The entire genome of a woman who lived 35,000 years ago in modern day Romania has been sequenced

Pestera Muierii 1 skull (Photo courtesy Mattias Jakobsson)
Pestera Muierii 1 skull (Photo courtesy Mattias Jakobsson)

An article published in the journal “Current Biology” reports the sequencing of the whole genome of the woman who lived about 35,000 years ago in today’s Romania and is referred to as Pestera Muierii 1. A team of researchers led by Professor Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University, Sweden, successfully conducted the first complete sequencing of this woman’s DNA. It’s one of the very few complete genomes of people who lived over 30,000 years ago. Its genetic diversity compared to today’s humans suggests that some of it was lost during the Ice Age and not in the migration from Africa.

In the cave system called Pestera Muierii, in Romania, mainly cave bear remains but also some human remains were discovered. In particular, in 1952, a human skull was discovered which was designated as Pestera Muierii 1. Some features of the skull suggested that it was a person with some Neanderthal ancestors but only a few years ago it was possible to attempt the first DNA extraction.

In 2016, an article published in the journal “Scientific Reports” described the extraction of the mitochondrial DNA of Pestera Muierii 1 and its analysis. The results indicated that the woman was a full Homo sapiens and that her genetic features suggested that a West Asian population had migrated back to Africa.

Now, Professor Mattias Jakobsson’s team has sequenced the entire nuclear DNA of Pestera Muierii 1, and this offers a much more complete picture of her genetic features. They’re very useful information to understand the relationships of her people with other human populations and much more.

One of the doubts about the Pestera Muierii 1 woman concerned her possible Neanderthal ancestors since from the first examinations of her skull some characteristics of that species were found together with those of modern humans. Actually, her DNA contains an average amount of Neanderthal genes for European Homo sapiens of her time. Previous genetic research on an individual whose remains, dating back to around 40,000 years ago, were discovered in another Romanian cave and known as Pestera Oase 1 showed twice as many Neanderthal genes as Pestera Muierii 1.

An interesting result concerns the genetic diversity discovered in Pestera Muierii 1. Today, human populations descending from groups that emigrated from Africa about 80,000 years ago have lower genetic diversity than Africans. There are scientists who attributed that limited diversity to the small size of the groups that migrated from Africa but Pestera Muierii 1 shows a genetic diversity comparable to that of Africans. This suggests that that diversity was lost later, during the last Ice Age, which ended around 10,000 years ago.

A comparison of Pestera Muierii 1’s DNA with that of today’s populations also offers interesting results. Her people predated the hunter-gatherers who lived in Europe at the end of the last Ice Age but she’s not the direct ancestor of modern Europeans.

Once again, genetic research on ancient humans, be it Homo sapiens or other hominins, shows a history of migrations with different populations occupying the same territories thousands of years apart. The genome of a single woman offers very interesting information from this point of view that may be useful in future research on the history of humanity.

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