Scientists Have Just Confirmed That The First Denisovan Skull Has Been Officially Identified

Scientists have recovered the fragments of a Denisovan skull in a Siberian cave, making this rare discovery the fifth Denisovan specimen that has now been identified.

Denisova caves is a cave in the Altai mountains, Siberia, Russia.
Olinchuk / Shutterstock

Scientists have recovered the fragments of a Denisovan skull in a Siberian cave, making this rare discovery the fifth Denisovan specimen that has now been identified.

Scientists have just confirmed that a small piece of a skull discovered in a Siberian cave is officially that of a Denisovan, adding to the small amount of specimens that have already been identified as belonging to this extinct branch of the hominin family.

As Sapiens reports — while this discovery is, as yet, unpublished — paleoanthropologist Bence Viola from the University of Toronto will be announcing and discussing the identification of this Denisovan skull at the end of March in Cleveland, Ohio. The announcement will take place at a meeting which will be conducted by the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

The announcement that fragments of a skull found in Siberia are Denisovan will be immensely helpful, as scientists today still understand very little about this group of hominins. Prior to the discovery of this skull fragment, scientists have only been able to identify four Denisovans.

The first of these was identified in 2010, and scientists have so far recovered teeth and a small finger bone from these four Denisovans. However, the chunks of skull — also found in the same Siberian cave where the other fragments were unearthed — now moves up the grand total of Denisovans identified to five.

As Viola happily explained, “It’s very nice that we finally have fragments like this. It’s not a full skull, but it’s a piece of a skull. It gives us more. Compared to the finger and the teeth, it’s nice to have.”

However, Viola joked that in a perfect world it would be brilliant if scientists came across an even larger Denisovan specimen — like a full skeleton — noting, “We’re always greedy. We want more.”

The two interconnected pieces of the recovered Denisovan skull include fragments of the skull’s back side, along with a small piece of the parietal bone. Combined, these pieces were measured at 8 centimeters by 5 centimeters.

Because the skull is so ancient, scientists have been unable to submit it to radiocarbon dating. However, DNA analysis is all that is needed to show, definitively, that these fragments indeed belonged to a Denisovan.

When Viola and fellow scientists analyzed the pieces of the skull, they also compared it with both human and Neanderthal specimens. Beyond this early information, nothing more is being said until the work which identifies this skull as Denisovan is officially published.

Chris Stringer — a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was not involved in this new study — has stated that with this exciting discovery comes the hope that, one day, scientists will find even larger Denisovan specimens.

“This is exciting. But, of course, it is only a small fragment. It’s as important in raising hopes that yet more complete material will be recovered.”

While the remains of the newly identified Denisovan skull aren’t quite large enough to be used in the identification of other skulls, scientists are optimistic that there will be other even bigger discoveries in the future.