Throughout the long and strange history of humankind, few places hold more mystery than the Denisova cave in southern Siberia. During a recent excavation at this unique melting pot meeting place of early humans, researchers have discovered a 45,000-year-old crafted object that appears to be a tiara made out of mammoth ivory.
The object was discovered over the past summer in the Southern gallery of the Denisova cave by researchers from the Novosibirsk Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, The Siberian Times reports. Strangest of all, they believe that it might have been worn by one of the mysterious Denisovan people, an extinct Hominin that lived alongside Neanderthals and modern humans until approximately 40,000 years ago.
Only a handful of small Denisovan bones have ever been discovered, all in the Denisova cave of Siberia. Despite the scarcity of their physical remains, we can find traces of their genetics in the DNA of many modern-day humans, most likely stemming from a period just 50,000 years ago when Neanderthals and humans (whose traces we've also found in the cave) both heavily interbred with them.
Based on the size of the headpiece, the researchers believe it was most likely worn by a “big-headed” male. There appears to be a hole bored into the end of the tiara where a cord could be tethered and tied around the back of the head. The tiara also appears relatively straight – too straight to lay on the forehead of a big-headed hominin. The researchers explain that over time it would have straightened from its original curved shape.
“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,” archaeologist Alexander Fedorchenko, from the Novosibirsk Institute, told The Siberian Times. “Any bent object tends to return to their original shape over time.”
A number of ornate objects have been found in the Denisova cave, including pieces of beads, jewelry, three rings, and arrows. While it’s impossible to say whether they were crafted by humans, Denisovians, or Neanderthals, we know now that all of these species/subspecies had the brain power to create art and decorative objects.
“Finding one of the most ancient tiaras is very rare not just for the Denisova cave, but for the world,” said Fedorchenko.
“Ancient people used mammoth ivory to make beads, bracelets, and pendants, as well as needles and arrowheads,” he added. "There were mammoth ivory tiaras, including some decorated, found on Palaeolithic sites in the extreme North and in the east of Siberia. But these tiaras were created much later, from 20,000 to 28,000 years ago.”
This is another fascinating piece in the puzzle of who the Denisovans were.