‘Oldest modern human genome' reconstructed from 45,000-year-old female skull

Findings are based on the fossil skull of a woman in the Czech Republic.

Scientists have reconstructed the genome – complete set of DNA – of a female modern human from remains thought to be more than 45,000 years old.

This set of genetic information comes from a skull, named Zlaty kun (golden horse in Czech), unearthed at a site near Prague in the Czech Republic and is believed to be the oldest reconstructed modern human genome to date.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, suggest the woman had 3% Neanderthal ancestry and lived nearer the time when Neanderthals were interbreeding with modern humans.

Previously, the oldest known complete DNA sequence for modern humans came from a 45,000-year-old leg bone of a male found in a Siberian town called Ust’-Ishim.

Zlaty kun skull
The Zlaty kun skull is thought to be more than 45,000 years old (Martin Frouz/Max Planck Society)

But the researchers involved in the study say the Zlaty kun genome has what they describe as “longer stretches” of Neanderthal DNA when compared with the Ust’-Ishim genome, thus making it the oldest modern human genome.

The team believes the woman was part of one of the earliest modern human populations in Eurasia – after modern humans left Africa some 50,000 years ago.

This was before the existence of the populations that gave rise to present-day Europeans and Asian lineages which split around 41,000 years ago.

Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, said: “We can also say… that she lived 60 to 80 generations after Neanderthals and people that left Africa mixed with each other.

“And that makes it (the skull) actually quite old – that makes it the oldest modern human genome that has been sequenced so far.

Zlaty kun skull
The Zlaty kun was unearthed at a site in the Czech Republic (Martin Frouz/Max Planck Society)

“So it’s older than the Ust’-Ishim Siberian genome that had been previously published.”

However, the team adds that the Zlaty kun woman belonged to a population that did not leave genetic descendants in modern-day Europeans or Asians, becoming extinct nearly 40,000 years ago.

One explanation is that a massive volcanic event in Italy – known as the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption – may have affected climate in the northern hemisphere and reduced the survival chances of Neanderthals and early modern humans in large parts of Europe.

Mr Krause added: “It is quite intriguing that the earliest modern humans in Europe ultimately didn’t succeed.

“Just as with Ust’-Ishim and the so far oldest European skull from Oase 1, Zlaty kun shows no genetic continuity with modern humans that lived in Europe after 40,000 years ago.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access