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Fossil Fingerprinting and Identification of New Denisovan remains from Pleistocene Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FINDER (Fossil Fingerprinting and Identification of New Denisovan remains from Pleistocene Asia)

Reporting period: 2018-12-01 to 2020-05-31

The Eurasian supercontinent is critical in understanding human evolution. Human fossils found in the past two decades have revealed much greater complexity than previously envisaged. Recently-discovered modern human remains suggest a substantially earlier presence of our species in places previously lacking such evidence, from the Siberian steppes to the south Asian rainforest. In addition the geographic range of archaic groups, such as Neanderthals, traditionally considered Europe-bound, is now significantly expanded well into central Asia and possibly north China too. We also know that Denisovans, a sister group to Neanderthals that was first identified in 2010 on the basis of ancient DNA from a Siberian fossil, interbred with both Asian Neanderthals and early modern humans over the past 200,000 years. What is astonishing is that Denisovan distribution appears to have ranged from north Asia to Papua New Guinea where the highest levels of Denisovan ancestry in living populations are identified. Yet, only a small number of fossils attributed to Denisovans have been discovered so far which limits our understanding of the degree of contribution of extinct hominin groups to all living humans.
FINDER (www.finderc.org) employs modern analytical techniques to address the accute lack of human fossils in the prehistoric record of Eurasia over the past 200,000 years. The project’s main goal is to identify new Denisovan, Neanderthal and early modern human bones. We apply peptide mass fingerprinting (also known as ZooMS –Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) on large numbers of morphologically undiagnostic bone fragments thought to aiming to detect human bones. These are then analysed using ancient DNA and radiocarbon dating, which enable full genomic characterization and their age to be determined.
Since its beginning in June 2017, FINDER has analysed over 12,000 bone fragments from 18 sites across several countries (Russia, China, Armenia, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Germany). From this material, we recovered 8 new human fossils from 2 sites (Denisova Cave, Russia; Vogelherd Cave; Germany). Genetic and dating analyses are currently underway but we know that at least 3 of the Denisova Cave fossils are some of the oldest, if not the oldest, Denisovan remains so far unearthed.
In addition to the analytical work, the team has been working on the developmental and data dissemination fronts. We have been setting up new ZooMS labs in parts of the world where such facilities did not previously exist. Several volunteers have participated in the FINDER endeavour so far helping us with the laborious aspects of the project. We have engaged with the academic community, via a series of publications and conference participation, and have interacted with the public via public lectures, museum events, and social media. This direct transfer of knowledge and engagement with academia and the public alike, highlight the great contribution of the ERC not only to research questions tantalising scientists for decades, but also to society more generally.
FINDER’s proposed research had, since its inception, a strong high risk-high gain element. While the methodology has the potential to provide important new data in the field of human evolution, archaeology and zooarchaeology (the study of animal and human interaction in the past), the chances of discovering human fossils amongst the thousands of undiagnostic bone fragments found at prehistoric sites were very slim. We expect that the first set of positive results since FINDER began, will continue in the two regions we are currently focusing on, ie. China and SE Asia and Oceania.
The FINDER team
Archaeological bones prior to analyses
Archaeological bones and ZooMS process
Sampling of bones and collagen extraction - copyright Christoffer Rudquist