A 45,000-year-old leg bone from Siberia has yielded the oldest genome sequence for Homo sapiens on record — revealing a mysterious population that may once have spanned northern Asia. The DNA sequence from a male hunter-gatherer also offers tanta*li*zing clues about modern humans’ journey from Africa to Europe, Asia and beyond, as well as their sexual encounters with Neanderthals.

His kind might have remained unknown were it not for Nikolai Peristov, a Russian artist who carves jewellery from ancient mammoth tusks. In 2008, Peristov was looking for ivory along Siberia’s Irtysh River when he noticed a bone jutting from the riverbank. He dug it out and showed it to a police forensic scientist, who identified it as probably human.

The bone turned out to be a human left femur, and eventually made it to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where researchers carbon-dated it. “It was quite fossilized, and the hope was that it might turn out old. We hit the jackpot,” says Bence Viola, a palaeo*anthropologist who co-led the study of the remains. “It was older than any other modern human yet dated.” The luck continued when Viola’s colleagues found that the bone contained well-preserved DNA, and they sequenced its genome to the same accuracy as that achieved for contemporary human genomes (Q. Fu et al.Nature 514, 445–449; 2014).

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