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Ancient DNA in Britain reveals post-ice age population diversity

The two sets of DNA are the oldest to be discovered in Britain, and correspond with other ancestries documented throughout continental Europe.

(CN) — As massive ice sheets began to recede from Europe after the Last Glacial Maximum around 20,000 years ago, human populations began to expand into areas previously covered by unwelcoming glaciers and polar deserts. Several DNA samples of these human populations have been discovered and studied throughout continental Europe, and now researchers present findings from samples found in Britain.

Researchers investigated two ancient genomes found in separate caves in the United Kingdom, publishing their findings in a study released Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Lead author Sophy Charlton of the University of Oxford and colleagues say that these sets of DNA represent two diverse and genetically distinct groups that lived at the end of the ice age in Britain.

“Substantial ecological and environmental change took place in the post-Last Glacial Maximum landscape. As such, Britain offers a unique environmental context through which Late Upper Paleolithic populations can be considered,” the study contends.

The study looks at individuals believed to have lived during the end of the Late Glacial period, a time where habitable land began to be uncovered, allowing for animals and humans to begin occupying new areas. The study compared the alleles of two unrelated individuals discovered in two caves sites in the United Kingdom to alleles previously studied from continental Europe. In addition to the genealogical work, researchers also used isotopic analysis and artifacts found at the sites to help determine the dietary and funerary practices of their respective populations.

Gough’s Cave in Somerset in southwest England contained remains from roughly 14,800 years ago. The remains were of a woman with ancestry that matched those from the Magdalenian culture, which had been previously recognized in genomes recovered from the Goyet remains in Belgium and the El Miron remains in Spain. Separately, a male individual found in Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales, dated to about 1,000 years after the Gough’s Cave remains, showed a link to Villabruna ancestry, previously documented in Italy.

The researchers also established that beyond being temporally and genealogically distinct from each other, the two individuals had diverse practices in their lifetimes. Analysis showed that the Gough’s Cave individual would have consumed mostly terrestrial herbivores, as opposed to the Kendrick’s Cave individual who showed evidence of a marine-based diet. Archaeological evidence also indicated distinct mortuary practices in line with information from each population’s continental Europe counterparts: evidence toward secondary manipulation of the remains and even possible cannibalistic ritual were found in Gough’s Cave, but possible art items were discovered at Kendrick’s cave, which has been interpreted as a deliberate burial site.

According to the researchers, the diversity between the two sets of remains indicates “the emerging scenario is one of multiple genetic population turnover events in the United Kingdom. This can be seen to reflect a dynamic, changing population throughout British early prehistory and which mirrors the events seen across continental Europe.”

However, Chantal Conneller, professor of prehistory at Newcastle University, cautions against simplistically correlating genetic evidence with any sociocultural populations of the Late Glacial period.

“Above all, Britain represents a rather particular situation: it is a marginal area that was intermittently occupied, sometimes on a seasonal basis, and sometimes abandoned entirely. In an area without population continuity, it would perhaps be more surprising if two of these occasional visitors, separated in time by around a millennium, were characterized by similar practices,” she writes in a News & Views article accompanying Charlton's study.

Conneller explains that while the findings may demonstrate a deeper understanding of the Gough’s and Kendrick’s Cave individuals, the small sample size and difference in geographic area preclude any conclusions about the presence of these early human populations in Britain in relation to wider-scale implications about population movement.

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