Tooth Proves Extinct Human Species Lived in Southeast Asia Over 130,000 Years Ago

Tooth Proves Extinct Human Species Lived in Southeast Asia Over 130,000 Years Ago

  • A tooth found in a cave in Laos belonged to an ancient human species called Denisovans.
  • The tooth, most likely that of a girl, places extinct humans in Southeast Asia for the first time.
  • This solves the mystery of how the Denisovan genes are found in humans in Southeast Asia today.

The remains of a now extinct ancient human species called the Denisovans have been discovered for the first time in Southeast Asia.

Scientists were looking for Denisovan remains in the area because they knew some of their genes were passed down to modern human populations in Southeast Asia today.

But until now, scientists had not been able to put them there formally.

A single tooth over 130,000 years old belonging to a young Denisovan has been found in a cave in Laos.

“That was kind of the big mystery: why is Denisovan DNA found in these Southeast Asian populations, but not in Eurasia or elsewhere,” said Mike Morley, associate professor at the Flinders University Microarchaeology Laboratory and study author, said in a statement.

“It’s kind of a ‘smoking gun’, that tooth,” he said.

The tooth was found in a cave named Tam Ngu Hao 2 in Laos in 2018. The findings were published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications.

Views of the TNH2-1 specimen, Nature Communications.

The tooth found in Laos.

Nature Communication

Denisovan’s remains have only been found in two other locations

The Denisovans are a species of ancient humans. Like Neanderthals, Homo naledi or Homo bodoensis, they died out while modern humans survived.

This subgroup of ancient humans has been particularly elusive because very few remains have been discovered to date.

Most of the remains were found in Denisova Cave in Siberia, thousands of miles north of Laos.

But scientists knew that these ancient humans must have descended to Southeast Asia, where they would have crossed paths with modern humans. A 2020 study found that a small number of Denisovan genes can be found in some Southeast Asian populations.

The discovery of Laos is only the second to place Denisovan outside of Siberia.

This cave, where the first Denisovan remains were discovered in 2008, was probably inhabited by Denisovans from around 300,000 to around 50,000 years ago. This taught us that these humans probably used stone tools and probably interbred with humans and Neanderthals.

A 2020 study found that a jawbone found in Baishiya Karst Cave in Tibet, Xiahe County, Gansu, China was from a Denisovan who lived around 160,000 years ago.


A portrait of a juvenile female Denisovan based on a reconstructed skeletal profile from ancient DNA methylation maps.

Mayan Harel

Clues reveal the origin of the tooth

Conditions in the cave mean that the tooth’s DNA has been too poorly preserved to read. But scientists have found other clues to its origins.

A protein analysis of the tooth revealed that it likely belonged to a girl between the ages of 3.5 and 8.5.

The internal structure of the tooth also resembles the shape of those found in the Tibetan specimen of Denisovans, indicating that the child was Denisovan.

The rock around the tooth could also be dated, indicating that the child lived between 164,000 and 131,000 years ago.

Inside Ngu Hao Cave 2 showing the concreted remnant cave sediments adhering to the cave wall.  The overlying whitish rock is a lava that caps the entire deposit.

The interior of the cave is shown here.

Fabrice Demeter (University of Copenhagen/CNRS Paris)

Local children first spotted the tooth

Scientists were first told about the fossil-rich cave by local children in 2018, Laura Shackelford, a University of Illinois paleoanthropologist and study co-author, told The New York Times.

When they reached the closet-sized cavity where the children said they found the bones, “all you could see were bones and teeth, embedded in the walls and ceiling of this cave. “Shakelford said.

“They were all over the place,” she said, according to The Times.

Most of them were bones from pigs, deer and pygmy elephants, which had teeth marks suggesting they were part of a meal, The Times reported. But among the fossils, scientists have found a single tooth belonging to the ancient human.

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