Groundbreaking Israeli Research Reveals What Mysterious Denisovans Looked Like

The ability of scientists to discover new information from ancient remnants of DNA has revolutionized our understanding of the evolution of animals in general and humans in particular. Now, thanks to breakthrough research, the anatomical features of an extinct group of archaic humans known as the Denisovans has been reconstructed based only on their DNA.

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The research, led by Prof. Liran Carmel and David Gokhman of the Hebrew University, was published Thursday as the cover story in the scientific journal Cell.

The Denisovans lived until a few tens of thousands of years ago in eastern and northeastern Asia. And until now, all that was known about them was based on a few small fragments of bone.

They had different morphological characteristics than the Homo sapiens and Neanderthals who lived at the same time. Homo sapiens lived mostly in Africa and the Neanderthals in Europe and northern Asia — where they met the Denisovans and got to know them very well, even bearing children together.

It seems the Denisovan branch of humankind would never have been discovered without the development of new methods for extracting, sequencing and analyzing ancient DNA.

In 2008, scientists found a single finger bone in the Denisova Cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains (the species was subsequently named after the cave). It seems to have come from a young woman. Two years later, the scientists — led by Swedish geneticist Svante Pääbo — published the full DNA sequence extracted from the bone and showed that it came from a separate human species significantly different than Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. Denisovan teeth were found later, and earlier this year a lower jawbone, also identified as coming from a Denisovan, was found on the Tibetan Plateau.

A model of a juvenile female Denisovan, based on a skeletal profile reconstructed from ancient DNA methylation maps.Maayan Harel

Since 2010, studies of modern DNA have found vestiges of Denisovan DNA in the genome of modern humans in a number of places worldwide: In indigenous Australian aboriginals; residents of the Melanesian Islands in the Pacific Ocean; and also in Tibetans — who, recent research shows, inherited their ability to live in the thin mountain air from their ancient Denisovan relatives.