The Case of the Missing Ancestor
DNA from a cave in Russia adds a mysterious new member to the human family.
In the Altay Mountains of southern Siberia, some 200 miles from where Russia touches Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan, nestled under a rock face about 30 yards above a little river called the Anuy, there is a cave called Denisova. It has long attracted visitors. The name comes from that of a hermit, Denis, who is said to have lived there in the 18th century. Long before that, Neolithic and later Turkic pastoralists took shelter in the cave, gathering their herds around them to ride out the Siberian winters. Thanks to them, the archaeologists who work in Denisova today, surrounded by walls spattered with recent graffiti, had to dig through deep layers of goat dung to get to the deposits that interested them. But the cave’s main chamber has a high, arched ceiling with a hole near the top that directs shimmering shafts of sunlight into the interior, so that the space feels holy, like a church.
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