Palaeolithic human DNA discovery reveals how humans migrated to the UK

Groundbreaking analyses of the oldest DNA in the UK has revealed that two distinct groups of humans migrated to Britain at the end of the last ice age.

Researchers from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum, and the Francis Crick Institute have examined the oldest genetic data from the British Isles so far. The human DNA was acquired from an individual from Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and an individual from Kendrick’s Cave, North Wales, both of whom lived more than 13,500 years ago.

The study, which is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, demonstrates the first evidence that the recolonisation of Britain included at least two groups with distinct origins and cultures. These genome sequences show the earliest genetic history of Britain, and ancient DNA and proteins may take us back even further into human evolutionary history.

What did they discover from the Palaeolithic human DNA?

The researchers employed radiocarbon dating and analysis as well as DNA extraction and- sequencing to investigate the oldest human skeletal material in the UK. They discovered that the human DNA obtained from Gough’s Cave, of which the individual died around 15,000 years ago, showed that her ancestors were part of an initial migration to northwest Europe about 16,000 years ago.

The human DNA from Kendrick’s Cave is from 13,500 years ago. His ancestry was from a hunter-gatherer group whose ancestral origins are believed to be from the near East, migrating to Britain around 14,000 years ago.

Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, the co-author of the study from the Francis Crick Institute, commented: “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.”

The researchers believe these migrations took place at the end of the last ice age – a period in which two-thirds of Britain was engulfed by glaciers. As the climate warmed and the glaciers began to melt away, significant ecological and environmental changes occurred, allowing humans to move back to northern Europe.

Dr Sophy Charlton, a study co-author who undertook the research whilst at the Natural History Museum, said: “The period we were interested in, from 20-10,000 years ago, is part of the Palaeolithic – the Old Stone Age. This is an important time period for the environment in Britain, as there would have been significant climate warming, increases in the amount of forest, and changes in the type of animals available to hunt.”

Cultural differences between the Palaeolithic humans

The team identified that there were significant cultural differences between the groups with regard to how they ate, and buried the dead.

Study co-author Dr Rhiannon Stevens of the UCL Institute of Archaeology explained: “Chemical analyses of the bones showed that the individuals from Kendrick’s Cave ate a lot of marine and freshwater foods, including large marine mammals.

“Humans at Gough’s Cave, however, showed no evidence of eating marine and freshwater foods, and primarily ate terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, bovids (such as wild cattle called aurochs) and horses.”

The mortuary practices of the individuals also differed. Despite animal bones being found at Kendrick’s Cave, including art items such as a decorated horse jawbone, no animal bones were found that indicated being eaten by humans, showing evidence that the cave was used as a burial site. However, the animal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave showed considerable modification, such as human skulls being turned into cups, suggesting this group performed ritualistic cannibalism.

Gough’s Cave is also where Britain’s famous Cheddar Man was discovered in 1903 and was dated to around 10,564-9,915 years BP. Cheddar Man’s ancestry was found to be 85% western hunter-gatherer and 15% of the older type from the initial migration.

Dr Slina Brace of the Natural History Museum concluded: “We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might have been. 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.”

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