In an article published in ‘Nature’ in August 2018 a group of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig present the results of DNA analysis from a small bone excavated at the Denisova Cave in SW Siberia.
The research by a team headed by Dr. Viviane Slon, shows that the bone, from a young female given the name ‘Denny’, had DNA from both a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother. The father came from a population living locally to the Denisova caves while the mother seems to have come from a group living thousands of kilometres to the west in what is now present day Croatia.
Neanderthals and Denisovans are extinct groups of archaic humans that separated from each other more than 390,000 years ago. Despite interbreeding, Neanderthals and Denisovans never merged into a single genetic population. For hundreds of thousands of years, they remained distinct in spite of some interbreeding. They lived in small groups separated by vast distances, so maybe there was not much opportunity to mate. Alternatively, the offspring of such interbreeding may have suffered from some genetic disorder so that they did not flourish.
Earlier research has shown that interbreeding took place between Neanderthals and humans. In fact most of us have a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA in our genes. What is remarkable is that this is only the fifth Denisovan individual to be sequenced, suggesting that ‘hybrids’ between all three groups
were much more common than previously thought.
Interbreeding may have become more widespread with the arrival of our human ancestors on the scene after their migration from Africa some 70,000 years ago.
We have numerous skeletal remains including the skull of the Neanderthals and have a fair idea what they looked like. Up to now, however, only small bone fragments of the Denisovans have come to light and their appearance remains a mystery.