Dental Tribune Asia Pacific

Mandible helps to uncover history of civilisations in Tibet

LANZHOU, China: The journey that Homo sapiens has embarked on is something that has enthralled modern scientists for many centuries. Now, as technology continually improves, more understanding is being gained and new discoveries are coming to the surface. Recently, researchers revealed that a sister group of Neanderthals, the Denisovans, occupied the Tibetan Plateau long before Homo sapiens arrived in the region. This discovery was made through the analysis of a 160,000-year-old hominin mandible.

“Traces of Denisovan DNA are found in present-day Asian, Australian, and Melanesian populations, suggesting that these ancient hominins may have once been widespread,” said Prof. Jean-Jacques Hublin, Director of the Department of Human Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (MPI-EVA) in Leipzig in Germany and one of the paper’s co-authors. “Yet, so far, the only fossils representing this ancient hominin group were identified at Denisova Cave.”

In their study, the researchers examined a mandible that was found on the Tibetan Plateau in Baishiya Karst Cave in Xiahe County in China. The fossil, originally discovered in 1980 by a local monk, was eventually passed on to Lanzhou University, and in 2010, researchers Prof. Fahu Chen and Dr Dongju Zhang began studying the cave site where the fossil had been found

In 2016, Lanzhou University initiated a collaboration with the Department of Human Evolution at the MPI-EVA and since then they have been jointly analysing the fossil. According to the researchers, DNA was not able to be recovered from the mandible itself but rather from one of the molars, which they examined by means of ancient protein analysis. From that analysis, the team found that the mandible came from a member of a Denisovan group from Siberia—something that confirms Denisovans had already been living in the high-altitude setting significantly prior to the appearance of Homo sapiens.

With continued research and analysis planned for the future, the team now hope that the lower jaw can aid in piecing together the puzzle of what Denisovans looked like.

The study, titled “A late Middle Pleistocene Denisovan mandible from the Tibetan Plateau”, was published on 1 May 2019 in Nature.

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