A fossil jaw found in the Himalayan highlands of Tibet belongs to a vanished human species called Denisovans, deepening the mystery of human evolution in Asia, scientists said Wednesday in a new study probing the roots of humankind.
Discovered by a local Buddhist monk, the fossil shows these archaic human relatives lived on the roof of the world in the rarefied air at almost 11,000 feet—an altitude that would leave many people today starved for oxygen. They settled at these frigid heights at least 160,000 years ago, more than 120,000 years before modern humankind arrived, said the scientists, who published their work on the fossil in the journal Nature.
While this early human species became extinct long ago, traces of their DNA survive in modern populations of Asia, the Pacific and Australia, several genome studies show. In fact, many people of Tibet today owe their unusual adaptation to such extreme high-altitude conditions, where there is 40% less oxygen in the air than at sea level, to a unique gene inherited from these primordial mountain dwellers.
“One of the most spectacular aspects of this discovery is the location,” said project co-leader Jean-Jacques Hublin, director of the department of human evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. “Nobody ever imagined that archaic humans would be able to dwell in such an environment.”