The Denisovans – have you ever heard of them?
Are they Caucasian-American entertainers threatening to take over the Kardashian empire? Are they the latest brand of affordable Russian all-terrain vehicle?
The answer is neither of the above. The Denisovans, or more precisely Denisova hominin are Paleolithic-era species of early humans, a subspecies of Homo sapiens, and precursor to us – Homo sapiens sapiens. Remember Neanderthals? Well, Denisovans are another branch of the human tree which for a time co-existed, and some cases – copulated(!) – with modern humans as did Neanderthals, leaving some of us with a trace of Denisovan DNA, sometimes in addition to Neanderthal ancestry, sometimes exclusively, and sometimes without Denisovan or Neanderthal ancestry at all as in the case of sub-Saharan Africans.
Denisovan Cave, where the Denisovan female’s bones were discovered along with the discovery of a new branch to our human line
The fascinating thing about the discovery of Denisovans is that they were discovered and pronounced as a seperate sub-species of homo sapiens in March 2010, being named after Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains, Siberia, where a female Denisovan was discovered, dated back to roughly 40,000 years ago – well within the time that modern humans – homo sapiens sapiens existed. Thanks to the advances of modern science involving DNA, geneticists have been able to determine whether Denisovans interbred with humans, which they did, and where are the highest concentrations of Denisovan DNA.
The results were surprising. Despite the Denisovan female being discovered in Siberia, individuals of that part of the world carry little or no Denisovan DNA, whereas the highest concentrations of Denisovan DNA are found in Papua New Guinea, along with indigenous Australians and other Melanesian people who carry up to 6% of DNA derived from Denisovans.
The spread of Denisovan DNA across groups of people in Asia-Pacific
Australian ABC TV’s Science program Catalyst aired a fascinating, in-depth story on Denisovans last year which I thoroughly recommend viewing.
I find genetics fascinating and enlightening as it reinforces just how similar we all are – no matter what ‘race’, creed or colour – as are all humans and quite likely our ancestors mixed with each other anyways! I’m so interested in the field, I recently gave my DNA to Science in order to get a clearer picture of my Genetic ancestry as it’s something I’ve always been intrigued by. Several years ago I bought my Mum the kit from the first incarnation of National Geographic’s Genographic Project which analysed her DNA and determined her direct patrilineal and matrilineal ancestry. But, the more recent Genographic Project 2.0 Beta is all the more inclusive, analysing not only your direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines but all in between, plus analysing what percentage remnant Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA you possess, if you happen to do so. I’ve sent off my swabs two weeks back and within the next couple of months, should start receiving results which I’ll be sure to pass on.