Alistair Coombs outlines the freshest findings in the archaeo-scientific record on human evolution, and maps these with indigenous histories and star lore.
Note from the Editor:
Since the writing of this article, two pronouncements from within the academic realm that are relevant to what is written by the author here have been made. First, the official death of ‘Clovis First’ and the ascent of the maritime ‘Kelp Highway’ model for the peopling of the Americas marks mainstream recognition of the maritime capabilities of Palaeolithic peoples. Second, the replacement of the single ‘Out of Africa’ model of human evolution with the multiple migratory model has shifted the scope of academic enquiry into human origins from Africa to Australasia and Southeast Asia. Mainstream academia now officially recognises hominin migrations as complex webs of interbreeding and genetic introgression, with the initial migration of humans occurring—if Out of Africa—approximately 60,000 years earlier than previously thought. These findings are highly significant to our understanding of human origins, and augment the mapping of history with lore in this article in ways on which the reader is invited to ‘comment’ below.
A Door to the Past
Nuances arising out of contemporary research of the human genome begin to sound esoteric. Archives of ancient DNA teased out of fossils have revealed unknown subpopulations or “ghost tribes” of ancient human groups, species long vanished from the face of the Earth but who continue to unfold in us, their modern human descendants. The discovery of substantial remnants of Denisovan DNA within Melanesian, indigenous Australian peoples, in addition to a more elusive dash detected within Native American populations, has contributed new initiatives to the sat nav of genetic migration and to a possible cultural memory following those same trails.
Located in the winding river Anui Valley of the Altai range of Siberia, the Denisova Cave and its larger archaeological park borders a disputed territory between the highland steppe of Soloneshensky district and the more mountainous Altai Krai to the southeast. Set within this timeless land of waterfalls, bosky hills, grottos and mineshafts, Denisova Cave has yielded a treasury of stunning palaeoanthropological finds, in addition to a new species of human set to cause a scientific tsunami.
Known to indigenous peoples as Bear’s Rock (Ayu-Tash) after a shaman whose spirit animal was a particularly wrathful bear, Denisova Cave was renamed after an 18th century Christian mystic called Dionisiy/Denis, who took refuge there. Over the course of 2008–2016, an ornamental crystal bracelet, a marble ring, and a bone sewing needle radiocarbondated to 40,000 to 50,000 years old, were found in the cave. The bracelet is set to be re-dated to a stupendous 60-70,000 years before present, which for finely crafted human jewellery (rather than weapons and tools) outreaches times deemed catalysts in the emergence of the modern mind by decamillennia. Small hinges open big doors. In 2008, a fragment of a finger-bone of a juvenile female who lived approximately 41,000 years ago was excavated there. The DNA extracted from this fossil belonged to an unknown human species, dubbed “X-woman”.
Like the Neanderthals’ naming after the Christian mystic Joseph Neander, the unknown Denisova hominin was christened after the cave-dwelling Dionisiy. Had they been named indigenously, they would have come out in translation as “bear people”.
Who were the Denisovans of the Altai?
The big bang of evolutionary anthropology, known as “Out of Africa,” has the earliest humans migrating out of the mother continent in two major waves. The first of these has relatives of Homo erectus originating in Africa about 2–3 million years ago and moving out of their home environment about 1.5 million years ago. This early interloper allegedly went on to colonise Europe and swathes of Asia, leaving remnants whom survived until 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
The second wave, it is believed, was comprised of a new, anatomically-evolved line of early humans who were more agile and equipped with a larger brain capacity. This new breed, supposedly incubating in Africa during the grip of an ice age, spread into Europe and Asia in parallel trails to its Homo erectus forebear. These Europe and Eurasia-bound hominins evolved into Neanderthals, while their Asian counterparts evolved into Denisovans. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged 200,000 years ago after breaking off from Denisovan populations around 800,000 years ago, and from Neanderthals about 350,000 years ago.
This morass of human origins is subject to ongoing revision further down the family tree. Nevertheless, the mitochondrial DNA of a profile genetically distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans that was extracted from X-woman’s finger-bone, suggests that the Denisova hominins to which she belonged were a sister group to Neanderthals that had branched off as a distinct species about 400,000 years ago.
At present, forming distinctions between Neanderthals and Denisovans remains complex, given the sparse fossil evidence and lack of clarity in detecting hybrids or variations within populations rather than between them; the relationship between Homo heidelbergensis and Homo erectus on the one hand, and between Homo heidelbergensis and Homo neanderthalensis on the other, is, for example, ambiguous.
Broadly speaking, and for the sake of convenience, Denisovans were the “Asian” equivalents of “European” Neanderthals. At the genomic level, Denisovans have widened the puzzle of human behaviour and evolution from what was allowed by the conventional model only a few decades ago, as genetic analysis shows that a three-way interbreeding between Denisovans, Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans occurred. Although a few per cent of remnant DNA may sound like one or two chance sexual encounters, it indicates intergenerational breeding over hundreds of years. Evidence for the intermittent human occupation of this Altai cave spans a period of about 282,000 years, with Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans inhabiting it at different times.
The incomplete bracelet and marble ring found in Denisova Cave would not appear to be an impressive legacy for a lost species, were they not of Denisovan manufacture; but the age of these objects reviews the degree of symbolically mediated behaviour and conceptual order thought possible for humans at that time. The bracelet is made of a dark green chlorite sourced 200 kilometres away from the cave and has a transparent quality when exposed to light. It shows techniques of drilling, grinding and polishing conventionally thought to belong to a later age, such as the Neolithic. Intriguingly, its damage occurred during its own time and became fixed with an unidentified adhesive. Considering its size and weight and that it included appendages that are no longer present, it is likely to have been worn on special, ceremonial occasions.
Read more at GrahamHancock.com
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