New human species found in Siberia

Human relative, identified from fragments of a finger bone, lived until as recently as 30,000 years ago, say scientists

The remains of a little finger discovered in a cave in the mountains of southern Siberia belong to a previously unknown human ancestor, scientists said today.

The finding suggests an undocumented human species lived alongside Neanderthals and early modern humans in parts of Asia as recently as 30,000 years ago. If confirmed, it would be the first time a new human ancestor has been identified since the discovery of Homo floresiensis, the diminutive "hobbits" that lived on the Indonesian island of Flores until 13,000 years ago.

Fragments of the finger bone were recovered from Denisova cave in the Altai mountain range that straddles Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. The cave was occupied by humans for 125,000 years and a variety of stone tools and bones have been recovered.

The size of the bone has led scientists to believe it came from a child, aged between five and seven, though they are unable to say whether it was male or female.

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, ran genetic tests on the bone fragments and were stunned to find it did not match the DNA profile of Neanderthals or early modern humans.Johannes Krause sequenced DNA from mitochondria, the sub-cellular bodies that carry genetic material passed down only the maternal line. Because the DNA came from the mother, they called the creature "X-woman".

"It really looked like something I had never seen before. It was a sequence which is similar in some ways to humans, but still quite distinct," Krause said. It is the first time a new type of human has been identified from DNA alone.

By comparing the DNA with sequences from Neanderthals and modern humans, Krause's team concluded that modern humans shared a common ancestor with the creature a million years ago. Humans and Neanderthals diverged from an ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago.

When Krause saw the results of the genetic test, he called project leader Svante Pääbo. "It was absolutely amazing, I didn't believe him. I thought he was pulling my leg," Pääbo said. The bone fragments were recovered from a layer of rock in the cave dated to between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago.

The first humans to move from Africa to Eurasia were Homo erectus 1.9m years ago, but scientists believed they died out around 100,000 years ago. The new species probably migrated from Africa more recently, around 1m years ago, and survived in Eurasia until at least 40,000 years ago.

Krause's team is now analysing DNA from the nuclei of cells in the finger fragments in the hope of locating the species in the human family tree. The tests should also indicate whether there was any interbreeding between the new species, Neanderthals and modern humans.

"There were at least three different forms of humans in the area between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, and there were also the hobbits in Indonesia, so the picture of what was around in human form in the late Pleistocene gets a lot more complex and a lot more interesting," Pääbo said.

Chris Stringer, head of human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said: "This new DNA work provides an entirely new way of looking at the still poorly understood evolution of humans in central and eastern Asia."

Contributor

Ian Sample, science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Family tree fall: human ancestor Lucy died in arboreal accident, say scientists
Researchers claim analysis of 3.2m-year-old skeleton of ‘grandmother of humanity’ shows injuries consistent with those of humans falling on hard ground, but others query findings

Ian Sample Science editor

29, Aug, 2016 @3:00 PM

Article image
Is this a new species of human being?

Scientists have extracted DNA from a bone discovered in Siberia that almost certainly belongs to a new kind of human – one that may have lived as recently as 30,000 years ago. Will this transform our views of human evolution?

Ian Sample

26, Mar, 2010 @7:00 AM

Article image
New species of ancient human discovered in Philippines cave
Homo luzonensis fossils found in Luzon island cave, dating back up to 67,000 years

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

10, Apr, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Cheddar cave dwellers ate their dead and turned their skulls into cups

Skulls unearthed in a Somerset cave were skilfully fashioned into cups with the rest of the bodies probably being cannibalised

Ian Sample

16, Feb, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
Piece of skull found in Greece ‘is oldest human fossil outside Africa’
Remains discovered on Mani peninsula could rewrite history of Homo sapiens in Eurasia

Ian Sample Science editor

10, Jul, 2019 @5:00 PM

Ardi in pictures: Earliest human ancestor revealed

The remains of a woman who lived at the dawn of humanity give the clearest picture yet of the origin of our species

01, Oct, 2009 @4:09 PM

Article image
Stone me! Spears show early human species was sharper than we thought
Evidence of hunting with spears 500,000 years ago suggests common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals was 'very bright'

Alok Jha, science correspondent

15, Nov, 2012 @7:07 PM

Fossil Ardi illuminates the dawn of humanity

Ardi evolved from our common ancestor with chimpanzees and was equally at home walking on the ground and swinging from branch to branch in the forest canopy

Ian Sample, science correspondent

01, Oct, 2009 @2:30 PM

Article image
Oldest Homo sapiens bones ever found shake foundations of the human story
Idea that modern humans evolved in East Africa 200,000 years ago challenged by extraordinary discovery of 300,000-year-old remains in Moroccan mine

Ian Sample Science editor

07, Jun, 2017 @5:00 PM

Article image
Homo floresiensis: scientists clash over claims 'hobbit man' was modern human with Down's syndrome

Tiny skeleton from Indonesia's Flores island is unique ancient species, insist researchers

Robin McKie, science editor

16, Aug, 2014 @11:04 PM