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Timing of archaic hominin occupation of Denisova Cave in southern Siberia

Abstract

The Altai region of Siberia was inhabited for parts of the Pleistocene by at least two groups of archaic hominins—Denisovans and Neanderthals. Denisova Cave, uniquely, contains stratified deposits that preserve skeletal and genetic evidence of both hominins, artefacts made from stone and other materials, and a range of animal and plant remains. The previous site chronology is based largely on radiocarbon ages for fragments of bone and charcoal that are up to 50,000 years old; older ages of equivocal reliability have been estimated from thermoluminescence and palaeomagnetic analyses of sediments, and genetic analyses of hominin DNA. Here we describe the stratigraphic sequences in Denisova Cave, establish a chronology for the Pleistocene deposits and associated remains from optical dating of the cave sediments, and reconstruct the environmental context of hominin occupation of the site from around 300,000 to 20,000 years ago.

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Fig. 1: Location of Denisova Cave and site plan.
Fig. 2: Stratigraphic sequences exposed in Denisova cave.
Fig. 3: Chronological summary of hominin and environmental records in all three chambers.
Fig. 4: Comparison of environmental records at Denisova Cave with global and regional climate proxies.

Data availability

All data generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding authors on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the Australian Research Council through fellowships to Z.J. (FT150100138), B.L. (FT140100384) and R.G.R. (FL130100116), the Russian Science Foundation (project 14-50-00036 to A.P.D. and A.K.A.), the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project 17-29-04206 to M.V.S., M.B.K., V.A.U., N.S.B. and S.K.V.) and the state task of the Ministry of Education and Science of the Russian Federation (project 33.867.2017/4.6 to A.P.D.). We thank Y. Jafari, T. Lachlan, D. Müller, D. Tanner, V. Vaneev and the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility for assistance and P. Goldberg for comments on an earlier version of this Article.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks G. Duller, E. J. Rhodes and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

Z.J., A.P.D. and R.G.R. conceived this study. M.V.S., M.B.K. and A.P.D. led the excavations and artefact analyses, and Z.J. and B.L. performed the optical dating, with contributions from K.O. and R.G.R. The other analyses were led by V.A.U. (stratigraphy and geoarchaeology), N.S.B. (palynology) and A.K.A. and S.K.V. (palaeontology). Z.J., M.V.S., M.B.K. and R.G.R. wrote the main text with contributions from all authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Zenobia Jacobs or Richard G. Roberts.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Plan maps of Main Chamber, East Chamber and South Chamber in Denisova Cave.

a, Detailed plan of cave interior, showing year of excavation in each of the chambers and at the cave entrance. b, Photograph of the present-day cave entrance, with people on the left for scale. ce, Plan maps of Main Chamber (c), South Chamber (d) and East Chamber (e), with the sequence of excavations in each chamber denoted by colour shading: from orange (earliest) through blue, pink, green and yellow, to white (most recent), with unexcavated areas in grey. Crosses denote locations of optical dating samples in each profile.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Stratigraphic sequences and locations of optical dating samples in Main Chamber.

a, b, Southeast profile after excavations in 1984 (a) and locations of samples collected from this profile in 2012 (blue) and 2014 (red) (b). c, d, Southeast profile after excavations in 2016 (c) and locations of samples collected from this profile in 2016 (yellow) (d). The number next to each filled circle represents the sample code (for example, number 1 next to the blue-filled circle in b denotes sample DCM12-1).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Stratigraphic sequences and locations of optical dating samples in East Chamber.

a, b, Southeast profile after excavations in 2012 (a) and locations of samples collected from this profile in 2012 (blue) and 2014 (red) (b). c, d, Southeast profile after excavations in 2015 (c) and locations of samples collected from this profile in 2016 (yellow) (d). e, f, Lower section of northwest profile (that is, below the choke-stone blocking the gap between the middle and lower sections of the hourglass-shaped cave profile) after excavations in 2014 (e) and locations of samples collected from this profile in 2014 (f). The number next to each filled circle represents the sample code (for example, number 1 next to the blue-filled circle in b denotes sample DCE12-1).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Stratigraphic sequences and locations of optical dating samples in South Chamber.

ac, Southeast profile after excavations in 2003 (a, b) and after excavations in 2016 (c), showing locations of samples collected in 2012 (blue) and 2016 (yellow). The number next to each filled circle represents the sample code (for example, number 1 next to the blue-filled circle denotes sample DCS12-1). d, Area enclosed by the white square in c. Sample DCS16-2 is located about 13 cm below the base of the Holocene deposits and to the left of an infilled animal burrow, and immediately beneath a zone of phosphatization.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Additional stratigraphic sequences and sampling locations in Main Chamber and East Chamber.

a, Upper section of east profile in Main Chamber, showing locations of optical dating samples collected in 2014. b, Lower section of east profile in Main Chamber, showing locations of samples collected in 2014. c, Upper section of northwest profile in East Chamber, showing locations of samples collected in 2014 (red) and 2016 (yellow). d, Middle section of northwest profile in East Chamber, showing locations of samples collected in 2016. The lower section of this profile is shown in Extended Data Fig. 3f. e, West profile in East Chamber, showing location of sample DCE14-1.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Bayesian model of optical ages for deposits in Main Chamber.

Ages (n = 43) have been modelled in OxCal version 4.2.4. Only random errors are included in the age model. Pale probability distributions represent the unmodelled ages (likelihoods) and dark grey distributions represent the modelled ages (posterior probabilities). The narrow and wide brackets beneath the distributions represent the 68.2% and 95.4% probability ranges, respectively. Start and end ages have been modelled for each phase, with age ranges (95.4% confidence interval, random-only errors) given in years and rounded off to the closest decade.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Bayesian model of optical ages for deposits in East Chamber.

Ages (n = 28) have been modelled in OxCal version 4.2.4. Only random errors are included in the age model. Pale probability distributions represent the unmodelled ages (likelihoods) and dark grey distributions represent the modelled ages (posterior probabilities). The narrow and wide brackets beneath the distributions represent the 68.2% and 95.4% probability ranges, respectively. Start and end ages have been modelled for each phase, with age ranges (95.4% confidence interval, random-only errors) given in years and rounded off to the closest decade.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Bayesian model of optical ages for deposits in South Chamber and comparison of OSL and pIRIR ages for all three chambers.

a, Ages (n = 11) have been modelled in OxCal version 4.2.4. Only random errors are included in the age model. Pale probability distributions represent the unmodelled ages (likelihoods) and dark grey distributions represent the modelled ages (posterior probabilities). The narrow and wide brackets beneath the distributions represent the 68.2% and 95.4% probability ranges, respectively. Start and end ages have been modelled for each phase, with age ranges (95.4% confidence interval, random-only errors) given in years and rounded off to the closest decade. b, Comparison of single-grain OSL ages for quartz and single-grain pIRIR ages for K-feldspar for 47 samples (28 from Main Chamber, 15 from East Chamber and 4 from South Chamber), with age uncertainties shown at 2σ. The dashed line indicates the 1:1 ratio.

Extended Data Fig. 9 Palaeolithic artefacts from Main Chamber, East Chamber and South Chamber.

a, Upper Palaeolithic artefacts. 1–3, bladelets; 4, retouched blade; and 5, end-scraper. b, Initial Upper Palaeolithic artefacts. 1, marble ring; 2, tubular beads; 3, ivory pendant; 4, pendant made of red deer tooth; 5, ivory ring; 6, pendant made of elk tooth; 7, chloritolite bracelet; 8, bone needle; 9, end-scraper; 10, retouched point; 11, biface; and 12, pointed blade. c, Artefacts of middle Middle Palaeolithic assemblage. 1, blade; 2 and 5, Mousterian points; 3, Levallois point; and 4, scraper. d, Early Middle Palaeolithic assemblage. 1, core; 2 and 4, scrapers; 3, denticulate tool.

Extended Data Table 1 Compilation of modelled start and end ages for Main Chamber, East Chamber and South Chamber

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains: Section 1 Methods of excavation and analysis of the Pleistocene deposits, fauna and flora; Section 2 Previous chronologies and optical dating; Section 3 Stratigraphy and sedimentology; Section 4 Pleistocene environments, palynology and palaeontology; and Supplementary References

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Jacobs, Z., Li, B., Shunkov, M.V. et al. Timing of archaic hominin occupation of Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. Nature 565, 594–599 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0843-2

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