Ancient humans survived on the Tibetan Plateau for 160,000 years

Examples of anthropogenically modified faunal specimens and bone tools. Credit: Nature (2024).

A new study has found that the Denisovans, an extinct group of ancient humans, lived on the high-altitude Tibetan Plateau for around 160,000 years.

This discovery, published in Nature, sheds light on how these ancient humans adapted and survived in harsh climatic conditions, including the ice age.

The Denisovans lived at the same time as Neanderthals and early modern humans (Homo sapiens).

However, only a few Denisovan remains have been found, and much about their history remains unknown. Evidence suggests they interbred with both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

A team of researchers from Lanzhou University, the University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, and the University of Reading studied over 2,500 bones from the Baishiya Karst Cave on the Tibetan Plateau, one of the few known Denisovan sites.

Their analysis identified a new Denisovan fossil and revealed how this species survived in the changing climate of the Tibetan Plateau from about 200,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Dr. Geoff Smith, a zooarchaeologist from the University of Reading, co-authored the study.

He explained, “Our study shows that Denisovans hunted, butchered, and ate a variety of animals. We are just beginning to understand their behavior and how they adapted to high-altitude conditions and shifting climates.”

Due to the fragmented nature of the bone remains, the team used a new method called Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS) to identify the species of the bones based on differences in bone collagen. Dr. Huan Xia from Lanzhou University highlighted the importance of this method, saying, “ZooMS allows us to gather valuable information from overlooked bone fragments, providing deeper insights into human activities.”

The researchers found that most of the bones belonged to blue sheep (bharal), wild yaks, horses, the extinct wooly rhino, and spotted hyenas. They also identified bones from small mammals like marmots and birds. Dr. Jian Wang from Lanzhou University noted, “Evidence suggests it was Denisovans who occupied the cave and used all the available animal resources.”

The detailed analysis of the bones showed that Denisovans removed meat and bone marrow and used the bones to make tools. One rib bone was identified as belonging to a new Denisovan individual, dating back to between 48,000 and 32,000 years ago. This indicates that Denisovans lived at a time when modern humans were spreading across Eurasia.

Dr. Frido Welker from the University of Copenhagen explained, “The fossil and molecular evidence suggests that the Ganjia Basin, where Baishiya Karst Cave is located, provided a stable environment for Denisovans despite its high altitude. The question now is when and why these Denisovans went extinct.”

This study provides valuable insights into the Denisovans’ adaptation and survival strategies on the Tibetan Plateau, revealing a complex history of human evolution in challenging environments.

Source: University of Reading.