The remarkable find was made this summer in the famous Siberian cave where over many millennia early Home sapiens lived alongside extinct Neanderthals and another long-gone branch of ancient man known as Denisovans.
The suspicion is that the tiara - or diadem - was made by Denisovans who are already known to have had the technology 50,000 or so years ago to make elegant needles out of ivory and a sophisticated and beautiful stone bracelet. The tiara maybe the oldest of its type in the world.
It appears to have had a practical use: to keep hair out of the eyes; it’s size indicates it was for male, not female, use. Another theory, although related to tiaras made 20,000 years later by people living around river Yana in Yakutia is that they could have denoted the family or tribe of ancient man, acting like a passport or identity card.
Marks on it show it had 'wear and tear’ before being discarded as broken in a cave that is seen by archaeologists as one of the most significant treasure troves of early man anywhere in the world.
There were, though, no religious symbols or ornaments on the woolly mammoth tiara - made at a time when the giant species still roamed Siberia with ancient man as a predator.
The Palaeolithic tiara can be dated to between 45,000 to 50,000 years, and was worn by a man with a large head, according to researcher Alexander Fedorchenko, from Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography.
There is a hole in the rounded end of the tiara, where a cord was threaded to tie the it at the back of the head. Earlier a small piece of a frontal part of an ornamented mammoth ivory tiara was found in the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia.
The latest discovery adds to the theory of Siberian researchers that the ancient inhabitants of the cave wore tiaras for many millennia and most likely produced them.
Finding one of the most ancient tiaras is very rare not just for the Denisova cave, but for the world. Ancient people used mammoth ivory to make beads, bracelets and pendants, as well as needles and arrow heads’, said Fedorchenko.
‘The fragment we discovered is quite big, and judging by how thick the (strip) is, and by its large diameter, the headband was made for a big-headed man.’
He explained that some 50,000 years after it was made, it fitted his own temple and the back of his head. Its diameter could have changed with years due to gradual straightening of the curved part, he said. ‘Mammoth ivory plates were first thoroughly soaked in water to become more ductile and not crack during processing, and then they were bent under a right angle,’ he said.
‘Any bent object tends to return to their original shape over time. ‘This is the so-called memory of the shape effect. We must remember this while trying to judge the size of the head of the tiara’s owner by its diameter.’
World oldest needle and world oldest stone bracelet found in 11th layer of Denisova cave.
The tiara is a gift for trace evidence experts as it shows all possible ways of processing mammoth ivory used by ancient men from the Denisova Cave, like whittling, soaking in water, bending, grinding, polishing and drilling. ‘These are all possible technologies from A to Z typically used in the Paleolithic time, but which are usually associated with activities of Homo sapiens.
‘Here we likely deal with another, more ancient culture, because there was not a single piece of bone belonging to a Homo sapiens found in the cave’, said Fedorchenko. What the Siberian scientist did find were bones of a new type of human that was named Homo altaiensis, or Denisovan. The researchers are still working with the precious piece of mammoth ivory, defining its dating and reconstructing the tiara. Once assembled, there will be pictures and drawings of what the tiara looked like many millennia ago.
There is a good chance other pieces of the tiara will be found. ‘The mammoth ivory is so durable it keeps for centuries. As long as other pieces of tiara were not damaged or eaten by cave hyenas, we will find them,’ said Fedorchenko. He explained the issues researchers face when dating pieces made of mammoth ivory.
The radiocarbon method gives the date of the mammoth’s death, but the age of the tusk and the time it was processed might differ for dozen thousand years. To get a more accurate dating, scientists have to date the archeological layer where the tiara was found.
This can be done by radiocarbon dating of animal remains found in this layer, or by using a more up-to-date Optical Dating method. This technology allows experts to establish the time when the culture-containing layer was upper and revived daylight (photons).
Denisovans were discovered when a few bones and a tooth from a member of the species were found in a Siberian cave in 2008. Reich and his colleagues later sequenced the DNA found in the bones, compared it to the genomes of other ancient and modern humans, and reported that it belonged to a species distinct from modern humans or Neanderthals. That study also revealed that about 5 percent of the genomes of modern Melanesians, people from the islands of Oceania, derives from Denisovans.
For the new study, researchers led by Sharon Browning of the University of Washington compared the genomes of 5,639 modern people from different populations to one another and to the Denisovan DNA collected from tiny bones. Their analysis revealed that some DNA sequences in the genomes of people from China and Japan were closer matches to the Denisovan genome than were sequences from Melanesians, although the proportion of Denisovan DNA in the East Asians was smaller.
“In this new work with East Asians, we find a second set of Denisovan ancestry that we do not find in the South Asians and Papuans," Browning says in a statement. "This Denisovan ancestry in East Asians seems to be something they acquired themselves." She suggests that the ancestors of Oceanians may have interbred with a group of Denisovans in southern Asia, while the ancestors of East Asians may have encountered a different group further north.
Anatomically modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and with a related archaic population known as Denisovans. Genomes of several Neanderthals and one Denisovan have been sequenced, and these reference genomes have been used to detect introgressed genetic material in present-day human genomes. Segments of introgression also can be detected without use of reference genomes, and doing so can be advantageous for finding introgressed segments that are less closely related to the sequenced archaic genomes. We apply a new reference-free method for detecting archaic introgression to 5,639 whole-genome sequences from Eurasia and Oceania. We find Denisovan ancestry in populations from East and South Asia and Papuans. Denisovan ancestry comprises two components with differing similarity to the sequenced Altai Denisovan individual. This indicates that at least two distinct instances of Denisovan admixture into modern humans occurred, involving Denisovan populations that had different levels of relatedness to the sequenced Altai Denisovan.
A chunk of a Denisovan skull has been identified for the first time - a dramatic contribution to the handful of known samples from one of the most obscure branches of the hominin family tree.
Paleoanthropologist Bence Viola from the University of Toronto will discuss the as-yet-unpublished discovery at the upcoming meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Cleveland, Ohio, at the end of March.
Very little is known about the Denisovans, an extinct branch of hominins that was a sister group to Neanderthals. Only four individual Denisovans had been identified previously, all from one cave in Siberia.
The first Denisovan was described in 2010 from the fragment of a pinky finger bone, and three more were identified from teeth. This skull piece, excavated about three years ago in that same Siberian cave, represents a fifth individual.
"It's very nice that we finally have fragments like this," says Viola. "It's not a full skull, but it's a piece of a skull. It gives us more. Compared to the finger and the teeth, it's nice to have." But, he adds, it's hardly a full skeleton.
The new discovery consists of two connecting fragments from the back, left-hand side of the parietal bone, which forms the sides and roof of the skull. Together, they measure about 8 cm by 5 cm.
DNA analysis proves that the piece is Denisovan, though it's too old to date with radiocarbon techniques. Viola and colleagues have compared the fragments to the remains of modern humans and Neanderthals, according to the conference abstract, although Viola is unwilling to discuss the details of what they learned until the work is published.
"This is exciting," says Chris Stringer, a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, UK., who wasn't involved with the work but will be presenting in the same upcoming conference session about Denisovans.
"But, of course, it is only a small fragment. It's as important in raising hopes that yet more complete material will be recovered."
Sadly, the newfound piece is not large enough to use to identify other skulls found elsewhere as Denisovan without genetic information to back the diagnosis up.