The molar of a girl thought to have lived between 130,000 and 164,000 years ago was found in a cave in Laos. The owner of the tooth is believed to belong to a member of the Denisova hominis, an extinct species of humans that has been intriguing specialists for quite some time.
The discovery was made by archaeologists at about 260 kilometers north of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, at an excavation site opened in 2018. The tooth was found by paleoanthropologist Laura Shackelford and her team from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, after sightings of bones were reported by locals. National Geographic states that “if confirmed, the find marks the southernmost fossil found to date of this enigmatic group”.
Also known as the Denisovans, the species has been under study by experts in human evolution, but without too much material for analysis at their disposal. It was first identified in 2010, based on a DNA analysis of a finger bone discovered in a cave in Siberia, while later on, more remains were identified in another cave on the Tibetan Plateau.
But what can a tooth reveal about an entire species?
Paleoanthropologist Clément Zanolli, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, stated that “teeth are like the black box of an individual. They preserve a lot of information on their life and biology. They have been always used by paleoanthropologists, you know, to describe species or to distinguish between species. So, for us paleoanthropologists (teeth) are very useful fossils”.
Therefore, while it is only a tooth, the fossil has the potential to reveal valuable information about an age in human evolution of which we don’t know very much. Further analysis may uncover interesting facts about aspects related to age, diet and climate. Despite the limited resources and the challenges posed by the tough environment where these fossils were found, research is proving to be rewarding, as in the recent years, human activity spanning thousands of years has been successfully recorded.