First glimpse inside the Siberian cave that holds the key to origins of man
Exclusive pictures show the world famous Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains from which a series of stunning scientific discoveries on man's origins have been made in recent years.
More are expected as a result of a hive of archeological activity - overseen by the specialists from Novosibirsk State University - underway at this unique site inhabited continuously from the deep past.
Scientist Maksim Kozlikin said: 'We are working with Oxford University in the UK, they help us with radiocarbon and other dating and also conduct studies of ancient DNA. Currently, we continue cooperation and there can be new joint scientific articles.'
The significance of the cave is immense, and the experts are convinced it has more secrets to give up on human origins. Here in 2008 was discovered a finger bone fragment of 'X woman', a juvenile female who lived around 41,000 years ago, analysis of which indicated that she was genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans.
This previously unknown and long extinct hominin species or subspecies was christened Denisovan after this cave. In 2010 analysis on an upper molar from a young adult, found in the cave ten years previously, was also from a Denisovan.
The Denisova Cave is located in the Bashelaksky Range of the north-western Altai Mountains, close to the border of today's Altai Region and the Altai Republic. Pictures: The Siberian Times.
In 2011, a toe bone contemporary with the finger was found with the mitochondrial DNA suggesting it belonged to a Neanderthal, not a Denisovan. Tools from modern man have been found in the cave, too.
As scientist Svante Paabo, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said: 'The one place where we are sure all three human forms have lived at one time or another is here in Denisova Cave.'
Another significant find in 2008 - in the same layer as the Denisovan bone - was a stone bracelet dated 40,000 years old, but it was made using the technologies specific to a much later time.
It was due to this cave that scientists understood the settlement of this part of Siberia went back longer than the assumed 30,000 to 50,000 years. Traces in the 'cultural layer' of the Denisova show the human habitat reaching back 282,000 years. So far it has given up more than 80 000 exhibits including implements, arms, ornaments, and the remains of animals and plants.
'At this very place, where the cave is located, is in fact a canyon, because the width of the bottom of the valley here is less than the distance between two major peaks - Mount Karakol and Mount Sosnovaya. Pictures here and below: Vera Salnitskaya.
The Denisova Cave is located in the Bashelaksky Range of the north-western Altai Mountains, close to the border of today's Altai Region and the Altai Republic, but in ancient times it would have been an attractive location.
The cave is at an altitude of 670 meters above sea level, and at 28 meters above the present level of the Anui River.
Kozlikin, a research fellow of Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences, explained: 'From the ancient hunter's point of view the location of Denisova Cave was very convenient. To the north of the cave stretches a rather wide valley, and there is another to the south.
'At this very place, where the cave is located, is in fact a canyon, because the width of the bottom of the valley here is less than the distance between two major peaks - Mount Karakol and Mount Sosnovaya. So Denisova Cave is in a rather narrow canyon. Through this canyon - as if through a bottle neck - migrated the animals, from one valley to another. So the ancient hunter always had enough prey. There is a water nearby and good climatic conditions of the mountainous valleys.'
Maksim Kozlikin, a research fellow of Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, part of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences gave us a tour of the cave.
In the late Pleistocene era, some 100,000 years ago, an ice sheet covered much of western Siberia, but not Altai valleys such as this. 'So it was a good place for hunting and gathering plants too, and very comfortable conditions for the humans and animals.'
Indeed, there are other signs this was a hive of activity in ancient times.
A few kilometres down the Anui River is located Paleolithic site Anui-2 and four kilometres up the river is Karakol site and others, so there are quite a lot of Paleolithic sites on this area, around the cave.