Genetic Study Suggests Denisovans Were the Mythological Rakshasas

Genetic Study Suggests Denisovans Were the Mythological Rakshasas

A new genetic study of 1739 Asian individuals from 219 populations has found that on the Indian sub-continent today Denisovan DNA exists mostly among isolated, tribal communities. It also found that considerably less Denisovan ancestry exists among Asians in India and Pakistan of clear Indo-European descent. Yet the greater implications of these findings relate to the possible presence in South Asia in the distant past of Denisovans, who in Indian mythology may well be remembered as blood thirtsy demons known as the Rakshasas.

The study, which was led by US and Asian scientists from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics (NIBG), Kalyani, India, and the University of California in the USA, was undertaken primarily to correct what was seen as a non-Asian bias in genetic research. Its findings will have implications for our understanding of the formation of the population of Asia and, through gene inheritance, on medicine and healthcare in the region.

According to Partha P. Majumder, the founder of NIBG, and one of the co-authors of the new paper published in Nature, the study is the most extensive so far of Asian DNA and comes as a response to a previous absence of data about the Asian genome.

This is highlighted by the fact that currently available genome data is derived from DNA chips – microchips that hold DNA probes forming half the DNA double helix that can recognize DNA from samples tested. These are normally optimized for Caucasian populations. They can therefore give false information regarding Asian genomes, which are noticeably different.

Map showing the locations of Asian populations featured in the new study, along with the total number of individuals from each area. (Author provided)

Study Objectives

Majumder explains that the objectives of the study – seen as the pilot phase of the GenomeAsia 100K Project – was to generate and catalogue DNA sequencing and variation on a large population of Asian individuals. In addition to this, it was to determine whether insights might be determined from whole-genome sequence of databases, while, finally, relevant medical conclusions would be drawn from the data produced.

Majumder explains that the new data is important to discover genes associated with diseases common among Asian populations. Proteins are also important since changes in protein are related to diseases. For instance, it was discovered that among Asian populations tested, a DNA variant in a gene (NEUROD1) was present, and this has been linked to a particular kind of diabetes. Another DNA variant in the hemoglobin gene linked to beta-thalassemia was found only among South Indians. Most notable was the finding that Carbamazepine, an anti-convulsant used to treat medical disorders, could well have adverse effects in about 400 million southeastern Asians who form part of the Austronesian language group.

Beyond the findings regarding genes associated with diseases specific to Asian populations, the study also looked at the genetic background behind the emergence, cultural spread and geographical placement of these same populations, with particular emphasis to those living in the Indian sub-continent.

Non-Indo-European Languages

Majumder and his team found that in India indigenous tribal and non-Indo-European-speaking populations possessed the highest amounts of Denisovan DNA, adding that it was less evident among ‘upper’ caste groups. Indo-European speakers, particularly those of Pakistan, faired worse with the lowest recorded Denisovan component of all groups. These results were obtained by correlating the level of Denisovan DNA with an individual’s language, as well as their social and caste status. In addition to this, the Denisovan ancestry of individuals who spoke Indo-European languages was matched against those who spoke non-Indo-European languages, such as the Dravidian group of languages , spoken by more than 215 million people, all mostly in southern India and northern Sri Lanka.

Indigenous tribal people of India had the highest amounts of Denisovan DNA ( NH144 / Adobe Stock )

What the team found was that the average levels of Denisovan ancestry were significantly different between the four social or cultural groups consistent with the fact that Indo-European-speaking migrants, who are generally considered to have entered the Indian subcontinent from the northwest, admixed with an indigenous South Asian group or groups who not only possessed higher levels of Denisovan ancestry, but also spoke non Indo-European languages.

Next, the study team matched the genetic markers of the Denisovan ancestry found among the indigenous populations of the Indian sub-continent with that of Denisovan types, this being broken down into the Siberian Denisovans - typified by the genome of the hominid fossil remains from the Denisova Cave in Siberia, as well as in modern populations in places like China - and the so-called Sunda Denosovans. They are thought to have thrived in the former Sunda landmass, which combined the Malaysian peninsular with the islands of Indonesia through till the end of the last ice age.

Portrait of a juvenile Denisovan based on a skeletal profile reconstructed from ancient DNA methylation maps. Image credit: Maayan Harel.

Sunda Denisovan Ancestry

What Majumder and his team found was that the Denisovan ancestry present among the indigenous populations of the Indian sub-continent was that of the Sunda Denisovans, and not their northern cousins, who probably thrived in Siberia, Mongolia, the Tibetan Plateau and eastern Asia, most obviously northern China.

The Denisovan DNA in the South Asian populations was consistent with that found also among the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea and the Aeta, a Negrito tribal society from Luzon Island in the Philippines, even though with them the level of Denisovan ancestry was considerably higher. This led the study to conclude that introgression between Sunda Denisovans and the earliest anatomical modern humans to reach the region most likely occurred somewhere in the vicinity of the former Sunda landmass, where Denisovan ancestry remains strongest to this day. Since the same Denisovan DNA is found among the indigenous peoples of the Indian sub-continent, Majumder and his team surmise that after this introgression took place in southeastern Asia, modern humans now carrying Denisovan ancestry, traveled westward, entering and settling in South Asia, explaining the high levels of Denisovan DNA recorded among the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent today.

A Second Introgression

Majumder and his team also highlight the fact that, in addition to the high levels of Denisovan ancestry among both Melanesians and the Aeta, consistent with an admixture event common to both them and South Asians, the Aeta additionally display Denisovan mitochondrial haplogroups that are unique to their population. This suggests that a second admixture event between the Aeta and Denisovans must have occurred after the separation of the Aeta and Melanesians, perhaps even as recently as 20,000 years ago. A suggestion of this second admixture event involving Denisovans and indigenous peoples of Indonesia and the Philippines had previously been found during the course of a separate study announced earlier this year. This at the time prompted the theory that there were not just two basic types of Denisovan – the Siberian Denisovan and Sunda Denisovan, but also a third type, which was most likely a breakaway from the Sunda Denisovans.

Suggested places of first contact between modern humans and Denisovans in the area of the former Sunda landmass according to Majumder and his colleagues. (Author provided)

All this information is good news for our understanding not only of the introgression between Denisovans and modern humans, but also as to where and when exactly this might have taken place. That said, Majumder and his team’s assumption that the primary cause of high levels of Denisovan DNA among South Asians is because modern humans who had encountered Denisovans within the Sunda landmass then migrated westwards now carrying Denisovan ancestry might well only be half the story.

If this was the case then why would the Negrito population of the Andaman Islands off the Bay of Bengal, who share genetic traits in similar with the Aeta of the Philippines, possess no traceable Denisovan ancestry? Surely if the Denisovan-DNA-carrying ancestors of the Aeta Negritos of the Philippines, or indeed the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, migrated westwards they would have left evidence of their presence among the indigenous Negrito tribes in places like the Andaman Islands, but this is simply not the case. No Denisovan DNA can be found among Andaman Islanders . A counter argument, of course, would be that the Denisovan-modern human hybrids of southeastern Asia migrated overland, missing the Andaman Islands altogether.

Female of an Aeta tribe, the Negrito population of the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Wiki Commons Agreement 2019/public domain.

Another, and in my opinion more likely scenario explaining the presence of Denisovan DNA among indigenous South Asians is that our earliest modern human ancestors migrating out of Africa some 60,000-70,000 years ago crossed the Arabian peninsular and entered South Asia via Pakistan. Either here or further into the Indian sub-continent, most obviously in India itself, they encountered Sunda Denisovans who had been inhabiting the region for tens if not hundreds or thousands of years. Here introgression took place. These hybrid humans, now carrying Denisovan DNA, then continued their migrational journey eastwards into southeastern Asia encountering further Denisovans along the way, each time interbreeding with them. Finally, they would have reached the edge of the Eurasian landmass. Here they became the earliest ancestors of, among others, the inhabitants of the Sunda landmass, as well as the Aeta of the Philippines, and the Melanesians of Papua New Guinea, which was at the time part of an enormous island continent with Australia to the south called Sahul. When all this might have taken place is open to speculation, although undoubtedly it occurred no later than 45,000-60,000 years ago, with further waves of migration continuing through till around 20,000 years ago.

Map showing migrational routes of modern humans out of Africa from around 65,000 years ago onwards. The circles signify the percentages of Denisovan DNA among modern populations (the higher the percentage, the larger the circle), while the north-south dividing line represents the Denisovan line, the suspected zone of first contact between Denisovans and modern humans. Pic credit: Andrew Collins

The Rakshasas

Once again, there are some short falls with this theory, the distinct lack of Denisovan DNA among Andaman Islanders being just one, but this alternative scenario not only makes good sense, but also hints at the presence of Sunda Denisovan in the Indian sub-continent, their suspected great size, alleged grotesque appearance in the eyes of modern humans, and perhaps even their uncouth dietary habits causing them to be remembered in mythology as the Rakshasas. These were demon-like creatures, often synonymous with the Asuras, who in Vedic literature were said to have been created from the breath of Brahma when sleeping, an event that occurred at the end of the Satya Yuga . This was the first of the four yuga cycles, which was said to have lasted 1,728,000 years (we are currently at the end of the fourth and final cycle known as the Kali Yuga. A new Satya Yuga will follow afterwards).

It was said that as soon as the Rakshasas were created they were so consumed with bloodlust that they even started to eat Brahma himself! He in turn shouted "Rakshama!" (Sanskrit for "Protect me!") at which the god Vishnu appeared, coming to Brahma’s aid and banishing to earth all Rakshasas, who therefore bear a name derived from Brahma’s cry for help.

Death of the rakshasa Hidimba as illustrated in an edition of the Mahabharata epic. He was said to have been 8 cubits (4 meters) tall. Picture credit: public domain.)

As phantasmagorical as the Rakshasas clearly are, their presence in this world prior to the emergence of the first human dynasties suggests they are the memory, as debased as it might have become, of an archaic human group that once inhabited the Indian Sub-continent. If so, then the most likely real life counterparts of the Rakshasas were the Denisovans, who existed throughout the eastern half of the Eurasian subcontinent for hundreds of thousands of years, their final survivors perhaps encountering indigenous peoples like the Aeta of the Philippines as recently as 20,000 years ago.

A Woman in China Claims She Cries Tears of Stone

It’s the opposite of those accounts of stone statues crying real tears. The husband of a woman in China says he’s upset with that country’s medical system (sound familiar?) because it can’t diagnose why his wife has been crying tears of stone for seven years (this sounds familiar too). Is it true? Could this be related to the famous case of the Lebanese girl who cried crystals? Are you rubbing your eyes yet?

Ding Aihua, a farmer’s wife in Lufang village in Heze City, Shandong, China, says she first felt a sharp pain in her eye seven years ago. Her husband, Liang Xinchun, says he looked in her eye and saw a hard, silvery white stone the size of a soybean under her eyelid, which he removed with a wire. Ewww!

Liang says he’s been removing stones and taking them and his wife to doctors ever since but no one believes him so he did what everyone with a strange medical condition does – he got the media involved. Reporters confronted Dr. Cui Yinchun at the Aier Eye Hospital in Heze City who would only say that the woman is suffering from conjunctivitis (pink eye) and trachoma – a form of conjunctivitis that causes bumps under the eyelids … hmm.

Perhaps the doctors should look up the case of Hasnah Mohamed Meselman. In 1997, a video appeared of the 12 year-old Lebanese girl pulling sharp crystals from her eyes at a rate of seven a day. The girl’s father claimed he took her to an ophthalmologist who witnessed the phenomenon and had no explanation other than “an act of God.” This was followed by stories of a government cover-up to keep the “miracle” quiet. All appeared to be resolved years later when paranormal skeptic Joe Nickell demonstrated how to perform the ‘crystals in the eye’ trick on himself.

Hasnah Mohamed Meselman and her tear of crystal

Ding Aihua might prefer they check the story of Saadiya Saleh. In 2014, it was reported that this 12-year-old Yemeni girl cried a box full of stones, including some in the presence of doctors who, while disagreeing with locals that she was “possessed by the devil,” had no medical explanation for her condition. While Hasnah’s stone tears stopped after a few months, there’s no other news on Saadiya.

Why would three women in different parts of the world have the same strange condition or pull the same con? Is this the start of an epidemic, mass hysteria or a social media hoax?

Wouldn’t “She Cried Tears of Stone” be a great name for a country-western song? Now stop rubbing your eyes or you may need scratch-proof contacts.

Five Cool Movies For Halloween: Zombies, Curses, Giant Monsters and More!

October 31 – Halloween, of course – isn’t too far away now. So, today I thought: why not recommend to you five of my favorite movies and that are definitely right for the creepiest night of the year? In no particular order at all, I’ll start with 1997’s Mimic. The movie tells the story of how, in Manhattan, cockroaches are spreading a deadly disease that is claiming the lives of hundreds of children. Entomologist Susan Tyler (played by Mira Sorvino) and her colleague and husband Peter Mann (portrayed by the actor Jeremy Northam) genetically engineer a type of insect called the Judas Breed. Distinctly oversized critters, they release an enzyme that successfully wipes out the disease-carrying roaches. Of course, inevitably everything goes horribly wrong, and the Judas Breed mutates into human-sized, highly-intelligent, insect-monsters that begin to prey by night upon the population of Manhattan. Ingeniously, the beasts have the ability to cunningly disguise themselves as humans and they do so by shuffling around the darkened streets, subways and alleyways late at night with their black-colored wings wrapped around their bodies – giving the impression of someone wearing a dark, rain-coat with upturned collar. Living on the flesh of hobos, winos, and those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the Judas Breed thrives, reproduces, and survives very well deep in the old subway tunnels under Manhattan – until Tyler and Mann try to end their growing reign of terror.

Moving onto movie number two, there’s the 2004 remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. I really enjoyed Night of the Living Dead (of 1968) and the 1978 original of Dawn of the Dead. I have to say, though, that 2005’s Land of the Dead – also from Romero – was awful. With all of that said, let’s get back to that aforementioned remake. As all fans of zombie movies will know, for years the reanimated dead were slow, shuffling, things. That all changed in 2002 with 28 Days Later, a movie that sees the U.K. quarantined as a result of the outbreak of what is called the “rage virus.” It was that movie which really exposed us to the phenomenon of the fast-running zombies. I have to say, though, that for me the 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead outdid 󈬌” and presented those athletic, nightmarish creatures in perfect style. Menacing, almost impossible to outrun, and ready to chomp down on the living, they were perfect zombies for a brand new century. Dawn of the Dead pretty much follows the original story-line, but with much more welcome gore. And the apocalyptic atmosphere is ever-present. A great one for Halloween!

Now, let’s take a trip back to the 1950s and a U.K. movie, Night of the Demon (released in the U.S. as Curse of the Demon). It’s a 1957 B&W movie with Dana Andrews taking on the role of Dr. John Holden, who is a skeptic when it comes to the worlds of the supernatural, the paranormal, and the occult. We see Holden’s mind begin to change when he’s exposed to the magical abilities of the Aleister Crowley-like Dr. Julian Carswell (actor Niall MacGinnis). Carswell wants Holden out of his hair and off his back – right now. Or else. Holden refuses to back off and, as a result, we see him plagued by the likes of a supernatural cat, almost struck by lightning (Carswell’s work), and terrorized by the demon of the movie’s title. The race is soon on as Holden seeks a way to save his life – and at the cost of Carswell. The black-and-white nature of the movie adds to the suspense and the atmosphere, as the viewer is plunged into a world of devil worship, witchcraft, curses and more in rural England – and in the heart of London too. The one downside? The demon itself. It should really have been left to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, we’re shown a pretty bad model, which is likely to provoke rolling-eyes, rather than thrills. But, despite that, it’s still an excellent production.

An atmospheric and short movie (it runs to just seventy-four minutes) starring Kim Darby, Jim Hutton and Barbara Anderson, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a 1973 TV movie that gets a re-run now and again. It tells the eerie story of a married couple – Sally and Alex Farnum (Darby and Hutton) – who move into an atmospheric, shadow-filled old house. Unknown to them, it is home to something menacing: small, humanoid creatures that dwell in the walls, under the floorboards, and in just about any and every hidden nook and cranny possible. When Sally starts to see these dwarfish, diminutive things creeping around, she plunges into states of terror and fear. Hutton plays her unsympathetic ass of a husband, who is having none of it. Only grumpy old Mr. Harris (actor William Demarest), the local handyman, knows the unsettling truth. There is something very wrong about the house – and the “other” inhabitants, which only Sally sees, are worse still. How does it all end? Badly, of course!

Now, onto The Plague of the Zombies. My all-time favorite undead-themed film, this 1966 production is one of the best from Hammer Film Productions. Taking into consideration that it really is one of Hammer’s best, it’s somewhat surprising that Hammer stalwarts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were not chosen for the key roles. It doesn’t really matter though: the movie works just as well without them. I remember watching this as a kid in the late 1970s. Even now, the zombies still look creepy, as they wander the depths of old mines and the English countryside of the 19th century. And there is a very cool dream-episode in the film – set in a cemetery, of course – which is done in fine fashion. Not to be missed!

Raising up Pharaoh

Celtic Shield ( Credit )

I confess I’m fascinated by the prehistoric Steppes horsemen in their role as conquerors of Old Europe , old South Asia , and old Anatolia. Considering the two indelible lines of evidence: Steppes genetics and the Indo-European language , something awesome resulted from the merger of the small beginnings of horsemanship in Botai Kazakhstan and the genetics of the Yamnaya culture . Apparently, there is little genetic relationship between those two people groups (or their horses), but they’ve left an enormous mark on European history leading to the Celtic domination of Europe (described at length in last week’s post) and also to the rise of the Romans who superseded the Celts in deepening the roots of Western civilization . Not a one-trick pony, this 4th-millennium people and their horse-based culture thrust south into Anatolia forming the Hittite and Luwian languages, while thrusting east into Mongolia and the Tarim Basin and also southwest to supplant the Harappan culture which was enfeebled by the desertification of its rivers in what is now called the Indo-Aryan invasion.

The existence of the Saraswati River running through the heart of the Harappan Civilization has long been hypothesized, but now is scientifically validated. Only a heavy, uninterrupted river flow could justify the large population of the Harappan cities whose ruins lie along the channel of the seasonal river that now flows only during the monsoon season.

Since I had already included Rakshasas in the novel I am completing, I now want to go back and update that substory with the upgraded hypothesis that the “mythical” Rakshasas were not demons but, rather, the cultural memory of what Genetics now identifies as more likely to have been South Asian Denisovans , which is a much-preferred improvement on their mythic basis. Now that Rakshasas are logically not spiritual but flesh and blood, they will no longer be handled as immortals in that scene. I would not have discovered this if I hadn’t been writing this post on recent developments in archaeology.

Found: An ancient hominin hybrid who had a Neanderthal for a mother and a Denisovan for a father

Among the thousands of bone fragments excavated from an ancient cave in Siberia’s Altai mountains, scientists have identified an inch-long shard that belonged to a rare hominin hybrid: a female with a Denisovan dad and a Neanderthal mom.

An analysis of this bone, published Wednesday in Nature, provides further evidence that the genetically distinct Neanderthals and Denisovans met and interacted with each other multiple times throughout their history.

“We are learning that human evolution is much more interesting and much more complicated than we used to think,” said Bence Viola, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto who worked on the study. “The vision of evolution that was very linear has now become this very bushy, interconnected thing.”

The half-Denisovan/half-Neanderthal sample is small enough to fit in a matchbox, but scientists said it was once part of one of the longer bones in the body — perhaps a femur, an upper arm bone or a shin bone.

DNA analysis conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipizig, Germany, revealed two X chromosomes and no Y chromosomes, which is how scientists know that the bone belonged to a female.

The thickness of the bone’s outside layer suggests that its owner was likely over 13 years of age when she died. And marks on the bone’s exterior indicate that this fragment was probably brought into the cave by a carnivore like a cave hyena, or a wolf.

“You can see that it has been digested because the surface looks like it was affected by stomach acid,” Viola said. “Hyenas regurgitate and throw up bones.”

The bone fragment was found in Denisova Cave, just north of the Russia-Kazakhstan border. Previous work has shown that both Denisovans and Neanderthals had used the cave as a hunting stop going back as far as 282,000 years ago.

The cave has turned out to be especially good at preserving DNA, and scientists at Max Planck have already sequenced the DNA of four other Denisovan bone fragments and teeth found at the site.

This previous work revealed that the common ancestors of Denisovans and Neanderthals split from each other sometime between 400,000 and 500,000 years ago. It also indicated that the two groups exchanged genetic material periodically throughout their histories.

“The first Denisovan ever identified has small traces of Neanderthal ancestry,” said Viviane Slon, a research scientist at Max Planck who led the genetic testing.

But just because scientists knew that Denisovan and Neanderthal hybrids must have existed didn’t mean they expected to find one.

“The first question that came to mind was whether this could be a mistake — either a mix-up in the lab, or an error in data analysis,” Slon said.

It was only after she repeated the experiment several times on DNA samples from different parts of the bone that she became convinced the result was real.

“This has been checked and rechecked,” Viola said. “We are unbelievably lucky to have found it.”

Further genetic analysis revealed that the Denisovan father of the hybrid individual had a little bit of Neanderthal ancestry himself as a result of his forebears mixing with Neanderthals at least 300 generations before his birth.

“So from a single genome, we are able to detect multiple instances of interactions between Neanderthals and Denisovans,” Slon said.

However, the genetic data does not indicate that Neanderthals and Denisovans were constantly interbreeding, she said. The two groups were more genetically distinct from each other than any two people alive today.

“Individuals from the two groups probably did not meet very often,” she said. “Their overlap may have been very restricted, both geographically and possibly also in time.”

Researchers still know very little about Denisovans.

The hominin group was first discovered in 2010 and so far, all known Denisovan fossils were found in Denisova Cave. Scientists say it is possible that hominin remains in China and other places in Asia may also be Denisovans, but if the DNA was not preserved, it will be difficult to know for sure.

One thing scientists do know, however, is that Denisovans also mixed with modern humans. Some people living today, especially those from Papau New Guinea and aboriginal Australians, have as much as 5% Denisovan DNA. East Asians have about 0.2% Denisovan DNA.

But where modern humans and Denisovans encountered each other and the full nature of these encounters remains a mystery. That’s true for encounters between Neanderthals and Denisovans as well.

“I’m curious how those contacts worked,” Viola said. “Did you have a Neanderthal who moved into a Denisovan group or the other way around? Or was it just two individuals meeting in the landscape and reproducing?”

He also wondered if there was a cultural exchange between different hominin groups when they met.

Researchers hope future discoveries of Denisovan fossils will help us learn more about these ancient hominin cousins.

“The search is ongoing,” Slon said.

Do you love science? I do! Follow me @DeborahNetburn and “like” Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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Deborah Netburn is a features writer at the Los Angeles Times. She joined the paper in 2006 and has covered entertainment, home and garden, national news, technology and most recently, science.

Researchers have come to the conclusion that the gap between Neanderthals and today’s humans narrows but doesn’t close.

Neanderthals are an extinct species or subspecies of humans who lived in Eurasia for 300,000 years and disappeared after modern humans came to western Europe some 40,000 years ago. They had brains as big as ours, made complex stone tools, but they vanished and our ancestors, not only survived but took over the planet.

Scientists for decades tried to find out the exact cause of their extinction or what special property makes us fully human and them not quite enough. In a recent paper, researchers review the archaeological evidence for these Neanderthal inferiorities.

In any case, they found no evidence to support the assumption that Neanderthals were any different than modern human beings. The current study shows that Neanderthals never went extinct, they live in the genome of modern humans living outside Africa today.

Twenty years ago the story of modern human origins seemed pretty simple, Homo sapiens arose in Africa and replaced everybody everywhere else including the Neanderthals, who went extinct. However, recent research shows that modern humans had their origin in Africa around 150,000-200,000 years ago.

Then they came out of Africa about 60,000 years ago and replaced all other groups living outside Africa. Interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals as well as another form of prehistoric human Denisovans was going on at least on a small scale.

Researchers argue that the Neanderthals weren’t so much replaced as they absorbed into the larger modern human population. Interestingly, Denisovans and another human-like species found on the island of Indonesia called ‘hobbits” also disappeared and only modern humans continued to exist on our planet.

Researchers are of the view that there were not strong behavioral differences between modern humans and Neanderthals. But this may not be the whole story as minute behavioral differences could have been significant under stressful conditions. For example, modern people have witnessed the presence of sewing needles in Europe 35,000 years ago which brought a revolution in tailoring clothes, tents, and warm babies clothes which make the survival of the next generation possible.

Neanderthals had some kind of clothing during the ice age in Europe but sewing needles brought a revolution. However, art wasn’t known either to Neanderthals or modern Africans before 60,000 years ago. But for comparison, statuettes from Germany 40,000 year ago show humans, animals and mythological creatures combinning human and animal parts.

It suggests that Neanderthals were certainly intelligent and technologically well equipped, burying their deads and had complex art that can’t be compared with modern art in spiritual dimentions. Researchers found a flute from a site in Slovenia and some others from Germany made from the wings of vulture and mammoth ivory some 35,000 -40,000 years old, showing Neanderthal’s sense of music.

Hence researchers don’t find any differences in symbolic behavior in modern human and Neanderthals. Recent evidence has consideraly narrowed the gap between these two but it hasn’t completely closed. Now the question arises why they go extinct if they were much like us?

Their disppearance from different parts of world was owing to different reasons and climate played a role in it. Climate was extremely unstable from 70,000 to 12,000 years ago and every few thousand years the climate switched often rapidly. Imagine at the time of Neanderthals and Denisovans over in Siberia, rapid climate change would be a challenge difficult to cope with.

Although modern humans suffered too specially if there was extreme cold but overall their population history is different. The genetic evidence suggests that half a million year ago, Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans had the same population size and they were all a single population. Through time, it split into three distinct populations, in western Europe and Asia it became the Nean derthals, in east Asia the Denisovans and in Africa it became us, homo sapiens.

The genetic data suggests that the Neanderthals and Denisovan numbers sank steadily until they became extinct some 50,000 years ago. Whereas in Africa, the modern human’s numbers are maintained as 5-10 degrees drop or rise in Africa won’t kill you but it would if you were in Britain or Siberia where these populations were constantly under pressure. In extreme cold they survived in pockets in the south and when it warms up people start expanding towards north.

Neanderthals lived in small isolated population groups according to gene analysis, not well networked. Hence when population crashed, they lost cultural information. Assumptions are that when modern humans and Neanderthals met some 60,000 years when modern human came out of Africa those all populations of hobbits, Denisovans and Neanderthals were gone.

Modern humans moving into these areas would came into their economic competition, but genetic evidence suggests they were interbreeding. Ancient DNA in people outisde Africa shows 2% of Neanderthal DNA and 4-5% of Denisovan DNA suggesting a few interbreeding events that were not so widespread.

The truth is that they didn’t go 100% extinct as we all have got a little bit of them inside us. Researchers coclude that if they could go back in time to analyze Neanderthals’ speech skills it would be much helpful to study them closely. As they think, maybe Neanderthals didn’t have the kind of hypothetical reasoning that modern humans have and that leads to the latest inventions, making modern humans different from them.

Genetic Legacy of Denisovans

Geneticists have been able to identify their DNA and this is helping us to better understand this extinct species of humans. Researchers had been able to establish their genetic legacy in a population ranging from “the Philippines and New Guinea to China and Tibet have inherited 3% to 5% of their DNA from Denisovans” reports the Science Mag .

It seems that this branch of the human family left Africa sometime before Homo sapiens and that they lived in Asia for thousands of years. When modern humans entered Asia some 50,000 years ago, members of the two species mated with each other. The Science Mag reports that as a result of this extensive interbreeding many modern Melanesian populations in the Pacific have up to “3% to 5% of their DNA from them.”

A team of biologists led by Murray Cox and Herawati Sudoyo found traces of two types of DNA from Denisovan populations in samples of Papuans from New Guinea. After studying the results using statistical analysis they found that some of the genes had only entered the human genome as late as 15,000 years ago. Finding Denisovan genetic material at so late a date was very exciting. The genetic analysis of the sample from New Guinea adds to the body of evidence for mating between modern humans and the Denisovans.

A study of the DNA of Papuans from New Guinea led to the discovery that Denisovans and modern humans mated. (Flickr upload bot / CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Our Mysterious Archaic Human Ancestor and Extinct Humans

During the study, researchers compared the genomes of two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and two modern African individuals. The Neanderthals ( Homo neanderthalensis ) were an extinct species of humans that died out about 30000 years ago, and once inhabited vast areas of Eurasia. Denisovans are a mysterious species, only known through their DNA, who probably ranged across an area that covered Siberia and East Asia. The samples from modern Africans were selected because they are known not to have Neanderthal nor Denisovan genes.

The spread and evolution of Denisovans (John D. Croft / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Based on the ground-breaking algorithm the researchers were able to develop an ancestral recombination graph, which “includes a tree that captures the relationships among all individuals at every position along the genome, and the recombination events that cause those trees to change from one position to the next,” Siepel told Live Science . The team were able to build up a picture of the extensive interbreeding between different species of hominids and gain insights even into their migration patterns.

Meet Denisova 11: First Known Hybrid Hominin

Romeo and Juliet may be history’s most enduring pair of star-crossed lovers, but they certainly weren’t the first to fall for a purportedly off-limits partner. Some 90,000 years before William Shakespeare first brought the warring Capulets and Montagues to life, two hominins overcame what seems like an insurmountable obstacle—one was a Neanderthal, the other an entirely different species known as the Denisovan—to create a thriving interspecies family.

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The offspring of this unconventional coupling, a young girl scientists have dubbed Denisova 11, lived in modern-day Siberia, Maya Wei-Haas reports for National Geographic. She died young, likely around age 13, and was laid to rest in a cave perched along the remote Altai Mountain range.

Tens of thousands of years after Denisova’s untimely death, one of her bone fragments has provided the first conclusive evidence of early human interbreeding. The landmark discovery, documented in this week’s issue of Nature , suggests that Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans not only peacefully co-existed, but willingly mated. If so, the story of Denisova’s Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father may be less about star-crossed lovers than an unusual, albeit fairly common, hybrid coupling.

According to The New York Times’ Carl Zimmer, scientists first identified the Denisovan species in 2010, when they found a bone fragment representing a previously unknown group of early humans. Although the Denisovans are distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans, researchers know little about their appearance or behavior. The five known members of the species, including Denisova 11, were all discovered in the Altai Mountain cave, which has yielded roughly 2,000 damaged bone fragments dating as far back as 120,000 years ago.

The Denisovans’ physical legacy is scarce: To date, researchers have only attributed three teeth, a pinky and either an arm or leg fragment to the mysterious species.

Still, this scant evidence is enough to show that Denisovans and Neanderthals split from a common ancestor roughly 390,000 years ago, Wei-Haas writes, and to point toward both species’ eventual decline around 40,000 years ago.

The Denisova Cave in Siberia has yielded an array of anthropological finds, from Denisova 11's arm or leg bone to a 120,000-year-old Neanderthal bone fragment (Bill Viola/Max Planck Institute)

BBC News ’ Helen Briggs notes that Neanderthals lived largely in the western regions of Eurasia, while Denisovans strayed closer to the east. As the former migrated east, however, chance encounters between the two groups likely resulted in interspecies mingling.

“Neanderthals and Denisovans may not have had many opportunities to meet," Svante Pääbo, director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, tells Briggs. "But when they did, they must have mated frequently—much more so than we previously thought."

Viviane Slon, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, led DNA analysis of the Denisova 11 bone. Using a technique known as collagen peptide mass fingerprinting, she and her colleagues identified the fragment as part of a human arm or leg bone belonging, based on the bone’s thickness, to an individual at least 13 years old.

Slon extracted mitochondrial DNA, which contains distinct genes passed on by one’s mother, from the sample and found that it contained genetic material similar to that seen in Neanderthals. Further analysis of the fragment’s nuclear DNA (inherited from both parents), however, yielded equal amounts of Denisovan DNA.

“My first reaction was, ‘What did I do wrong?’” Slon tells The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang. Doubting the abnormal findings, she repeated the DNA extractions a total of six times. Each test ended with the same result.

“It’s really when we saw this over and over again we realized, in fact, it was mixed Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestry,” Slon explains.

According to The New York Times’ Zimmer, Denisova 11’s mother was more closely related to Neanderthals dwelling in western Europe than those residing in the Siberian cave some 120,000 years ago. Denisova’s paternal relatives, on the other hand, stuck to the region surrounding the cave—Denisova 3, the hominin whose pinky toe first led scientists to the species, lived in the area a few thousand years after Denisova 11.

Denisova 11 wasn’t the only hybrid human in her family: Inverse’s Sarah Sloat reports that the girl’s father had at least one Neanderthal ancestor, providing evidence of yet another interspecies coupling.

Today, both Neanderthal and Denisovan genes continue to crop up in modern humans’ DNA. Two percent of most European and Asian populations’ DNA is Neanderthal, National Geographic’s Wei-Haas writes, while four to six percent of modern Melanesians’ DNA derives from Denisovans.

The enduring genetic footprint of these early human species, as well as the interbreeding insights provided by Denisova 11’s tiny bone fragment, suggests that interspecies hybrids may not have been an anomaly as scientists have long believed.

“When you find a needle in a haystack, you have to start wondering if what you’re really looking at is a needlestack,” John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was not involved in the study, tells The Atlantic’s Zhang. “This genome shows that hybrids were nowhere near as rare as people have been assuming. They must have been really common.”