Fossilized Tooth Shows Modern Connections to Human Predecessors

A fossilized molar recently found in a cave in Laos shows how modern humans are connected to an extinct hominin species known as Denisovans.

By Genni Burkhart

A 131,000-year-old fossilized molar, possibly belonging to a young Denisovan girl, was discovered by researchers in a limestone cave in the Annamite Mountains of Laos, a first in southeast Asia for this species. The tooth’s roots aren’t completely developed and lack specific enamel peptide correlated with the Y chromosome, indicating the tooth came from a female.

The extinct hominin species known as Denisovans were first identified in 2010 and are known to have co-existed with Neanderthals.

Exciting Discovery

Partially funded by the National Geographic Society, the study titled, “A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos,” was reported in Nature on May 17th. The molar at the center of this research was just the second Denisovan fossil found outside of Siberia, indicating that this species might have lived in a much broader geographic area than previously thought and have adaptabilities more aligned with modern humans.

Co-study author Laura Shackelford, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Urbana-Champaign Illinois stated in Nature, “We’ve always assumed that Denisovans were in this part of the world, but we’ve never had the physical evidence. This is one little piece of evidence that they were really there.”

Shackelford and her team have worked for years in the cave systems of Laos searching for signs and remains of ancient humans. Shortly before her first trip to the specific labyrinth of caves, one of Shackelford’s colleagues made this exciting discovery.


Denisovans on the Move

Denisovans are believed to have split from Neanderthals around 400,000 years ago. As the Neanderthals expanded across Europe, Denisovans moved into east Asia. Finding remains of the Denisovans has proven to be somewhat elusive, as just a handful of bones and teeth have been found from this species in just two locations, Siberia and Tibet – making this discovery all that more exciting.

This finding further supports the belief that Denisovans travelled much farther south, as their genetic fingerprints can be found in modern people of Asian descent. It also shows the adaptability and range of the Denisovans from the freezing artic mountains and high plateaus to the hot and humid lowlands of Southeast Asia. This adaptability shows how flexible the Denisovans were and how similar they are to modern humans.

Tooth Provides View into the Past

While simply just one tooth, the newly found molar in Laos offers tremendous value to what little scientists know about the Denisovans. For nearly a decade, the only remains of this species were a few teeth, a pinky bone, and a fragmented skull. In 2019 a Denisovan jaw, known as the Xiahe mandible, was discovered on a Tibetan Plateau. With this discovery, the study’s co-lead author and paleoanthropologist at France’s University of Bordeaux, Clement Zanolli states in a National Geographic article that teeth hold the “little black box of the life of the individual.” He further explains that teeth are capable of showing a lot about an individual from their shape, structure, wear patterns and chemistry. Fossilized teeth can reveal a view into the past and show information about age, diet, and habitat.

For instance, the fossilized molar found in Laos is more wrinkled than molars found in modern humans, and it has a crest shape similar to Neanderthals. However, the tooth’s overall shape and structure are closest to the teeth found in the Denisovan mandible.

In Conclusion

Continued research is planned in expanded areas due to this recent discovery. Scientists also believe that more Denisovan remains will be identified in museums and fossil institutions that were previously listed in a catch-all group known as the “archaic Homo.”

As this newly discovered molar is further analyzed, it’s believed to reveal further insight into where and how the Denisovans lived and their similarity to modern humans.

Author: With over 12 years as a published journalist, editor, and writer Genni Burkhart’s career has spanned politics, healthcare, law, business finance, technology, and news. She resides on the western shores of the idyllic Puget Sound where she works as the Editor in Chief for the Incisor at DOCS Education out of Seattle, WA.

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