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Mysterious Denisovan species of humans lived undisturbed in the mountains for 160,000 years

High up on the Tibetan Plateau, inside the Baishiya Karst Cave, unfolds a fascinating ancient human survival story. A recent study reveals that the Denisovans, an extinct human species, called this place home for countless millennia.

Other than their notable genetic contributions to modern humans, very little is known about the Denisovans.

Somehow, these enigmatic early humans adapted to the harsh, high-altitude conditions of the Tibetan mountains, leaving behind clues that give us a captivating glimpse into their lifestyle and resilience.

Who were the Denisovans?

Remember them from science class? They’re an extinct species from our ancient lineage that lived on Earth with us, Homo sapiens, and our other long-lost cousins, the Neanderthals.

Unlike the Neanderthals, though, the Denisovans are more mysterious. We’ve only found a few pieces of their puzzling existence so far.

The mystery deepened with an incredible discovery by a determined international research team.

Their endeavor? To probe more than 2,500 bone remains found in Baishiya Karst Cave, one of only two known Denisovan habitats.

New findings lead to more questions

Published in the Nature, their fascinating analysis identifies a fresh Denisovan fossil. It also illustrates the species’ incredible resilience in the face of fluctuating climatic conditions, including the ice age.

Consider this: these predecessors of ours survived on the Tibetan plateau from around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago. Can you fathom that?

Dr. Geoff Smith, a zooarchaeologist at the University of Reading and co-author of the study, expressed enthusiasm about their findings regarding Denisovan behavior.

Denisovan tools and bones discovered at Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Nature
Denisovan tools and bones discovered at Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibetan Plateau. Credit: Nature

The research team uncovered evidence of the diverse diet of this ancient human species.

“We were able to identify that Denisovans hunted, butchered and ate a range of animal species,” Dr. Smith explained.

He further emphasized the significance of their discoveries, noting that the study provides insights into how Denisovans adapted to challenging environmental conditions.

“We are only just beginning to understand the behavior of this extraordinary human species,” Dr. Smith concluded, highlighting the nascent state of our knowledge about this species.

Uncovering details of Denisovan life

The bone remains were shattered into many fragments, rendering identification very challenging. Nevertheless, the team developed a novel scientific method to determine which species the bone remains belonged to. It uses differences in bone collagen between animals.

Dr Huan Xia, of Lanzhou University, sheds light on this innovative technique, “Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) allows us to extract valuable information from often overlooked bone fragments, providing deeper insight into human activities.”

The introduction of ZooMS represents a quantum leap in archaeological studies. This cutting-edge technique allows scientists to extract identifiable collagen peptides from minute bone fragments, rendering an otherwise obscure and convoluted puzzle into a clearer picture of the past.

Most of the bones, the researchers discovered, belonged to blue sheep (bharal), wild yaks, equids, the extinct woolly rhino, and the spotted hyena. There were also bone fragments from small mammals, like marmots, and birds.

“Current evidence suggests that it was Denisovans, not any other human groups, who occupied the cave and made efficient use of all the animal resources available to them throughout their occupation,” explained Dr Jian Wang of Lanzhou University.

Denisovans were resourceful and resilient

Moreover, the researchers’ meticulous analysis of the fragmented bone surfaces indicates the Denisovans weren’t just preying on these animals. They were also adapting their remains into useful tools.

The team identified a rib bone, dating between 48,000 and 32,000 years ago, as belonging to an unknown Denisovan individual.

This person lived at a time when our ancestors, the modern humans, were beginning to spread across the Eurasian continent.

The researchers believe that Denisovans weathered two cold periods, as well as a warmer interglacial period between the Middle and Late Pleistocene eras.

Together, the fossil and molecular evidence indicates that Ganjia Basin, where Baishiya Karst Cave is located, provided a relatively stable environment for Denisovans, despite its high-altitude.

Dr Frido Welker, of the University of Copenhagen, leaves us with a lingering question, “The question now arises when and why these Denisovans on the Tibetan Plateau went extinct.”

Implications for modern human society

In summary, this latest discovery prompts a wave of new queries. Why did these resilient beings go extinct? What lessons can we learn from their survival amid changing climates?

The insights gathered from studying Denisovans resonate with pressing contemporary issues. In today’s world, where climate change shifts the environmental parameters at an unprecedented pace, understanding how Denisovans adapted to severe climatic fluctuations could offer valuable lessons.

Their ability to endure harsh, high-altitude conditions mirrors the contemporary challenges faced by communities in similarly extreme environments.

Reflecting on their resourcefulness and resilience, we might draw parallels to the importance of sustainable living and adaptive strategies.

As we delve deeper into the remnants of these ancient humans, perhaps we’ll find more than just the echoes of our ancestry. Perhaps, we’ll find a guide for our future.

The Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, CAS, China, also contributed to this study.

The full study was published in the journal Nature.


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