Pleistocene sediment DNA reveals hominin and faunal turnovers at Denisova Cave
Denisova Cave in southern Siberia is the type locality of the Denisovans, an archaic hominin group who were related to Neanderthals1–4. The dozen hominin remains recovered from the deposits also include Neanderthals5,6 and the child of a Neanderthal and a Denisovan7, which suggests that Denisova Cave was a contact zone between these archaic hominins. However, uncertainties persist about the order in which these groups appeared at the site, the timing and environmental context of hominin occupation, and the association of particular hominin groups with archaeological assemblages5,8–11. Here we report the analysis of DNA from 728 sediment samples that were collected in a grid-like manner from layers dating to the Pleistocene epoch. We retrieved ancient faunal and hominin mitochondrial (mt)DNA from 685 and 175 samples, respectively. The earliest evidence for hominin mtDNA is of Denisovans, and is associated with early Middle Palaeolithic stone tools that were deposited approximately 250,000 to 170,000 years ago; Neanderthal mtDNA first appears towards the end of this period. We detect a turnover in the mtDNA of Denisovans that coincides with changes in the composition of faunal mtDNA, and evidence that Denisovans and Neanderthals occupied the site repeatedly—possibly until, or after, the onset of the Initial Upper Palaeolithic at least 45,000 years ago, when modern human mtDNA is first recorded in the sediments.