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The Tooth

Two molars, including this one, and a chip from a pinkie bone are the only fossil evidence so far of the enigmatic people known as the Denisovans.

The Cave

All three fossils were found in Denisova cave in southern Siberia, where Russian student Zoya Gudkova takes a break from digging. Neanderthals and modern humans also lived there tens of thousands of years ago.

The Theory

The Denisovans’ closest cousins were Neanderthals (left). After leaving Africa, modern humans interbred with both these ancient forms of human. The evidence comes from their DNA and ours.

Skull photographed with support from Alain Froment, Muséum National D’Histore Naturelle, Paris

The DNA

Genetic material from ancient bone, like that in the vial above, can reveal much about the history of an ancient population, even when few fossils exist—as in the case of the Denisovans.

The Expert

Svante Pääbo led the team that studied the Denisovans’ DNA. His ultimate quarry, he says, is not them but us: He wants to understand the genetic changes that made humans modern.

The Bone

A replica shows the size and position—on Pääbo’s pinkie—of the bone chip that allowed his lab to discover the Denisovans through their DNA. The chip belonged to an eight-year-old girl.

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