The remains, believed to be more than 45,000 years old, have been used to reconstruct a complete set of DNA – known as the genome – of early modern man.
Genetic information comes from a skull discovered at a site near Prague in the Czech Republic. It was named Zlatý kůň, the ‘golden horse’ in Czech, and is believed to be the oldest reconstructed modern human genome to date.
Findings published in the journal Ecology and evolution of nature, suggest that the woman had 3 percent Neanderthals and lived closer to a time when Neanderthals interbred with modern humans.
Earlier, the oldest known complete DNA sequence for modern humans originated from the leg bone of a 45,000-year-old man found in a Siberian city called Ust’-Ishim.
Although both the new genome and the Ust’-Ishim genome contained approximately the same amount of Neanderthal DNA, researchers believe that Zlatý kůň’s genome could be several hundred years older because its segments of Neanderthal origin were on average much longer.
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 created by today’s Europeans and Asian lineages that split about 41,000 years ago.
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“We can say … that it lived 60 to 80 generations after the Neanderthals and the people who left Africa mixed with each other,” said Prof. Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“It simply came to our notice then [the skull] in fact quite old – the oldest modern human genome ever sequenced. “
However, the team adds that the Zlatý kůň woman belonged to a population that left no genetic offspring in today’s Europeans or Asians, and which became extinct nearly 40,000 years ago.
One explanation is that a massive volcanic event in Italy – known as the Campanian Ignimbrite eruption – could have affected the climate in the northern hemisphere and reduced the chances of Neanderthals and early modern humans surviving in large parts of Europe.
“It’s pretty intriguing that the earliest modern people in Europe failed in the end,” Krause said.
“Just like Ust’-Ishim and by far the oldest European skull from Oasis 1, Zlatý kůň does not show genetic continuity with modern humans who lived in Europe 40,000 years ago.”
Reader Questions and Answers: Why did Neanderthals become extinct?
Question: Kevin Simpson, Durham
The spread of modern humans across Europe has been linked to the collapse and eventual extinction of Neanderthal populations 40,000 years ago, probably due to competition for resources.
Although the jury is still debating whether Neanderthals and modern humans differed in cognition, the ability of a small number of people to replace a larger Neanderthal population may have been due to a higher level of culture – our ability to evolve and pass on knowledge of better tools, better clothing or better economic organization.
Crossbreeding could also bring us an advantage. Between 1 and 4 percent of the DNA of all living people (except sub-Saharan Africans) is of Neanderthal origin.