Russian archeologists digging inside Denisova cave in Western Siberia, Russia

Bones belonging to ancient hominins have been discovered in Denisova cave in Siberia’s Altai mountains.Credit: Eddie Gerald/Alamy

A new analysis of a finger bone used to study the Denisovans – a mysterious group of ancient humans discovered in 2010 – offers clues to a decade-long mystery surrounding one the most important human fossils ever found.

The study describes a piece of the tip of a right-hand little finger that was separated from the rest of the finger bone after it was excavated 11 years ago. A digital reconstruction of the complete finger bone, or phalanx, reveals that the Denisovan’s fingers were far more similar to those of modern humans than previously thought.

“I’m happy that we could get something out,” says Eva-Maria Geigl, a palaeogeneticist at the Institute Jacques Monod in Paris, who led the study. “So far there was nothing, as if the phalanx was lost.”

Her team sequenced DNA from the missing fragment to show it matched the rest of the fingertip bone, and used photographs to digitally reunite the two pieces. The work was published on 4 September in Science Advances.1.

“It’s not going to revolutionize our knowledge of Denisovan morphology, but it adds a little piece,” says Bence Viola, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Toronto in Canada who was part of the team.

Denisovan discovery

The mystery surrounding the lost piece began in a remote valley at the foot of the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia, where Russian archaeologists excavating Denisova Cave discovered a finger bone belonging to an ancient group of humans in 2008. Anatoly Derevianko, who is an archaeologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography in Novosibirsk and was leading the dig, decided to divide the little-finger bone and send the pieces to two labs to see whether DNA could be extracted from either half.

Svante Pääbo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Pla

Read More