Out of Africa: The earliest modern human to leave

The 2017 discovery in Morocco of fossilised, anatomically modern humans (AMH) dated at 286 ka (see: Origin of anatomically modern humans, June 2017) pushed back the origin of our species by at least 100 ka. Indeed, the same site yielded flint tools around 315 ka old. Aside from indicating our antiquity, the Jebel Irhoud discovery expanded the time span during which AMH might have wandered into Eurasia, as a whole variety of earlier hominins had managed since about 1.8 Ma ago. Sure enough, the widely accepted earliest modern human migrants from Skhul and Qafzeh caves in Israel (90 to 120 ka) were superseded in 2018 by AMH fossils at Misliya Cave, also in Israel, in association with 177 ka stone artefacts (see Earliest departure of modern humans from Africa, January 2018). Such early dates helped make more sense of very old ages for unaccompanied stone tools in the Arabian Peninsula as tracers for early migration routes. Unlike today, Arabia was a fertile place during a series of monsoon-related cycles extending back to about 160 ka (see: Arabia : staging post for human migrations? September 2014; Wet spells in Arabia and human migration, March 2015). The ‘record’ has now shifted to Greece.

hominin sites
Key ages of early H. sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans (credit: Delson, 2019; Fig. 1)

Fossil human remains unearthed decades ago often undergo revised assessment as more precise dating methods and anatomical ideas become available. Such is the case for two partial human skulls found in the Apidima Cave complex of southern Greece during the late 1970s. Now, using the uranium-series method, one has been dated at 170 ka, the other being at least 210 ka old (Harvati, K. and 11 others 2019. Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature, v. 571 online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1376-z). These are well within the age range of European Neanderthals. Indeed, the younger one does have the characteristic Neanderthal brow ridges and elongated shape. Albeit damaged, the older skull is more rounded and lacks the Neanderthals’ ‘bun’-like bulge at the back; it is an early member of Homo sapiens. In fact 170 ka older than any other early European AMH, and a clear contemporary of the long-lived Neanderthal population of Eurasia; in fact the age relations could indicate that Neanderthals replaced these early AMH migrants.

Given suitable climatic conditions in the Levant and Arabia, those areas are the closest to Africa to which they are linked by an ‘easy’, overland route. To reach Greece is not only a longer haul from the Red Sea isthmus but involves the significant barrier of the Dardanelles strait, or it requires navigation across the Mediterranean Sea. Such is the ‘specky’ occurrence of hominin fossils in both space and time that a new geographic outlier such as Apidima doesn’t help much in understanding how migration happened. Until – and if – DNA can be extracted it is impossible to tell if AMH-Neanderthal hybridisation occurred at such an early date and if the 210 ka population in Greece vanished without a trace or left a sign in the genomics of living humans. Yet, both time and place being so unexpected, the discovery raises optimism of further discoveries to come

See also: Delson, E. 2019. An early modern human outside Africa. Nature, v. 571 online; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02075-9

Ancient proteins: keys to early human evolution?

A jawbone discovered in a Tibetan cave turned out to be that of a Denisovan who had lived and died there about 160,000 years ago (see: Denisovan on top of the world; 6 May, 2019). That discovery owed nothing to ancient DNA, because the fossil proved to contain none that could be sequenced. But the dentine in one of two molar teeth embedded in the partial jaw did yield protein. The teeth are extremely large and have three roots, rather than the four more common in modern, non-Asian humans, as are Denisovan teeth from in the Siberian Denisova Cave. Fortunately, those teeth also yielded proteins. In an analogous way to the genomic sequencing of nucleotides (adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine) in DNA, the sequence of amino acids from which proteins are built can also be analysed. Such a proteomic sequence can be compared with others in a similar manner to genetic sequences in DNA. The Tibetan and Siberian dentine proteins are statistically almost the same.

Triple helix structure of collagen, colour-coded to represent different amino acids (credit: Wikipedia)

At present the most ancient human DNA that has been recovered – from an early Neanderthal in the Sima de los Huesos in Spain – is 430,000 years old (see: Mitochondrial DNA from 400 thousand year old humans; December 2013). Yet it is proving difficult to go beyond that time, even in the cool climates that slow down the degradation of DNA. The oldest known genome of any animal is that of mtDNA from a 560–780 thousand year old horse, a leg bone of which was extracted from permafrost in the Yukon Territory, Canada. The technologies on which sequencing of ancient DNA depends may advance, but, until then, tracing the human evolutionary journey back beyond Neanderthals and Denisovans seems dependent on proteomic approaches (Warren, M. 2019. Move over, DNA: ancient proteins are starting to reveal humanity’s history. Nature, v. 570, p. 433-436; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-01986-x). Are the earlier Homo heidelbergensis and H. erectus within reach?

It seems that they may be, as might even earlier hominins. The 1.8 Ma Dmanisi site in Georgia, now famous for fossils of the earliest humans known to have left Africa, also yielded an extinct rhinoceros (Stephanorhinus). Proteins have been extracted from it, which show that Stephanorhinus was closely related to the later woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis). Collagen protein sequences from a 3.4 Ma camel preserved in the Arctic and even from a Tanzanian 3.8 Ma ostrich egg shell show the huge potential of ancient proteomics. Most exciting is that last example, not only because it extends the potential age range to that of Australopithecus afarensis but into tropical regions where DNA is at its most fragile. Matthew Warren points out potential difficulties, such as the limit of a few thousand amino acids in protein sequences compared with 3 million variants in DNA, and the fact that the most commonly found fossil proteins – collagens –  may have evolved very little. On the positive side, proteins have been detected in a 195 Ma old fossil dinosaur. But some earlier reports of intact diosaur proteins have been questioned recently (Saitta, E.T. et al. 2019. Cretaceous dinosaur bone contains recent organic material and provides an environment conducive to microbial communities. eLife, 8:e46205; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.46205)


Multiple invention of stone tools

Steadily, the record of stone tools has progressed further back in time as archaeological surveys have expanded, especially in East Africa (Stone tools go even further back, May 2015). The earliest known tools – now termed Lomekwian – are 3.3 million years old, from deposits in north-western Kenya, as are cut-marked bone fragments from Ethiopia’s Afar region. There is no direct link to their makers, but at least six species of Australopithecus occupied Africa during the Middle Pliocene. Similarly, there are various options for who made Oldowan tools in the period between 2.6 and 2.0 Ma, the only known direct association being with Homo habilis in 2.0 Ma old sediments from Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge; the type locality for the Oldowan.

The shapes of stone tools and the manufacturing techniques required to make them and other artefacts, are among the best, if not the only, means of assessing the cognitive abilities of their makers. A new, detailed study of the shapes of 327 Oldowan tools from a 2.6 Ma old site in Afar, Ethiopia has revealed a major shift in hominin working methods (Braun, D.R. and 17 others 2019. Earliest known Oldowan artifacts at >2.58 Ma from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia, highlight early technological diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy, v. 116, p. 11712-11717; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1820177116). The sharp-edged tools were made by more complex methods than the Lomekwian. Analysis suggests that they were probably made by striking two lumps of rock together, i.e. by a deliberate two-handed technique. On the other hand, Lomekwian tools derived simply by repeatedly bashing one rock against a hard surface, not much different from the way some living primates make rudimentary tools. But the morphology of the Ledi-Geraru tools also falls into several distinct types, each suggesting systematic removal of only 2 or 3 flakes to make a sharp edge. The variations in technique suggest that several different groups with different traditions used the once lake-side site.

Various 2.6 Ma old Oldowan stone tools from Ledi-Geraru, Ethiopia (credit: Braun et al., 2019)

Ledi-Geraru lies about 5 km from another site dated about 200 ka earlier than the tools, which yielded a hominin jawbone, likely to be from the earliest known member of the genus Homo. A key feature that suggested a human affinity is the nature of the teeth that differ markedly from those of contemporary and earlier australopithecines. It appears that the tools are of early human manufacture. The ecosystem suggested by bones of other animals, such as antelope and giraffe was probably open grassland – a more difficult environment for hominin subsistence. The time of the Lomekwian tools was one of significantly denser vegetation, with more opportunities for gathering plant foods. Perhaps this environmental shift was instrumental in driving hominins to increased scavenging of meat, the selection pressure acting on culture to demand tools sharp enough to remove meat from the prey of other animals quickly, and on physiology and cognitive power to achieve that.

See also: Solly, M. 2019. Humans may have been crafting stone tools for 2.6 million years (Smithsonian Magazine)

Neanderthal demographics and their extinction

About 39 thousand years ago all sign of the presence of Neanderthal bands in their extensive range across western Eurasia disappears. Their demise occurred during a period of relative warmth (Marine-Isotope Stage-3) following a cold period at its worst around 65 ka (MIS-4). They had previously thrived since their first appearance in Eurasia at about 250 ka, surviving at least two full glacial cycles. Their demise occurred around 5 thousand years after they were joined in western Eurasia by anatomically modern humans (AMH). During their long period of habitation they had adapted well to a range of climatic zones from woodland to tundra. During their overlap both groups shared much the same food resources, dominated by large herbivores whose numbers burgeoned during the warm period, with the difference that Neanderthals seemed to have depended on ranges centred on fixed sites of habitation while AMH maintained a nomadic lifestyle. Having shared a common African ancestry about 400 thousand years ago, DNA studies  have revealed that the two populations interbred regularly, probably in the earlier period of overlap in west Asia from around 120 thousand years ago and possibly in Europe too after 44 ka. Considering their previous tenacity, how the Neanderthals met their end is something of a mystery. It may have been a result of competition for resources with AMH, which could be countered by the increase in food resources. Maybe physical conflict was involved, or perhaps disease imported with AMH from warmer climes. Genetic absorption through interbreeding of a small population with a larger one of AMH is a possibility, although DNA evidence is lacking. An inability to adapt to climate change contradicts the Neanderthals long record and their disappearance during MIS-3. Previous population estimates of changing Neanderthal populations in the Iberian Peninsula (see Fig. 2 in Roberts, M.F. & Bricher, S.E 2018. Modeling the disappearance of the Neanderthals using principles of population dynamics and ecology. Journal of Archaeological Science, v. 100, p.16-31; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2018.09.012) show decline from about 70,000 to 20,000 before MIS-4, then recovery to about 40,000 before the arrival of AMH at 44 ka followed by a decline to extinction thereafter. Roberts and Bricher developed a model for investigating demographics from archaeological evidence that is neutral as regards any particular hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction.

Nea family
Artistic reconstruction of Neanderthal family group (credit: Nikola Solic, Reuters)

Continue reading “Neanderthal demographics and their extinction”

Denisovan on top of the world

Who the Denisovans were is almost completely bound up with their DNA. Until 2019 their only tangible remains were from a single Siberian cave and amounted to a finger bone, a toe bone three molars and fragment of limb bone. Yet they provided DNA from four individuals who lived in Denis the Hermit’s cave from 30 to more than 100 thousand years ago. The analyses revealed that the Denisovans, like the Neanderthals, left their genetic mark in modern people who live outside of Africa, specifically native people of Melanesia and Australia . Remarkably, one of them revealed that a 90 ka female Denisovan was the offspring of a Denisovan father and  a Neanderthal mother whose DNA suggested that she may have come from the far-off Balkans. Living, native Tibetans, whose DNA has been analysed, share a gene (EPAS1) with Denisovans, which regulates the body’s production of haemoglobin and enables Tibetans and Nepalese Sherpas to thrive at extremely high altitudes (see The earliest humans in Tibet).

The Baishiya Karst Cave in eastern Tibet, with Buddhist prayer flags (credit: Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University )

Part of a hominin lower jaw unearthed by a Buddhist monk in 1980 from a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, at a height of 3280 m, found its way by a circuitous route to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in 2016. It carries two very large molars comparable in size with those found at the Denisova Cave, and which peculiarly have three roots rather than the four in the jaws of non-Asian, living humans. East Asians commonly show this trait. This and other aspects of the fossil teeth resemble those of some uncategorised early hominin fossils from China. Dating of speleothem calcium carbonate with which the jaw is encrusted suggests that the fossil dates back to at least 160 thousand years ago, around the oldest date recovered from Denisova Cave; during the glacial period before the last one. So the individual was able to survive winter conditions worse than those experienced today on the Tibetan Plateau. Further excavation in the cave found numerous stone artefacts and cut-marked animal bones (Chen, F. and 18 others 2019. A late Middle Pleistocene Denisovan mandible from the Tibetan Plateau. Nature, v. 569, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1139-x).

Unfortunately the Tibetan Jaw did not yield DNA capable of being sequenced, so the issues of inheritance of the ‘high-altitude’ gene and wider relatedness of the individual could not be checked. However, one of the teeth did contain preserved protein that can be analysed in an analogous way to DNA, but with less revealing detail. The results were sufficient to demonstrate that the mandible was consistent with a hominin population closely related to the Denisovans of the Siberian cave.

No doubt a path has already been beaten to the Tibetan cave, in the hope of further hominin material. To me the resemblance of the Tibetan fossil jaw to other hominin finds in China, including those from Xuchang, summarised here, is exciting. None of them have been subject to modern biological analysis. Perhaps the ‘real Denisovan’ will emerge from them.

See also: Mysterious ancient human found on the ‘roof of the world’ (National Geographic magazine); Major discovery suggests Denisovans lived in Tibet 160,000 years ago (New Scientist); Finally, a Denisovan specimen from somewhere beyond Denisova Cave (Ars Technica)

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‘Hobbits’ found in the Philippines

The earliest signs that hominins had colonised the island of Luzon in the Philippines took the form of crude stone tools found around half a century ago. Re-excavation of one of the sites uncovered yet more tools buried in a river-channel deposit, along with remains of a butchered rhinoceros dated at around 700 ka by two methods (see Clear signs of a hominin presence on the Philippines at around 700 ka May 2018). The primitive nature of the tools and their age suggested that Asian Homo erectus had managed to reach the Philippine archipelago, despite it being separated from larger islands by deep water.  Even during large falls in sea level (up to 130 m) during glacial periods that exposed Sundaland, which linked the larger islands of Indonesia to mainland Eurasia, at best only a narrow stretch of sea (~20 km) connected the Philippines to the wider world. For most of the time since the earliest known colonisation any hominins on the islands would have been cut off from other populations.

Topography of the Philippines, showing location of the Kalinga site. Palest blue sea may have been above sea level only during extreme glacial maxima. (credit: Wikipedia)

The first hominin fossil found by archaeologists in 2007 was a 67 ka old toe bone (metatarsal) in cave sediments from Northern Luzon. It was undoubtedly from Homo, but which species was unclear.  More recent excavations added a mere 12 fossil fragments, probably from three individuals; 7 teeth, 4 adult finger- and toe bones and part of the femur of a juvenile (Détroit, F. and 8 others 2019. A new species of Homo from the Late Pleistocene of the Philippines. Nature, v.  568, p. 181–186; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1067-9). The finger bones, being curved, are unlike those of modern humans and H. erectus. The teeth are even more different; for instance the premolars show two or three roots – ours have but one – and their unusually tiny molars only a single root. The combined features are sufficiently distinct to suggest a separate species (H. luzonensis). The small teeth may indicate that the adults may have been even smaller that the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores and anatomically different.

Like H. floresiensis, as a result of isolation the new human species probably evolved to become small, possibly from very low number of H. erectus original colonisers. But an even stranger possibility is suggested by their curved toe and finger bones. They may have been habitual climbers as much as walkers – unlike us and H. erectus. Could that indicate that their ancestors left Africa already distinct from the rest of Late Pleistocene humans? That is also a disputed hypothesis for the origins of H. floresiensis  remains of whom are more complete. Similarly, they pose the issue of how their progenitors managed to get to the archipelago: deliberately by boat or being carried there clinging in desperation to vegetation torn-up by tsunamis and transported seawards by the back-wash.

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A stratigraphic timeline for the Denisova Cave

Denisova Cave was named to commemorate an 18th century hermit called Denis, who used it as his refuge. The culmination of more than four decades of excavation, which followed the discovery there of Mousterian and Levallois tools there, has been the explosion onto the palaeoanthropological scene of Denisovan genomics, beginning in 2010 with sequenced DNA from a child’s finger bone. The same layer yielded Neanderthal DNA from a toe bone in 2013. Another layer yielded similar evidence in 2018 of an individual who had a Neanderthal father and a Denisovan mother. Application of the new technique of peptide mass fingerprinting, or zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS), to small, unidentifiable bone fragments from the cave sediments revealed further signs of Denisovan occupation and the first trace of anatomically modern humans (AMH). So far the tally is 4 Denisovans (two female children and two adult males), a Neanderthal woman and the astonishing hybrid. Analyses of the sediments themselves showed traces of both Neanderthal and Denisovan mtDNA from deeper in the stratigraphy than levels in which human fossils had been found, but which contained artefacts. The discovery of the first Denisovan DNA revealed that AMH migrants from Africa who reached the West Pacific islands about 65 ka ago carried fragments of that genome. As well as hybridising with Neanderthals some of the people who left Africa had interbred with Denisovans sufficiently often for genetic traces to have survived. Yet, until now, the ages of the analysed samples from the cave remained unknown.

That is no surprise for two reasons: cave sediments are complex, having been reworked over millennia to scramble their true stratigraphy; most of the organic remains defied 14C dating, being older than its maximum limit of determination. However, using alternative approaches has resulted in two papers in the latest issue of Nature. The first reports results from two methods that rely on the luminescence of grains of quartz and feldspar when stimulated, which measures the time since they were last exposed to light (Jacobs, Z. and 10 others 2019. Timing of archaic hominin occupation of Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. Nature, v. 565, p. 594-599; DOI: 0.1038/s41586-018-0843-2). Over 280 thousand grains in 103 sediment samples from different depths and various parts of the cave system have yielded a range of ages from 300 to 20 ka that span 3 glacial-interglacial cycles except for a few gaps, giving rough estimates of the timing of hominin occupation shown by fossils and soil layers that contain DNA. The youngest evidence for Denisovans is shown to be roughly 50 ka; a time when AMH was present elsewhere in Siberia. They lived at a time halfway between the 130 ka interglacial and the last glacial maximum. Two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and the hybrid occupied the site during the 130 ka interglacial. Soils from the previous warm episode from 250 to 200 ka contain both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA traces. The oldest occupancy, marked by the presence of a Denisovan bone sample, was 300 ka ago, once again midway between an interglacial and a glacial maximum.

All the hominin remains found in Denisova Cave: Note the common scale. (Credit: Douka et al. 2019; extended data Figure 1)

The second paper (Douka, K. and 21 others 2019. Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave. Nature, v. 565, p. 640–644; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0870-z) focused on direct dating of the hominin fossils themselves – and thus their DNA content, important in trying to piece together timings of genetic mixing. In the absence of radiocarbon dates from the bones themselves because of most specimens’ >50 ka ages, except in the case of the youngest whose 14C age is at the 50 ka limit. They resorted to a hybrid technique based on a means of modelling fossils’ ages from differences in mtDNA between the specimens and that in the youngest hominin, which, luckily, was dateable by radiocarbon means. Weighted by dating of the actual sediments that contain them, the differences should become greater for successively older fossils because of random mutations: a variant of the ‘molecular clock’ approach. It’s complicated and depends on assuming that mitochondrial mutation rate was the same as that in modern humans. Unsurprisingly the results are imprecise, but sufficient to match the hominin fossil occurrences with different environmental conditions

Pollen grains and vertebrate fossils from various levels in the cave system demonstrate the wide climatic and ecological conditions in which the various hominins lived. The warmest episodes supported broad-leafed forest, offering maximum resources for hominin survival. Those between interglacial and full glacial conditions were much less benign, with alternating dry and wet cold conditions that supported open steppe ecosystems. The oldest Denisovan occupation was at the close of a period of moderately warm and humid conditions that supported mixed conifer and broad-leafed trees that gave way to reduced tree cover.

As well as the presence of stone tools sporadically through the sedimentary sequence, in the youngest levels there are bone rings and pendants made from deer teeth; clearly ornamental items.  Did the late Denisovans make them or do they signify anatomically modern human activity? Radiocarbon ages do not give a concrete answer, one of the pendants is about 45 ka old with an error that puts it just within the range of age variation of the oldest Denisovan fossil. No AMH remains have been found in Denisova Cave, but remains of a modern human male have been found at Ust’-Ishim, in NW Siberia. At 45 ka, he represents the earliest arrival of AMH in northern Asia. So it may have been members of this new population that left ornaments in Denisova, but, for the moment, artistic Denisovans are a possibility.

Further deployment of rapid screening for hominin bone fragments using the ZooMS method and analyses for traces of DNA in soils is likely to expand the geographic and time ranges of Denisovans and other close human relatives. Denisova Cave formed in Silurian limestones of the Altai Range, and there are other caves in those hills …

Related article: Dennel, R. 2019. Dating of hominin discoveries at Denisova. Nature, v. 565, p. 571-572; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-00264-0)

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Early stone tools spread more widely

The rift systems of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, and the limestone caverns near Johannesburg, South Africa have a long history of intensive archaeological study, rewarded by many finds of hominin skeletal remains and artifacts over the last century. Each region lays claim to be the birthplace of humans, that in South Africa being grandiloquently dubbed ‘The Cradle of Humankind’. Of course, the realistic chances of making discoveries and careers draws scientists and funds back to these regions again and again: a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy fueled by the old miners’ adage, ‘to find elephants you must go to elephant country’. The key site for the earliest stone tools was for a long time Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, thanks to finds of deliberately shaped choppers, hammer stones and sharp edges from about 2 Ma ago in close association with remains of Homo habilis by the Leakeys. Termed ‘Oldowan’, signs of this industry emerged from 2.6 Ma sediments in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia in 2010, but with no sign of who had made them. By 2015 the cachet of ‘first tools’ moved to Lomekwi on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya, dated to 3.3 Ma but again with no evidence for a maker. In fact the oldest evidence for the use of tools emerged with the 2010controversial discovery at Dikika in Afar of 3.4 Ma old bones that carry cut marks, but no sign of tools nor whoever had used them. However remains of Australopithecus afarensis occur only a few kilometers away.

Excavations outside the East African Rift System and South Africa are still few and far between, especially from before 1 Ma. The High Plateaus of eastern Algeria include one ancient site, near Ain Hanech, which yielded 1.8 Ma Oldowan stone artifacts as long ago as 1992. A nearby site at Ain Boucherit takes the North African record back to 2.4 Ma with both Oldowan tools and cut-marked bones of horse and antelope (Sahnouni, M. and 12 others 2018. 1.9-million- and 2.4-million-year-old artifacts and stone tool–cutmarked bones of from Ain Boucherit, Algeria. Science, v. 362, p. 1297-1301; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau0008). Tool makers had clearly diffused across what is now the Sahara Desert by that time. Given the distance between the Lomekwi and Dikika sites in East Africa that is hardly a surprise, provided climatic conditions were favourable. Michel Brunet’s discovery in 3.3 Ma old sediments of an australopithecine (Au. bahrelghazali) in central Chad demonstrates that early hominins were quite capable of spreading across the African continent. Yet, to wean palaeoanthropologists and their sponsors from hitherto fruitful, ‘elephant’ areas to a more ‘blue skies’ approach is likely to be difficult. There are plenty of sedimentary basins in Africa that preserve Miocene to Recent sediments that may yet turn up fossils and artifacts that take the science of human origins and peregrinations further and possibly in unexpected taxonomic directions

Related article: Gibbons, A. 2018. Strongest evidence of early humans butchering animals discovered in North Africa. Science News online; doi:10.1126/science.aaw2245.

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The earliest humans in Tibet

Modern Tibetans thrive in the rarefied air at altitudes above 4 km partly because they benefit from a genetic mutation of the gene EPAS1, which regulates haemoglobin production. Surprisingly, the segment of Tibetan’s DNA that contains the mutation matches that present in the genome of an undated Denisovan girl’s finger bone found in the eponymous Siberian cave. The geneticists who made this discovery were able to estimate that Tibetans inherited the entire segment sometime in the last 40 thousand years through interbreeding with Denisovans, who probably were able to live at high altitude too. Wherever and whenever this took place the inheritance was retained because it clearly helped those who carried it to thrive in Tibet. The same segment is present in a few percent of living Han Chinese people, which suggests their ancestors and those of the Tibetans were members of the same group some 40 ka ago, most of the Han having lost the mutation subsequently.

That inheritance would have remained somewhat mysterious while the existing evidence for the colonisation of the Tibetan Plateau suggested sometime in the Holocene, possibly by migrating early farmers. A single archaeological site at 4600 m on the Plateau has changed all that (Zhang, X.L. and 15 others 2018. The earliest human occupation of the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau 40 thousand to 30 thousand years ago. Science, v.  362, p. 1049-1051; DOI: 10.1126/science.aat8824). The dig at Nwya Devu, which lies 250 km NW of Lhasa, has yielded a sequence of sediments (dated by optically stimulated luminescence at between 45 to 18 thousand years) that contains abundant stone tools made from locally occurring slate. The oldest coincides roughly with the age of the earliest anatomically modern human migrants into northern China, so the earliest Tibetans may well have been a branch of that same group of people, as suggested by the DNA of modern Tibetan and Han people. However, skeletal remains of both humans and their prey animals are yet to emerge from Nwya Devu, which leaves open the question of who they were. Anatomically modern humans or archaic humans, such as Denisovans?

The tools do not help to identify their likely makers. Slate is easy to work and typically yields flat blades with sharp, albeit not especially durable, edges; they are disposable perhaps explaining why so many were found at Nwya Devu. None show signs of pressure flaking that typify tools made from harder, more isotropic rock, such as flint. Yet they include a variety of use-types: scrapers; awls; burins and choppers as well as blades. The lack of associated remains of prey or hearths is suggested by the authors to signify that the site was a workshop; perhaps that will change with further excavation in the area. The age range suggests regular, if not permanent, occupancy for more than 20 ka

Related articles: Gibbons, A. 2014. Tibetans inherited high-altitude gene from ancient human. Science News,2 July 2014, Zhang J-F. & Dennell, R. 2018. The last of Asia conquered by Homo sapiens. Science, v. 362, p. 992-993; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav6863.

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