which published in the journal Nature Communications 星期二, estimated the molar was between 131,000 和 164,000 岁, based on analysis of cave sediment, the dating of three animal bones found in the same layer, and the age of rock overlying the fossil.
        The tooth was unearthered from a cave in Laos and belonged to a woman who lived at least 131,000 year ago.

        Teeth are like the black box of an individual. They preserve a lot of information on their life and biology. They have been always used by paleoanthropologists, 你懂, to describe species or to distinguish between species. So for us paleoanthropologists (牙齿) are very useful fossils,” Zanolli said.

          Comparison with archaic human teeth

          The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilized teeth belonging to archaic humans and found it didn’t resemble teeth belonging to Homo sapiens or Homo erectusan archaic human that was the first to walk with an upright gait whose remains have been found across Asia. The cave find most closely resembled a tooth found in a Denisovan jawbone found on the Tibetan plateau in Xiahe county, 甘肃省, 中国. The authors said it was possible, though less likely, it could belong to a Neanderthal.
          Think about about it (the tooth) as if you are traveling into (一个) valley between mountains. And the organization of these mountains and valleys is very typical of a species,” Zanolli explained.
          Analysis of some protein in enamel from the tooth suggested that it belonged to a female.
          Denisovan DNA lives on in some humans today because, once our Homo sapiens ancestors encountered the Denisovans, they had sex with them and gave birth to babiessomething geneticists call admixture. This means we can look back into human history by analyzing current-day genetic data.
          的 “admixinghappened was thought to have happened more than 50,000 几年前, as modern humans moved out of Africa and likely crossed paths with both Neanderthals and Denisovans. But pinning down exactly where it happened has proven difficultparticularly in the case of Denisovans.

          Definitively Denisovan?

          Any addition to the meager hominin fossil record of Asia is exciting news, said Katerina Douka, an assistant professor of archaeological science at the department of evolutionary anthropology at the University of Vienna. She wasn’t involved in the research.
          She said she would have liked to seemore and extensive evidencethat the tooth was definitively Denisovan.
          There is a chain of assumptions the authors accept in order to confirm that this is a Denisovan fossil,” 她说.
          The reality is that we cannot know whether this single and badly preserved molar belonged indeed to a Denisovan, a hybrid or even an unknown hominin group. It might well be a Denisovan, and I would love it to be a Denisovan, because how cool would that be? But more confident evidence is needed,” 她说.
          In deeming the Laos tooth Denisovan, the researchers in this study relied heavily on a comparison with the Xiahe jawbone, Douka said. 然而, the jawbone, while thought by many to be Denisovan, was not an open-and-shut case. No DNA had been retrieved from the fossilized jawbone, 只要 “thinprotein evidence, 她补充说.
          Anyone working on this hominin group, where many major questions still remain, wants to add new dots on the map. The difficulty is in reliably identifying any fossils as that of a Denisovan,” 她说. “This lack of robust biomolecular data, 然而, reduces significantly the impact of this new find and it is a reminder of how difficult it is to work in the tropics.
            The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, 哪一个, 如果可能的话, would provide a more definitive answer but the warm climate means that could be a long shot. The research team also plans to continue excavating the site after a pandemic-induced hiatus in the hope of more discoveries of ancient humans that lived in area.
            In this kind of environment, DNA doesn’t preserve well at all but we’ll do our best,” said study coauthor Fabrice Demeter, an assistant professor at the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre in Denmark.