Oldest human DNA ever obtained in the UK reveals two distinct populations recolonized post Ice Age Britain

DNA evidence from an individual from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, and an individual from Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales, shows that they were from two distinct populations, which both moved into Britain at the end of the last Ice Age

These two populations were also culturally distinct in what they ate, and how they buried their dead, and suggest a dynamic and changing population in Britain at this time

A group of scientists from the Natural History Museum, University College London (UCL), and the Francis Crick Institute have obtained the oldest human DNA from Britain thus far. The DNA is from individuals that lived more than 13,500 years ago, and indicates the presence of two distinct groups in Britain at the end of the last Ice Age. Along with other new evidence on their diet and culture, their genetic and cultural diversity paints a more complex picture of the humans that recolonized Britain at the end of the last Ice Age.

Approximately two-thirds of Britain was covered by glaciers during the Ice Age. Around 17,000 years ago, as the climate warmed and the glaciers were melting, drastic ecological and environmental changes took place and humans began to move back into northern Europe. For the first time the study reveals the recolonization of Britain consisted of at least two groups with distinct origins. The first group seem to be the same people who created the Magdalenian stone tools, a culture known also for iconic cave art and bone artefacts, and were the first group to expand into Northwest Europe around 16,000 years ago. The second group appeared in northwest Europe around 2,000 years later, and are known as “western hunter-gatherers”. They seem to have their ancestral origins in the Near East. As Britain sits at the extreme northwest corner of the continent, it’s the end of the line for these human migrations.

‘We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might have been,’ says Dr Selina Brace, a principal researcher at the Museum. ‘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. ‘

‘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, ‘said Dr Sophy Charlton, lecturer in Bioarchaeology at the University of York. ‘There are very few human remains of this age in Britain; perhaps around a dozen individuals from six sites. We looked at two of these Palaeolithic individuals – one from Gough’s Cave in Somerset and the other from Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales. ‘

‘The individual from Gough’s Cave died about 15,000 years ago, and her DNA indicates that her ancestors were part of the initial migration into northwest Europe’ says Prof. Ian Barnes from the Museum. ‘On the other hand, the individual from Kendrick’s Cave is from a later period, around 13,500 years ago, and his ancestry is from the western hunter-gatherer group.’

Furthermore, the study found that these populations were not just genetically different, but culturally different too. ‘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, ‘says Dr Rhiannon Stevens, Associate Professor of Archaeological Science at UCL Institute of Archeology.

Their mortuary practices also differed. There were no animal bones showing evidence of being eaten by humans found at Kendrick’s Cave, indicating that the cave was used as a burial site by its occupiers. Animal bones that were found included portable art items such as a decorated horse mandible. In contrast, animal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave showed significant human modification including human skulls that have been modified into ‘skull-cups’ and interpreted as evidence for ritualistic cannibalism.

‘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,’ says Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Francis Crick Institute.

The study shows that it is possible to obtain useful genetic information from some of the oldest human skeletal material in Britain.

‘These genome sequences now represent the earliest chapter of the genetic history of Britain, but ancient DNA and proteins promise to bring us back even further,’ says Dr Pontus Skoglund, Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute.

The paper ‘Dual ancestries and ecologies of the Late Glacial Palaeolithic in Britain’ is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.


Notes to editors

The human remains from Kendrick’s Cave are on display at Llandudno Museum by permission of Conwy County Borough Council, and from Gough’s Cave at the Natural History Museum, by permission of the Longleat Estate.

The deglacial (end of the last ice-age) began around 20,000 years ago.

Rapid climate warming occurred during the Late Glacial, which began ~ 14,700 years ago and ended at the start of the Holocene, ~ 11,700 years ago.

The early, southwest European ancestry described has been associated with Magdalenian-associated individuals closely related to those from sites such as El Mirón Cave, Spain, and Troisième Caverne in Goyet, Belgium.

Western hunter-gatherer ancestry has been associated with Epigravettian, Azilian / Federmesser, Epipalaeolithic and Mesolithic cultures.

· Gough’s Cave is also where Britain’s famous Cheddar Man was found. Cheddar Man is dated to 10,564-9,915 years BP and interestingly in this study was found to have a mixture of ancestries, mostly (85%) western hunter-gatherer and but also some (15%) of the older southwest European ancestry.

Images are available to download here.

Natural History Museum media contact: Tel: +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/07799690151 Email: [email protected]

UCL media contact: Tel: +44 20 7679 8557 / +44 (0) 7858 152143 Email: [email protected]

The Francis Crick Institute media contact: Tel: +44 (0) 20 3796 5252 / +44 (0) 7918 166 173

Email: [email protected]

Llandudno Museum media contact: Tel 01492 701490/07434 748799 [email protected]

About The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is both a world-leading science research center and the most-visited indoor attraction in the UK last year. With a vision of a future in which both people and the planet thrive, it is uniquely positioned to be a powerful champion for balancing humanity’s needs with those of the natural world. It is custodian of one of the world’s most important scientific collections comprising over 80 million specimens accessed by researchers from all over the world both in person and via over 30 billion digital data downloads to date. The Museum’s 350 scientists are finding solutions to the planetary emergency from biodiversity loss through to the sustainable extraction of natural resources. The Museum uses its global reach and influence to meet its mission to create advocates for the planet – to inform, inspire and empower everyone to make a difference for nature. We welcome millions of visitors through our doors each year, our website has had 17 million visits in the last year and our touring exhibitions have been seen by around 20 million people in the last 10 years.

About UCL Institute of Archeology

The UCL Institute of Archeology is one of the largest centers for archaeology, cultural heritage and museum studies in Britain. Founded in 1937, its staff and students actively pursue research on a global scale in the archaeological sciences, heritage studies and world archaeology.

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UCL is a diverse community with the freedom to challenge and think differently.

Our community of more than 41,500 students from 150 countries and over 12,500 staff pursues academic excellence, breaks boundaries and makes a positive impact on real world problems.

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About the Francis Crick Institute

The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical discovery institute dedicated to understanding the fundamental biology underlying health and disease. Its work is helping to understand why disease develops and to translate discoveries into new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, infections, and neurodegenerative diseases.

An independent organization, its founding partners are the Medical Research Council (MRC), Cancer Research UK, Wellcome, UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and King’s College London.

The Crick was formed in 2015, and in 2016 it moved into a brand new state-of-the-art building in central London which brings together 1500 scientists and support staff working collaboratively across disciplines, making it the biggest biomedical research facility under a single roof in Europe.


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