The Denisites are mysterious ancient people who inhabited Asia for tens of thousands of years. However, not a single fossil trace of them has yet been found, except for a finger bone, a few teeth, and a fragment of skull, all from Denis Cave. A recent study published in the journal Cell suggests that Denisovans may be not one but three different species of humans.
A DNA study of a large sample of living Southeast Asians showed that the Denisovans were surprisingly diverse and may have been the last humans on Earth other than Homo sapiens. One subspecies of Denisovans is almost as different from other Denisovans as they are from Neanderthals. Moreover, one group of Denisovans even outlived the Neanderthals, who disappeared about 40,000 years ago.
According to the study, these Denisovans coexisted and mingled with modern humans in New Guinea at least 30,000 years ago. However, it is possible that this was as recently as 15,000 years ago. If this is confirmed, then the Denisovans were the last known humans, other than Homo sapiens, to walk the Earth.
Recent discoveries point to a staggering variety of hominids in ancient Asia, including the announcement just yesterday of a new species, Homo luzonensis, in the Philippines. According to Murray Cox of Massey University, New Zealand, the center of the diversity of archaic populations is in the islands of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Malaysia and the other archipelagos that make up Asia.
Sharon Browning of the University of Washington expresses both excitement and caution about the results and what they might mean. In 2018, Browning and her colleagues highlighted two waves of cross-breeding between Denisovans and modern humans, which the new study extends.
Denisovian ancestors probably separated from their Neanderthal relatives at least 400,000 years ago. While Neanderthals spread across Europe and the Middle East, Denisovans spread across Asia, eventually interbreeding with the ancestors of modern humans of Asian descent.
Denisovans left their genetic fingerprints in Homo sapiens for future generations, providing additional clues to the study of their species. According to Sharon Browning, every little piece we find helps us really fill in human history.