Denisova Cave in the Siberian Altai (Russia) is a key site for understanding the complex relationships between hominin groups that inhabited Eurasia in the Middle and Late Pleistocene epoch. DNA sequenced from human remains found at this site has revealed the presence of a hitherto unknown hominin group, the Denisovans1,2, and high-coverage genomes from both Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils provide evidence for admixture between these two populations3. Determining the age of these fossils is important if we are to understand the nature of hominin interaction, and aspects of their cultural and subsistence adaptations. Here we present 50 radiocarbon determinations from the late Middle and Upper Palaeolithic layers of the site. We also report three direct dates for hominin fragments and obtain a mitochondrial DNA sequence for one of them. We apply a Bayesian age modelling approach that combines chronometric (radiocarbon, uranium series and optical ages), stratigraphic and genetic data to calculate probabilistically the age of the human fossils at the site. Our modelled estimate for the age of the oldest Denisovan fossil suggests that this group was present at the site as early as 195,000 years ago (at 95.4% probability). All Neanderthal fossils—as well as Denisova 11, the daughter of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan4—date to between 80,000 and 140,000 years ago. The youngest Denisovan dates to 52,000–76,000 years ago. Direct radiocarbon dating of Upper Palaeolithic tooth pendants and bone points yielded the earliest evidence for the production of these artefacts in northern Eurasia, between 43,000 and 49,000 calibrated years before present (taken as ad 1950). On the basis of current archaeological evidence, it may be assumed that these artefacts are associated with the Denisovan population. It is not currently possible to determine whether anatomically modern humans were involved in their production, as modern-human fossil and genetic evidence of such antiquity has not yet been identified in the Altai region.
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Raw radiocarbon determinations and associated chemical data, calibrated age ranges and CQL codes for the Bayesian models are included in the Supplementary Information. All MALDI-ToF-MS raw data for the ZooMS analyses are available from the corresponding authors upon request. The mtDNA capture data for Denisova 11, Denisova 14 and Denisova 15 are available in the European Nucleotide Archive under accession number PRJEB29061. The mtDNA sequence of Denisova 15 can be downloaded from GenBank (accession number MK033602). All other relevant data are available from the corresponding authors or are included in the Letter or its Supplementary Information.
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Funding for this research was received from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Program (FP7/2007-2013); grant no. 324139 (PalaeoChron) awarded to T.H.; grant no. 715069 (FINDER) awarded to K.D.; grant no. 694707 (100 Archaic Genomes) awarded to S.P. The Max Planck Society provided support to S.P., V.S., F.M., M.M., J.K., K.D. and S.B. The Australian Research Council funded research fellowships to Z.J. (FT150100138), B.L. (FT14010038) and R.G.R. (FL130100116). The Royal Society funded a University Research Fellowship to M.B. B.V. was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (Canada). The archaeological field studies were funded by the Russian Science Foundation (project no. 14-50-00036 to A.P.D.) and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project no. 17-29-04206 to M.V.S. and M.B.K.). K.D., T.H. and T.D. thank Brasenose and Keble Colleges, University of Oxford, for funding and support. We thank staff at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit (ORAU), E. Gillespie and M. Higham Jenkins for their contribution to the radiocarbon dating and ZooMS work; and M. Ruddy for contributing to the marine oxygen isotope curve data used here (https://github.com/markruddy/ois5e-plot). D Challinor identified the charcoal before radiocarbon dating. I. Cartwright (University of Oxford) photographed Denisova 11, Denisova 14, Denisova 15 and Denisova 16. Y. Jafari, K. O’Gorman and T. Lachlan helped with optical-dating sample preparation and data analysis. S. Nagel, B. Nickel, B. Schellbach and A. Weihmann helped with DNA sample preparation; and A. Hübner gave input on the BEAST analysis.
Nature thanks R. Dennell, E. J. Rhodes and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.