Despite not having much to go on, scientists still managed to create an image of what ancient Denisovans may have looked like.
Up until around 15,000 years ago, humans and Denisovans shared caves and even mated in locations that ranged from Siberia to Southeast Asia. Some populations even to this day still have traces of genetic lineage from our ancient ancestors.
While there has never been a complete skeleton or even a full skull (a piece of a skull was found in Siberia) that’s ever been found from our ancient ancestors, scientists only had a jawbone, some teeth, and a pinky bone belonging to a girl that was found in a Siberian cave in 2010. Luckily for scientists, the pinky finger had a blob of DNA that was found on the tip.
Scientists created a methyl map of the genome belonging to Denisovans by revealing how chemical changes affecting the gene expression could impact the physical characteristics. “There are various layers that compose our genome,” explained David Gokhman, who is a geneticist at Stanford University as well as the lead author of the study describing their research (which can be read here). He added, “We have the DNA sequence itself, where our genes are encoded. Then, on top of that, there are regulatory layers that control which genes are activated or deactivated, and in what tissue.”
By conducting these studies, a team of international researchers have created an image of what a Denisovan girl from 40,000 years ago may have looked like thanks to the DNA that was found in her pinky bone. The portrait of the girl shows a low forehead and a protruding jaw with barely any chin. The image actually wasn’t that much different than those of Neanderthals. “I was expecting Denisovan traits to be similar to Neanderthals, just because Neanderthals are their closest relatives,” Gokhman told Live Science. The image of the Denisovan girl can be seen here.
There were, however, several differences between our two ancient ancestors – Denisovans had 56 traits that were different from Neanderthals and modern humans, with 32 of those being anatomically different. Denisovans had much longer dental arches where their top and bottom rows of teeth extended further out. Additionally, the tops of their skulls were much wider than Neanderthals and modern humans, even though their faces were flatter and thinner than Neanderthals. They also had wider rib cages and pelvises compared to modern humans. By finding out about these traits, Gokhman is optimistic that the two partial skulls that had been recently found in China may belong to the wide-headed Denisovans.
“The only true test of our predictions is to find more Denisovan bones and match them,” Gokhman stated, finishing off by adding that his dream fossil would be to find part of a Denisovan’s face, “just faces are so divergent between different humans.”