UK’s oldest human DNA sheds light on the recolonisation of post-Ice Age Britain

Findings show that there were at least two genetically distinct Late Upper Palaeolithic populations present in Britain after the last Ice Age, around 15,000 years ago.

For the first time, genetic data has been obtained from the remains of humans that lived in Palaeolithic Britain.

The DNA is the oldest recovered from the British Isles thus far.

The study was conducted by a team of researchers from the Natural History Museum (NHM), University College London (UCL), and the Francis Crick Institute.

Human jawbone from Kendrick’s Cave, North Wales, dated to approximately 13,600 years ago. Photograph: Rhiannon Stevens

‘We knew from our previous work, including the study of Cheddar Man, that western hunter-gatherers were in Britain by around 10,500 years BC,’ said Dr Selina Brace, a principal researcher at NHM, ‘but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and whether this was the only population that was present.’

Genetic analyses were conducted on the remains of a female individual from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, and a male individual from Kendrick’s Cave in North Wales. They were then dated using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS).

According to the findings, which have been published in full in Nature Ecology and Evolution, there were at least two genetically distinct Late Upper Palaeolithic populations present in Britain after the last Ice Age, when the climate warmed and the glaciers covering much of the European landscape melted.

‘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,’ explained Professor Ian Barnes of the NHM.

This group appears to be associated with the Magdalenian culture.

Professor Barnes added: ‘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.’

Isotopic analysis also revealed that the individual from Kendrick’s Cave enjoyed a diet rich in marine and freshwater foods, whereas the group at Gough’s Cave appear to have consumed mostly terrestrial herbivores such as red deer and aurochs.

Additionally, whilst Kendrick’s Caves appears to have served only as a burial place, the faunal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave show signs of modification, including human skulls shaped into ‘skull-cups’ which may represent evidence of cannibalism.

Look out for further coverage of this exciting study in an upcoming issue of Current Archaeology.