A team of researchers has discovered human remains containing some of the oldest human DNA ever obtained in the U.K. The DNA in the remains indicates Britain was occupied by two unrelated groups that migrated to the island at the end of the last ice age.
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In a new study published in Nature Ecology and Evolution, researchers from the University College London Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum, and the Francis Crick Institute, reveal that these two populations recolonized Britain during the last ice age and had two distinct origins and cultures.
In their research, the team analyzed two DNAs from the remains of two Paleolithic humans, found in caves in England and Wales. The English remains date to about 15,000 years ago and were found in Gough’s Cave while Welsh remains, found in Kendrick’s Cave, date to about 13,500 years ago. These two groups lived during the late Old Stone Age, the age characterized by Neanderthals and woolly mammoths, and ended with the conclusion of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.
“Finding the two ancestries so close in time in Britain, only a millennium or so apart, is adding to the emerging picture of Paleolithic Europe, which is one of a changing and dynamic population,” says evolutionary anthropologist Mateja Hajdinjak from the Francis Crick Institute, in a press release.
Further analyses of the bones showed that the individuals from Kendrick’s Cave ate a lot of marine and freshwater foods, including large marine mammals. Remains at Gough’s Cave, however, showed they primarily ate terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, bovids (such as wild cattle called aurochs), and horses.
Their mortuary practices also differed. There were no animal bones showing evidence of being eaten by humans found at Kendrick’s Cave — their presumed burial site. Animal bones found at this cave included portable art items such as a decorated horse mandible.
In contrast, animal and human bones found at Gough’s Cave showed significant human modification. They include human skulls that have been modified into “skull-cups”, which the team interpreted as evidence for ritualistic cannibalism.
The study shows that it’s possible to obtain useful genetic information from some of the oldest human remains in Britain. Not just their genetics, but also their traditions, ancestries, and eating habits.
“We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might have been,” said biologist Selina Brace from England’s Natural History Museum, who worked on both papers, in a press release. “We knew from our previous work… 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.”
The authors add that these genome sequences now represent the “earliest chapter of the genetic history of Britain, but ancient DNA and proteins promise to take us back even further into human history.”
This study adds to the number of the oldest human genomes ever sequenced in Europe. In 2018, archaeologists revealed that a human fossil also found in Gough’s cave dated back to about 10,500 years ago. Known as the “Cheddar Man”, this fossil was previously the oldest human in England to have their whole DNA sequenced.