A Denisovan news article

A nice article by Ewen Callaway has just come out in Nature looking at the current scientific scene regarding the mysterious Denisovans: “Siberia’s ancient ghost clan starts to surrender its secrets”.

It’s a timely piece because there have been quite a few papers on Denisova Cave and its inhabitants during the past year, including the “Denny” individual with both Neandertal and Denisovan parents, a better chronology for the cave system and its deposits, and this unpublished news:

But more material is emerging slowly. Archaeologists excavating Denisova Cave in 2016 discovered a freshly broken chunk of parietal bone — part of the skull — that contains mitochondrial DNA from a Denisovan. The bone is shaped a bit like that of Homo erectus, a species of hominin that most researchers consider to be a close ancestor of humans, Neanderthals and, presumably, Denisovans (see ‘Tangled tree’). “Sadly, it’s not very informative. I expected more of it,” says Viola, who will describe his analysis in March at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. He hopes that the other pieces of the parietal bone, or even a complete skull, might soon be found. “It would be nice to have somewhat more,” he adds.

A lot of people are doing great science on the questions related to this ancient population, and that’s neat to see. I am really looking forward to the Denisova symposium at the upcoming American Association of Physical Anthropology meetings next month, organized by Serena Tucci and Eduardo Amorim, where I will be taking part as the discussant.

I think that Callaway’s article is a great summary of the way many people are thinking, and I recommend it. But personally I disagree with the way many scientists are thinking about Denisova.

The series of Denisova discoveries has shown that anthropologists and geneticists were fundamentally wrong in their assumptions about ancient hominin variation and population interactions. “Finding” more Denisovans, or identifying any specimen with substantive skeletal morphology that can be connected to this population would be newsworthy, sure. But we should be clearing the field of this kind of typological thinking. The fact that we did not predict the existence of this population is a pretty clear indication that morphology never had the value that anthropologists once assumed.