Monday 22 June 2015 at 9:10 am. One of the great moments of my life. I was in one of the laboratories at the Research Lab for Archaeology at Oxford University, where I have worked for the last twenty years. With one of my students, Samantha Brown, I was about to pick up for the first time the tiny bone of a human being who lived around 120,000 years ago.
We had found it, one bone amongst tens of thousands of other fragments, using a brilliant new scientific approach called ZooMS, which is an acronym for zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry. Sam’s persistence over weeks, in taking minute samples from over 1,500 tiny bone fragments for analysis from the site of Denisova Cave in Siberia, had paid off.
The bone was tiny, only 2.4cm long, but, as we later discovered, very, very special. It is, so far, the only existing bodily remnant of a person who was a genetic hybrid: the offspring of two different groups of humans. This young woman’s mother was a Neanderthal and her father a Denisovan, a distinct group of humans that was discovered only in 2010 by geneticists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany when analysing material from the Denisova site. Think of them as our distant cousins, and the closer cousins of Neanderthals, who lived mainly in Europe and the Levant between 250,000 and 40,000 years ago.
This tiny bone represents the first time anyone has identified a first-generation (F-1) hybrid in archaeology. It has made us think about how often such events might have occurred between peoples in the deep past and question what the species designations mean when it comes to different groups of humans. How can we really say two species are different if, as it seems from this finding, they can interbreed successfully?
Finding her was incredibly lucky, but, as the saying goes, you make your own luck. It relied, like so much in the world of palaeoanthropology, on collaborative teams of archaeologists and scientists using a range of cutting-edge scientific methods that together are opening new insights into the story of early humanity.
From The World before Us by Tom Higham. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.
Tom Higham is professor of archaeological science at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.