At the American Association of Physical Anthropology Conference in Cleveland last week, a team of researchers presented evidence that humans in Papua New Guinea may have interbred with a population of Denisovans as recently as 15,000 years ago, citing genetic evidence that genomes they tested contained evidence of two separate infusions of Denisovan DNA. The first came around 50,000 years ago. The second occurred sometime after, and the researchers suspect it occurred around 15,000 years ago. The scientists, led by Murray Cox of the Massey University in New Zealand, also said that the Denisovans living on the mainland in southeast Asia were as genetically different from the better-known Siberian Denisovans as they were from Neanderthals.
However Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute suggests that the evidence better reflects the accidental cross-breeding of two populations of modern humans with relatively high Denisovan DNA from an earlier mating event. In other words, they happened to find each other and cross-breed again, remixing their different Denisovan DNA pools.
The new discovery undercuts one of the arguments Graham Hancock made in his recently released book America Before. In that volume, Hancock argues that the presence in isolated tribes in the Amazon of DNA associated with people from Papua New Guinea and Australia implies a deep connection predating the known entry of people into the Americas and potentially going back 130,000 years (since the same people share the largest recorded fraction of Denisovan DNA, up to 4%) and may constitute proof of a lost civilization. The new evidence complicates the picture. If Asian populations continued to interact with Denisovans down to the last Ice Age, then the presence of a wider variety of genetic inputs among the founding Native American populations is much less confounding. Basically, people moved around more during the Ice Age than we sometimes give them credit for.
On the other hand, the discover of a fragment of the skull of a Denisovan might actually lend credence of Andrew Collins’s claim that the Denisovans were the giants of the Book of Genesis. According to researcher Bence Viola and colleagues, the skull indicates that the Denisovans were “large.” That said, there is no evidence as yet of their presence in the Near East, so their connection to the Bible and the myth of giants is speculative at best.
Collins, however, has already begun the process of speculation. In an article for Ancient Origins, he makes some veiled asides to the Denisovans as giants and tries to connect the Denisovans to geological formations that some have tried to claim as intentional human constructions from a lost Atlantis-like civilization:
Some might look towards the megalithic pyramid hill of Gudung Padang in Java, Indonesia, now thought to be as much as 25,000 years old, as well as the rock platform of Yonaguni, the westernmost island of Japan, which has been submerged for at least 10,000 years, as evidence of the former presence in Southeast Asia of advanced Denisovan groups.
Collins also speculates, without evidence, that Denisovans invented boats.
Is it possible that Denisovans or pronounced Denisovan-modern human hybrids in Island Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania were responsible for the sudden emergence of advanced human behavior, including the invention of ocean-goings vessels, perhaps as much as 50,000 years ago? Or were these technologies simply a product of the earliest modern humans to reach the region from Africa, arguably as early as 75,000 years ago?
That’s rather a lot to put on an entire species known only from a few bone fragments and some DNA.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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