The remote and unassuming cave of Denisova rewrote the history of humanity overnight - and all from a teenage girl's pinky bone. It is in the heart of a rapidly changing storm that is completely rewriting our understanding of our evolutionary past.

Following on from the Neanderthal Cave in Germany in the 1800s, the Denisova Cave has shown that Homo Sapiens were not alone. In the past, there were three or more species of humans. Just imagine what the world would have been like in a time when there were multiple human species living side by side.


The Humble Denisova Cave

The Denisova Cave is located in the majestic Altai mountains in Siberia in Russia close to the border with Kazakhstan. It is formed from Silurian limestone and is made up of three galleries called the Main Gallery, the East Gallery, and the South Gallery.

Denisova Cave sits at the crossroads of human evolution. In its history, it has been inhabited by different species of humans including Neanderthals, Denisovans (named after their discovery in the Denisova Cave), and Homo Sapiens - our species.

  • Past Residents: Denisovans, Neanderthals, Related Hybrids, Modern Humans

It's not just hominid fossils and remains here. There are also the remnants of many animals (including extinct ones). 27 large and medium-sized species of mammals have been found here including cave hyenas, cave lions, and others.

Related: This Alabama Park Is Home To A 260-Million-Year-Old Cave

The Discovery Of The Denisovans

Before the discovery, the cave had long been of great paleo-archaeological and paleontological interest. It was known that the cave had long been inhabited by ancient humans and Neanderthals.

But around a decade ago a bombshell was dropped. Scientists were routinely extracting the DNA of various samples when they found something completely new. A pinky bone they sequenced was from a teenage girl who was a member of an as yet undiscovered species of human.

  • Discovery: From A Teenage Girl's Pinky Bone
  • Parents: The Girl Had a Denisovan Father and a Neanderthal Mother

This was the first time a new species was described from DNA alone. The bone was found among hominid fossils in the cave - some were known to be Neanderthal. But this girl was different, she had a Denisovan father and a Neanderthal mother.

Today little is known about this mysterious lineage, a jawbone has been found in Tibet, other fragments in the cave, and importantly Denisovan DNA has been found in East Asians, New Guineans, and others. It is now known that this ancient lineage mixed with modern humans like Neanderthals did.

History of Hominids In The Denisova Cave

Discoveries are continuing to be made at this cave all the time - read more about it in the Science Magazine. A new technique is allowing the extraction of ancient DNA strands from soil samples. This is enabling a picture to be built on the cave's occupational history. It has recently been found that Denisovans lived there an incredible 250,000 years ago.

  • Original Residents: The Denisovans
  • First Denisovans In The Cave: Currently Thought To Be Around 250,000 Years Ago
  • First Neanderthals In The Cave: Currently Thought To Be Around 170,000 Years Ago

Neanderthals and Denisovans continued to live in the cave until around 45,000 years ago. That just happens to be around when modern human DNA pops up for the first time in the sediments.

  • Disappeared: Neanderthals and Denisovans Disappeared Around 45,000 Years Ago

In addition to modern human DNA, the more advanced stone tool culture of the Initial Upper Paleolithic appears as humans dispersed from Africa. That being said no modern human fossils have been found in the cave, but it is known they were there by their tools and DNA.

Did modern humans trigger the demise of the Neanderthals and Denisovans? Did they introduce new diseases that wiped them out? Did they out complete or outbreed them (it's apparent there was at least some interbreeding)? On these questions, the jury is still largely out.

Related: This Is Why Visiting The Cave Of Winds Mountain Park In Colorado Is So Otherworldly

Visiting The Region And Learning About Denisovans and Neanderthals

Today Denisova Cave is in a very remote part of Russia and it is an active archeological site. It is not a developed tourist destination.

  • Denisova Cave: Not Developed As A Tourist Destination

If one would like to discover the incredible evolutionary history of mankind, then the excellent Neanderthal Museum in Germany explores the history of this sister group at the site where Neanderthals were first discovered in Germany.

  • Neanderthal Museum: Explores Neanderthals Where They Were First Discovered In Germany

As another option is to explore the unique environment of the Altai Mountain region in which the Denisovan Cave is found. The Altai Mountains straddle the borders of four countries - Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia and one can go on a tour of the region in these countries.

  • Altai Mountains: Spread Into Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia

For the very adventurous, there is even an 18-Day Western Mongolia horse trekking and Snow Leopard Tour into the Mongolian side of the Altai Mountains.

Next: A Brief History Of Mongolia, And Why You Should Visit The Asian Steppe