Centre for Human Evolution Research, The Natural History Museum, London
March 28, 2019 8:30, CC Ballroom A
We have little physical evidence of the Denisovans, but rich genetic data from several individuals. Those data suggest that the Denisovans are a sister group to Neanderthals, with an estimated divergence date of ~400 ka. However, Denisovan teeth are large and seemingly lack Neanderthal derived features, in contrast to the Sima de los Huesos sample from Spain, dated at ~430 ka. This may imply that Denisovans diverged from the Neanderthal lineage prior to ~430 ka. Possible evidence of early Denisovans from China may also support this inference, since fossils such as Dali, Jinniushan and Harbin show more primitive features, and less derived Neanderthal features, than the Sima sample. However, other fossils such as Xujiayao, Maba, Penghu and Xuchang illustrate diversity and complexity in the Chinese record, tempered by the recent genetic recognition of hybridisation between the Denisovan and Neanderthal lineages.
The existence of a late Denisovan-like population in South East Asia is also inferred from the presence of related DNA in extant Oceanian peoples, but we are far from establishing which fossils in the region might represent such a population. The taxonomic status of the Denisovans also remains unclear from present data, since they represent a sister-group to Neanderthals (and thus belong within the Neanderthal clade), but seemingly diverged early, and are genetically as distinct from Homo sapiens as the Neanderthals.
Research support: The Calleva Foundation and the Human Origins Research Fund, Natural History Museum London