What music did the cave people create?

Dating an enigmatic caveman

The "Cave of Denis" in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia near the border with Kazakhstan covers a floor area of ‚Äč‚Äčaround 270 square meters and is relatively flat. It consists of a main room of almost 100 square meters, which is just behind the entrance, and also contains a few other, smaller side rooms. The entrance to the cave is around 30 meters above a river. For the people of the Stone Age, the Denisova Cave probably offered very advantageous living conditions.

Archaeological excavations carried out there since the 1970s have shown that this was indeed the case: numerous fossil finds showed that Neanderthals had found a home in the Denisova Cave for long periods of time. However, since a study published in 2010 based on bone fragments and teeth, it has become clear that the Denisova Cave was at least temporarily inhabited by another, hitherto unknown species of humans.

The archaeological basis for this knowledge is, however, comparatively sparse: a total of five fossils have so far proven the existence of the mysterious Denisova man. When the Denisovians moved into this cave and how long they stayed there - probably at the same time as the Neanderthals - was largely unclear.

At least some of these questions have now been answered by an international team of researchers as part of two studies published in the journal "Nature". The scientists working with Tom Higham from the University of Oxford used various dating methods to analyze both the soil layers in which the Denisova fossils had been found and the bones and teeth of the prehistoric humans themselves.

Detailed timeline

On this basis, the researchers created a detailed chronological sequence of the fossil deposits and artifacts in the cave, with the oldest finds being 300,000 years old and the youngest layers around 20,000 years old. Ultimately, the scientists came to the conclusion that, according to conservative estimates, Denisova people used the cave as accommodation between 287,000 and 55,000 years ago.

The investigations also showed that Neanderthals were actually also native there, namely between 193,000 and 97,000 years ago. The majority of the Neanderthal finds in the Denisova Cave come from the last interglacial period around 120,000 years ago. The analyzes confirm what has emerged from recent studies: that Denisovans and Neanderthals had children together.

Descendants of two species

Only a few months ago researchers were able to genetically prove a direct descendant of a Neanderthal woman and a Denisova man from the Denisova Cave. The analyzes had shown that the roughly 50,000-year-old remains came from an approximately 13-year-old child. The scientists conclude from the current dating and previous genetic studies that Neanderthals and Denisovans could well have formed communities on a regular basis.

Nevertheless, the cave in the Altai Mountains still leaves numerous questions unanswered: For example, it is still unclear whether Neanderthals, Denisovans or modern humans created the artifacts found there. Higham and his team hope that additional traces of DNA hidden in the sediments will help identify the creators of these objects. (Thomas Bergmayr, January 30, 2019)