The Last of the Denisovans

Did Their Story End With the Ice Age?

The date is approximately 45,000 years ago; the location, a mountain pass somewhere in the Altai-Sayan region of southern Siberia. From a rocky vantage point, four, tall, darkened forms emerge into view from behind a patch of cold early-morning mist. They stand a few meters apart, gazing toward the only path permitting access to the mountain’s central plateau.

Each figure is of extraordinary size, being as much as 7 feet (2.15 meters) in height. Their stature is that of giant wrestlers, their enormous frames accentuated by broad shoulders and streams of furs that immerse their bodies from head to feet. Their heads also are of incredible size, being both long and broad, with large, powerful jaws. What little can be seen of their exposed skin suggests it is brown, and their long, matted hair was either dark or the color of straw. Adding to the almost alien appearance of these strange individuals are their extremely large noses and unusual eyes, which have striking black pupils and irises so pale they seem almost white. Completing the picture are the long, dark feathers attached to their furs, which blow about in the gentle breeze that has followed the first light of day.

They are Denisovans, members of an archaic human population whose very existence had gone unrecognized until the first decade of the twenty-first century, when oversized fossil remains were discovered in a large cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia.

The purpose of these four figures at the head of this rocky pass is to await the arrival of others—a new people from a distant land located in the direction of the setting sun. In small groups these people have been approaching ever nearer to the Denisovans’ mountain retreats, and now, finally, they were within sight, moving slowly toward the Denisovans’s elevated position. These intruders were shorter and more slightly built, their skin darker, their heads smaller and more elongated. Furthermore, their approach to life seemed quite different. They enter new territories, assume control of them, and exploit their natural resources before dispatching some of their growing number in pursuit of even more suitable places of occupation. They have been advancing in this manner for several thousand years, encountering and even interbreeding with the Old People of the West, who will one day become known as Neanderthals. For countless millennia the Old People have occupied vast swaths of the western Eurasian continent, while the Denisovans have been content to remain in the eastern part of the continent.

Now, finally, the New People had arrived in the Altai-Sayan region and were about to encounter a small group of Denisovans for the very first time. Their advance party was perhaps ten to twelve. They, too, wore furs to combat the colder climate found at these higher altitudes, and in the hands of some of them were long, wooden spears. One, the leader of the group, was brandishing his weapon in a provocative manner, as if ready to attack at the first sign of aggression from the tall strangers.

Yet the Denisovans say and do nothing. They simply stand their ground, gazing down at the intruders, who are now shuffling to a halt no more than 15 meters away.

The leader of the New People seems unsure what to do. Should they advance further and strike out at these people who look like tree trunks? Why did they not attack? More pressingly, why did they not carry weapons? What strange magic was this? Were they powerful shamans who did not need weapons? Could they kill simply by making eye contact? Could they send out spirits to torment the families of intruders?

The Denisovans were indeed powerful shamans. They knew that any confusion or uncertainty in the minds of the New People would cause them to question their actions. What is more, the plan was working. They approached no further. A few final thrusts into the air of the leader’s spear did nothing to prompt a response from the Denisovans, who simply stood their ground, unfazed by what was unfolding in front of them.

Unnerved and fearful of their enemy’s powerful magic, the New People all at once turn around and retreat back down the mountain pass and out of sight. The Denisovans have won the day. Yet they know full well that eventually the New People will return, this time in much greater numbers. Eventually the intruders will overrun the Denisovans’ world, spelling an end to their population. It might take a few decades, a few centuries, or even a few millennia, but it will happen.

In the future the preservation of the Denisovans’ profound ancient wisdom, accumulated across hundreds of generations, will become the property of the New People. It will be through them that the Denisovans will continue to exist. Yet this will not happen through conquest or submission, but through interbreeding. The last of the Denisovans will give way to hybrid descendants who, with an entirely revitalized mind-set, will continue to thrive, not just in the Old World but also in the far-off American continent. Sadly, however, the Denisovans were aware also that for many millennia, knowledge of their very existence will be suppressed, belittled, and finally forgotten. Yet one day, as the prophecies determine, they will rise again, their contribution to the genesis of civilization laid bare for all to see. Then, finally, everyone will know the legacy of the Denisovans.

This is an imagined first meeting between anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) and the last of the Denisovans (tentatively Homo sapiens altaiensis). It is based on what meager evidence we have regarding their physiognomy, behavior, genetics, and technological achievements, along with local folklore, which perhaps preserves a memory of their former existence in the region.

Whatever the accuracy behind this all-important encounter between our own ancestors and the Denisovans, the chances are it occurred around 45,000 years ago either in the Altai Mountains, where their fossil remains have been found in the Denisova Cave, the type site of the Denisovans, or a little further north in the western Sayan Mountains. (A type site is a site that is considered to be the model of a particular archaeological culture.) These straddle the republics of Khakassia and Tuva, between which is a narrow strip of land constituting the most southerly part of the Russian province of Krasnoyarsk Krai. Here age-old folk stories speak of the former presence of a giant population that inhabited the nearby Yenisei and Abakan river basins. They recall how these giants—referred to in Khakassia as the Akh Kharakh, the ‘white-eyed people’—created the first stone fortresses (kurgans), the first irrigation channels, the first dams and bridges, and even the first divine melodies played on musical instruments.

The description of these legendary giants best fits what we know about the Denisovans who occupied southern Siberia for hundreds of thousands of years before their disappearance around 40,000 years ago. DNA analysis of many modern populations in East Asia, South Asia, Indonesia, Australia, and even Melanesia and Micronesia, tells us that Denisovans interbred with the earliest modern humans that passed through their territories. More significantly, there is every reason to link the Denisovans with the sudden acceleration in human behavior known to have occurred in southern Siberia between 20,000 and 45,000 years ago. This included the making of some of the first bird-bone flutes anywhere in the world, along with the creation of settled habitation sites, the employment of advanced hunting techniques, the formalizing of tool kits, including the use of microblade technology, and the first sustained appearance of a specialized form of stone-tool production known as pressure flaking.

In addition to this, there is compelling evidence that the earliest human societies to occupy the Altai-Sayan region possessed an extraordinary knowledge of long-term eclipse cycles. Evidence suggests they used a knowledge of these cycles to develop complex, numerically-based calendrical systems that would go on to permeate religious cosmologies in many parts of the ancient world. All the indications are that this grand calendrical system, as we shall call it, had its inception in southern Siberia and might well have been inherited from the lost world of the Denisovans. There are also tantalizing clues that the principal creative influence seen as responsible for long-term time cycles and the inaudible sounds once thought to be emitted by the sun, moon, and stars was identified with a cosmic bird symbolized in the night sky by the stars of Cygnus, the celestial swan. Through this association, the constellation went on to become guardian of the entrance to the sky world, through which human souls had to pass either to achieve incarnation or enter the afterlife.

In time many of the technological, cultural, and cosmological achievements that appear first in southern Siberia circa 20,000–45,000 years ago, reach the Pre-Pottery Neolithic world of southeast Anatolia and begin to flourish at key cult centers such as Gobekli Tepe. From here they are carried southward through the Levant to northern Egypt. On the banks of the Nile River, as early as 8500–8000 BCE, they find a new home at a site named Helwan, which is today a thriving industrial city immediately south of Cairo. Yet it was here, almost certainly, that the predynastic world of ancient Egypt would begin in earnest, and it would be just across the river, on the plateau at Giza, that the fruits of the Denisovan legacy would finally find manifestation in the greatest and most enigmatic architectural accomplishment of the ancient world—the Great Pyramid, said to be built for the pharaoh Khufu circa 2550 BCE. As we explain in our recent book, The Cygnus Key, underlying geometry, which underpins the entire pyramid field at Giza, displays a profound knowledge of long-term time cycles, numeric systems, and sound acoustics, as well as a polarcentric cosmology featuring the stars of Cygnus. All of this might well have had its origins in southern Siberia as much as 45,000 years ago. Piecing this story together will require some patience. Yet those who persevere will discover not only tantalizing evidence of a lost civilization, but also the true founders of our own.

 

The above is excerpted from the preface of Andrew Collins’ new book The Cygnus Key: The Denisovan Legacy, Göbekli Tepe, and the Birth of Egypt (Bear & Co., 2018), and is published here with the permission of the publisher. It is available from the Atlantis Rising Store.

 

SIDEBAR:

Following the Trail of Human Denisovan Ancestry

Cell Press News Release • March 2018

 

Modern humans coexisted and interbred not only with Neanderthals but also with another species of archaic humans, the mysterious Denisovans. While developing a new genome-analysis method for comparing whole genomes between modern human and Denisovan populations, researchers unexpectedly discovered two distinct episodes of Denisovan genetic intermixing, or admixing, between the two. This suggests a more diverse genetic history than previously thought between the Denisovans and modern humans.

In a paper published in Cell on March 15, scientists at the University of Washington in Seattle determined that the genomes of two groups of modern humans with Denisovan ancestry—individuals from Oceania and individuals from East Asia—are uniquely different, indicating that there were two separate episodes of Denisovan admixture.

“What was known already was that Oceanian individuals, notably Papuan individuals, have significant amounts of Denisovan ancestry,” says senior author Sharon Browning, a research professor of biostatistics, University of Washington School of Public Health. The genomes of modern Papuan individuals contain approximately 5% Denisovan ancestry.”

Researchers also knew Denisovan ancestry is present to a lesser degree throughout Asia. The assumption was that the ancestry in Asia was achieved through migration, coming from Oceanian populations. “But in this new work with East Asians, we find a second set of Denisovan ancestry that we do not find in the South Asians and Papuans,” she says. “This Denisovan ancestry in East Asians seems to be something they acquired themselves.”

After studying more than 5,600 whole-genome sequences from individuals from Europe, Asia, America, and Oceania and comparing them to the Denisovan genome, Browning and colleagues determined that the Denisovan genome is more closely related to the modern East Asian population than to modern Papuans. “We analyzed all of the genomes searching for sections of DNA that looked like they came from Denisovans,” says Browning, whose team relied on genomic information from the UK10K project, the 1000 Genomes Project, and the Simons Genome Diversity Project.

What is known about Denisovan ancestry comes from a single set of archaic human fossils found in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. That individual’s genome was published in 2010, and other researchers quickly identified segments of Denisovan ancestry in several modern-day populations, most significantly with individuals from Oceania but also in East and South Asians.

“The assumption is that admixing with Denisovans occurred fairly quickly after humans moved out of Africa, around 50,000 years ago, but we do not know where in terms of location,” Browning says. She theorizes that perhaps the ancestors of Oceanians admixed with a southern group of Denisovans while the ancestors of East Asians admixed with a northern group.

https://www.cell.com/cell/fulltext/S0092-8674(18)30175-2

By Andrew Collins