Denisovans (deh-NEE-so-vens, sounds like Denise) were a kind of early man that lived in Asia 250,000 to 40,000 years ago. They are close cousins to the Neanderthals, their counterpart in Europe.
Note: In this post, “we”, “us”, “human” and “people” will mean just our subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens, also known as “anatomically modern humans”.
About 125,000 years ago it went like this:
- Africa: humans
- West Eurasia: Neanderthals
- East Eurasia: Denisovans
Each is a subspecies of Homo sapiens – a true race in the biological sense.
Humans left Africa in two main waves:
- The first wave mated with Neanderthals in South West Asia and with Denisovans in South East Asia. They became the black people of South East Asia (Negritos), Australia (Aboriginals), New Guinea and the other islands of Melanesia. They are now 2.5% Neanderthal, 5% Denisovan.
- The second wave mated only with Neanderthals. There were few if any Denisovans left at that point. This second wave became the light-skinned people native to Europe, Asia and the Americas. They are now 2.5% Neanderthal.
The black people in Africa have no known Neanderthal or Denisovan genes.
Denisovans were discovered in 2008 when part of a finger bone found in a cave in Siberia had its DNA tested: it turned out to be neither human nor Neanderthal but something else.
The finger bone belonged to an eight-year-old girl who died some 41,000 years ago. She may have been among the last of her kind. From her genes we know she had brown eyes, brown hair and dark skin. Two Denisovan teeth, not hers, were found in the same cave. They are big like bear teeth.
So far that is all we have of the Denisovans: No skulls, no skeletons, no tools, no artwork. Some skulls found in China from the same period are being tested for their DNA. That might turn up nothing: bone that old has little readable DNA. The finger bone was an amazing stroke of luck, helped in part by the cold of Siberia and the latest techniques in reading DNA.
Compared to our DNA the main differences have to do with skin, teeth, eyes, brain function and immunity to disease. The immunity genes are the ones most likely to have lived on in us.
Denisovan brains were wired differently. They did not talk like us. They might come off as what we would regard as autistic. They might have been bad liars who had a hard time seeing things from another’s point of view.
From the girl’s genes we can work backwards and find out what her parents’s genes were. They were more genetically alike than human parents even though they were not blood relations. Like Neanderthals, it seems Denisovans lacked genetic diversity, probably because they did not leave Africa in huge numbers.
Denisovans split off from our line some 500,000 years ago. By 250,000 years ago they had left Africa and had split off from Neanderthals. They reached their height in numbers 125,000 years ago. By the time humans first saw them they were already dying out.