This Lao archaic molar may have come from the Denisovans

Tam Ngu Hao 2 Cave Courtesy of the author

Scientists have found a mid-Pleistocene paleo-human molar in the Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave in Laos, which may have come from a young Denisovan woman or may have important implications for understanding the population history of Southeast Asia. The study was published online on May 17 in Nature Communications.

Much of the knowledge of the presence of ancient humans on the Southeast Asian continent comes from limited records of stone tools and few human remains. It is unclear whether one or more human clades have ever emerged or co-emerged in Southeast Asia. Genetic analysis shows that some Southeast Asian populations retain Denisovan ancestry, but the geographic distribution range of Denisovans remains controversial.

Fabrice Demeter from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Clement Zanolli from the University of Bordeaux in France, and Laura Shackelford from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign described a molar found in a limestone cave in Tam Ngu Hao 2 in the Annam Mountains of Laos. Fossil remains of rhinos, tapirs and sambar deer have also been found in the cave.

Molar sample courtesy of the author

Using a series of dating techniques, they estimated the age of the sediment around the molars to be between 164,000 and 131,000 years old. The authors note that the molars are not worn and have just completed their development. They believe the individual was aged 3.5 to 8.5 years at the time of death.

They analyzed the protein and morphology of the molars, found that it belonged to the human genus, and further proposed that the individual was female. Using geometric morphology (three-dimensional shape statistics), they compared the internal and external morphology of the molars with other ancient humans, including Neanderthals, modern humans, and Homo erectus, and concluded that the molars were most likely from Denisovans.

While the authors cannot rule out the possibility that the molars belong to Neanderthals, they believe that the similarity of the molars to the Danisovan samples of Xiahe in China supports their conclusions. The author concludes that this molar broadens our understanding of the spread of ancient humans in Asia, suggesting that it was once a hotspot for the diversity of human populations. (Source: China Science Daily Feng Weiwei)

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