Britain was home to at least two genetically distinct groups of humans at the end of the last Ice Age, the UK’s oldest human DNA has revealed.
Around 19,000 years ago the ice caps that covered much of Britain melted and the landscape became habitable for humans again. Evidence of their return dates back approximately 15,500 years. These early groups passed through now submerged lands that once linked Britain to mainland Europe.
Late Ice Age human remains have only been found at a handful of sites in Britain, including Gough’s Cave in Somerset and Kendrick’s Cave in Llandudno, Wales. The first is famous for having housed “Cheddar Man” – an individual who lived about 10,000 years ago – as well as older remains that showed signs of cannibalism.
Now researchers have extracted and analyzed DNA from two individuals found at these sites – Britain’s oldest DNA.
“We can see that there are two different genetic ancestries present in Britain during this late Ice Age, which may not be what we expected to find,” said Dr Sophy Charlton, the first author of the York University study.
Write in the journal Nature ecology and evolutionCharlton and his colleagues report how they performed isotopic analysis on the remains, allowing them to track the contribution of different food sources to their diet, and thus refine their radiocarbon dating.
Supporting previous work, the team found that the Gough’s Cave individual relied primarily on land animals, such as horses, while the Kendrick’s Cave individual’s diet included sea creatures.
The researchers then analyzed the nuclear and mitochondrial DNA of the two individuals. The results reveal that the remains from Gough’s Cave come from a woman who lived around 14,900 years ago. This female, who was cannibalized, shared ancestry with an individual discovered in a cave in Belgium, known as Goyet Q2, who lived 15,000 years ago.
This ancestry, linked to groups that developed from southwestern Europe, has been associated with particular types of stone tools, the treatment of the dead, rock art, and other practices that have been described as Magdalenian culture. Indeed, Magdalenian-style artifacts have been found at Gough’s Cave.
However, although Kendrick’s Cave contained a Magdalenian-style stone tool and a cut bovid bone from the time of the female in Gough’s Cave, the remains in Kendrick’s Cave showed a different ancestry. This individual, a male who lived around 13,500 years ago, shares ancestry with 14,000-year-old remains found at Villabruna in northern Italy. Such ancestry is associated with Western hunter-gatherers who developed from southeastern Europe or the Near East.
The researchers say the findings suggest Kendrick’s Cave may have had multiple occupations.
Dr Selina Brace, co-author of the Natural History Museum study, said the results were unexpected given that a mixture of the two ancestors had previously been found in older human remains from southern Europe, the new study revealing that Cheddar Man also had such dual ancestry.
The team said the findings suggest that at least two different human groups, with different ancestry, diets and cultures – including burial practices – were present in Britain at the end of the last Ice Age.
However, Dr Rhiannon Stevens, co-author of the work from University College London, said the study only involved two people, meaning care had to be taken when trying to put together the different data. For example, she says, Magdalenians elsewhere in Europe were known to have eaten fish.
Professor Paul Pettitt of Durham University, who was not involved in the research, said archaeological work had previously revealed that humans in Gough’s Cave and Kendrick’s Cave were not contemporaneous and had provided clues about their diet and ancestry.
But he said the new research has highlighted the power of analyzing ancient DNA to solve the mystery of whether abrupt cultural shifts in prehistory were caused by population shifts and disruptions, or through the propagation of ideas – research suggesting that in this case, the old was at stake.
“Consistent with what prehistorians have long known about small, highly mobile Ice Age hunter-gatherer populations, this [research] adds evidence to the growing picture of remarkably small and ecologically fragile human groups scattered across late Pleistocene Europe,” he said.