The Needle in the Bonepile
Splinters of bone often hold amazing information about early human history. But the tiny fragments, viewed in isolation, reveal little about their origin. Investigations of proteins that have been preserved in the fossil remains can help here.
The drive from Novosibirsk to one of the most exciting archaeological sites of recent years takes eleven hours. The path leads over bumpy roads in a southeasterly direction through the wide plain of the South Siberian steppe until finally the foothills of the Altai Mountains rise in front of us. Gorges, raging mountain streams and idyllic wooden houses characterize the landscape; Eagles soar overhead. High above the Anui River, behind a bend in a dirt road, it suddenly appears: the Denisova Cave - and all thoughts of the long, arduous journey evaporate. It was precisely there that archaeologists discovered the remains of a hitherto unknown human species around ten years ago, fundamentally changing our idea of early human existence.
After our species, Homo sapiens, appeared in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago, it gradually spread to Europe and Asia. There she encountered other human forms such as the Neanderthals, with whom she shared her habitat for thousands of years before they finally disappeared. We now know that the different groups of people did not just live side by side. They even fathered offspring together. Today we humans still carry the DNA of our extinct relatives.
However, exactly when and where our ancestors met, how often they interbred, and how they influenced each other culturally is still a mystery. Unfortunately, we still know too few sites from that time, and often these only contained stone tools and other artefacts. However, human fossils that are complete enough to be able to assign them to a specific human species are almost always missing. And so it is seldom possible to determine which species manufactured the devices known from that transitional period, and how exactly they can be dated…