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UK’s Oldest Human DNA Analyzed, Revealing Two Distinct Populations

Human skeletal remains from Kendrick’s Cave (North Wales) which date to around 13,600 years old. Credit: R. Stevens.

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Researchers from University College London (UCL) Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum and the Francis Crick Institute have sequenced the oldest human DNA obtained from the British Isles to date. The study is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Human history throughout the Paleolithic Age

The Paleolithic Age is defined as the period that spans from from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominins (approximately 3.3 million years ago) to 11,650 years ago. The period is of interest to archaeologists studying the history of human life in the UK, Dr. Sophy Charlton, postdoctoral researcher at the School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, explained: “There would have been significant climate warming, increases in the amount of forest and changes in the type of animals available to hunt.”

While working at the Natural History Museum, Dr. Charlton was part of a collaborative research project that successfully sequenced DNA obtained from Palaeolithic human remains – the first study of its kind. The remains belonged to two individuals, a male and a female, that were excavated from Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales, and Gough’s Cave in Somerset.

Gough’s Cave and Kendrick’s Cave facts

Gough’s Cave is found in Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, UK. It comprises a number of chambers and rock formations, and is the location where “Cheddar Man”, a famous ancient skeleton, was discovered in 1903. Researchers initially proposed that Cheddar Man might be 40,000–80,000 years-old, the “earliest Englishman” discovered to date. Radiocarbon dating disagreed, placing Cheddar Man at the site approximately 10,000 years ago.

Kendrick’s Cave is found in Llandudno, Wales in the UK. In the 19th century it became a site of
archaeological importance when ancient animal and human remains were discovered that date from as early as the Paleolithic period.

DNA sequencing unravels human history

Radiocarbon dating, DNA extraction and sequencing showed that the female from Gough’s Cave died ~15,000 years ago, and that her ancestors were involved in a migration into Northwestern Europe ~16,000 years ago.

The male from Kendrick’s Cave died around ~13,500 years ago, and his ancestry is believed to be from a western hunter-gatherer group that migrated from the Near East to Britain ~14,000 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,” said Dr. Mateja Hajdinjak, postdoctoral research fellow in the Skoglund lab for Ancient Genomics at the Francis Crick Institute, and co-author of the study.

Understanding ancient human migrations using DNA analysis  

The migrations of the populations from which the male and female were derived occurred after the last ice age, when Britain was covered by glaciers. As temperatures increased and the glaciers melted, the environment shifted and humans began to migrate into Northern Europe.

Insights into ancient human life

In addition to the genetic analyses conducted, information relating to the culture of the two ancient individuals was gathered. “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,” said Dr. Rhiannon Stevens, associate professor at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL, said. “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.”

At Kendrick’s Cave, ancient pieces of art have been excavated, including a decorated horse jaw. As there were no animal bones retrieved that showed evidence of human consumption, the researchers believe the artifacts suggest the cave was used as a burial ground.

Over at Gough’s Cave, excavated bones were found that had been “modified”, including a cup formed from a human skull. The team hypothesize that this is evidence of cannibalism.

The study further demonstrates the utility of ancient DNA analysis in understanding human history. “We really wanted to find out more about who these early populations in Britain might have been,” said Dr. Selina Brace, principal researcher at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the paper. “We knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Man, that western hunter-gatherers were in Britain by around 10,500 years ago, but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and whether this was the only population that was present.”

Reference: Charlton S, Brace S, Hajdinjak M, et al. Dual ancestries and ecologies of the Late Glacial Palaeolithic in Britain. Nature Ecology & Evolution. 2022. doi: 10.1038/s41559-022-01883-z.

This article is a rework of a press release issued by University College London. Material has been edited for length and content.

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Molly Campbell
Molly Campbell
Senior Science Writer