Science looks at skulls from Eastern China that appear to be the remains of the little-known Denisovan prehistoric people:
Since their discovery in 2010, the extinct ice age humans called Denisovans have been known only from bits of DNA, taken from a sliver of bone in the Denisova Cave in Siberia, Russia. Now, two partial skulls from eastern China are emerging as prime candidates for showing what these shadowy people may have looked like.
In a paper published this week in Science, a Chinese-U.S. team presents 105,000- to 125,000-year-old fossils they call “archaic Homo.” They note that the bones could be a new type of human or an eastern variant of Neandertals. But although the team avoids the word, “everyone else would wonder whether these might be Denisovans,” which are close cousins to Neandertals, says paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London.
The new skulls “definitely” fit what you’d expect from a Denisovan, adds paleoanthropologist María Martinón-Torres of the University College London—“something with an Asian flavor but closely related to Neandertals.” But because the investigators have not extracted DNA from the skulls, “the possibility remains a speculation.”
The skulls lack faces and jaws. But they include enough undistorted pieces for the team to note a close resemblance to Neandertals. One cranium has a huge brain volume of 1800 cubic centimeters—on the upper end for both Neandertals and moderns—plus a Neandertal-like hollow in a bone on the back of its skull. Both crania have prominent brow ridges and inner ear bones that resemble those of Neandertals but are distinct from our own species, Homo sapiens.
However, the crania also differ from the western Neandertals of Europe and the Middle East. They have thinner brow ridges and less robust skull bones, similar to early modern humans and some other Asian fossils.
The only way to truly identify a Denisovan is with DNA. IVPP paleogeneticist Qiaomei Fu says she tried to extract DNA from three pieces of the Xuchang fossils but without success.