A new type of ancient human dating back more than 7,200 years has been discovered. According to a 2021 study, the remains belonged to a teenage girl buried in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It shares major genetic drift and morphological characteristics with present-day Papuan and Indigenous Australian tribes. Still, it represents a previously unknown divergent human lineage that diverged roughly 37,000 years ago, around the time of the break between these populations.
In 2015, the skeletal remains of a teenage girl dubbed “Besse” were found in the Leang Panninge cave on the island of Sulawesi. It is thought to be the very first time that ancient human DNA has been found in Wallacea, which is a series of islands located between mainland Asia and Australia. The international team used a sample of the girl’s skull bone to map her full DNA. (Source)
Study lead author Selina Carlhoff, a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, isolated it from the base of the braincase (the petrous bone), the hardest in the body. It is the oldest genome from the idyllic archipelago, shedding fresh light on human evolution. “It was a major challenge, as the remains had been strongly degraded by the tropical climate,” Carlhoff said in a university release.
Adam Brumm, a professor at Griffith University in Australia and one of the study’s co-authors, stated that her genome contains traces of DNA from the extinct Denisovans. The Denisovans were a group that lived during the Ice Age, and scientists believe they interbred with both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.
Could this ancient girl be a missing link in human history? Scientists think that the girl had ancestors who had lived in Sulawesi before modern humans arrived there up to 30,000 years ago. Ancient cave art in the area may also have been made by these mysterious humans. There was no evidence of Denisovan DNA in the genomes of hunter-gatherers called Toalean, who lived to the west of Sulawesi at approximately the same time.
“The fact that their genes are found in the hunter-gatherers of Leang Panninge supports our earlier hypothesis that the Denisovans occupied a far larger geographical area,” explained co-author Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
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At least 50,000 years ago, modern people went through Wallacea to get to Sahul (Australia, New Guinea and the Aru Islands joined at lower sea levels), and it is possible that they got there as early as 65,000 years ago. At the moment, though, the oldest evidence of the human species in Wallacea is figurative art from Sulawesi that dates back at least 45,500 years. The oldest Homo sapiens skeletal remains date back 13,000 years.
Where exactly modern humans entered Sahul is a mystery. Population genetics indicate that Oceanians and Eurasian groups diverged around 58,000 years ago, while Papuans and Aboriginal Australians diverged some 37,000 years ago. In this time frame, modern humans interbred repeatedly with Denisovan-related groups and maybe other undiscovered hominin populations.
However, a large part of the girl’s genome came from an ancient Asian population. “That came as a surprise, because we do know of the spread of modern humans from eastern Asia into the Wallacea region – but that took place far later, around 3,500 years ago. That was long after this individual was alive,” Prof. Krause added.
Scientists could get ancient DNA from bone powder made from the hard part of the girl’s temporal bone. After library preparation, they used DNA hybridization capture to find about 3 million single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) across the human and the whole mitochondrial genome.
The study says: “The authenticity of the analyzed ancient DNA was confirmed by short average fragment length, elevated damage patterns towards the molecule ends, and low autosomal and mtDNA contamination estimates. Analysis of the polymorphisms present in the reconstructed mtDNA sequence suggests a deeply divergent placement within mtDNA.”
This latest discovery is just one piece of the puzzle that researchers are trying to put together as they strive to understand the ancient genetic history of humans in Southeast Asia. The researchers are unaware of what happened to the Toalean civilization. Brumm has high expectations that additional ancient DNA from the Toalean people can be found, as this will shed light on the population’s variety “and its wider ancestral story.”
According to the findings of the study, there is also no proof that the girl had descendants living in Indonesia now. There is still no clear explanation as to what took place with the lineage. “This new piece of the genetic puzzle from Leang Panninge illustrates above all just how little we know about the genetic history of modern humans in Southeast Asia,” concluded Professor Cosimo Posth of the University of Tubingen in Germany, the coauthor of the study.
In 2003, scientists in Indonesia found Homo floresiensis, an ancient human species that was small and was given the nickname “The Hobbit.” Many different kinds of humans lived on Earth thousands of years ago. Researchers are comparing this to the fantasy land of Middle Earth in “Lord of the Rings.” The Hobbit species lived on the remote island of Flores in Indonesia, about 500 kilometers to the east of Java.