The first genetic data of Paleolithic human individuals in the UK — the oldest human DNA to date obtained from the British Isles — indicate the presence of two distinct groups that migrated to Britain at the end of the last ice age, according to new research .
Published today in Natural Ecology and Evolution, the new study from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum and researchers at the Francis Crick Institute reveals for the first time that Britain’s recolonization involved at least two groups with different origins and cultures.
The research team examined DNA evidence from a person from Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and a person from Kendrick’s Cave, North Wales, who both lived more than 13,500 years ago. There are very few skeletons of this age in Britain, with about a dozen in all found at six sites. The study, which involved radiocarbon dating and analysis, as well as DNA extraction and sequencing, shows that it is possible to obtain useful genetic information from some of the oldest human skeletal materials in the country.
The authors say these genome sequences now represent the earliest chapter of Britain’s genetic history, but ancient DNA and proteins promise to take us even further back into human history.
The researchers found that the DNA of the individual from Gough’s Cave, who died about 15,000 years ago, indicates that her ancestors were part of a first migration to northwestern Europe about 16,000 years ago. However, the individual from Kendrick’s Cave dates from a later period, about 13,500 years ago, with ancestry from a western hunter-gatherer group. The ancestral origin of this group is believed to be from the Near East and migrated to Britain about 14,000 years ago.
Study co-author Dr. Mateja Hajdinjak (Francis Crick Institute) said: “Finding the two ancestors so close in time in Britain, only a millennium or so apart, adds to the emerging picture of Paleolithic Europe, that there is a is of a changing and dynamic population.”
The authors note that these migrations occurred after the last ice age when about two-thirds of Britain was covered by glaciers. As the climate warmed and the glaciers melted, drastic ecological and ecological changes took place and people began to return to Northern Europe.
Study co-author Dr. Sophy Charlton, who conducted the study while at the Natural History Museum, said: “The period we were interested in, from 20 to 10,000 years ago, is part of the Upper Paleolithic – the Old Stone Age. An important period for the environment. in Britain, because there would have been significant global warming, increased forest cover and changes in the types of animals available to hunt.”
In addition to genetically, the two groups were found to be culturally distinct, with differences in what they ate and how they buried their dead.
Research co-author Dr. Rhiannon Stevens (UCL Institute of Archaeology) said: “Chemical analyzes of the bones showed that the individuals from Kendrick’s Cave ate a lot of marine and freshwater foods, including large marine mammals.
“However, people in Gough’s Cave showed no evidence of eating marine and freshwater foods, eating mainly terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, cattle (such as wild cattle called aurochs) and horses.”
The researchers found that the morgue practices of the two groups also differed. Although animal bones have been found in Kendrick’s Cave, these include wearable artifacts, such as a decorated horse jawbone. No animal bones have been found to indicate that they have been eaten by humans, and the scientists say this indicates that the cave was used as a burial place by the occupiers.
In contrast, animal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave showed significant human modifications, including human skulls that were transformed into “skull cups,” which the researchers believe are evidence of ritualistic cannibalism. Individuals from this former population appear to be the same people who created the Magdalenian stone tools, a culture also known for iconic cave art and bone artifacts.
Gough’s Cave is also where the famous British Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903, dated to 10,564-9,915 years BP. In this study, Cheddar Man was found to have a mixture of ancestry, mostly (85%) western hunter-gatherers and some (15%) of the older type from the first migration.
Co-author Dr. Selina Brace (Natural History Museum) said: “We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might be.
“We knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Man, that there were western hunter-gatherers in Britain about 10,500 BC, but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and whether this was the only population that was present.”