Oldest Modern Human Genome Reconstructed Using DNA From 45,000-Year-Old Skull

Human Skull From Zlatý Kůň

This skull from Zlatý kůň cave near Prague belonged to the earliest known modern human in Europe. Credit: Marek Jantač

The fossil skull of a woman in Czechia has provided the oldest modern human genome yet reconstructed, representing a population that formed before the ancestors of present-day Europeans and Asians split apart.

In an article published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, an international team of researchers analyses the genome of an almost complete skull first discovered in Zlatý Kůň, Czechia in the early 1950s and now stored in the National Museum in Prague. The segments of Neanderthal DNA in its genome were longer than those of the Ust’-Ishim individual from Siberia, the previous oldest modern human sequenced, suggesting modern humans lived in the heart of Europe more than 45,000 years ago.

Zlatý Kůň Human Skull

Lateral view of the mostly-complete skull of Zlatý Kůň. Credit: Martin Frouz

Ancient DNA from Neandertals and early modern humans has recently shown that the groups likely interbred somewhere in the Near East after modern humans left Africa some 50,000 years ago. As a result, all people outside Africa carry around 2% to 3% Neandertal DNA. In modern human genomes, those Neandertal DNA segments became increasingly shorter over time and their length can be used to estimate when an individual lived. Archaeological data published last year furthermore suggests that modern humans were already present in southeastern Europe 47-43,000 years ago, but due to a scarcity of fairly complete human fossils and the lack of genomic DNA, there is little understanding of who these early human colonists were — or of their relationships to ancient and present-day human groups.

In a new study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, an international team of researchers reports what is likely the oldest reconstructed modern human genome to date. First discovered in Czechia, the woman known to researchers as Zlatý kůň (golden horse in Czech) displayed longer stretches of Neanderthal DNA than the 45,000-year-old Ust’-Ishim individual from Siberia, the so-far oldest modern human genome. Analysis suggests that she was part of a population that formed before the populations that gave rise to present-day Europeans and Asians split apart.

A recent anthropological study based on the shape of Zlatý kůň’s skull showed similarities with people who lived in Europe before the Last Glacial Maximum — at least 30,000 years ago – but radiocarbon dating produced sporadic results, some as recent as 15,000 years ago. It wasn’t until Jaroslav Brůžek from the Faculty of Science, Prague and Petr Velemínský of Prague’s National Museum collaborated with the genetics laboratories of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History that a clearer picture came into view.

Zlatý Kůň Skull

Initial attempts to date Zlatý Kůň based on the shape of her skull suggested she was at least 30,000 years old. Researchers now believe she lived more than 45,000 years ago. Credit: Martin Frouz

“We found evidence of cow DNA contamination in the analyzed bone, which suggests that a bovine-based glue used in the past to consolidate the skull was returning radiocarbon dates younger than the fossil’s true age,” says Cosimo Posth, co-lead author of the study. Posth was formerly a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and is currently Professor of Archaeo- and Palaeogenetics at the University of Tübingen.

However, it was the Neandertal DNA that led the team to their major conclusions about the age of the fossil. Zlatý kůň carried about the same amount Neanderthal DNA in her genome, as Ust Ishim or other modern humans outside Africa, but the segments with Neanderthal ancestry were on average much longer.

“The results of our DNA analysis show that Zlatý kůň lived closer in time to the admixture event with Neanderthals,” says Kay Prüfer, co-lead author of the study.

The scientists were able to estimate that Zlatý kůň lived approximately 2,000 years after the last admixture. Based on these findings, the team argues that Zlatý kůň represents the oldest human genome to date, roughly the same age as — if not a few hundred years older than — Ust’-Ishim.

“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, Zlatý kůň shows no genetic continuity with modern humans that lived in Europe after 40,000 years ago,” says Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

One possible explanation for the discontinuity is the Campanian Ignimbrite volcanic eruption roughly 39,000 years ago, which severely affected climate in the northern hemisphere and may have reduced the survival chances of Neanderthals and early modern humans in large parts of Ice Age Europe.

Zlatý Kůň Skull Sampling

Micro-sampling the petrous bone of Zlatý Kůň from the base of the skull in the clean room at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena. Credit: Cosimo Posth

As advances in ancient DNA reveal more about the story of our species, future genetic studies of other early European individuals will help to reconstruct the history and decline of the first modern humans to expand out of Africa and into Eurasia before the formation of modern-day non-African populations.

Reference: “A genome sequence from a modern human skull over 45,000 years old from Zlatý kůň in Czechia” by Kay Prüfer, Cosimo Posth, He Yu, Alexander Stoessel, Maria A. Spyrou, Thibaut Deviese, Marco Mattonai, Erika Ribechini, Thomas Higham, Petr Velemínský, Jaroslav Brůžek and Johannes Krause, 7 April 2021, Nature Ecology & Evolution.
DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01443-x

12 Comments on "Oldest Modern Human Genome Reconstructed Using DNA From 45,000-Year-Old Skull"

  1. If humans had a hard time of it 39000 years ago and failed in Europe at that time, to be followed by a second migration into Europe by another lot, then those who made it to PNG and Australia around 60-70000years ago………….?

  2. Jeff Sanders | April 12, 2021 at 4:08 pm | Reply

    Sadly the account of creation provided by almighty God ,our creator is not considered in these discoveries. I am thankful for an accurate and complete history of human existence . The flood ,it appears ,may have altered the composition of discovered elements so that testing methods are not able to be accurately assessed by modern means. I pray Gods spirit convics you of the truth of all things …to your benefit.

  3. Human DNA science is hugely interesting. I love articles like this. What is also interesting is how we came into existence, theology is one idea, but I think we need to be open to the possibility that we may have to redefine who or what “God” is and that the true story of “God” may have to be redefined, as science evolves and redefines the human origin story.

  4. There is no place for the “creator”, cos he’s a fairytale. Only a buffoon would still believe in a god

  5. Hey yea Jeff, don’t bring religion into science. There’s a reason we learn science in schools and not religion.

  6. Jeff, why bother reading the article if you’ve made up your mind that the poem of the Jewish Bible is scientific? At least, that’s all I can assume you believe. Having had my ansestry done, I have a lot of Neanderthal dna and a history of long lived ancestors… Perhaps I myself am prehistoric in a sence…

  7. Iris kowalski | April 16, 2021 at 6:52 am | Reply

    There were are humans there are religion if there are no religion or no exist religion there are not or not exist humans..

  8. Iris kowalski | April 16, 2021 at 6:57 am | Reply

    There were are humans there are religion if there are no religion or no exist religion there are not or not exist humans..

  9. Only fake news

  10. BrendaLee Smith | April 16, 2021 at 11:10 am | Reply

    I really like articles like this on DNA and our origins. Hob brought up a good point in that we find more testable skeletons in Europe and Asia and less about the origins of the Australian and Pacific Islanders which is frustrating to me but …
    And Jeff, other than the dating what do you think of the DNA evidence? Who could the Neanderthals be? Where did they come from?

  11. I believe it’s highly likely aliens played with our DNA and created us. I can only imagine what our species would accomplish if we all believed in science and enlightenment. Instead of being hindered with religion, greed, and war. We could create more perfect bodies free of most sickness and rapid aging. Regrow every body part. No that’s playing God so we can’t do that. I can dream…

  12. Michael Friedmann | April 19, 2021 at 3:19 am | Reply

    What exactly does “no genetic continuity” mean? Zlaty kun’s X MtDNA was wiped out and didn’t survive? Or her Autosomal DNA doesn’t match anybody living today? Either way the possibility of contemporary descendants of this population can still exist just not on an X,Y, or Au, chromosome.

Leave a comment

Email address is optional. If provided, your email will not be published or shared.