The science journal, Nature, recently published an article detailing the possible discovery of a previously unknown human species. A team of German scientists, headed by Svante Pääbo, senior author on the international study and director of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, made the discovery after they tested a tiny sliver of bone found by Russian researchers in a Siberian cave in the summer of 2008.
The German scientists were able to extract the bone's genetic material and sequence its mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). They found that the Siberian bone's mtDNA sequence was different from modern humans, Neanderthals, and other Homo species, such as Homo floresiensis, the infamous Indonesian 'hobbit' found in 2003.
It had previously been assumed that only modern humans and Neanderthals lived in Eurasia during this period, roughly 40,000 years ago. The researchers obtained this date from the sediment deposits found around the bone, which put the pinky somewhere between 30,000 and 48,000 years old. However, further analysis of the bone's genetic material may yield a more precise date.
The significance of this find has been reverberating around the scientific community. Pääbo was one of the first to express his excitement, "I almost could not believe it. It sounded too fantastic to be true." If the initial findings can be confirmed, this will be the first time that an extinct human species is identified through genetic testing. It could also paint a vastly altered picture of the last ice-age and who populated that landscape.
But, many were quick to point out that this one study alone does not prove anything. Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist and director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen warned, "With the data in hand, you cannot claim the discovery of a new species."
Despite the cautionary tones of anthropologists and scientists outside of the study, Pääbo and his team are certain that more discoveries are right around the corner. "It is clear we stand just in the beginning of many fascinating developments."