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Denisova Cave – abode of Denisova hominins

Main characteristics

Coordinates: 51.3976 N 84.6762 E
No:38        (list of all attractions)
Categories:Fossil finds, Early human finds, Caves
Values:Biology, Archaeology, Geology
Address:Europe, Russia, Altai Krai (just at the border of Altai Republic), Soloneshenskij district, right bank of Anui River 5.4 km north-west from Chernyy Anuy (Black Anui) village
Name in Russian:Денисова пещера
Alternate names:Денискина пещера, Aju-Tasch (Bear Rock)
Length:~ 600 m
Entrance in Denisova Cave, Altai Krai
Tourists heading for Denisova Cave / Wikimedia Commons, Chuvayev Nikolai, CC-BY-SA-3.0

At the right bank of Anui River, 28 metres above the present-day level of water there is located Denisova Cave or, as called by local people – Aju-Tasch. It is not especially large and not adorned with beautiful stalactites – but nonetheless lately it became world famous.

Splinter of bone found here might change they way how we look at our distant past: it is possible that ancient people who lived here had a company of another species of… humans. This another species of humans has been named after this cave - Denisova hominins.

Cave of eremite Denis with rain hidden inside

Denisova Cave is comparatively well suited to live in it – it is horizontal, with rather wide entrance. Length of the cave is approximately 600 m, floor area – roughly 270 m2, it is located 670 m above the sea level. This cave has formed in upper Silurian limestone, consists of spatious 9x11 m large central chamber with three smaller side galleries. Vertical chimney served well to convey a smoke from a fireplace.

It seems, this cave always has been well known to local people. Current Russian name of cave comes from eremite Dionisij (Denis) who lived here in the second half of the 18th century.

Altai people call the cave Aju-Tasch – Bear Rock. According to their legend here lived an evil sorcerer who got angry at local people and sent rain lasting for many years. People turned for a help of another – white sorcerer who expelled the black magician and tangled all rain in a ball. He turned this ball into stone and concealed it into the ground of Denisova Cave.

View from the entrance in Denisova Cave
View from the entrance in Denisova Cave /, Chuvayev Nikolai, CC-BY-SA-3.0

20 cultural layers!

It was Siberian archaeologist Nikolai Ovodov who started excavations in Denisova Cave in 1977. Already the first barholes indicated – this cave is a goldmine for archaeologists!

Excavations in the cave continue up to this day and since 1982 there is established permanent camp of the Archaeology Institute of Russian Academy of Science, Siberian branch. Scientists have extracted approximately 50,000 artefacts thus far, providing rich supplement for surrounding museums.

Throughout many thousands of years Denisova Cave has served as a shelter both for people and animals. In total there have been found 20 - 22 cultural layers – starting with the most recent layer left by Dionisij and ending up with at least 125,000 years old artefacts left by Neanderthals (although now there is open question - were they Neanderthals?). There is no other cave with such a wealth of archaeological finds in this region.

Remnants of animals

Cave contains remnants of diverse animal species including extinct ones. Finds include remnants of 27 species of large and middle-sized mammals, 39 species of small mammals and remnants of other vertebrates. Thus here has been found tusk of mammoth, ostrich egg shell, remnants of small cave bear (Ursus rossicus), cave hyaena (Crocuta spelaea), cave lion (Panthera spelaea), wooly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis) and many others.

Most of these animals preferred to live in steppe, but there are represented also species living in forests.

Several species of humans

One species of humans - thus far considered to be Neanderthals - came here earlier than modern people. As evidenced by the find of their tools, cave was inhabited by them already 280,000 years ago. Meanwhile modern people left Africa "only" 70,000 years ago and, naturally, arrived here later.

Coexistance of ancient people and other species of humans - such as Neanderthals - is nothing new. Also Altai was not an exception – when people lived in Denisova Cave and nearby caves. Archaeological findings and genetical analysis shows that Neanderthals lived not further than 150 km to the west, in Okladnikova Cave. Later, when these others disappeared, modern people continued to live in Denisova Cave.

There have been found ancient stone tools and also iron tools from the 14th – 15th centuries. Archeologists have found decorative objects of bone, adornment made of dark green chloritolite, pendants and other interesting artefacts. Of course, also Dionisij left traces in the cultural layer of cave.

Splinter of bone

There have been found very few human bones in Denisova Cave – there is no place for the remains of deceased ones in the dwelling of living people.

During the season of excavations of 2008 the situation changed – there was found a splinter of petrified phalanx of finger (pinkie), most likely belonging to a 6 – 7 years old child girl who lived some 30 – 48 thousand years ago. She was contemporary of Neanderthals and people – and initially it was assumed that it belongs to Neanderthal or human.

It is not known whether these bones originated here or were carried here as commemorative or cult items.

Surprising results of DNA analysis

Cold climate of this location created beneficial conditions to preserve more genetic information than would be conserved in warmer climate. Thus there was a hope that this splinter of phalanx will provide valuable information - and it really turned out that DNA in this bone has been well preserved.

Team of scientists at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany have good contacts to collegues in Siberia and since some time were performing genetical analysis of remnants of ancient Siberian people. Scientists started the DNA analysis of the newly found bone from Denisova Cave as well and with success obtained full sequence of mitochondrial DNA. In March 2010 there were published results of the first set of analysis – and these results were surprising.

The scientific work at this stage included analysis of mitochondrial DNA. Results indicated that DNA of this child differed from DNA’s of modern humans and Neanderthals.

Another hominin - Denisovan

There are 385 differences in nucleotides between the dweller of Denisova Cave and modern human (on average). Neanderthals and humans on average have 202 differences in mitochondrial DNA.

For comparison: the DNA of modern human and chimpanzee have approximately 1,462 differences in nucleotides.

Thus it can be assumed that in Denisova Cave lived somebody who was not modern human and not Neanderthal either. There seem to be another species of hominins living in Altai some 40,000 years ago. As for now this being has been named – Denisova hominin, also Denisovan. A polished bracelet with a drilled hole has been found in the same layer as well.

Hominin is a term uniting humans and closely related species. The only living hominins are people, chimpanzes and bonobos but there have been found numerous extinct species, nearly all originating in Africa – cradle of humankind.

Analysis of nucleotids can serve also as a kind of "molecular clock". Thanks to this it can be assumed that humans, Neanderthals and Denisova hominin had common ancestors at least 800 thousand years ago. It seems that Denisovans and Neanderthals divided into two distinct groups later - some 640 thousand years ago (another assessment - some 400 thousand years ago). Denisovans and Neanderthals seem to be closer relatives, than modern humans.

Hominins have spread out from Africa to Asia and Europe in several "waves". It is known that Homo erectus left Africa approximately 1.9 million years ago, ancestors of Neanderthals (Homo heidelbergensis) – some 300 – 500 thousand years ago and modern humans (Homo sapiens) – some 70 thousand years ago.

Scientists assume that Denisovans emerged from Africa approximately at the same time when Neanderthals - some 500 thousand years ago or - may be earlier. Neanderthals spread westward, towards Near East and Europe. Denisovans in turn most likely spread in the vast Eastern Asia.

Even more exciting is the fact that the genome of contemporary Melanesians for 4 - 6% contains genome of Denisovans - DNA samples from contemporary people in New Guinea and Bougainville Island contain pieces of genetic code of the bone splinter from Denisova cave.

Thus modern people, who left Africa some 70 thousand years ago, met Neanderthals in Near East and Africa and Denisovans in Asia. They most likely interbred with both species of hominins - it is known that DNA of modern non-Africa people for some 4% contains genome of Neanderthals. Such impact can be left by a rather small number of interbreeding events.

Search continues

So far this splinter of bone is the main thread in the search for this new branch of hominids.

Later analysis shows that also one tooth from this cave belongs to another young Denisovan. The form of this tooth is different, more archaic than a tooth of Neanderthal.

Of course, this is too little to find out how these ancient beings looked, when and why they disappeared.

If initial assumptions will turn out to be correct, discovery of small splinter of bone in Denisova Cave will change the way how we look at evolution of humans in central and eastern Asia. There will be need to review earlier accounts of Neanderthal man findings in Asia - it becomes unclear now whether Neanderthals lived in Eastern Asia or not.

Finds of Neanderthals are attributed to Okladnikov Cave 150 km from Denisova Cave and Teshik-Tash Cave in Uzbekistan. Ust Karakol Cave in Altai contains artefacts left either by Neanderthals or Denisovans. Meanwhile in Obi Rakhmat Cave and Anghilak Cave in Uzbekistan are reported remnants of hominins whose species still needs to be identified.

It is exciting also to search for the reasons why Denisovans and Neanderthals disappeared. They seem to disappear some time after coming of modern people - thus it can be caused by us.

All of this makes history even more complex and even more exciting.


See Denisova Cave on the map of Russia!


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