Sometimes the smallest discoveries can lead to the biggest revelations. For a team of scientists exploring a mountain range in Laos, one of these seemingly tiny clues turned into a big scientific find: the remains of ancient humans that had never before been found in the region.
The walls of a place known to locals as Cobra Cave were lined with many fossils of animals, but it was a solitary tooth that captured the scientist’s attention.
“Almost immediately, we knew it was hominim [scientifically connected to humans], but it wasn’t modern human,” Laura Shackelford, a paleoanthropologist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told National Geographic, who partially funded the research.
After further study, the research team released a study speculating the tooth belongs to ancient humans never known to have inhabited southeastern Asia until now.
Mike Morley, an associate professor at Flinders University and another of the study’s authors, shared an image of the molar on Twitter.
Denisovan tooth found in Laos adds new wrinkles to their story https://t.co/GyOdFP9A1W
— Mike Morley (@MikeGeoarch) May 17, 2022
This tooth is a major find in the world of archeology because experts believe it belongs to a young Denisovan girl, a human descendant long thought to have lived in the Tibetan area of Asia more than 130,000 years ago.
“After all this work following the many clues written on fossils from very different geographic areas our findings are significant,” University of Copenhagen Associate Professor of Paleontology and the study’s lead author, Professor Fabrice Demeter, said in a press release shared by Southern Cross University. “This fossil represents the first discovery of Denisovans in Southeast Asia and shows that Denisovans were in the south at least as far as Laos. This is in agreement with the genetic evidence found in modern-day Southeast Asian populations.”
In the study, released on May 17, the research team reported they believe the size and root structure of the tooth helped them narrow down that the molar belonged to a “juvenile individual corresponding to an age ranging from 3.5 to 8.5 years following modern developmental standards.”
Cosmos Magazine also shared an image of the ancient tooth along with an artist’s rendering of what the Denisovan girl may have looked like more than 100 millennia ago.
Denisovan tooth found in Laos https://t.co/zlPeT3Mk24
— Cosmos – the Science of Everything (@CosmosMagazine) May 18, 2022
One expert told Cosmos Magazine that while the discovery is potentially exciting, more study needs to be done before its scientific relevance is accepted as fact.
“The [study] authors have done a great job in describing and dating it, but I’d prefer to say it’s a putative [presumed] Denisovan fossil,” said anthropologist Chris Stringer, the research leader in human origins at the British Natural History Museum.