"This is the tip of the iceberg," says Chris Stringer, a
palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London who was not
involved in the find. More hominids that are neither Neanderthal nor human
are likely to be discovered in coming years, particularly in central and
eastern Asia, he says.
Previously, anthropologists thought that Neanderthals and humans were the
only hominids roaming Europe and Asia during the late Pleistocene. The
discovery of 17,000-year-old Homo floresiensis ? the "hobbit" ? dispelled
that notion, but many anthropologists look on H. floresiensis as an anomaly,
isolated from the human?Neanderthal hegemony on the mainland.
The newly discovered creature, which probably lived in close proximity to
humans and Neanderthals, suggests that things were not that simple. "The
picture that's going to emerge in the next years is a much more complex
one," says Svante P??bo, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.
P??bo and colleague Johannes Krause discovered the specimen in the Denisova
cave in southern Siberia, and sequenced DNA from its mitochondria. It is
impossible to say what the creature would have looked like based on a single
pinkie bone, so P??bo and Krause are hesitant to call it a new species.
Though the creature's sex is not known, they are for now referring to her as
X-woman because mitochondria are inherited maternally. "No one really knows
what she would look like," P??bo says.
X-woman's mitochondria differ from a human's at nearly 400 DNA letters;
Neanderthals show only half as many differences.
This suggests that X-woman shared an African ancestor with the two other
species somewhere between 780,000 and 1.3 million years ago, before striking
north and east. This expansion is distinct from the one that occurred around
500,000 years ago that gave rise to Neanderthals, and from our own species'
peregrinations from about 50,000 years ago.
The split seems too recent for X-woman to be related to Homo erectus, which
began moving out of Africa around 2 million years ago.
However, Clive Finlayson, a palaeoanthropologist at the Gibraltar Museum,
says the idea that there were just a handful of hominid migrations out of
Africa is a vast oversimplification that ignores how other species expand
their range over time. "To talk about one or two expansions from a
particular region doesn't make any biological sense," he says. "There were
probably hundreds, thousands of migrations out of Africa."
Though there is no complete skeleton for X-woman, her lineage could mean she
is related to any number of more complete specimens recovered in Asia that
don't neatly fit human or Neanderthal body patterns, says Stringer. "This
new DNA work provides an entirely new way of looking at the still poorly
understood evolution of humans in central and eastern Asia."
P??bo and his team are hesitant to speculate too much about X-woman's nature
until they obtain DNA sequences from the nuclear genome's 3.1 billion
letters. That project is already under way, and the first results should
come within months. P??bo's team will likely want X-woman's genome to answer
the same questions they are asking of the Neanderthal genome, which is due
for publication soon.
For instance, humans and Neanderthals share unique mutations in a gene
linked to speech and language called FOXP2. If X-woman's sequence is
complete enough, they will be able to determine if it possesses the same
change ? and potentially the capability for language.
There is no sign in X-woman's mitochondrial genome that her kind interbred
with humans or Neanderthals, but the nuclear genome will offer a far better
chance of finding out.
Given the close proximity of Neanderthal remains dated to the same time and
artefacts that appear to be human, interbreeding is not unlikely, P??bo
says. "Having in about the same time window three different forms [of
hominids], increases the potential of all types of interactions, including
X-woman's mitochondrial DNA begins to paint a picture of what she was like,
if only a blurry one. The protein-coding genes do not contain any surprising
mutations that would cause disease.
Finlayson would love to link X-woman to other bones, and even stone
technologies, though the chances of doing this may be slim. "Ideally we
would like to have all that information, but we don't. The fact that we've
got this genetic result is important, it's very important."
P??bo hopes that such a connection will come through sequencing DNA from
other Asian hominid fossils. But he, too, is prepared for the possibility
that such bones may never turn up.
He sees in X-woman the beginning of a new way of understanding human
history. "It gives another picture of our past, a molecular picture of the
evolution of our genome" which he says is in some aspects even more
conclusive than fossils.