24 December 2010

The Denisovans enter the human story

I would greet the latest addition to the human family with a hearty hello; unfortunately they are all dead. Thirty thousand years dead, in fact. Scientists announced that the remains of a finger discovered in the Denisova cave in the Altai mountain range of southern Siberia belong to a previously unknown human ancestor. They believe that the undocumented human species lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans as recently as 30,000 years ago.

The Denisovans join Homo floresiensis, or the "hobbits," a diminutive species of human discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003. Although some scientists persist in the belief that the hobbits were in fact Homo sapiens with a brain-shrinking disease, the evidence increasingly suggests they belonged to a different human species that shared the planet with us up until 13.000 years ago.

We humans are a lonely species, with only one of our kind left on Earth. Most creatures have many species, even thousands. It appears that not all that long ago in evolutionary terms, we too had rather more company, with perhaps four of our kind roaming the planet: Homo sapiens, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo floresiensis, and now Denisova hominim.

One is intrigued by these ancient relatives of ours. What were they like? How did they pass their days? What happened to them? Did we, in our characteristic savagery, exterminate them? We have exterminated so many other species, why not a few of our own? We will never be able to answer many questions about them, but I wish the scientists great success in increasing our knowledge about these distant cousins.

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