The oldest modern human genome has been identified in a woman who lived in the Czech Republic about 45,000 years ago. Incredibly, when her remains were found back in 1950, it was believed that she was only about 15,000 years old. What’s even more interesting is that the woman’s genome revealed that her not-so-distant ancestors had relations with Neanderthals.
Researchers found human remains in caves located in the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. Three of the individuals were found in the Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria while one woman’s remains were found in a Czech cave. All four people were alive about 45,000 years ago and had Neanderthal DNA.
Interestingly, the three individuals found in the Bacho Kiro Cave had much higher Neanderthal DNA than almost any other early humans. “Crucially, most of this Neanderthal DNA comes in extremely long stretches. This shows that these individuals had Neanderthal ancestors some five to seven generations back in their family trees,” explained Mateja Hajdinjak, who is an author of one of the studies.
Another noteworthy discovery in the Bulgarian cave was a collection of teeth belonging to cave bears that were made into ornaments. This was a craft that Neanderthals were known to have practiced.
As for the Czech woman, who has been named Zlatý kůň, she had Neanderthal DNA but it was much further back in her family tree – approximately 2,000 years back. Based on the fact that her Neanderthal genes were so far back, experts believe that she represents the oldest known modern human genome that has ever been discovered. Furthermore, detailed analysis conducted on her almost-complete skull did reveal that she was among the first Homo sapiens to have inhabited Eurasia after the species left Africa.
The scientists discovered something a little odd about these individuals as their descendants didn’t stay in Europe. The three individuals found in the Bacho Kiro Cave were related more closely with today’s humans in East Asia and the Americas. Zlatý kůň didn’t seem to have any modern descendants in Europe after about 40,000 years ago.
“It is quite intriguing that the earliest modern humans in Europe ultimately didn't succeed!” stated Johannes Krause, who is the director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and another author of one of the studies. (Pictures of Zlatý kůň’s skull can be seen here.)
Two studies were published – one in Nature and the other in Nature Ecology & Evolution.