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Sherpa clue: Early human species find at high altitude in Tibet

Fossilized jaw discovered in Tibet
Photo: Dongju Zhang/Lanzhou University/American Association for the Advancement of Science

The confirmation a 160,000-year-old fossilized jaw unearthed in Tibet belongs to the Denisovans, a species distinct from modern humans and Neanderthals, sheds new light on the hominid and indicates another link to Himalayan people.

Details: A Buddhist monk found half of the lower jaw of the Denisovans, an extinct sister group of Neanderthals, in a cave in the 1980s. He gave it to a local religious leader before it reached scientists, who studied it for 9 years. Previous bone fragment discoveries and DNA analysis led to the hypothesis that the Denisovans lived near Siberia, but the new study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, confirms the Denisovans were more widespread.

The big picture: Previous genetic studies found present-day Himalayan populations —including the Sherpa, known for their speed-climbing records — carry a gene adaptation passed on to them by Denisovans, which helps them to adapt to high altitudes, but this is the first time the hominid has been found in such an environment.

What they're saying: "Archaic hominins occupied the Tibetan Plateau in the Middle Pleistocene and successfully adapted to high-altitude low-oxygen environments long before the regional arrival of modern Homo sapiens," Lanzhou University scientist Dongju Zhang said in a news release.