A team led by two Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers unveiled on Thursday the first reconstructed anatomical profile of a group of archaic humans called Denisovans.

Professor Liran Carmel and Dr. David Gokhman said their team produced reconstructions of these ancient relatives over a three-year period based on patterns of their ancient DNA methylation, or chemical changes that affect a gene’s activity, but not its underlying DNA sequence.

Denisovans lived in Siberia and Eastern Asia before going extinct approximately 50,000 years ago.

Since researchers made their first discovery in 2008, the entire collection of Denisovan remains includes three teeth, a pinky bone and a lower jaw.

The team proved their model to be about 85 percent accurate by using the same methodology to create anatomical models of Neanderthals—another group of archaic humans who went extinct in Europe about 40,000 years ago—and chimpanzees.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Humans, Neanderthals and Denisovan Skeletons. Credit: Maayan Harel.

Commenting on the accuracy of the Denisovans profile, Carmel said, “One of the most exciting moments happened a few weeks after we sent our paper to peer review. Scientists had discovered a Denisovan jawbone. We quickly compared this bone to our predictions and found that it matched perfectly. Without even planning it, we received independent confirmation of our ability to reconstruct whole anatomical profiles using DNA that we extracted from a single fingertip.”

Many mysteries about Denisovans remain, and Carmel acknowledged that “there is still a long way to go to answer these questions.”

But, she said, “our study sheds light on how Denisovans adapted to their environment, highlighting traits that are unique to modern humans and which separate us from these other, now extinct, human groups.”

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