UK had at least two genetically distinct human groups at end of last ice age, DNA reveals

By | 26/10/2022

The sequencing of the oldest human DNA in the UK then far has shown that 2 singled-out populations of humans lived in United kingdom following recolonisation at the stop of the Ice Age.

The two populations lived simply around ane,000 years apart, and yet were found to exist genetically and culturally singled-out from each other, painting a more complex picture of human being populations in the Uk 14,000 years ago.

Post-obit the peak of the concluding Ice Historic period, human populations in Europe went on the motility.

As the warming climate caused more favourable environments in Europe to flourish, the people who had survived along the southern fringes of the continent were able to accept reward of this by moving north, including into United kingdom.

Just what these populations of roving humans looked similar, how they moved into these areas and whether they were interacting with each other has been difficult to discern.

New enquiry looking into the genetics of these early settlers has now sequenced the oldest human DNA e’er obtained in Britain. The Deoxyribonucleic acid was retrieved from ancient human remains discovered in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and then compared to other human remains constitute in Kendrick’s Cave, Wales.

Dr Selina Brace is a Principal Researcher at the Museum who works on ancient Dna.

‘We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in United kingdom of great britain and northern ireland might have been,’ says Selina Brace. ‘Nosotros knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Human, that western hunter-gatherers were in Britain by around 10,500 years ago, just we didn’t know when they arrived in U.k., and whether this was the simply population that was present.’

It turns out that these two different sets of ancient human remains show at that place were two distinct populations – both genetically and culturally – moving effectually Britain at this time.

The results accept been published in Nature Ecology & Development.

A view inside Gough's Cave, showing a low ceiling, water pooling on the floor and stalactites and stalagmites growing out of the floor and ceiling.

The oldest sequenced human DNA in the United kingdom was recovered from Gough’due south Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset ©Shutterstock/Tom Meaker

Changing climates and moving people

Over much of the past tens of thousands of years the climate in Europe has been in flux.

Around 30,000 years ago, a cooling event caused huge glaciers to offset to grow in the northern hemisphere. Known equally the Terminal Glacial Maximum, these ginormous icesheets extended their achieve over much of northern Europe, forcing surviving plants, animals and whatever humans into the south.

This would concluding for around 10,000 years, until a pronounced warming on the continent brought about momentous change.

By 14,000 years ago, the Late Glacial Interstadial was in full swing. This warm period opened upwardly many of the previously uninhabitable regions, as boreal forests began to plant themselves on the one time frozen ground and animals started to return.

Post-obit the deer, pigs, aurochs and other casualty as information technology moved north were people. Or then it was idea.

More authentic radiocarbon dating on the human remains from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, England, show that the people who lived there were doing and so some 300 years earlier than was previously understood. This ways that the individuals were living in United kingdom of great britain and northern ireland simply before information technology started to warm.

Professor Chris Stringer is a research leader on human evolution at the Museum.

‘They were actually arriving in Britain while information technology was still common cold,’ explains Chris. ‘Or, alternatively, they were hither longer and we’ve simply picked them upward at Gough’southward Cave. Because the date we’ve got doesn’t necessarily mean they were the very first people coming back at this time.’

‘This suggest that there was a population in U.k., even during at to the lowest degree the finish of that cold stage.’

What’south more intriguing even so is that these people were using objects made of fauna remains thought to have already been extinct in Britain at this fourth dimension, including a billy made from reindeer antler and a spear tip crafted from mammoth ivory.

Two reindeer walking across snowcovered ground, with snowy mountains in the background.

The mystery of a reindeer antler tool found in United kingdom later on the animals were thought to take gone extinct on the island raises some intriguing possibilities ©Shutterstock/Dmitry Chulov

‘The artefacts are made from cold climate animals which were on the point of disappearing from Britain, or may have fifty-fifty already disappeared by the time the Gough’south people are established,’ explains Chris.

‘This raises several interesting questions: Did they bring these artefacts with them from somewhere colder? Or was U.k. fifty-fifty more complicated and still had mammoths and reindeer surviving upward in the highlands?’

Either manner, as the warming in Europe started to pick upward, more than people fabricated the journey from the continent to Britain. This including those that would go out behind their remains in Kendrick’due south Cavern, northern Wales, dated to about one,000 years after the Gough’south Cavern people.

But the genetics of these two populations has revealed something hit.

Despite living relatively close to each other in both time and space, the two human being populations are entirely genetically singled-out. This means that there were two completely divide populations of humans living in Britain during this period, although it is of import to note that information technology is still unknown if they ever really overlapped in time.

It is thought that the earlier Gough’south Cavern people were more closely related to older human remains found in Belgium, while those from Kendrick’s Cave were closer to a later population in northern Italy.

Separated past culture

But these two populations differed not merely genetically, merely culturally too.

By looking at the teeth found in both caves, the researchers take been able to build up a more full general picture of what the different groups of people were eating. This has revealed that the people living in Gough’due south Cave were eating primarily food from the state, such as deer, but that those living near the northern Welsh coast were dining on a diet filled with marine mammals.

A hand holding the rounded top of a human skull. Along the edges, there are visable cut marks were the bone was defleshed.

The people who lived in Gough’s Cave are thought to have practiced cannibalism, fifty-fifty making what announced to be cups from skulls of people © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

Building on this, the tools associated with both sites are besides different, as are their apparent funerary practices.

Dr Silvia Bello is a researcher at the Museum who specialises in the evolution of human behaviour.

‘The evidence from the homo remains found at Kendrick’due south Cave suggests that the cave was used equally a burial site by its occupiers,’ explains Silvia. ‘In contrast, creature and human being bones plant in Gough’s Cave showed significant human modification, which has been interpreted equally testify for ritualistic cannibalism.’

‘This includes homo skulls that accept been modified into ‘skull-cups’.’

But whether these were ingrained cultural differences found beyond both populations is almost incommunicable to tell with current evidence, equally these are only two groups of people living in Uk at one indicate in time.

More information from remains found in other parts of the Great britain, and further afield into places like France, are vital to filling in these gaps and giving united states of america an fifty-fifty clearer motion picture of how our ancestors moved effectually the continent and interacted during the afterward stages of the concluding Water ice Age.