National Museum exhibits 45,000-year-old woman’s skull whose genome is one of the oldest in the world

A rare exhibit was added to the Pantheon inside the Old Building of the National Museum in Prague this week - a 45,000-year-old woman’s skull. Visitors are now able to view both the original and the reconstructed face of the woman it belonged to. A Facebook poll has also been launched to give the prehistoric human a name.

The fragmented skull had originally been discovered in the mid-twentieth century, but imprecise radio-carbon dating methods left scientists believing it was “just” 15,000 years old. It was only when the museum decided to include the object in one of its exhibitions that it started being re-examined, says National Museum Director Michal Lukeš.

“We ordered artificial models to be made for two skulls that we planned to exhibit.  One of them was the skull in question. It was done by a specialised studio in Paris.

“In order to create the most authentic copy, the skull was re-examined. Our team joined up with researchers from Charles University’s Archaeological Department and the Max Planck Institute in Germany. The object’s genetic information was collected and we isolated the relevant genomes, which showed that the skull is more than 45,000-years-old. This makes it one of the oldest preserved and isolated genomes of a modern human in the world.”

Photo: National Museum

The results of the DNA analysis show that the woman, to which the skull belonged, lived about 2,000 years after the last mixing of humans with Neanderthals. When the team compared the skull’s DNA with that of the so-called Ust'-Ishim man, a human fossil found in Siberia which is also dated to around 43,000 BCE, they found that the woman’s skull could even be several hundred years older than the Siberian remains.

Since Wednesday, the skull is being exhibited in the Old Building of the National Museum in Prague. Standing next to it, is the recreation of what the owner of the skull would have looked like - a prehistoric woman with dark-brown hair and eyes, and a pronounced chin. According to the director of the Natural History Museum, Ivo Macek, the reconstruction is very authentic.

Photo: National Museum

“The realism is astounding. Every single hair was placed on the figure separately.”

Nevertheless, the National Museum team says that the new dating results mean that the model will have to be slightly altered, receiving darker pigmentation and different clothes.

The skull has thus far been known to archaeologists as “Zlatý kůň” (Golden horse). However, the museum has now launched a poll on its Facebook page, which gives the public an opportunity to find a new name for the object. An expert committee will then narrow down the selection to five prospective names which will be voted on again by the public.