Discovery of ancient bones in Altai Mountains cave may be missing link in understanding human origins
Fragments of an early human skull and rib were found in Pleistocene era layers in Strashnaya Cave, it was announced by Professor Andrey Krivoshapkin, head of Archeology and Ethnography at Novosibirsk State University. These are expected to be 'no younger than 50,000 years' old, he said.
Another find, dating to at least 35,000 years ago, was a tiny fragment of finger bone - a nail phalange.
'We struck really lucky this year,' he said. 'During works at Pleistocene levels of Strashnaya Cave we found new anthropological material. In levels dating to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, we found a fragment of a human nail phalanx.
'Further down (in older layers) there was a fragment of a human skull and, even further, a fragment of a rib which we believe is human.'
He stated: 'Both the skull and the rib should be no younger than 50,000 years old.'
The discoveries have led to palpable excitement among scientists in Siberia.
The academic said that 'in an ideal world we would like to have the nail phalange to belong to a modern man, carrying genes of both Neanderthal and Denisovan man, and the older find (the skull) belonging to Neanderthal Man, and the oldest fragment - the rib - to be from Denisovan man.'
However, he cautioned: 'Right now, however these are just my fantasies. As we know, analysis results might turn out to be completely unexpected. But whatever the results, they will help us understand the interaction of modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans in the Altai territory.'
It is the first discovery of man's remains at the cave for more than a quarter of a century. In 1989, archeologists found human teeth dating to the Upper Paleolithic period, around 20,000 years ago. The skull fragment was found alongside 'labour tools' which match previously discovered implements confirmed as belong to Neanderthals, he said.
The cave stands on the left bank of the River Inya, some 2.5 km north of Tigiryok village in Altai region. Earlier excavations here found variety of Stone Age tools along with Bronze, Iron and Middle Ages pottery.
Strashnaya (Scary) Cave, Altai, Siberia. Pictures: Andrey Krivoshapkin
The cave is around 125 kilometres west of the more famous Denisova Cave which changed our understanding of the origins of man.
Denisova was home through many millennia to both Neanderthals and our modern human ancestors. It was here that, in 2008, a tiny finger bone fragment of so-called 'X woman' was discovered, a young female who lived around 41,000 years ago, analysis of which indicated that she was genetically distinct from both Neanderthals and modern humans.
This previously unknown hominin species or subspecies - long extinct - was christened the Denisovans after the name of this cave. One conclusion from analysis of ancient bone fragments is that our own species, Homo sapiens, occasionally had assignations with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Featured image: The discoveries have led to palpable excitement among scientists in Siberia. Picture: Andrey Krivoshapkin.
The article ‘Fresh discoveries of ancient man's bone in Altai Mountains cave’ was originally published on The Siberian Times and has been republished with permission.