Most of us know about Homo sapiens neanderthalis, the Neanderthals. We know they lived in Europe before our own ancestors got there, we know they tended to be stockier, hairier and had a different skull shape. We know there was conflict and we know there was, well. Mating.
But there was another human subspecies that ranged across Asia, and we know very little about them. They were only discovered about a decade ago, and we have found very few remains of them.
So, what do we know about these people?
What We Know
The Denisovans were identified when some fragmented remains were found in Denisova Cave in Siberia.
No full skeleton or even full skull of a Denisovan has been found, for reasons we don’t know. (I have a theory which I’ll go into later).
But we have managed to sequence Denisovan DNA. This article includes an artists impression of what a Denisovan girl might have looked like.
Thus, we know that they were distinct from both Homo sapiens sapiens and Homo sapiens neanderthalis, although they were closer to the latter.
And we also know that there was, guess what.
In fact, a 2018 study showed that modern East Asians carry DNA from both the Denisova Cave remains and from a slightly different Denisovan group from Papua New Guinea. (And yes, modern Papuans have it too). In fact, we think that there may still have been Denisovans in Papua New Guinea only 15,000 years ago. Melanesians may carry as much as six percent Denisovan.
In other words, they survived much longer than the Neanderthals.
Yet, all we know about them is that they existed.
They might even have been more than one subspecies.
We have no fossil evidence to prove this. We have genetic evidence. Were the Papuan Denisovans seafarers in their own right, did they travel with modern humans, or did all the mating take place…well, you know.
Why the heck do we have hundreds of Neanderthal fossils, but up to three subspecies that have left us only fragments and bones.
Fossilization Is Tricky
The first issue is that fossilization is not exactly common. Only about one bone in a million is fossilized.
And very few of those are found.
For fossilization to happen:
- The body has to be buried quickly. We know Neanderthals buried their dead, we’ve found graves. We have found no Denisovan graves (more on that later).
- The environment can’t be too dry. The best fossils come out of wet areas. This would explain why we aren’t finding Denisovan fossils in Siberia, but what about wetter places where they also lived? What about ice mummies? (Maybe we’ll find one of those and get all kinds of answers).
- They can’t have been buried in a coffin. Neanderthals buried their dead in a fetal position in a hole. Coffins would never have occurred to them. We didn’t really start using coffins, sarcophagi and other things until a few thousand years ago. So that’s not it.
Now, there could be a treasure trove of Denisovan fossils and burials just waiting to be discovered. Maybe we’ve just been unlucky.
But there’s another possible explanation.
Let’s think, for a moment, about funerals.
Neanderthal Burials and Denisovan ?
Arguably, “last rites” are one of the things that make us human. Well, except they aren’t. Elephants and corvids appear to hold something resembling funerals. Elephants have been known to bury human dead. Chimpanzees in zoos have been observed to display mourning as a dead member of the group is removed. They probably do something in the wild too.
But humans have elaborate death rituals. So did Neanderthals. We have found Neanderthal burials where the corpse was positioned in a fetal position, painted with red ochre, and possibly buried with flowers. The theory, although we will never know for sure, was that the Neanderthals buried their dead as if they were children in the womb, for rebirth into the next life.
As already mentioned.
We have never found a Denisovan burial.
Which could be all the things mentioned above, it could be luck, or maybe it was something else.
Maybe Denisovans didn’t bury their dead.
And no, I didn’t just call them less advanced than chimps.
Burial is only one of the funeral customs that humans engage in.
To consider the possibility that the Denisovans may have done something else with their dead, something which didn’t leave as many remains, we need to look at some of these customs.
Cremation, Sky Burial and Ways Not to Leave a Body
First of all, the Denisovans might have burned their dead. Burning the dead on an open pyre was a relatively late addition to European funeral customs, despite “Viking funerals.” It appears to have been first practiced in Greece.
But cremation was much older in, yup, Asia. Hinduism and Jainism both prescribe cremation. The Chinese, on the other hand, prefer burial.
Denisovan influence on the Han is strong, but it’s stronger in a couple of other places.
Maybe they didn’t burn them, though.
If we look at modern practices, they may point to the Denisovans as practicing something else which also wouldn’t leave a body:
With the exception of certain very important people, the peoples of the steppe practiced exposure. The body would be taken out of the camp and left out for the predatory animals and carrion eaters. This was considered a gift to nature. The spirit didn’t need the body any more and would be reborn, and the body would help animals survive.
In Papua New Guinea, in a very different environment, they didn’t practice sky burial, but several of the clans there considered the soil and rocks home to evil spirits. They would lay the body on a wooden platform and let it decay, then remove the bones to a nearby cave. This might allow for the bones to be found much later. But they also tended to wear the bones of the dead as jewelry (this might seem disrespectful to us, but was the exact opposite for them). Burial was popular through part of the island, but…
Is the reason we have never found a Denisovan burial ground on the steppe because there were none. Instead, they gave their dead back to nature, and when they mated with humans, the custom persisted. In that case the only way we would find a Denisovan body is if we discovered some unfortunate who never got proper last rites.
It’s a theory.
For right now, though, we don’t know anything about who these people were. That they were people should not be in question. That they have descendants walking among us is clear.
But we may never truly know who they were, a mystery deeper and in my mind more fascinating than any talk of “missing links.”