About 27,000 years ago, a huge sheet of ice covered two-thirds of the British Isles, making the region less than hospitable to human settlement.
All this changed as the warming climate transformed the landscape, inviting communities to find a new home on its fertile soils. Archaeologists piece together the stories of these early migrants and find that the region became a veritable melting pot of culture.
The oldest human genomes from remains uncovered in either Britain or Ireland point to at least two different origin stories, each stretching back to mainland Europe and beyond.
A fossilized individual from Gough’s Cave in Somerset has a genome that can 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 represented at sites in Italy.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that both humans lived in Britain more than 13,500 years ago, just a few thousand years after the region’s huge ice sheet retreated towards the Arctic.
The bones from Gough’s Cave are the oldest of the two remains. They died about 15,000 years ago, which means that their ancestors probably joined a wave of migration from northwestern Europe at least a thousand years before their lives.
The individual from Kendrick’s Cave lived a few thousand years after that, and their ancestors probably migrated from the Near East to Britain about 14,000 years ago.
“Finding the two ancestries so close in time in Britain, just a millennium apart, adds to the emerging picture of Paleolithic Europe as one of a changing and dynamic population,” says evolutionary anthropologist Mateja Hajdinjak of the Francis Crick Institute in the UK .
By about 16,000 years ago, the British-Irish Ice Sheet had virtually disappeared. Fossils from this time are few, and other human remains that have been found date back to around 15,500 years ago, 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 dated back to around 10,500 years ago. Known as “Cheddar Man”, this fossil was at the time the oldest human in England to have its entire genome sequenced.
The findings suggest that the ancient man had dark skin and blue eyes, a sign that the population had not yet adapted to the higher, colder latitudes. The Cheddar Man’s ancestry was a mixture of Western European hunter-gatherers and members of an earlier migration to England.
Many of the same researchers involved in previous investigations are involved in this latest analysis, hoping to see what other ancestral connections can be found.
“We really wanted to find out more about what these early populations in Britain might have been,” says biologist Selina Brace of England’s Natural History Museum, who worked on both papers.
“We knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Man, that western hunter-gatherers were in Britain around 10,500 years BP, but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and whether this was the only population present. “
The new findings suggest that postglacial settlers in Britain were not just genetically distinct. They also appear to be culturally distinct.
The burial practices of Gough Cave and Kendrick’s Cave were noticeably different, as were their diets. Gough Cave shows evidence of both animal and human bones. A human skull was even found shaped like a cup, possibly for cannibalistic purposes.
Kendrick’s Cave Man, meanwhile, shows chemical traces in his bones from eating marine and freshwater fish and mammals. Unlike Gough’s Cave, however, there are no signs of deer, aurochs or horses that had been eaten by humans.
“Together, this evidence supports the interpretation that at least two distinct human groups, with different genetic affinities and dietary and cultural behaviours, were present in Britain during the Late Glacial,” the authors write.
One lineage is linked to ancestors found at sites in Villabruna, Italy, while the other appears to be a combination of Goyet ancestry related to those from sites in Belgium and El Mirón ancestry from Spain.
According to some models, the Cheddar Man may be a mixture of all three origins.
“This presents a picture of a dynamic and varied Late Glacial period in Britain, with changes occurring in the late Upper Palaeolithic in diet, burial behaviours, technologies and genetic affinity at a time of rapid environmental and ecological change,” the authors conclude.
“Adding our data to the existing knowledge of early prehistoric genetics in Britain, the emerging scenario is one of several genetic population turnover events in Britain.”
The study was published in Natural ecology and evolution.
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