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Ancient tooth once belonged to mysterious Denisovans, scientists think

Baku, May 18, AZERTAC

Deep in the forests of Laos, in a cave in the Annamite Mountains, lay a single child's tooth.

That tooth – an unassuming molar - could be from a mysterious species of human we know little about, and of which few remains are known to exist.

"Analyses of the internal structure of the molar in tandem with palaeoproteomic analyses of the enamel indicate that the tooth derives from a young, likely female, Homo individual," researchers write in a new study.

The tooth, from the Tam Ngu Hao 2 cave, "most likely represents a Denisovan", the researchers say.

Denisovans are an extinct species of human first discovered when an analysis of a child's finger bone found in a Siberian cave in 2008 was determined to not be a fit for any known human species.

From what we can tell from specimens dated almost all the way back to 200,000 years ago, Denisovans share close genetic similarities with Neanderthals.

However, finding specimens has been incredibly slim pickings. Six fossilized teeth and bones have been discovered in the same Siberian cave, while one partial mandible has been found in a cave in China.

So, the discovery of a potential Denisovan tooth from Laos – far south of the caves of Siberia or China – is extremely exciting for researchers.

"The tooth from Tam Ngu Hao 2 Cave in Laos thus provides direct evidence of a most likely Denisovan female individual with associated fauna in mainland Southeast Asia by 164-131 thousand years ago," the team writes in their new paper.

"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: H. erectus, Denisovans/Neanderthals, H. floresiensis, H. luzonensis and H. sapiens."

Because the molar only recently completed development (at the time of the individual's death), and showed no signs of being worn, the team believes that the tooth is from a child between 3.5 to 8.5 years old when they died. Using sediment from around the tooth, they dated the tooth to between 164 to 131 thousand years old.

The research has been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal - Nature Communications.

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