According to new research, the first genetic data from Palaeolithic human individuals in the UK – the earliest human DNA found from the British Isles so far – suggests the presence of two separate groups that moved to Britain at the end of the last ice age.
The new study, published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution by researchers from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum, and the Francis Crick Institute, reveals for the first time that the recolonization of Britain included at least two distinct groups with distinct origins and cultures.
The researchers explored DNA evidence from people who lived more than 13,500 years ago in Gough’s Cave in Somerset and Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales. There are only a few skeletons of this era in Britain, spread across six sites. The study, which included radiocarbon dating and analysis, as well as DNA extraction and sequencing, shows that useful genetic information can be extracted from some of the country’s oldest human skeletal material.
The authors say that these genome sequences represent the earliest chapter of Britain’s genetic history, but ancient DNA and proteins promise to take us back even further into human history.
The DNA from the individual from Gough’s Cave, who died approximately 15,000 years ago, reveals that her ancestors were part of an initial migration into northwest Europe around 16,000 years ago, the researchers found. However, the individual from Kendrick’s Cave is from a later period, roughly 13,500 years ago, with ancestors from a western hunter-gatherer group. This group’s ancestors are estimated to have originated in the Near East and migrated to Britain around 14,000 years ago.
Finding the two ancestries so close in time in Britain, only a millennium or so apart, is adding to the emerging picture of Palaeolithic Europe, which is one of a changing and dynamic population.” said study co-author Dr Mateja Hajdinjak (Francis Crick Institute).
The scientists note that these migrations occurred after the last ice age, when glaciers covered around two-thirds of Britain. As the climate warmed and glaciers melted, drastic ecological and environmental changes took place and humans began to move back into northern Europe.
As well as genetically, the two groups were found to be culturally distinct, with differences in what they ate and how they buried their dead.
The researchers noticed that the two groups’ mortuary practices differed as well. Although animal bones were discovered at Kendrick’s Cave, they included portable art artifacts such as a decorated horse jawbone. No animal bones were found that showed evidence of being eaten by humans, which scientists believe implies the cave was used as a burial site by its occupants.
Animal and human bones discovered in Gough’s Cave, on the other hand, showed significant human modification, including human skulls modified into ‘skull-cups,’ which the researchers believe to be evidence of ritualistic cannibalism. Individuals from this earlier population seem to be the same individuals who created Magdalenian stone tools, a culture also known for iconic cave art and bone artifacts.
Gough’s Cave is also where Britain’s famous Cheddar Man, dating from 10,564 to 9,915 years ago, was discovered in 1903. Cheddar Man was found to have a mix of ancestries, mostly (85%) western hunter-gatherer and some (15%) earlier type from the initial migration, according to this study.
“We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might have been,” said co-author Dr. Selina Brace (Natural History Museum).
“We knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Man, that western hunter-gatherers were in Britain by around 10,500 years BP, but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and whether this was the only population that was present.” — University College London