Paleoanthropologists have found a permanent lower molar of a young, likely female, hominin individual at the Tam Ngu Hao 2 limestone cave in the Annamite Mountains, Laos. The close morphological affinities with the Xiahe specimen from China indicate that the specimen belongs to the same taxon and most likely represents a Denisovan.
The Middle Pleistocene hominin molar was recovered in December 2018 from a breccia block at Tam Ngu Hao 2, also known as Cobra Cave, in Huà Pan province, Laos.
“The Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave sediments contained teeth of giant herbivores, ancient elephants and rhinos that where known to live in woodland environments,” said Dr. Fabrice Demeter, a paleoanthropologist in the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre in the Globe Institute, the University of Copenhagen, and France’s Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.
“After all this work following the many clues written on fossils from very different geographic areas our findings are significant.”
“This fossil represents the first discovery of Denisovans in Southeast Asia and shows that Denisovans were in the south at least as far as Laos. This is in agreement with the genetic evidence found in modern day Southeast Asian populations.”
Following a very detailed analysis of the shape of the Tam Ngu Hao 2 molar, Dr. Demeter identified many similarities to Denisovan teeth found on the Tibetan Plateau.
This suggested it was most likely a Denisovan who lived between 164,000-131,000 years ago in the warm tropics of northern Laos.
Unlike Denisova Cave, the humid conditions in Laos meant the ancient DNA was not preserved.
However, the researchers found ancient proteins suggesting the fossil belonged to a young, likely female, Denisovan likely aged between 3.5 – 8.5 years old.
“The tooth from Tam Ngu Hao 2 Cave in Laos provides direct evidence of a most likely Denisovan female individual with associated fauna in mainland Southeast Asia by 164,000-131,000 years ago,” the authors said.
“This discovery further attests that this region was a hotspot of diversity for the genus Homo, with the presence of at least five late Middle to Late Pleistocene species: Homo erectus, the Denisovans/Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis, Homo luzonensis and Homo sapiens.”
The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.
F. Demeter et al. 2022. A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos. Nat Commun 13, 2557; doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-29923-z