Who were the Denisovans anyway?

The authors are actually quite deferential to the older physical paleoanthropologists. Spoken more bluntly, archaic genomic DNA analysis has supplanted these disciplines and is now the authoritative voice. Physical tools, bones and other specimens fill in the details of a picture painted by genetics.


Human evolution used to be the preserve of two groups of academics: the ones who liked fossils and the ones who liked stone tools. Both regarded the other as peculiar for being obsessed with the wrong part of a massive jigsaw puzzle. Then in 1987 the geneticists arrived and they’ve been making things much more untidy ever since…

As recently as 40,000 years ago there were at least four species of hominin living in Eurasia. While we know of three from fossils and archaeological material. The fourth, however, is known almost purely from ancient DNA. ‘Species X’, or more commonly the Denisovans, are helping to re-write our understanding of human evolution during the later Pleistocene. But who were they and were did they go?

Turist_den-peschera_cut Denisova cave, image by Nerika via Wikimedia Commons

The Denisovans are a species of hominin that occupy a very peculiar place in the human…

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