A new species of human: The old man of the mountain

March 30, 2010

The Economist:

MYTH and fantasy populate the world with “othermen”—the elves, goblins, dwarfs and giants that live in the wild wood, in the cave or on the high mountain peak. Not animal, but not quite human either, they feed fear and imagination in equal quantity. Nor are such creatures merely the province of the past and the poetaster. The story of the yeti—the abominable snowman that haunts the Himalaya—has provoked serious investigation by explorers hoping to find not-quite-human humans. Sadly, there is nothing there. But not so long ago there might have been. For a bunch of explorers of a different sort, using DNA sequences instead of hiking boots, have discovered a real otherman from the mountains of Asia.

Svante Paabo, of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, was the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s novel “Jurassic Park”. His group extracts and sequences genetic material from fossils, and has produced DNA analyses of both mammoths and Neanderthal man. Their latest object of study is a finger bone found in a cave in the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia (pictured above). The team Dr Paabo assembled to look at this bone, led by Johannes Krause, assumed it was either from an early modern human or a Neanderthal, both of whom once lived in the area. What they found shocked them. It was neither.

The new, as yet unnamed species—the first to be defined solely by its DNA—is unveiled in this week’s Nature. Anatomically, it consists of the distal manual phalanx of the fifth digit or, in layman’s parlance, the tip of the little finger. Even by the standards of palaeontology, one of whose early practitioners, Georges Cuvier, claimed to be able to extrapolate an entire animal from a single bone, declaring a species from evidence this slight would be ambitious. It was not the bone itself, though, but what was in it, that allowed Dr Krause and Dr Paabo to be so confident.

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