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Researchers Discover Tooth in Cave That May Have Belonged to an Extinct Human Group

By: April Carson

Denisovans have been studied in more depth since the 1990s, and though they are quite unusual, researchers still try to figure out what this ancient extinct human looked like and how it lived.

When a team of scientists went into the mountains of northern Laos, an area known for containing fossilized human bones, they discovered a tooth concealed within hard sediments in a tiny cave.

This tooth is now considered the first Denisovan remains to be found outside of Siberia.

They considered it most likely belonged to a Denisovan child, who were one of the earliest groups of humans known to have lived in Siberia. With this new discovery, we now have a much clearer picture into their history.

According to a news release about the discovery, published on Tuesday in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature Communications, the experts dated the tooth at between 164,000 and 131,000 years old. When she died, the adult tooth, which lacked signs of usage, was most likely still emerging from her gum.

An international team of researchers from Laos, Europe, the United States, and Australia discovered the findings in Tam Ngu Hao 2's (Cobra Cave) cave. Kira Westaway, a geochronologist at Macquarie University in Australia and a co-author of the study, told VICE World News that they had come upon a human tooth while exploring northern Laos in 2019.

“We check every cave in the hopes of finding something significant,” she continued. “When they found the human tooth, they dug around to look for fossils.”

The research team used dental X-rays and CT scans to examine the tooth. They found that, despite its small size, it had fully developed root canals, cusps, and enamel layers.

“It was a very exciting find because human teeth are quite rare in the fossil record,” Westaway said.

They also discovered teeth from enormous herbivores like ancient elephants and rhinos, which Westaway thinks were once part of the surrounding environment instead than inside the isolated cave.

“Because it was difficult to get to, it wasn't utilized by ancient people for occupation, so we didn't find any stone tools,” added Westaway. “The teeth were most likely washed into the cave during a flooding event that deposited the sediments and fossils.”

Denisovans, a group of extinct humans thought to have vanished about 20,000 years ago, are relatives of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens because they share a common ancestor who lived in Africa 700,000 to 500,000 years ago. The Neandertals, who vanished around 40,000 years ago, split off and went to Europe and the Middle East. Meanwhile, Denisovans emerged in Asia as a different group. Homo sapiens evolved in Africa roughly 300,000 years ago, becoming modern humans.

The first confirmed human migration out of Africa began around 50,000 years ago. Around that time, modern people's DNA gradually replaced some Neanderthal DNA and interbred with the Denisovans. Today, indigenous populations in Papua New Guinea, Australia, and the Philippines share between 5 and 10 percent of their DNA with Denisovans.

Denisovans are thought to have given modern humans a genetic boost. Researchers have discovered that Sherpas and other Tibetans have a "superathlete" gene inherited from Denisovans, allowing them to use oxygen more effectively at high elevations.

The Denisovans have been discovered in southern Siberia, northern China, and parts of North America. While they previously populated Central and Eastern Asia, it is conceivable that they once inhabited Southeast Asia—a fact that will be proved if the newfound molar is shown to be from Denisovan stock.

“We've discovered the 'smoking gun,'” Mike Morley, of the Microarchaeology Laboratory at Flinders University, one of the study's authors, said in a news release. “This Denisovan tooth establishes that they were once present this far south in Laos' karst regions.”

The Cobra Cave is one of only three locations in the world where Denisovan fossils have been discovered. In 2010, a pinky finger bone from an unknown species was discovered in Siberia's Denisova Cave—where the extinct human group got its name—which marked the first discovery of Denisovans.

The teeth discovered in Laos appear to match the ones from a Denisovan jawbone found in a cave in Tibet, which was reported on in a study published this year.

Denisovan molars have unusual cusps that differ from modern human teeth, although the majority of Denisovan fossils are so rare that little is known about their physical features. The bulk of existing information on this strange group comes from DNA research.

The recent tooth discovery, according to Westaway, offers a look into Denisovans' flexibility, as it is the first indication of them living in higher latitudes.

“The fact that these suspected Denisovans were living in the tropical caves of northern Laos at the same time as they were surviving in the extreme cold of Russia and living high on the Tibetan Plateau (around) 160,000 years ago is surprising—and it raises more questions about how they got there,” added Westaway.

“We frequently credit adaptability to modern humans as a unique human characteristic, yet it appears that the Denisovans possessed comparable adaptive abilities in this region 100,000 years earlier than modern humans.”

“This is going to alter how we perceive this hominin group, allowing us to begin to comprehend these enigmatic ancient people.”

The international team of researchers say the findings support the theory that the Denisovans were more widespread across Asia than previously thought—and that they interacted with both Neanderthals and modern humans.

“This discovery challenges the idea that Denisovans only lived in cold, high-altitude environments," said study co-author Laura Shackelford, from the University of Illinois.

The discovery was published in the journal Science Advances.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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