Oldest human DNA found in UK reveals origins of early Britons

Teeth and bones from Kendrick's Cave in North Wales.

Human remains from Kendrick’s Cave, from which DNA was recently extracted.
Image: R.Stevens

Researchers investigating ancient remains found in England and Wales have determined they contain some of the oldest human DNA ever obtained in the UK. DNA indicates that Britain was occupied by two unrelated groups, which scientists believe migrated to the island at the end of the last Ice Age.

“Finding the two ancestors so close in time in Britain, only about a millennium apart, adds to the emerging picture of [Paleolithic] Europe, which is part of a changing and dynamic population,” said Mateja Hajdinjak, an ancient DNA geneticist at the Francis Crick Institute, University College London. Release. The search is published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The team examined DNA from the remains of two individuals, found in caves in England and Wales. The English remains are around 15,000 years old, while the Welsh remains are around 13,500 years old. The oldest remains were found in Gough’s Cave, Somerset, and the most recent remains were found in Kendrick’s Cave in Wales.

When these people were alive, Britain was attached to mainland Europe by a now submerged land bridge called Doggerland. As the climate warmed and glaciers melted, sea levels rose, cutting off the island.

Both remains date to the late Pleistocene, the era characterized by Neanderthals and woolly mammoths that ended with the conclusion of the last Ice Age around 12,000 years ago.

DNA sequencing and comparison with previously analyzed DNA from West and North Eurasia Africa revealed individuals stories. The ancestors of the Gough’s Cave individual arrived from northwestern Europe during a migration about 16,000 years ago, while tThe Kendrick’s Cave individual appears to have descended of a group of Western hunter-gatherers who arrived in Britain around 14,000 years ago from the Near East.

A facial fragment from Gough's Cave.

Besides sequencing the DNA of two people, the researchers also performed chemical analyzes of other bones and teeth found at the sites. Those who lived near Kendrick’s Cave likely ate marine and freshwater foods, while those in Gough’s Cave survived on land mammals like aurochs and red deer.

Gough’s Cave is also where Cheddar Man’s remains were found. Cheddar Man was a lactose intolerant person who died in his twenties around 10,000 years ago, whose remains were discovered in 1903.

“We knew from our previous work, including the Cheddar Man study, that Western hunter-gatherers were in Britain around 10,500 years ago. [before present]but we didn’t know when they first arrived in Britain, and if that was the only population there,” said study co-author Selina Brace, a paleobiologist at the British Natural History Museum, in the same Release.

The groups in the two caves also had different cultural practices. Decorated animal bones – and no bones with signs of consumption – indicated that the cave in Wales was used primarily for burial rather than occupancy. Meanwhile, chewed bones and skulls fashioned into cups in Gough’s Cave indicate that his the inhabitants were ritual cannibals.

Much remains to be deciphered about when people arrived in Britain and how these ancient populations interacted, but the new research gives us clues about the origins of two early groups.

More: Iron Age settlement with large round houses and Roman trinkets found in UK

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