A jawbone fragment found in Tibet almost 30 years ago was recently discovered to be at least 160,000 years old, making it the oldest evidence of (Neanderthal-like) humans on the Tibetan plateau.
According to an article in The New York Times, researchers at the National Taiwan University were able to date the jawbone back at least 160,000 years by analyzing the uranium in bits of rock that were stuck to the fossil.
Next, the researchers looked to uncover the species behind the jawbone—that is, where it fell on the human family tree. DNA is typically used to narrow down the search, but no genetic material had survived. Instead, researchers followed another set of clues: the proteins in the two molars that remained attached to the bone. A molecular anthropologist in Germany matched these proteins to those found in the skeletal remains of Denisovans, a mysterious species of Neanderthal-like humans that disappeared about 50,000 years ago.
Equipped with this new information, researchers now have a better understanding of what Denisovans may have looked like. Coupling their thick jaws and teeth with previous findings of large brain cases, it’s speculated that Denisovan adults weighed well over 200 pounds.
Something to think about when you’re treating your next patient—will some futuristic human-like species uncover their teeth in an archaeological dig somewhere? What will they infer from their find about our 21st century flossing habits and diets?