We know what Neanderthals looked like. Now, thanks to ancient DNA, Israeli scientists have unveiled the appearance of another of our ancient relatives.
Very few clues exist about the lives of the Denisovans — cousins of Neanderthals — who went extinct around 50,000 years ago: three teeth, a pinky bone, and a lower jaw.
But that was enough for researchers at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem to draw conclusions on their appearance.
The mission was challenging, according to Professor Liran Carmel, one of two scientists leading the study.
“It is very difficult to start from DNA sequences and end up with an anatomical profile,” he said.
If it were that easy, police around the world would be pulling DNA from crime scenes and drawing up profiles of the suspects, he added.
Instead, he and his team reconstructed the appearance of the Denisovans after three years of examining the patterns of chemical changes in their ancient DNA.
They then compared these motifs to those of the DNA of Neanderthals and modern man.
Using knowledge of human disorders in which genes lose their function for anatomical features, they explored what those differences might mean.
Using this method — which Carmel described as “85 percent reliable” — they highlighted 56 differences between the Denisovan and modern man and/or Neanderthals.
“The Denisovan is more similar to Neanderthal than to us because they are evolutionarily closer,” he said.
Denisovan skulls were likely wider than those of modern humans or Neanderthals, the study found, and they probably had no chins.
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