FINDER : Fossil Fingerprinting and Identification of New Denisovan Remains from Pleistocene Asia

(European Research Council Starting Grant: 2017-2022)

Ancient genomics have transformed our knowledge of archaic hominins present in Eurasia prior to the expansion of modern humans from Africa. In 2010, a finger bone discovered at Denisova Cave (Siberia, Russia) was assigned using DNA to a new, previously unknown human group, the Denisovans. The Denisovans interbred with both Asian Neanderthals and modern humans over the past 100,000 years; their geographic distribution is now thought to have stretched from the Siberian steppes to the tropical forests of SE Asia and Oceania.

Despite their assumed broad spatiotemporal range, Denisovans are only known from 4 tiny bones and teeth, all from a single Siberian cave (figure below). Their presence was also identified in sediment-bound DNA at the same cave.

This patchy knowledge of an entire human population significantly limits our ability to test hypotheses and interpretative models concerning major issues in the field of human evolution, such as the routes and timing of people movements across Asia; the nature and frequency of interaction between indigenous Eurasian groups and migratory modern humans; the mechanisms leading to the demise of archaic lineages and eventual sole dominance of our species on Earth.

This project aims to rectify the dearth of Denisovan fossils by applying a novel combination of scientific methods, namely, collagen fingerprinting, radiocarbon dating and ancient DNA analysis, designed to identify, date and genetically characterize new human fossils, with a particular emphasis on the discovery of Denisovan remains. Instead of only focusing on the few morphologically identifiable human bones, in this project, a  high-throughput approach will target bulk collections of unidentified bone fragments (~30,000 fragments) from ~20 Asian sites dating to between 100,000-10,000 years.

Ultimately, the goal is to expand our understanding of the Denisovans, reveal their geographic range, age, genetic variation and archaeological signature. In addition to solving the puzzles of ancient population history, this research has the potential to decode the patchwork that makes modern humans who we are today, physically, behaviourally and genetically.

This is a Starting European Research Council-funded project, with a large number of collaborators. It is based at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany, and will run from June 2017 to May 2022.

A website dedicated to the project with more information on the team and updates on research progress will follow soon.