Scientists discover prehistoric girl in Indonesia, new type of ancient human

LEIPZIG, Germany — Scientists have unearthed a new type of ancient human who lived more than 7,000 years ago. The remains belonged to a young female buried in a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, according to the recent study.

The international team mapped the girl’s complete DNA from a sample of skull bone. 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 our evolution.

“It was a major challenge, as the remains had been strongly degraded by the tropical climate,” Carlhoff says in a university release.

Leang Panninge cave
The Leang Panninge cave on the southern peninsula of Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Credit: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History)

‘Remarkable’ finding links to other ancient humans

Researchers discovered the 7,200-year-old remains of the girl’s body in Leang Panninge, located on Sulawesi’s southern coast. Study co-author Adam Brumm, a professor at Griffith University in Australia, says the genome represents a previously unknown divergent human lineage, which does not appear anywhere else in the world today. The genome contains traces of DNA from the Denisovans, an extinct Ice Age group that scientists believe interbred with Neanderthals and Homo sapiens.

Scientists believe the girl had a local ancestry that had been present in Sulawesi from the arrival of modern humans up to 30,000 years earlier. The mysterious population may be responsible for ancient cave art in the area as well. They belonged to a group of hunter-gatherers called the Toalean, who killed prey with stone-tipped arrowheads known as Maros points.

“We were able to assign the burial at Leang Panninge to that culture. This is remarkable since it is the first largely complete and well preserved skeleton associated with the Toalean culture.” Prof. Brumm says.

The analysis showed the individual is related to the first modern humans to spread to Oceania from Eurasia some 50,000 years ago. Scientists believe early humans used the island as a stepping stone. Interestingly, her Denisovan ancestors are known mainly from archaeological digs in Siberia and Tibet.

“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,” explains co-author Johannes Krause, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Could this ancient girl be a missing link in human history?

Genomic data of hunter-gatherers who lived west of Sulawesi at about the same time showed no traces of Denisovan DNA.

“The geographic distribution of Denisovans and modern humans may have overlapped in the Wallacea region. It may well be the key place where Denisova people and the ancestors of indigenous Australians and Papuans interbred,” notes study co-author Professor Cosimo Posth, of the University of Tubingen in Germany.

However, the girl also carried a large proportion of its genome 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 adds.

The study also reports no evidence the girl has descendants in Indonesia today. It remains unclear what happened to 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,” Prof. Posth concludes.

In 2003, scientists discovered a diminutive archaic human species called Homo floresiensis in Indonesia, dubbed “The Hobbit.” Tens of thousands of years ago, multiple forms of humans shared the planet. Researchers are comparing this to the fantasy land of Middle Earth in “Lord of the Rings.” Scientists believe they may have only scratched the surface of the different human lineages.

The findings appear in the journal Nature.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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