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Girl’s tooth found in Laos cave could be first ancient fossil of its kind in Southeast Asia

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A tooth unearthed from a remote cave in Laos is helping to sketch an unknown chapter in the human story.

Researchers believe the tooth belonged to a young female who lived at least 130,000 years ago and was likely a Denisovan – an enigmatic group of early humans first identified in 2010.

Watch the video to see another groundbreaking fossil find

Watch the latest News on Channel 7 or stream for free on 7plus >>

The lower molar is the first fossil evidence placing Denisovans in Southeast Asia and may help untangle a puzzle that had long vexed experts in human evolution.

The only definitive Denisovan fossils have been found in a cave in North Asia named after the group – the Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains in Russia.

Genetic evidence, however, has tied the archaic humans most closely to places much further south – in what’s now the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

“This demonstrates that the Denisovans were likely present also in southern Asia,” study author, and paleoanthropology researcher at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and the University of Bordeaux Clément Zanolli said.

“And it supports the results of geneticists who say that modern humans and the Denisovans might have met in Southeast Asia.”

Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 260km north of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018.

Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 260km north of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, estimated the molar was between 131,000 and 164,000 years old.

Their estimation was based on analysis of cave sediment, the dating of three animal bones found in the same layer, and the age of rock overlying the fossil.

“Teeth are like the black box of an individual. They preserve a lot of information on their life and biology. They have been always used by paleoanthropologists, you know, to describe species or to distinguish between species,” Zanolli said.

“So for us paleoanthropologists (teeth) are very useful fossils.”

Comparison with archaic human teeth

The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans.

It didn’t resemble teeth belonging to Homo sapiens or Homo erectus – an archaic human that was the first to walk with an upright gait whose remains have been found across Asia.

The cave find most closely resembled a tooth found in a Denisovan jawbone found on the Tibetan plateau in Xiahe county, in Gansu province, China.

The authors said it was possible, though less likely, it could belong to a Neanderthal.

“Think about about it (the tooth) as if you are travelling into (a) valley between mountains. And the organisation of these mountains and valleys is very typical of a species,” Zanolli explained.

The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans.
The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

Analysis of some protein in enamel from the tooth suggested that it belonged to a female.

Denisovan DNA lives on in some humans today because, once our Homo sapiens ancestors encountered the Denisovans, they had sex with them and gave birth to babies – something geneticists call admixture.

This means we can look back into human history by analysing current-day genetic data.

The “admixing” was thought to have happened more than 50,000 years ago, as modern humans moved out of Africa and likely crossed paths with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.

But pinning down exactly where it happened has proven difficult – particularly in the case of Denisovans.

Definitively Denisovan?

Any addition to the meagre hominin fossil record of Asia is exciting news, University of Vienna assistant professor of archaeological science at the department of evolutionary anthropology Katerina Douka.

She wasn’t involved in the research but said she would have liked to see “more and extensive evidence” that the tooth was definitively Denisovan.

“There is a chain of assumptions the authors accept in order to confirm that this is a Denisovan fossil,” she said.

“The reality is that we cannot know whether this single and badly preserved molar belonged indeed to a Denisovan, a hybrid or even an unknown hominin group.

“It might well be a Denisovan, and I would love it to be a Denisovan, because how cool would that be? But more confident evidence is needed.”

The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer as to whether the fossil is actually Denisovan.
The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer as to whether the fossil is actually Denisovan. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

In deeming the Laos tooth Denisovan, the researchers in this study relied heavily on a comparison with the Xiahe jawbone, Douka said.

However, the jawbone, while thought by many to be Denisovan, was not an open-and-shut case. No DNA had been retrieved from the fossilised jawbone, only “thin” protein evidence, she added.

“Anyone working on this hominin group, where many major questions still remain, wants to add new dots on the map. The difficulty is in reliably identifying any fossils as that of a Denisovan,” she said.

“This lack of robust biomolecular data, however, reduces significantly the impact of this new find and it is a reminder of how difficult it is to work in the tropics.”

The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer but the warm climate means that could be a long shot.

The research team also plans to continue excavating the site after a pandemic-induced hiatus in the hope of more discoveries of ancient humans that lived in area.

“In this kind of environment, DNA doesn’t preserve well at all but we’ll do our best,” study coauthor Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre assistant professor Fabrice Demeter said.


A tooth unearthed from a remote cave in Laos is helping to sketch an unknown chapter in the human story.

Researchers believe the tooth belonged to a young female who lived at least 130,000 years ago and was likely a Denisovan – an enigmatic group of early humans first identified in 2010.

Watch the video to see another groundbreaking fossil find

Watch the latest News on Channel 7 or stream for free on 7plus >>

The lower molar is the first fossil evidence placing Denisovans in Southeast Asia and may help untangle a puzzle that had long vexed experts in human evolution.

The only definitive Denisovan fossils have been found in a cave in North Asia named after the group – the Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai Mountains in Russia.

Genetic evidence, however, has tied the archaic humans most closely to places much further south – in what’s now the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia.

“This demonstrates that the Denisovans were likely present also in southern Asia,” study author, and paleoanthropology researcher at CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, and the University of Bordeaux Clément Zanolli said.

“And it supports the results of geneticists who say that modern humans and the Denisovans might have met in Southeast Asia.”

Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 260km north of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018.

Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 260km north of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018.
Archaeologists uncovered the tooth in a place known as Cobra Cave, 260km north of Laos’ capital, Vientiane, where excavations began in 2018. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

The study, published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, estimated the molar was between 131,000 and 164,000 years old.

Their estimation was based on analysis of cave sediment, the dating of three animal bones found in the same layer, and the age of rock overlying the fossil.

“Teeth are like the black box of an individual. They preserve a lot of information on their life and biology. They have been always used by paleoanthropologists, you know, to describe species or to distinguish between species,” Zanolli said.

“So for us paleoanthropologists (teeth) are very useful fossils.”

Comparison with archaic human teeth

The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans.

It didn’t resemble teeth belonging to Homo sapiens or Homo erectus – an archaic human that was the first to walk with an upright gait whose remains have been found across Asia.

The cave find most closely resembled a tooth found in a Denisovan jawbone found on the Tibetan plateau in Xiahe county, in Gansu province, China.

The authors said it was possible, though less likely, it could belong to a Neanderthal.

“Think about about it (the tooth) as if you are travelling into (a) valley between mountains. And the organisation of these mountains and valleys is very typical of a species,” Zanolli explained.

The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans.
The researchers compared the ridges and dips on the tooth with other fossilised teeth belonging to archaic humans. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

Analysis of some protein in enamel from the tooth suggested that it belonged to a female.

Denisovan DNA lives on in some humans today because, once our Homo sapiens ancestors encountered the Denisovans, they had sex with them and gave birth to babies – something geneticists call admixture.

This means we can look back into human history by analysing current-day genetic data.

The “admixing” was thought to have happened more than 50,000 years ago, as modern humans moved out of Africa and likely crossed paths with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.

But pinning down exactly where it happened has proven difficult – particularly in the case of Denisovans.

Definitively Denisovan?

Any addition to the meagre hominin fossil record of Asia is exciting news, University of Vienna assistant professor of archaeological science at the department of evolutionary anthropology Katerina Douka.

She wasn’t involved in the research but said she would have liked to see “more and extensive evidence” that the tooth was definitively Denisovan.

“There is a chain of assumptions the authors accept in order to confirm that this is a Denisovan fossil,” she said.

“The reality is that we cannot know whether this single and badly preserved molar belonged indeed to a Denisovan, a hybrid or even an unknown hominin group.

“It might well be a Denisovan, and I would love it to be a Denisovan, because how cool would that be? But more confident evidence is needed.”

The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer as to whether the fossil is actually Denisovan.
The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer as to whether the fossil is actually Denisovan. Credit: Fabrice Demeter

In deeming the Laos tooth Denisovan, the researchers in this study relied heavily on a comparison with the Xiahe jawbone, Douka said.

However, the jawbone, while thought by many to be Denisovan, was not an open-and-shut case. No DNA had been retrieved from the fossilised jawbone, only “thin” protein evidence, she added.

“Anyone working on this hominin group, where many major questions still remain, wants to add new dots on the map. The difficulty is in reliably identifying any fossils as that of a Denisovan,” she said.

“This lack of robust biomolecular data, however, reduces significantly the impact of this new find and it is a reminder of how difficult it is to work in the tropics.”

The study authors said they planned to try and extract ancient DNA from the tooth, which, if possible, would provide a more definitive answer but the warm climate means that could be a long shot.

The research team also plans to continue excavating the site after a pandemic-induced hiatus in the hope of more discoveries of ancient humans that lived in area.

“In this kind of environment, DNA doesn’t preserve well at all but we’ll do our best,” study coauthor Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre assistant professor Fabrice Demeter said.

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