Breaking news about an astonishing find of a child is hitting international news. The paper presents the genome of ‘Denisova 11’, who is represented by a small bone fragment from Denisova Cave in Russia. The authors found that the individual was a girl of at least 13 years of age and has a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.
Interestingly, the authors argue that this type of mixed-breeding between Late Pleistocene hominin groups must have been common, given this finding of a Neanderthal–Denisovan offspring among a very small number of archaic specimens genetically analysed to date.
Drawing of a Neandertal mother and a Denisovan father with their child, a girl, at Denisova Cave in Russia (Credit: Petra Korlević)
The bone fragment ‘Denisova 11′ from several angles (photo taken by Tom Higham)
I was interested in the age-at-death estimation carried out from the analyses of cortical bone thickness. Although presented as fact that this individual was a “child” in the news with quotes from the main authors, it rightly states in the paper’s supplementary data that there are various problems with estimating the age-at-death of this specimen. They argue that the bone fragment may be from a femur, tibia or humerus because of its thickness of 8.4mms. However, archaic hominins were likely more robust, so it could be that this may have been from a smaller bone from a robust adult. So really they can’t actually say that it is a child, but that she was at least 13 years old. However, it goes without saying that regardless of this ‘child’s’ age, this is a very important finding.
I thought we were pretty clear in the paper that the estimate is a minimum age, and I also emphasized this to every journalist I talked to. Too bad that a lot of them ran with the child/girl angle. The drawing that is used as an illustration of course probably emphasized the misunderstanding.
Sadly, with a fragment like this it is really impossible to say anything more precise. To me, the most important question was whether this could be a newborn/fetus, as we asked ourselves whether hybrid incompatibility could have been an issue.
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