That’s what some researchers are hoping for as now two partial skulls from eastern China have emerged as prime candidates that may finally reveal what the Denisovans looked like.
A Chinese-US research team authored a paper appearing in “Science” showing 105-125 kyr fossils they call “archaic Homo” remains. They suggest these bones may be a new type of ancient human or an eastern variant of Neanderthals. The team seems to avoid suggesting the remains might be Denisovan, however.
The new skulls seem to fit what we would expect to see in Denisovan skulls which is basically Neanderthals with an Asian flavor. No DNA has yet been extracted from these skulls. The skulls were found along with quartz stone tools by Dr Zhan Yang Li about 4000 kilometers from the famous Denisova Cave in Siberia in 2007. What he actually found was a yellowish rounded skull cap. The team returned later and found an additional 45 fossils that fit together into a partial crania. The skulls have no faces and no jaws but there is enough there to note a close resemblance to Neanderthal remains.
One of the cranium has a huge brain volume of 1800 cc which itself is rather astounding! That volume would put this skull on the higher end of modern human and Neanderthal skull volumes. There is also a Neanderthal-like hollow in a bone on the back of the skull and prominent brow ridges along with inner ear bones also found. All of these resemble what we find in Neanderthal remains.
These remains differ from European Neanderthal remains, however, and from those found in the Levant. For one they have thinner brow ridges and the skull bones are less robust which are similar to EARLY MODERN HUMANS and some other Asian remains! Thus they are not Neanderthal in the typical sense.
The skulls do NOT appear to be those related to H. erectus or H. heidelbergensis. These skulls are more lightly built and their brain volume is too big. However, these skulls do share some characteristics found in other remains from East Asia from around 600-100 kya. For one thing the skulls have a broad cranial base where the skull connects to the spinal column and the top of the skull is flat and low. These skulls (being called the Lingjing Crania) also resemble archaic human skulls from 100 kya in northern China.
Other researchers believe these skulls may well be Denisovan as they are in the right date range and we known that the Denisovans interbred with both Asian Neanderthals and early modern humans. In short, these skulls are in the right place at the right time and with the right features! And this is why hopes are riding high that they are indeed the first Denisovan skulls discovered.
Whatever these skulls are one thing is for sure and that is that ongoing discoveries in China and SE Asia are changing our concepts about human evolution and I think that is a good thing. I hope these skulls are indeed Denisovan but we shall see. One thing that does cross my mind is that they may be from the Red Deer Cave People or perhaps they are ancestors of theirs. The Red Deer Cave People lived in Northern China and SW China about 70 kya and their remains are similar in some respects to archaic modern humans. Some theorists believe the Red Deer Cave People were hybrids, the result of early Homo sapien and some unknown archaic species. These skulls could be from hybrids resulting from Asian Neanderthal and Red Deer Cave People interbreeding too. I’m hoping they are, however, Denisovan so we can really begin to identify this mysterious species of which we really know so little! It will be interesting to get DNA from these skulls and see the results.