UNIVERSITY OF TÜBINGEN: So far, the oldest genome of modern humans has been reconstructed

A research team has reconstructed the oldest known genome of modern humans from a fossil woman’s skull that was found on the Zlatý kůň (German: Golden Horse) mountain in the Czech Republic in 1950. According to this, the woman lived in the heart of Europe more than 45,000 years ago. It came from a later extinct population that emerged before today’s ancestors separated into European and Asian populations. The team included researchers from the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Human History in Jena, for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and the University of Tübingen. Her study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution .

Around 50,000 years ago, modern humans of the species Homo sapiens leftAfrica. According to previous analysis of ancient DNA, they encountered Neanderthals with whom they crossed in the Middle East. “As a result, all people outside of Africa today carry around two to three percent Neanderthal DNA,” reports Cosimo Posth, who recently moved from the MPI for the History of Man to the University of Tübingen as an assistant professor. In the genomes of modern humans, the segments of Neanderthal DNA have become shorter and shorter over long periods of time. “Using their length, we can estimate how many generations lie between mixing with Neanderthals and the lifetime of an individual,” explains Kay Prüfer from the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology. The genome now reconstructed from the almost completely preserved woman’s skull from Zlatý kůň contains particularly long sections of Neanderthal DNA. It must therefore be even older than the previously oldest known genome of the individual discovered in 2008 in the Russian village of Ust-Ishim in Siberia, which was dated to an age of around 45,000 years.

Neanderthal genes make dating possible
The researchers were able to estimate that the woman from Zlatý kůň lived around 2,000 years after the last cross with Neanderthals. “So she lived closer to this event than the individual from Ust-Ishim. It is at least as old, if not a few hundred years older, ”says Prüfer. The dating of the woman’s skull was only possible through genetic analysis. Earlier age determinations based on the shape of the skull and radiocarbon dating of bone material had shown a significantly lower age from 15,000 to more than 30,000 years – among other things because the samples from the skull bone are interspersed with an adhesive made of bone glue, which was once used to stabilize the skull .

The population to which the wife of Zlatý kůň belonged must later have died out. “Neither the individual from Zlatý kůň nor the individual from Ust-Ischim and also not a very old European skull labeled Oasis 1 were in genetic continuity with modern people who lived in Europe 40,000 years ago,” says Johannes Krause, director at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology and Professor at the University of Tübingen. “It is amazing that the earliest modern humans in Europe could not assert themselves,” he comments on these results.

First attempts to date the skull of Zlatý kůň based on the shape showed it was at least 30,000 years old
First attempts to date the skull of Zlatý kůň based on the shape showed that it was at least 30,000 years old. The research team now believes that it could even be more than 45,000 years old.
Sampling from the temporal bone at the base of the Zlatý kůň skull
Sampling from the temporal bone at the base of the skull of Zlatý kůň in the clean room laboratory of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena.
Incomplete picture of the events
As a possible explanation, the research team cites a volcanic eruption in what is now Campania 39,000 years ago, which severely affected the climate in the northern hemisphere and greatly reduced the chances of survival of Neanderthals and early modern humans in large parts of Ice Age Europe. Archaeological data published last year suggested that modern humans lived in southeastern Europe as early as 47,000 to 43,000 years ago. But so far little is known about who these early settlers were or how they are related to past or present groups of people. The researchers also do not yet know how far west these early humans penetrated, for example whether they also inhabited the caves on the Swabian Alb, which once served as shelter for numerous cavemen.