Photo of archaeological excavations in karst cave.

Enlarge / The entrance of the cave is relatively flat with a gentle slope up to the inside, where two small trenches were plotted in 2018. (credit: Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University)

Denisovans, an extinct group of hominins that once walked alongside (and had sex with) Neanderthals and modern humans, are an enigmatic branch of our family tree. They left fragments of their DNA behind in modern human genomes across Asia, Australia, and Melanesia. But their only physical remains seem have been left in Denisova Cave in Siberia: just a finger, a few molars, a fragment of arm or leg bone, and a small chunk of skull.

But we’re starting to piece together a little more of our mysterious cousins’ story. A team of paleoanthropologists recently identified a new Denisovan fossil—half of an entire jaw. And it comes from the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau in northern China, nearly 2,000km (1,200 miles) from Denisova Cave.

An accidental find

Half a lower jaw and a few teeth may not sound like much, but it’s one of the largest pieces of a Denisovan skeleton that we know of so far. Its owner died at least 160,000 years ago, according to uranium-series dating of a thin crust of carbonate on the fossil, so the Denisovan from Tibet is about the same age as the oldest Denisovan unearthed so far at Denisova Cave.

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