The oldest DNA ever found in human remains belongs to a woman who lived in Czechia more than 45,000 years ago, a study has found.
Analysis of her skull reveals she was among the first batch of Homo sapiens to live in Eurasia after our species migrated out of Africa.
It is believed the woman, dubbed Zlatý kůň, may have had Neanderthal ancestors as little as six or fewer generations in her past.
The finding reinforces that humans mated with Neanderthals shortly after we first reached Europe between 50,000 and 45,000 years ago.
This mating event saw humans absorb some Neanderthal genes which survive in all modern people except Africans.
Neanderthals would go extinct shortly afterwards, with some researchers saying competition with Homo sapiens and a changing climate was to blame.
Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany tried to date the skeletal remains using radiocarbon isotopes, the traditional and widely-used method for figuring out when a fossil lived.
However, contamination of the remains made this impossible.
But Neanderthal DNA can be used as a proxy for dating because the length of its segments in the genetic code decreases steadily over generations.
The researchers found in their study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, that Zlatý kůň has long strips of uninterrupted Neanderthal DNA scattered throughout her genome, indicating she lived not long after humans mated with Neanderthals.
‘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.
In fact, the team estimate that Zlatý kůň lived just 2,000 years after the first interspecies trysts between humans and Neanderthals.
The DNA from this person and their population is not seen in modern-day people in either Asia or Europe, where Homo sapiens later colonised, the researchers found.
‘It is quite intriguing that the earliest modern humans in Europe ultimately didn’t succeed!’ says Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
This evidence, the academics say, means the Czechia individual is almost certainly older than other contenders with a claim as the earliest human fossil in Europe.
Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in Human Evolution at the Natural history Museum who was not involved in the research, said: ‘The Zlatý kůň partial skull and skeleton were discovered in 1950, and thought to be only about 15,000 years old.
‘New analyses of the woman’s skull have radiocarbon dated it to about 34,000 years old, but genomic data suggests it is at last 10,000 years older than that, and may represent one of the oldest modern humans known from Eurasia so far.’
Last year, researchers discovered human remains in a Bulgarian cave called Bacho Kiro which they said likely lived alongside Neanderthals.
The cave was first discovered and excavated in the 1970s and is located three miles (5 km) from the town of Dryanovo.
A study also published today in the journal Nature revealed further insight into these remains and found they lived between 45,930 and 42,580 years before present.
This finding backs the claims made last year that humans likely lived alongside Neanderthals for millennia before our cousin species went extinct around 40,000 years ago.
Analysis of their genomes found the three oldest people buried in the cave have more than three per cent Neanderthal DNA in their genome.
Analysis of the fossilised human remains found the people regularly hunted bison and deer while also turning animal teeth into fashion accessories – something that Neanderthals are also known to have done.
Several cave bear teeth which had been turned into personal ornaments were also discovered at the Bulgarian site.
Professor Stringer adds that the findings indicate there were ‘multiple pulses’ of Homo sapiens dispersing across Eurasia.
He believes that the different waves of Homo sapien colonisation would explain why the Zlatý kůň lineage was unsuccessful. This would also mean there were various interbreeding events with Neanderthals, he adds.