Category Archives: RUSSIA

Siberian Princess reveals her 2,500-year-old tattoos

Siberian Princess reveals her 2,500-year-old tattoos

The intricate patterns of 2,500-year-old tattoos – some from the body of a Siberian ‘princess’ preserved in the permafrost – have been revealed in Russia. 

The remarkable body art includes mythological creatures and experts say the elaborate drawings were a sign of age and status for the ancient nomadic Pazyryk people, described in the 5th century BC by the Greek historian Herodotus.

But scientist Natalia Polosmak – who discovered the remains of ice-clad ‘Princess Ukok’ high in the Altai Mountains – is also struck about how little has changed in more than two millennia.

The Body of Princess Ukok, who died aged 25, had several tattoos on her body, including a deer with a griffon’s beak and a Capricorn’s antlers. The tattoos have been perfectly preserved for 2,500 years.

‘I think we have not moved far from Pazyryks in how the tattoos are made,’ she told the Siberian Times ( ). ‘It is still about a craving to make yourself as beautiful as possible.”For example, about the British. 

‘A lot of them go on holiday to Greece, and when I’ve been there I heard how Greeks were smiling and saying that a British man’s age can be easily understood by the number of tattoos on his body.  ‘I’m talking about the working class now.  And I noticed it, too. 

‘The older a person, the more tattoos are on his body.’ Dr. Polosmak added: ‘We can say that most likely there was  – and is – one place on the body for everyone to start putting the tattoos on, and it was a left shoulder. 

Researchers also found two warriors close to the Princess , and were able to reconstruct their tattoos. Here, one is shown with an animal covering the right side of his body, across his right shoulder and stretching from his chest to his back.

‘I can assume so because all the mummies we found with just one tattoo had it on their left shoulders.’ And nowadays this is the same place where people try to put the tattoos on, thousands of years on. 

‘I think its linked to the body composition – as the left shoulder is the place where it is noticeable most, where it looks the most beautiful. ‘Nothing changes with years, the body stays the same, and the person making a tattoo now is getting closer to his ancestors than he or she may realise.

‘The tattoo patterns are from the ancient ‘princess’ who died at around the age of 25 – and from two warriors found on an ancient permafrost burial site at Ukok Plateau some 2,500 meters above sea level close to Russia’s frontiers with modern-day  Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan.

Princess Ukok’s hand with marked tattoos on her fingers. She was dug out of the ice 19 years ago, and is set to go on public display in the Altai Republic.

The reconstruction of the tattoos in the images shown here was released to coincide with the moving of the remains of the princess, dug out of the ice 19 years ago, to a permanent glass sarcophagus in the National Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, capital of the Altai Republic.  

Eventually, she will be displayed to tourists. Buried around her were six horses, saddled and bridled, her spiritual escorts to the next world, and a symbol of her evident status, though experts are divided on whether she was a royal or a revered folk tale narrator, a healer or a holy woman. 

Next to hear body was a meal of sheep and horse meat and ornaments made from felt, wood, bronze and gold.  And a small container of cannabis, say some accounts, along with a stone plate on which were the burned seeds of coriander. 

‘Tattoos were used as a mean of personal identification – like a passport now if you like,’ said Dr. Polosmak. ‘The Pazyryks also believed the tattoos would be helpful in another life, making it easy for the people of the same family and culture to find each other after death.  

The tattoos of one of two warriors found on the ancient permafrost burial site at Ukok Plateau some 2,500 meters above sea level close to Russia’s frontiers with modern-day Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan
Tattoos are clearly visible on one of the warrior’s shoulders. The designs are similar to those found on the Princess.

‘Pazyryks repeated the same images of animals in other types of art, which is considered to be like a language of animal images, which represented their thoughts.’ The tattoos were ‘used to express some thoughts and to define one’s position both in society and in the world. The more tattoos were on the body, the longer it meant the person lived, and the higher was his position. 

‘For example, the body of one man, which was found earlier in the 20th century, had his entire body covered with tattoos, as you see on the picture of his torso,’ said Dr. Polosmak. ‘Our young woman – the princess – has only her two arms tattooed. So they signified both age and status.’

The Ukok plateau, Altai, Siberi, where Princess Ukok and two warriors were discovered. Their bodies were surrounded by six horses fully bridles, various offering of food and a pouch of cannabis.

The Siberian Times said: “The tattoos on the left shoulder of the ‘princess’  show a mythological animal – a deer with a griffon’s beak and a Capricorn’s antlers. ‘The antlers are decorated with the heads of griffons. ‘And the same griffon’s head is shown on the back of the animal.

The mouth of a spotted panther with a long tail is seen at the legs of a sheep. ‘She also has a dear’s head on her wrist, with big antlers. ‘There is a drawing on the animal’s body on a thumb on her left hand.  ‘On the man found close to the ‘princess’, the tattoos include the same fantastical creature, this time covering the right side of his body, across his right shoulder and stretching from his chest to his back. 

‘The patterns mirror the tattoos on a much more elaborately covered male body dug from the ice in 1929 whose highly decorated torso in reconstructed in our drawing here. 

‘His chest, arms, part of the back and the lower leg are covered with tattoos. There is an argali – a mountain sheep – along with the same dear with griffon’s vulture-like beak, with horns and the back of its head which has griffon’s head and an onager, is drawn on it.’

Oldest Known Human Viruses Discovered In 50,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Remains

Researchers from the Federal University of São Paulo have managed to uncover the oldest known human viruses in a set of Neanderthal bones dating from over 50,000 years and they could soon recreate them.

Two Neanderthals had their DNA tested, and the results showed traces of the papillomavirus (a sexually transmitted virus) and the adenovirus (adenovirus, which causes cold sores), as well as other viruses.

The two prehistoric humans were male and their remains were found in a cave in Russia. Experts have long speculated that viruses may have caused the extinction of Neanderthals, and this most recent discovery could support that theory.

This suggests that Neanderthals may have been infected with the same viruses that affect humans today, according to the authors of a preprint that has not yet undergone peer review. It also shows that it was possible to identify portions of viral genomes in archaeological samples.

Adenoviruses, for example, can cause a wide range of illnesses from the pain in the butt that is the common cold, to a nasty bout of acute gastroenteritis. The overwhelmingly prevalent Epstein-Barr virus that can trigger mononucleosis and multiple sclerosis belongs to the herpesviruses. Papillomaviruses are perhaps best known for their association with cervical cancer.

The team who made the discovery now plan to try and synthesise the “Jurassic Park-like viruses” to see how they compare to modern ones.

“These Jurassic Park-like viruses could then be studied for their reproductive and pathogenic traits and compared to present-day counterparts,’ Marcelo Briones, the study’s lead author told NewScientist.

Neanderthal man reconstruction, Natural History Museum, London

“I am sceptical that this could be achieved given the lack of full understanding of how the viruses’ DNA is damaged and how to reconstruct the recovered pieces into a full viral genome,” he added. “’Also, the host-virus interaction, especially in a completely different environment, is something to consider.”

The remains were found in Russia’s Altai mountains in Siberia, in the Chagyrskaya cave. The remains were among a group of nine, found in 2022, who all shared DNA, meaning they were related.

Researchers were able to sequence genome data from the Neanderthals giving an astonishing glimpse into their DNA. They were able to ascertain that the viral traces in the remains did not get there from animals or modern humans contaminating them.

“Taken together, our data indicate that these viruses might represent viruses that really infected Neanderthals,” study author Marcelo Briones told New Scientist.

That is not to say that viruses alone could have led to the extinction of the Neanderthals—as the authors make clear in the paper—but it does lend support to the theory put forth by some scientists that viruses could have been involved in some way.

“To support their provocative and interesting hypothesis, it would be necessary to prove that at least the genomes of these viruses can be found in Neanderthal remains,” said Briones. “That is what we did.”

Frozen Bird Found in Siberia is 46,000 years old

Frozen Bird Found in Siberia is 46,000 years old

During the last Ice Age, a bird found in northeastern Siberia died and gives a crucial insight into the evolution and effects of climate change.

An international team of scientists has learned that at least 46,000 years ago, a bird discovered in the Siberian permafrost died.

The bird was found in northeastern Siberia, a mammoth steppe that extended across northern Canada, Europe and Asia during the last Ice Age when the bird was still alive.

The 46,000-year-old bird’s delicate feet are still in good shape.

DNA collected from this frozen bird could help shed light on how at the end of the last Ice Age, when the Earth was mostly covered in ice and snow, the mammoth steppe turned into tundra, taiga and steppe biomes and could further illuminate the evolution of subspecies.

In 2018, a well-preserved bird was discovered by local fossil ivory hunters 30 km east of the village of Belaya Gora, Yakutia, in northeastern Siberia (red dot, figure 2). The bird carcass was found approximately 150 meters (492 feet) into an ice tunnel that had been hydraulically mined into the permafrost at a depth of roughly 7 meters below the earth’s surface.

The frozen bird appeared to have died non-violently before being rapidly frozen, thus preserving its body for millennia. The ‘nearly intact’ body was so well preserved that it could be identified as a horned lark, Eremophila alpestris, appearing as if she had ‘died yesterday’. So it was somewhat surprising (and quite exciting) when radiocarbon dating revealed that the lark died sometime between 44,163–48,752 years BP — in the middle of the last Ice Age.

During the last ice age, mammoth steppe was the Earth’s most extensive ecosystem, covering much of the northern portion of the planet. It featured a cold, dry climate that favoured high-productivity grasses, herbs and willow shrubs, and was dominated by long-horned bison and horses — and was home to woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceros and cave lions, all of which are now extinct. This ecosystem thrived for approximately 100,000 years before the thawing climate suddenly made it nearly extinct about 11,700 years ago.

This vast wide-open habitat is favored by horned larks, a species may have originated in northeastern Siberia during the middle Pleistocene (ref) before diverging into separate Eurasian and North American lineages. These small ground-nesting songbirds breed in the wide-open spaces of the high Arctic and above the tree line in mountains. Lacking any closely-related competitors, North American horned larks also breed in other, more temperate wide-open spaces, such as prairies, semi-arid regions and in deserts, which is where I first saw them.

To learn how this Pleistocene bird is related to modern horned larks, the researchers from the Centre for Palaeogenetics isolated ancient DNA from the specimen and analyzed it.

“The genetic analysis suggests that the bird belonged to a population that was a joint ancestor of two subspecies of horned lark living today, one in Siberia, and one in the steppe in Mongolia”, said lead author of the study, ornithologist Nicolas Dussex, a postdoctoral researcher at Stockholm University who specializes in conservation genomics and avian evolution.

“Our results support this theory since the diversification of the horned lark into these subspecies seems to have happened about at the same time as the mammoth steppe disappeared”, said co-author of the study, Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History and research leader at the Centre for Palaeogenetics.

As the planet warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, mammoth steppe nearly disappeared, giving way to several habitats that we are familiar with today: tundra in the north, boreal forest (taiga) in the middle and steppe in the south.

The researchers’ ultimate goal is to map the ancient lark’s genome and compare it to genomes of modern subspecies of horned larks to learn where this bird fits into the lark evolutionary tree and to better understand how subspecies arise.

Currently, there are at least 42 formally recognized subspecies of horned larks that cluster into one of six separate lineages. Additional studies may reveal that any or all of these lineages may qualify as distinct species clusters.

“This helps us understand how the diversity of subspecies evolves”, Dr Dussex said. In recognition of being the oldest bird yet unearthed from this time period, the researchers refer to her the ‘Icebird’.

Uncovering frozen mammals in Siberia is not new: people have uncovered a veritable zoo of frozen mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, horses, bison and wolverines for many years, the researchers noted in their study (ref). But finding a frozen bird is something special because their bodies are small and fragile and thus, don’t typically preserve well.

Scientists at the Centre for Palaeogenetics are working with some of these other ancient animals, including an 18,000-year-old puppy named ‘Dogor’, which the research team are still working on to identify whether it’s a wolf or a dog. They also are working on a 50,000-year-old cave lion cub, ‘Spartak’, a 30,000-year-old severed wolf head, and a partially preserved woolly mammoth.

The horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), also known as the shore lark in Europe, is a small songbird that breeds across the northern hemisphere. It has 42 formally recognized subspecies that are divided into six different clades, each of which could warrant reclassification into distinct species clusters.

Analyzing the complete genomes of ‘Icebird’ and these other ancient specimens could provide a deeper understanding of the evolution of animals during the Pleistocene and of the impacts upon them from climate change.

“The new laboratory facilities and the intellectual environment at the Centre for Palaeogenetics will definitely be helpful in these analyses”, Professor Dalén pointed out.

The Centre for Palaeogenetics is a joint venture between Stockholm University and the Swedish Museum of Natural History. Its main objective is to bring together scientists from different disciplines, such as biology, archaeology and geology, into a cutting edge research environment dedicated to ancient DNA analyses.

Well-Preserved Cave Lion Cub Found to be a 28,000-Year-Old Female

Well-Preserved Cave Lion Cub Found to be a 28,000-Year-Old Female

A nearly 28,000-year-old cave lion cub discovered frozen in the Siberian permafrost is so well preserved, you can still make out each and every one of her whiskers.

Researchers in Sweden claim the cub, nicknamed Sparta, is probably the best-preserved Ice Age animal ever uncovered and describe Sparta in Quaternary. Her teeth, skin, and soft tissue have all been mummified by the ice. Even her organs remain intact.

To date, Sparta is the fourth cave lion cub (Panthera spelaea) found buried in the permafrost of Yakutia, which lies in the northeast corner of Russia. She was discovered in 2018 by local resident Boris Berezhnev who was looking for ancient mammoth tusks among the tundra.

As wildlife hunting and trade have become more restricted, ‘tusk hunters’ like Berezhnev have begun to search for ancient ivory in the icy north. With climate change weakening the permafrost and extending the tusk hunting season, we’re finding more ancient remains – and not just from woolly mammoths. In the past few years, residents in Siberia have pulled woolly rhinos, wolves, brown bears, horses, reindeer, and bison out of the permafrost, and some of these carcasses date as far back as 40,000 years.

Clearly, these icy steppes were once home to numerous large mammals. In fact, a year before finding Sparta near the Semyuelyakh River, Berezhnev found another cave lion carcass just 15 meters (49 feet) away. This one, named Boris, showed slightly more damage, possibly from its permafrost cave collapsing, but it was still remarkably intact. 

Researchers in Sweden, who have since helped analyze the carcasses, claim both Boris and Sparta are about one to two months old. Yet despite their physical proximity and similar appearances, Boris is thought to be roughly 15,000 years older, give or take a few centuries.

Today, the little we know about cave lions mostly comes from fossils, tracks, and ancient cave art.

Mummified bodies found in permafrost are some of the best evidence we have of their existence. Their frozen carcasses look remarkably similar to modern lions in many ways, just on a much larger scale and with a much warmer coat. But one of the most iconic features of African lions, their mane, seems to be missing on cave lions.

Figure 6 from the Quaternary study: The appearance of the frozen cave lion cub mummies: (a) female Sparta; (b) male Boris. Photos of lion cubs’ heads from the side: (c) Sparta; (d) Boris; (e) Sparta mummy as seen from above; (f) dark brown ‘brush’ of Sparta’s tail.

In fact, early human artwork from the time suggests cave lions rarely sported manes, or if they did, they were extremely discrete. Some Ice Age paintings, for instance, show dark patterns of colouring on the cave lion’s face, but it’s unclear what that represents.

Boris and Sparta are both juvenile cave lions, which means it’s hard to say how their coats would have developed as they aged. Apart from some dark colouring on the backs of their ears, researchers say they are mostly covered in yellowish-brown fur.

If the cubs had a chance to grow up, experts think their fur would probably have turned more of a light grey to help them camouflage in the cold Siberian Arctic.

The presence of a mane is important because it could tell us about the social structures of cave lions. For example, whether they live by themselves or in groups with clear hierarchies.

At the moment, scientists are still debating whether cave lions during the Ice Age roamed the steppes of Siberia on their own or in pride like modern African lions.

There’s one particular painting in France’s Chauvet cave from the Ice Age that depicts nearly a dozen cave lions, both male and female, in the act of hunting bison.

“Hunting in groups can be more effective than solitary hunting when the prey is large, and cave lions would have had many such prey species available in their ecosystem, for example, mammoths and rhinoceros, when there were no other options available to them,” the authors of the recent analysis write.

“In addition, large pride would have helped to protect their kill from the competition and also to protect the cubs and young from predators.”

For now, this is all just guesswork. Even though we have found some astonishingly intact cave lions in recent years, we still don’t have enough information about these extinct predators to reach any conclusions about their social structures.

Perhaps one day, that could change. Maybe we will unearth another cave lion with some hint about their long-lost lives. Or maybe one day, we will successfully bring cave lions back to life.

“There is a very realistic chance to recreate cave lions, and it would be a lot easier than to clone a woolly mammoth,” palaeontologist and one of the study’s authors Albert Protopopov told the Siberian Times.

Some scientists have suggested we do this with woolly mammoths as well, but cave lions are a much younger species. Protopopov suggests that we could supplement their clones with some of the genes from modern African lions, making the work a bit easier. That’s obviously a controversial idea, and the reality of it is probably still a ways off.

For now, the next step is to sequence the entire genome of both Sparta and Boris. Then, we can figure out what to do with the information we collect.

DNA From 3,800-Year-Old Individuals Sheds New Light On Bronze Age Families

DNA From 3,800-Year-Old Individuals Sheds New Light On Bronze Age Families

The diversity of family systems in prehistoric societies has always fascinated scientists. A groundbreaking study by Mainz anthropologists and an international team of archaeologists now provides new insights into the origins and genetic structure of prehistoric family communities.

Researchers Jens Blöcher and Joachim Burger from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have analyzed the genomes of skeletons from an extended family from a Bronze Age necropolis in the Russian steppe.

The 3,800-year-old “Nepluyevsky” burial mound was excavated several years ago and is located on the geographical border between Europe and Asia. Using statistical genomics, this society’s family and marriage relationships have now been deciphered.

Location of the burial site in the southern Ural region (ill./©: Joachim Burger)

The study was carried out in cooperation with archaeologists from Ekaterinburg and Frankfurt a. M. and was partly financially supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG) and the Russian Science Foundation (RSCF).

The kurgan (burial mound) investigated was the grave of six brothers, their wives, children, and grandchildren. The presumably oldest brother had eight children with two wives, one of whom came from the Asian steppe regions in the east. The other brothers showed no signs of polygamy and probably lived monogamously with far fewer children.

Fascinating snapshot of a prehistoric family

“The burial site provides a fascinating snapshot of a prehistoric family,” explains Jens Blöcher, lead author of the study. “It is remarkable that the first-born brother apparently had a higher status and thus greater chances of reproduction.

The right of the male firstborn seems familiar to us, it is known from the Old Testament, for example, but also from the aristocracy in historical Europe.”

The genomic data reveal even more. Most women buried in the kurgan were immigrants. The sisters of the buried brothers, in turn, found new homes elsewhere. Joachim Burger, senior author of the study, explains: “Female marriage mobility is a common pattern that makes sense from an economic and evolutionary perspective.

While one sex stays local and ensures the continuity of the family line and property, the other marries in from the outside to prevent inbreeding.”

The genomic diversity of the prehistoric women was higher than that of the men

Accordingly, the Mainz population geneticists found that the genomic diversity of the prehistoric women was higher than that of the men.

The women who married into the family thus came from a larger area and were not related to each other. In their new homeland, they followed their husbands into the grave. From this, the authors conclude that in Nepluyevsky there was both “patrilineality”, i.e. the transmission of local traditions through the male line, and “patrilocality”, i.e. the place of residence of a family is the place of residence of the men.

“Archaeology shows that 3,800 years ago, the population in the southern Trans-Ural knew cattle breeding and metalworking and subsisted mainly on dairy and meat products,” comments Svetlana Sharapova, an archaeologist from Ekaterinburg and head of the excavation, adding, “the state of health of the family buried here must have been very poor.

The average life expectancy of the women was 28 years, that of the men 36 years.”

A skeleton from the Nepluyevsky site (photo/©: Svetlana Sharapova)

In the last generation, the use of the kurgan suddenly stopped and almost only infants and small children were found. Sharapova adds, “it is possible that the inhabitants were decimated by disease or that the remaining population went elsewhere in search of a better life.”

Multiple partners and many children for the putative firstborn son

“There is a global connection between different family systems and certain forms of life-style and economy,” says Blöcher. “Nevertheless, human societies are characterized by a high degree of flexibility.” He adds, “in Nepluyevsky, we find evidence of a pattern of inequality typical of pastoralists: multiple partners and many children for the putative firstborn son and no or monogamous relationships for most others.”

The authors find additional genomic evidence that populations genetically similar to Neplujevsky society lived throughout most of the Eurasian steppe belt. Burger comments: “It is quite possible that the local pattern we found is relevant to a much larger area.” Future studies will show to what extent the “Neplujevsky” model can be verified at other prehistoric sites in Eurasia.

Rare 3,000-Year-Old Weavings Discovered In Alaska

Rare 3,000-Year-Old Weavings Discovered In Alaska

During excavations of an ancestral sod house on the shore of Karluk Lake, Kodiak Island, Alaska, archaeologists uncovered rare fragments of woven grass artifacts estimated to be 3,000 years old.

The fragments, which appear to be pieces of mats, are the oldest well-documented examples of Kodiak Alutiiq/Sugpiaq weaving.

Rare 3,000-Year-Old Weavings Discovered In Alaska
Weaving is a long-practiced Alutiiq art. Image credit: Patrick Saltonstall, Alutiiq Museum

“We were excavating a sod house beside Karluk Lake as part of a broader study to understand how Alutiiq people used Kodiak’sinterior,” said Saltonstall. “When we reached the floor, we discovered that the house had burned and collapsed.

The walls of the structure, which were lined with wood, fell into the building and covered a portion of the floor. This sealed the floor quickly and limited burning. As we removed the remains of the walls, we were surprised and excited to find fragments of charred weaving.

It looks like the house had grass mats on the floor. The pieces covered about a two-meter area at the back of the house, perhaps in an area for sleeping,” Alutiiq Museum Curator of Archaeology Patrick Saltonstall explained in a press release.

Weaving is a long-practiced Alutiiq art, but one that is difficult to document archaeologically as fiber artifacts are fragile and rarely preserved.

The Alutiiq Museum’s extensive archaeological collections contain grass and spruce root baskets that are as much as 600 years old but nothing older.

Detail of ca. 3,000-year-old grass matting from ancestral Alutiiq house by Karluk Lake. Image credit: Patrick Saltonstall, Alutiiq Museum

The house that produced the weavings was radiocarbon-dated to about 3,000 years old. The style of the structure and artifacts found in association support this determination.

“It is likely that our ancestors worked with plant fibers for millennia, from the time they arrived on Kodiak 7500 years ago,” said April Laktonen Counceller, the museum’s executive director.

“It makes sense. Plants are abundant and easily harvested, and they are excellent materials for making containers, mats, and other useful items. It’s just very hard to document this practice. This wonderful find extends our knowledge of Alutiiq weaving back an additional 2400 years.”

Close inspection of the woven fragments shows that their makerslaid down long parallel strands of grass (the warp) and then secured them with perpendicular rows of twining (the weft)spaced about an inch apart.

This technique created an open weave, also found in historic examples of Alutiiq grass matting. Small fragments of more complicated braiding may represent the finished edge of a mat.

The field crew carefully lifted the fragile woven fragments off the floor of the sod house and placed them in a specially made box for transport back to Kodiak and the Alutiiq Museum’slaboratory.

The sod house after excavation. The structure is oval and about 4 x 6 meters across. Modern sticks mark the locations of holes left by posts that once held up the structure roof. Image credit: Patrick Saltonstall, Alutiiq Museum

Here, they will be preserved, documented, and made available for study as a loan from Koniag—the regional Alaska Native Corporation for Kodiak Alutiiq people and the sponsor of the research. The corporation owns the land on which the excavation took and has been generously supporting archaeological studies in the region.

“Discoveries like these highlight our Alutiiq people’s innovation and resilience,” said Koniag President Shauna Hegna.“Koniag is humbled to partner with the Alutiiq Museum on critical projects like this.”

Denny, a mysterious child from 90,000 years ago, whose parents were two different human species

Denny, a mysterious child from 90,000 years ago, whose parents were two different human species

More than 90,000 years back in time, a unique child was walking the Earth. This individual was a young human hybrid. Scientists dubbed the ancient girl “Denny,” the only known individual whose parents were from two distinct human species!

The tiny arm or leg fragment belonged to Denisova 11, a 13-year-old hybrid hominin.

In 2018, researchers looking into Denisova Cave in the Altai mountains of Siberia located the skeletal remains of the Denny. With only a bone and teeth to work with, researchers were still able to identify who the individual was.

A new effort, called FINDER, has been launched to explore the Denisovans and the relationships between them, Homo sapiens, and the Neanderthals.

The purpose of the investigation is to gain a further understanding of the interaction between the three species. It is known that the three species interbred, but the study aims to provide further detail of the connections between them.

The purpose of the project, led by Katerina Douka of the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, and a visitor at Oxford University, is to identify where Neanderthals lived when they interacted with Homo sapiens, and why they eventually went extinct.

Studying the history of the Denisovans is difficult due to the fact that the only archaeological site that has yielded their fossils is the Denisovan Cave in Siberia. Moreover, only a few fossils have been unearthed from this site, along with some Neanderthal specimens.

Tom Higham, the deputy director of Oxford University’s Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and an advisor to Finder, remarks on how great the site is. He states that it is nice and cool inside, thus preserving the DNA in the bones. Unfortunately, he goes on to add that the majority of the bones in the cave were destroyed by hyenas and other carnivores, leaving a mess of tiny, unrecognizable bone fragments scattered across the floor.

Higham states that it is not possible to distinguish between the source of a piece of material, be it from a mammoth, sheep, man, or woman, without a thorough examination. He further explains that even if only a handful of finds are from humans, they are of great value as they provide a great deal of knowledge.

Artist’s reconstruction of the teenage Denisovan. John Bavaro / Fair Use

DNA sequencing of the ancient girl’s bones revealed her to be a product of two distinct species. Her mother was Neanderthal, and her father was a Denisovan. Denny had been living with various Neanderthals and Denisovans in the cave when she tragically passed away at a young age.

It is believed that Neanderthals and Denisovans separated from each other at least 390,000 years ago, making them both now extinct groups of hominins.

A photo of the Denisova Cave.

Analysis of the genome of ‘Denisova 11’ – a bone fragment from the Denisova Cave located in Russia – reveals that the individual had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. The father’s genome displays Neanderthal ancestry, belonging to a population linked to a later Denisovan from the cave.

The mother came from a population that is more closely connected to Neanderthals that lived in Europe than to the earlier Neanderthal discovered in Denisova Cave, indicating that migrations between eastern and western Eurasia of Neanderthals happened sometime after 120,000 years ago.

The new study published in the journal Nature indicates that interbreeding between Neanderthals and Denisovans was more common than previously assumed, considering the small number of archaic samples that have been sequenced.

It could be assumed that the extraordinary lineage of Denny suggests that Neanderthals and Denisovans were often engaging in interbreeding, though researchers caution against forming such speculations hastily.

It is evident that the DNA of Neanderthals and Denisovans are different, making it easy to distinguish between them. According to Douka, this suggests that interbreeding between the two did not occur frequently, as otherwise, their DNA would be similar.

It has been demonstrated by prior research that Denisovans and Homo sapiens interbred, yet the question of why this happened at Denisova is still unanswered.

It has been proposed that the cave could be seen as a border crossing for the two species, with the Neanderthals mostly located in Europe and the Denisovans in the east. Periodically, both species would find themselves in the cave at the same time, which could have led to relations between the two.

Detailed studies of Denny’s Neanderthal mom revealed that her genes had a special connection to Neanderthals in Croatia, which suggests that the predecessors of her mother may have been part of a group migrating east from Europe to Denisova – where she and Denny’s father met at the boundaries of their respective homelands.

This is a captivating image, yet more data is needed to authenticate it. Researchers don’t have direct proof that the Denisovans were mainly situated in the east of the cave, notwithstanding, the fact that their genetic material has been identified in the DNA of people in Australia, New Guinea, and different parts of Oceania, reinforces this concept and implies that future investigations for sites should be focused on eastern Russia, China, and south-east Asia.

Though scientists have limited knowledge about the extinct human species known as the Denisovans, experts have recently been able to construct the inaugural facial reconstruction to provide an image of what they may have looked like. This has enabled people to see a vision of what the Denisovans may have appeared to be.

Higham mentions that researchers have numerous inquiries they have yet to answer. For instance, where did the Denisovans extend to, and what is the earliest proof for their divergence from the common ancestor they had with Neanderthals 500,000 years ago?

It may take some time before scientists can locate a bone or two from different areas, but the potential benefits would be worth the wait.

A Siberian cave filled with mammoth, rhino, and bear bones is an ancient hyena lair

A Siberian cave filled with mammoth, rhino, and bear bones is an ancient hyena lair

Inhabitants of Siberia have stumbled upon a remarkable prehistoric time capsule in what paleontologists consider the largest hyena lair ever found in Asia. The cave was untouched for 42,000 years and held a variety of animal bones.

A Siberian cave filled with mammoth, rhino, and bear bones is an ancient hyena lair
The bones found inside the cave in Siberia date back 42,000 years. Image Credit: V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy.

Fossils of various creatures, both hunters and hunted, were discovered by paleontologists from the Pleistocene period (spanning from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). These include brown bears, foxes, wolves, mammoths, rhinos, yaks, deer, gazelles, bison, horses, rodents, birds, fish, and frogs.

On June 20, the scientists released a video clip (in Russian) of their discovery.

Residents of Khakassia, a republic in southern Siberia, discovered the cave five years ago, according to a translated statement from the V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy. However, due to the remoteness of the area, paleontologists weren’t able to fully explore and examine the remains until June 2022.

Paleontologists gathered approximately 880 pounds (400 kilograms) of bones, including two full cave hyena skulls. It is hypothesized that the hyenas resided in the cave due to the gnaw marks on the bones matching hyena teeth.

The skull of a cave hyena found inside the Siberian cave. Image Credit: V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy.

“Rhinos, elephants, deer with characteristic bite marks. In addition, we came across a series of bones in anatomical order. For example, in rhinos, the ulna and radius bones are together,” Dmitry Gimranov, senior researcher at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in the statement. “This suggests that the hyenas dragged parts of the carcasses into the lair.”

The researchers also found the bones of hyena pups – which tend not to be preserved as they are so fragile – indicating they were raised in the cave. “We even found a whole skull of a young hyena, many lower jaws, and milk teeth,” Gimranov said.

Bones of mammoths, rhinos, wooly bison, yaks, deer, gazelle, and many other species were uncovered in the Siberian cave. Image Credit: V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy.

The region of Siberia is teeming with ancient animal remains, which are generally too recent to have been fossilized.

The remains of these animals, including bones, skin, flesh, and even blood, often remain remarkably well-preserved, nearly unchanged from the time of their death. This is primarily due to the cold weather effectively preserving them.

Sent to Yekaterinburg for closer examination, the bones could reveal to researchers information about the flora and fauna of that time, what animals ate, and what the climate was like in this area.

Dmitry Malikov, senior researcher from the Institute of Geology and Mineralogy of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said in the statement.

“We will also get important information from the coprolites,” the fossilized feces of the animals, he added.