Analysis of a tiny fossil has indicated that a third type of hominin may have lived alongside early humans and Neanderthals in central Asia 40,000 years ago.
Scientsts from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig analyzed DNA from a fossilised bone from the pinky of a young child found in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia.
It's the first time that a new species of hominin has been identified from DNA. The scientists found that it has almost twice as many differences from modern humans as Neanderthals.
The five-to-seven-year-old child, dubbed X Woman, appears to have shared a common ancestor with modern humans a million years ago. Humans and Neanderthals are believed to have diverged half a million years later.
The fossil was found in 2008, surrounded by rudimentary tools, a bracelet and other artifacts, The new species appears to have lived within 60 miles of humans and Neanderthals, possibly for thousands of years. The scientists say it walked upright, and would have needed clothes to survive the harsh Siberian winters.
The present analysis is based on mitochondrial DNA. More information should be available in a month or so when a nuclear DNA analysis has been completed. It should reveal the gender of the creature, and also whether it interbred with humans and Neanderthals.
A full report appears in Nature.