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Researchers Identify Possible New Human Group With DNA From Bone - NYTimes.c

Researchers Identify Possible New Human Group With DNA From Bone - NYTimes.c

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Published by: lsardinas on Apr 16, 2010
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Researchers Identify Possible New Human Group With DNA From Bone - NYTimes.comhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/science/25human.html?hpw=&pagewanted=print[3/24/2010 8:24:08 PM]
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March 24, 2010
Bone May Reveal a New Human Group
 A previously unknown kind of human group vanished from the world so completely that it has left behindthe merest wisp of evidence that it ever existed — a single bone from the little finger of a child, buried in acave in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia.Researchers extracted DNA from the bone and reported Wednesday that it differed conspicuously from thatof both modern humans and of Neanderthals, the archaic human species that inhabited Europe until thearrival of modern humans on the continent some 44,000 years ago.The child who carried the DNA lineage was probably 5 to 7 years old, but it is not yet known if it was a boy or a girl. The finger bone was excavated by Russian archaeologists in 2008 from a place known as theDenisova cave.The researchers, led by Johannes Krause and Svante Paabo of theMax Planck Institute for Evolutionary  Anthropology  in Leipzig, Germany, are careful not to call the Denisova child a new human species, thoughit may prove to be so, because the evidence is preliminary.But they say the genetic material extracted from the bone, an element called mitochondrial DNA, belongedto a distinct human lineage that migrated out of Africa at a different time from the two known archaichuman species. Homo erectus, found in East Asia, left Africa two million years ago, and the ancestor of Neanderthals emigrated some 500,000 years ago. The number of differences found in the child’s DNA indicate that its ancestors left Africa about one million years ago, the researchers say. Their report ispublished online in the journal Nature.Dr. Paabo, a pioneer in decoding ancient human DNA, said at a news conference that before asserting thatthe Denisova child was a new species, he needed to rule out the possibility that it belonged to a populationformed by interbreeding between the new lineage and a known species. He said he was analyzing the rest of the child’s DNA, from the main or nuclear genome, to test this possibility.“Back at the time this lineage came out of Africa, it had to have been a distinct group, perhaps a distinctspecies,” he said. “But whether or not this individual was a distinct species, we have to wait for the nuclearDNA.”The finger bone was found in a layer laid down on the cave floor between 48,000 and 30,000 years ago,
Researchers Identify Possible New Human Group With DNA From Bone - NYTimes.comhttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/science/25human.html?hpw=&pagewanted=print[3/24/2010 8:24:08 PM]
according to radiocarbon dating. At that time, toward the end of the Pleistocene Ice Age, which ended10,000 years ago, the climate was probably much colder. The people of the new lineage presumably woreclothes, Dr. Krause said, because chimpanzees and gorillas cannot withstand much cold, suggesting that furalone is inadequate protection.The artifacts found in the cave in the same layer as the finger bone include ornaments and a bracelet thatare typical of modern human sites from the Upper Paleolithic age in Europe. These are puzzling artifacts to be found with a nonmodern human species. But bones can move up and down in archaeological sites, andit is hard to know if the finger bone is truly associated with these artifacts, Dr. Krause said, even thoughthere is little sign of mixing in the cave’s layers.The valley beneath the Denisova cave 30,000 years ago would have been mostly a steppe, or treelessgrassland, according to pollen analysis, and it was roamed by ice-age species like the woolly mammoth and woolly rhino, Dr. Krause said.The region was inhabited by both Neanderthals and modern humans at that time. Counting the new humanlineage, three human species may have lived together in proximity. “So the picture of the humans aroundin the late Pleistocene gets a lot more complex and a lot more interesting,” Dr. Paabo said.The standard view has long been that there were three human migrations out of Africa — those of Homoerectus; of the ancestor of Neanderthals; and finally, some 50,000 years ago, of modern humans. But in2004, archaeologists reported that they had found the bones of miniature humans who lived on theIndonesian island of Flores until 13,000 years ago, posing a serious problem for this view. The new lineageis the second such challenge, and it suggests that human migrations out of Africa, though far fromcontinuous, were more frequent than supposed.“We are learning more and more what a luxuriant evolutionary tree humans have had,” said Ian Tattersall,a paleoanthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History  in New York. The tree during evolutionary time has kept sprouting new branches, all but one of which die off, before the process isrepeated. As recently as 30,000 years ago, it now appears, there were five human species in the world: Homo erectus,the little Floresians, Neanderthals, modern humans and the new lineage from the Denisova cave. This issimilar to the situation two million years ago, when four hominid species are known to have lived in theTurkana Basin of Kenya, Dr. Tattersall said.“We think it’s normal to be alone in the world as we are today,” Dr. Tattersall said, and to see humanevolution as a long trend leading to Homo sapiens. In fact, the tree has kept generating new branches thatget cut off, presumably by the sole survivor. “The fossil record is very eloquent about this, and it’s telling us we are an insuperable competitor,” Dr. Tattersall said. Modern humans’ edge over other species probably emerged from their ability to process information: “We can invent alternatives in our heads instead of accepting nature as it is,” Dr. Tattersall said.

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