archeologists in cave
Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
October 5, 2020 ·  3 min read

90,000-year-old human hybrid found in ancient cave

Humans have walked the earth for tens of thousands of years, however, we didn’t always look the same way we do now. In fact, we weren’t even the same exact species. In 2018, scientists discovered a 90,000-year-old hybrid human: A young girl who was a mix of two different types of ancient humans. (1) Their findings were published in the journal Nature (2)

The Hybrid Human

One of the earliest known species of humans is the Homo neanderthalis, also known as the Neanderthals. In 2010, researchers discovered another species of early humans who we call the Denisovans. (1)

The young hybrid human girl in question was discovered in a cave in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia. Upon further inspection, the scientists realized that she is a mix between the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. Named Denisova 11, she is the fifth Denisovan human ever found. (1)

The Denisovans

Scientists know very little about the Denisovans because they have so few of them to study. There are so few fossils, in fact, that they don’t even really know what they looked like. The only thing that is known currently is that they seem to have disappeared around the same time the Neanderthals did, around 40,000 years ago. (1)

Denisova 11

As with most of the Denisovans, we don’t know much about this young hybrid girl. We do know that she was in her early teenage years when she died and that she had parents of two different species. It appears as though she lived in a cave with several people from both the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. (1)

“It is a wonderful site,” says Tom Higham, the deputy director of Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. “It is cool inside, so DNA in bones does not disintegrate too badly. However, nearly all the bones there have been chewed up by hyenas and other carnivores.” Because of this, the cave floor is littered with tiny, unidentifiable bone fragments (3).

Scientists performed DNA sequencing on her bones and found that half of her DNA matched that of the Neanderthals, while the other half matched the other four Denisovan fossils that have been found. (1)

They know that her mother was a Neanderthal. This is because her mitochondrial DNA matched that species, and mitochondrial DNA is only passed down maternally. Naturally, this means her father was a Denisovan. (1)

Her father’s DNA was very similar to the fist Denisovan that was found in that same cave. Her mother’s DNA, however, more closely resembled the DNA of Neanderthals that were found living in Croatia thousands of years after. This gives us more information on the migration of the Neanderthals, suggesting that it happened at some point in the last 100,000 years. (1)

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Other Human Hybrids

Denisova 11 is not the first hybrid human to be found. 40,000-year-old remains of a Homo sapien (modern human) and Neanderthal hybrid were found in 2015. This ancient human appeared to have Neanderthals for their great-great-grandparents. (1)

Another two ancient human hybrids were found who appeared to live with other ancient, non-hybrid humans. This suggests that more humans with blended DNA will be found. (1)

From what is known currently, everyone from anywhere but sub-Saharan Africa will have Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA mixed into their genome. This means that most of us modern-day humans probably have Neanderthals and maybe some Denisovans extremely far back in our ancestry. (1)

What This Means for Future Research

The more hybrid humans are found, the more it is suggested that mating between species was either common or at the very least wasn’t considered strange to these ancient humans. This could suggest that Neanderthals and Denisovans simply interbred with Homo sapiens until their species just blended into the other and disappeared. (1)

For now, this is just one of the theories of what happened to the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. (1) As more hybrid human fossils are found, more research can be done to determine what happened to these ancient human species.

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