Fragmented parts of a human skull found in the Panninge cave. Credit: University of Hasanuddin

Scientists Find “New Kind” of Ancient Human–10 Things You Need to Know

Scientists suggest that the studied individual could have originated from the local population of hunter-gatherers, which existed in Sulawesi before the settlement of Sahul by the ancestors of the Papuans, Australian and Tasmanian aborigines, that is, at least 50 thousand years ago.

Paleogeneticists isolated DNA from the remains of a young woman who died in South Sulawesi about 7.3-7.2 thousand years ago and found that her genome contains fewer genes from Denisovans than most modern Australian Aborigines and Papuans. In addition, it belongs to a previously undescribed population of hunter-gatherers, whose ancestors may have come to Sulawesi before the Papuans, Australian, and Tasmanian aborigines.


Everything you need to know about the new human genome discovered in Sulawesi

The settlement of Indonesia, Australia, and Oceania

The settlement of Indonesia, Australia, and Oceania remains an extremely controversial topic in science. This is primarily due to the small amount of archaeological material, as well as the extremely poor preservation of fossil remains due to the climate and natural conditions, which, in particular, does not preserve DNA in ancient bones, limiting paleogenetic studies. However, the prevailing opinion is that the penetration of the first populations of Homo sapiens from Southeast Asia to Indonesia and Australia occurred about 50 thousand years ago.

Genetic studies

Genetic studies of the past ten years have shown that many populations in Australia, Oceania, and Southeast Asia were influenced by the interbreeding of their ancestors with Denisovans. Up to seven percent of an admixture from this archaic population is contained in the genomes of the island population of Southeast Asia and Oceania, among the indigenous people of Australia and some peoples of mainland Asia.

The entrance of the Panninge cave where scientists found a new human genome. Credit: Leang Panninge research project
The entrance of the Panninge cave where scientists found a new human genome. Credit: Leang Panninge research project

Admixture of two populations

Moreover, American researchers have found that a number of peoples carry an admixture of two populations of Denisovans – the Altai and the unknown second. The leader in this were the Philippine Negritos, whose share exceeds Denisovskoe genes similar to Papuans and indigenous Australians in the 34-40 percent.

The new study

Selina Carlhoff from the Max Planck Institute for Human History, together with scientists from Australia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Korea, conducted a genetic study of the remains of a young woman 17-18 years old who died about 7.3-7.2 thousand years ago in South Sulawesi.

The burial

The studied remains were discovered during excavations at Panninge Cave in 2015 and turned out to be the first relatively complete burial belonging to the Tolian culture. The woman was buried in a bent position at a depth of about 190 centimeters.

A ‘new human’ genome

Geneticists were able to extract ancient DNA from bone powder obtained from part of the temporal bone. Comparing the obtained genome with previously published sequences of ancient people from Eastern Eurasia and the current inhabitants of East, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, scientists found that it does not group with either modern or archaic people.

Genetic drift

Although it is located between the Australian aborigines and the Onge (one from indigenous Andaman peoples), the new human shares the greatest genetic drift with the populations of Oceania.

Fewer Denisovan genes

Geneticists found that the Panninge woman had fewer Denisovan genes (2.2 ± 0.5 percent) than most Indigenous Australians and Papuans. However, the previously obtained genomes of two ancient Lao inhabitants carried less Denisovan admixture, suggesting that the ancestors of hunter-gatherers from Wallessia were introgressed by archaic hominids. Neanderthal alleles were found to be similar to other known non-African populations.

The "almost preserved skeleton" of the 'new human' found in the Leang Panninge cave. Credit: University of Hasanuddin
The “almost preserved skeleton” of the ‘new human’ found in the Leang Panninge cave. Credit: University of Hasanuddin

Results

The results of the study showed that the new human genome belongs to a previously undescribed population, whose ancestors split from related lineages associated with the Onge and the Hao Binh culture, around the same time that the Papuan and Australian Aboriginal groups split.

Conclusions

Scientists suggest that the studied individual could have originated from the local population of hunter-gatherers, which existed in Sulawesi before the settlement of Sahul by the ancestors of the Papuans, Australian and Tasmanian aborigines, that is, at least 50 thousand years ago.


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Sources:

Carlhoff, S., Duli, A., & Nägele, K. (2021, August 25). Genome of a middle Holocene HUNTER-GATHERER FROM WALLACEA. Nature News.
Cassella, C. (n.d.). 7,200-Year-Old human DNA with Unique Denisovan ancestry has been found in Indonesia. ScienceAlert.
Geggel, L. (2021, August 25). Ancient remains found in Indonesia belong to a Vanished human lineage. LiveScience.
Marshall, M. (2021, August 25). 7200-Year-Old DNA SUGGESTS Denisovans bred with humans on Sulawesi. New Scientist.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. My experience as a freelance writer began in 2018 but I have been part of the Curiosmos family since mid-2020. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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