Around 27,000 years ago, a huge sheet of ice covered two-thirds of the British Isles, making the area less than hospitable for human habitation.
Everything changed when global warming transformed the landscape, inviting communities to find a new home on its fertile soils. Archaeologists are piecing together the stories of these early migrants, discovering that the region became a veritable melting pot of culture.
The oldest human genomes from remains found in Britain or Ireland point to at least two different origin stories, each reaching back to the European continent and beyond.
A fossilized individual from Gough’s Cave in Somerset has a genome that may be more closely linked to ancestors found at sites in Spain and Belgium.
Another from Kendrick’s Cave in Wales has genetic links to ancestors depicted at sites in Italy.
Radiocarbon dating suggests the two humans were alive in Britain more than 13,500 years ago, just a few thousand years after the region’s massive ice sheet retreated towards the Arctic.
The bones from Gough’s Cave are the older of the two remains. They died around 15,000 years ago, which means that their ancestors probably joined a wave of migration from northwest Europe at least a thousand years before their lives.
The Kendrick’s Cave individual lived a few thousand years after that, and its ancestors probably migrated from the Near East to Britain around 14,000 years ago.
“Finding the two ancestors so close in time in Britain, only about a millennium apart, adds to the emerging picture of Paleolithic Europe, which is one of a changing and dynamic population,” says the author. evolutionary anthropologist Mateja Hajdinjak of the Francis Crick Institute. United Kingdom.
Around 16,000 years ago, the Anglo-Irish Ice Sheet had all but disappeared. Fossils from this time are rare, and the other human remains that have been found only date back around 15,500 years, a few centuries before Britain’s climate began to warm rapidly.
Who these people were and where they came from are still open questions.
In 2018, archaeologists revealed that a human fossil also found in Gough’s Cave dates back around 10,500 years. Known as the ‘Cheddar Man’, this fossil was, at the time, the oldest human in England whose entire genome had been sequenced.
Findings suggest that ancient man had dark skin and blue eyes, a sign that the population had yet to adapt to higher, colder latitudes. The Cheddar Man’s ancestry was a mix of Western European hunter-gatherers and members of an earlier migration to England.
Many of the same researchers involved in earlier investigations are involved in this latest analysis, hoping to see what other ancestral connections can be found.
“We really wanted to know more about who these early populations in Britain might have been,” says biologist Selina Brace from England’s Natural History Museum, who worked on both papers.
“We knew from our previous work, including the Cheddar Man study, that Western hunter-gatherers were in Britain around 10,500 BCE, but we didn’t know when they first arrived. in Britain, and if that was the only population that was present.”
The new findings suggest post-glacial settlers in Britain weren’t just genetically distinct. They also seem to be culturally distinct.
Burial practices in Gough’s Cave and Kendrick’s Cave were noticeably different, as was their diet. Gough’s Cave shows evidence of animal and human bones. A human skull has even been found in the shape of a cup, possibly for cannibalistic purposes.
The human from Kendrick’s Cave, meanwhile, shows chemical traces in his bones from eating fish and marine and freshwater mammals. Unlike Gough’s Cave, however, there are no signs of deer, aurochs, or horses being eaten by humans.
“Combined, these lines of evidence support the interpretation that at least two different human groups, with different genetic affinities and dietary and cultural behaviors, were present in Britain during the late Ice Age,” write the authors.
One line is linked to ancestors found at sites in Villabruna, Italy, while the other appears to be a combination of Goyet ancestry linked to those from sites in Belgium and El Mirón ancestry from Spain.
The Cheddar Man, according to some models, could be a mixture of the three ancestors.
“This presents a picture of a dynamic and varied Late Ice Age in Britain, with Late Upper Palaeolithic changes in diet, burial behaviour, technologies and genetic affinity at a time of environmental and rapid ecological changes”, conclude the authors.
“With the addition of our data to existing knowledge of early prehistoric genetics in Britain, the emerging scenario is one of multiple population genetic turnover events in the UK.”
The study was published in the Nature ecology and evolution.
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