A proud lineage with a history stretching back thousands of years is swept aside by newcomers from the south-east – only to rise to dominance once more 15,000 years later.
It’s not the plotline of some fantasy epic, but the real story of prehistoric Europe in the years after modern humans conquered the continent – as a new genetic analysis has just revealed.
We know that modern humans first arrived in Europe about 45,000 years ago when the. Over the next 30,000 years – archaeological work has revealed – a procession of different cultures, each associated with different artefacts and lifestyles, rose in Europe.
Archaeologists tend to think these sort of cultural shifts reflect the spread of new ideas through an unchanging population. But a new analysis of nuclear DNA taken from 51 ancient Eurasians tells a different story. They actually reflected the spread of different peoples.
The. This culture produced fine bone and stone tools, and some of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful art – for instance at in southern France.
And later, at the height of the Ice Age about 19,000 years ago, yet another culture swept across west and central Europe. Thisis famous for its reindeer hunts and for its artwork, carved into bones and antlers.
One of the oldest individuals examined by at Harvard Medical School in Boston and his colleagues is represented by a thigh bone found at a site called Goyet cave in Belgium. Radiocarbon dating shows it is 35,000 years old, meaning the Goyet individual is associated with the Aurignacian industry.
Reich and his colleagues also looked at DNA from 14 Gravettians from across central and southern Europe. They turned out to belong to a branch of the European family tree that is entirely different from that of the Goyet individual.
In other words, the Aurignacians were pushed aside by an expanding wave of Gravettians.
“It is exciting and striking how a relatively homogeneous population sweeps across large parts of Europe between 33,000 and 26,000 years ago, displacing the populations that were there before,” says Reich.
But that’s not the full story. The genetic analysis also looked at six Magdalenians: they are descendants of the displaced Aurignacians.
This is a real surprise, says team member Cosimo Posth at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. It shows that the Aurignacian lineage didn’t disappear when the Gravettians swept across Europe.
“In fact from the end of the Last Glacial Maximum some 19,000 years ago, its genetic component reappeared in Spain. From then to around 14,000 years ago this nuclear signal spread in Europe again,” he says.
To put it another way, the Goyet individual’s descendants were pushed into the Iberian peninsula by the expanding wave of Gravettians – and after clinging on there for thousands of years they expanded again to occupy the lands of their ancestors, carrying the new Magdalenian culture with them.
Nicolas Zwyns at the University of California, Davis, thinks the population overturns are particularly interesting given when they do – and do not – occur. “Challenging events such as the Last Glacial Maximum, around 20,000 years ago, do not lead to massive population replacement, but instead to a bottleneck,” he says.
“The demographic history of early European populations was much more dynamic that previously thought,” says Posth.
Journal reference: Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature17993