Hello, Homo Denisova!

Keith Hudson

In today’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson — frequently talked about as the next Prime Minister of England when David Cameron decides to retire sometime in the next five years, as he’s already promised — although my money is on Sajid Javit . . . as a far more reliable man — is writing about Palmyra, with unique ancient buildings halfway in style between between the Roman and the Persian, but now in danger if the ISIL troops in Iraq advance much further.  They will destroy the site, not because the architectural style offends them but because the builidings are somehow idolatrous simply by standing there.

Well, there we are — a dysfunctional culture wishes to destroy something which experts and tourists of the West (with a standard of living which most people who are in subjection to ISIL would secretly wish for themselves) hold dear.  If ISIL do destroy Palmyra we can console ourselves somewhat with the photos and videos that have been made of the place including recordings by the latest equipment which can make accurate 3D representations. Once ISIL have come and gone then Palmyra could be re-built as a replica that could hardly be differentiated from the original if we wanted to and if sufficient funds could be found.

Somehow, I don’t think funds would be found unless some large tourist business decides to do so with the (unlikely) blessing of its shareholders.  Nor would governments.  The 1968 reconstruction of the magnificent Abu Simbel Temple, the great edifice of Ramessis II of the 13th century BC, on an artificial hill to save it from drowning because of the building of the Aswan Dam, was probably the acme of such governmental endeavours in full cooperative mode.

If there are any government funds available in the coming years then they’re going to be increasingly pointed towards scientific research, not aesthetic projects, because that’s what’s going to be the more inportant factor by far in the survival of governments in good heart in an increasingly competitive world.

And many of the objectives of this research are going to be of subjects and objects which the broad mass of the public would otherwise not give a moment’s thought to.  For example, the proof of the existence of epigenetics, which is going to be of the most momentous importance in the coming years in the treatment of genetic mid-life diseases, and perhaps the regeneration of vital organ tissues, was arrived at by experiments on humble bread yeast, and the significance of the 2010 finding of a piece of fossilized fragment of a finger bone in the sifted debris of the Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia.

The mini-fossil has been dated to having been alive 41,000 years ago and its DNA has shown it to be of someone who was definitely a human but of a breed largely distinct from Homo neanderthalensis — though having a few of its genes — and also different from our own dear Homo sapiens — though not having any of our genes — who was, at that time, wending his way around the world — usually along sea coasts and rivers and not anywhere near Siberia (that came at least 20,000 years later).

In fact, though we did not know it until  year or two ago, some of Homo Denisova’s genes found their way into ancient people in south Asia who were clever enough to subsequently set off in canoes about 1,000 years ago and navigate by stars alone across thousands of miles of Pacific Ocean to found the Melanesian cultures on many islands including the Maoris of New Zealand.

In short, the discovery of the existence of yet a third Homo breed of 40,000 years ago has already transformed the understanding of our origins.  As far as ordinary people are concerned the poem that comes to mind is “It may be nuts to Mary Anne/But it’s certainly rough on Abraham” (whose author and origin I would dearly like to know if any reader might oblige). The knowledge of Denisovan Man’s existence may not be of any interest to most of us but, on the other hand, one or two of his unique genes might turn out to be life-saving to some individuals with certain genetic diseases one day.  One never knows.  In a rather crass and unfair comparison between the Denisovan finger bone and the Palmyra site, the salvation of the latter is probably not ever going to save lives.

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