Groundbreaking new research has examined the genetic composition of two Palaeolithic individuals – one from Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme in Wales, and the other from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. They are dated to the Late Glacial period, which occurred between 20,000 and 13,000 years ago, making them the oldest human remains to be successfully sequenced for aDNA in Britain. This research was conducted by a collaborative team led by Sophy Charlton from the University of Oxford and University of York, Selina Brace from the Natural History Museum, and Mateja Hajdinjak from the Francis Crick Institute, and was recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-022-01883-z). Intriguingly, they found that these two individuals did not share any genetic ancestry, suggesting that they came from two completely separate populations.
This is an exciting milestone for British archaeology, showing that it is indeed possible to obtain genetic information from some of the oldest human remains in Britain, but let’s broaden out the picture for a moment. Over on the Continent, previous studies undertaken on Palaeolithic remains have already identified at least two separate ancestries, which appear to have coexisted. One was first identified in a man from Goyet Caves in modern-day Belgium (known as Goyet Q2) who died c.15,090 years ago, and the other from a man from Villabruna, Italy, who died c.14,010 years ago. The Goyet Q2 ancestry was subsequently found in even earlier remains, in the form of a woman from El Mirón Cave in Spain who died c.18,700 years ago (she was found also to have a small proportion of Villabruna ancestry). But it has also been identified in remains more contemporaneous with the Goyet Q2 man, including those found near Rigney in France as well as at Hohle Fels and Brillenhöhle in the Swabian Jura mountain range in Germany.
Meanwhile, the Villabruna ancestry – more broadly known as Western Hunter Gatherers (WHG) – has been identified in remains found at the Rochedane rock-shelter near Montbéliard and at the Grotte du Bichon, both in modern-day France. The Grotte du Bichon individual had a small proportion of Goyet Q2 ancestry as well, though, and by the end of the Late Glacial period and the beginning of the Holocene (the period after the most recent Ice Age) we start to see even more admixture between the two ancestries (in southern Europe at least), as evidenced by two individuals with an almost 50:50 ratio found at Balma Guilanya rock-shelter in the Pyrenees.
So how do the newly sequenced British individuals described at the start of this story fit into the larger genetic picture? It appears that the DNA from the Gough’s Cave individual – who was determined to be genetically female – aligns most closely with the Goyet Q2 genetic cluster. Additionally, her mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA, inherited down the maternal line) was defined by the U8a haplogroup, which is also found in the individuals from Goyet, Hohle Fels, and Brillenhöhle. Based on burial practices and artefacts, all these individuals appear to fit into the Magdalenian hunter-gatherer culture (which emerged at the end of the last Ice Age and is well documented in continental Europe, though its members seem to have left fewer archaeological footprints in Britain – see CA 372). This genetic cluster seems to predominately date to c.19,000-14,000 years ago.
In contrast, the Kendrick’s Cave individual – who has been identified as genetically male – is more closely aligned with Villabruna (WHG) ancestry, a cluster that seems to largely date to c.14,000-7,000 years ago, although it must have earlier origins, as a small proportion appears in the woman from El Mirón described above. This is the first time Villabruna (or WHG) ancestry has been identified in Britain prior to the start of the Holocene. Interestingly, the Kendrick’s Cave man also appears to fit into the U5a2 haplogroup, in common with most British Mesolithic individuals.
On the whole, then, by the time of the Mesolithic, the Goyet Q2 ancestry appears to have largely faded from Britain, and had been replaced by individuals more closely related to Villabruna ancestry. The major exception to this pattern is Cheddar Man, who was also recovered from Gough’s Cave. He appears to have 84.6% Villabruna-related ancestry and 15.4% Goyet-related ancestry. Overall, this new study adds to evidence indicating that the period after the Late Glacial Maximum (c.20,000 year ago), which was defined by a warming climate, was a time of population expansion and, ultimately, diversification. As ever, though, more data points are needed to be able better to understand where these two ancestries originated, how they evolved, and when they expanded into (and ultimately faded from) Britain.