Denisovans are an extinct group of humans whose morphology remains unknown. Here, we present a method for reconstructing skeletal morphology using DNA methylation patterns. Our method is based on linking unidirectional methylation changes to loss-of-function phenotypes. We tested performance by reconstructing Neanderthal and chimpanzee skeletal morphologies and obtained >85% precision in identifying divergent traits. We then applied this method to the Denisovan and offer a putative morphological profile. We suggest that Denisovans likely shared with Neanderthals traits such as an elongated face and a wide pelvis. We also identify Denisovan-derived changes, such as an increased dental arch and lateral cranial expansion. Our predictions match the only morphologically informative Denisovan bone to date, as well as the Xuchang skull, which was suggested by some to be a Denisovan. We conclude that DNA methylation can be used to reconstruct anatomical features, including some that do not survive in the fossil record.
Year of publication
Cell, Volume 179, Issue 1, Pages 180-192.e10