Scientists have reconstructed the nearly complete genome of a fossil individual belonging to the ancient population known as Denisovans. According to the DNA extracted from a single fossil found in Denisova Cave, Siberia, this population was established in Asia by at least 80,000 years ago, and was a close relative of Neanderthals. This Denisovan individual possessed genetic variations associated with dark skin, brown hair, and brown eyes.
Comparison of Denisovan and modern human DNA suggests that genetic changes associated with brain function, nerve cell communication, and nervous system growth were critical in the evolution of Homo sapiens. The exact consequences of these genetic differences are not known, yet further study of ancient Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA is likely to discover key biological distinctions between living humans and our extinct fossil relatives.
The new study of Denisovan DNA was led by Matthias Meyer and Svante Pääbo, and was published in the journal Science, October 12, 2012.
Entrance to Denisova Cave, southern Siberia. Although the Denisovans are known only from three fossils - a finger bone and two molar teeth - reconstruction of their genome provides a new way of studying human evolution.