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

Zlaty kun skull (Martin Frouz/Max Planck Society)
Zlaty kun skull (Martin Frouz/Max Planck Society)

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.”

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