(Jeff_L) #1
30 January 2021 | New Scientist | 5

THE human story only becomes more
intricate and fascinating. For hundreds
of thousands of years, a mysterious group
known as the Denisovans lived in the east
of Asia – even as our species was emerging
in Africa and beginning to spread around
the world. Their homeland spanned
thousands of kilometres and they existed
as a group longer than we have as a
species. Yet they were utterly unknown
until 2010, when they were identified
from DNA preserved in a bone fragment.
A decade later, the Denisovans remain
enigmatic. We know they were a sister
group to the Neanderthals, who lived
in Europe and west Asia around the
same time, and that they interbred
with Neanderthals and with us. But only
a handful of bones have been identified
and we don’t have a complete skull,

so it is impossible to reliably imagine
what they looked like.
If we cannot know their appearance,
can we at least guess at their minds? We
now have evidence that they survived in
the extreme environment of the Tibetan
plateau, long before modern humans
attempted it. Furthermore, in recent years,

archaeologists have found tools and other
artefacts that may have been made by the
Denisovans (see page 34). The provenance
of the more impressive objects is hotly
disputed, but it seems that many of the
tools really were made by this group.
On the evidence so far, the Denisovans

may have been creating the same sort of
tools that Neanderthals, and our species,
made at the same time. For millennia,
the three groups seem to have advanced
in lockstep. Only in the past few tens of
thousands of years, long after our species’
origin, did our ancestors start producing
complex objects and art that surpassed
that of the Denisovans and Neanderthals.
It is tempting to imagine that our
species evolved greater intelligence at
that time. But maybe it was simply that
our population swelled, so the various
groups needed ways to demonstrate their
identities – and harnessed latent talents
to do so. In that case, perhaps a small twist
of fate would have been enough to lead
the Denisovans to make these cultural
breakthroughs first, and it would be us,
not them, almost lost in the mists of time. ❚

A twist of human fate

The story of the lost Denisovans shows the path our species might have taken

The leader

“ For millennia, our species
seems to have advanced in
lockstep with the Denisovans”

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