Genomes of the earliest Europeans


Share post:

Last year, a research team led by researchers from the National Institute of Archaeology with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany, reported the discovery of modern human remains found in direct association with the Initial Upper Palaeolithic stone tools at the site of Bacho Kiro Cave in Bulgaria. The oldest individuals found in the cave were directly radiocarbon dated to between 43,000 and 46,000 years ago. They are thus the earliest known dispersal of modern humans across the mid-latitudes of Eurasia.

Genomes of the earliest Europeans
The Niche 1 sector (left) and the Main sector (right) during the excavations of Bacho Kiro Cave,
 Bulgaria, in 2016. The cement area in the foreground was previously excavated
in the 1970s. New excavations picked up where these excavations left off
[Credit: © MPI-EVA/Nikolay Zaheriev]

Mateja Hajdinjak and colleagues have now sequenced the genomes of five individuals found at the Bacho Kiro Cave. Four individuals are between 43,000 to 46,000-years-old and were found together with stone tools belonging to the Initial Upper Palaeolithic, the earliest culture associated with modern humans in Eurasia. An additional individual found in the cave is around 35,000-years-old and found with stone tools of a later type. It was previously thought that bearers of the Initial Upper Palaeolithic died out without contributing genetically to modern humans arriving later. 

However, the researchers now show that the oldest Bacho Kiro Cave individuals, or groups closely related to them, contributed genes to present-day people. Surprisingly, this contribution is found particularly in East Asia and the Americas rather than in Europe where the Bacho Kiro Cave people lived. These genetic links to Asia mirror the links seen between the Initial Upper Palaeolithic stone tools and personal ornaments found in Bacho Kiro Cave and tools and ancient jewelry found across Eurasia to Mongolia.

Genetic differences between individuals

Importantly, the later 35,000-year-old individual found in Bacho Kiro Cave belonged to a group that was genetically distinct from the earlier inhabitants of the cave. This shows that the earliest history of modern humans in Europe may have been tumultuous and involved population replacements.

Genomes of the earliest Europeans
Second lower molar of a modern human found in Bacho Kiro Cave in the Main sector
 associated with the Initial Upper Palaeolithic stone tools. Genome-wide data from
this individual indicates that he had a Neanderthal ancestor less than six generations
before he lived. Another human fragment from the same individual was
 found in the Layer I in the Niche 1 area of the cave
[Credit: © MPI-EVA/Rosen Spasov]

The earliest people at Bacho Kiro Cave lived at a time when Neanderthals were still around. The researchers therefore scanned their genomes for fragments of Neanderthal DNA.  ”We found that the Bacho Kiro Cave individuals had higher levels of Neanderthal ancestry than nearly all other early humans, with the exception of a 40,000-year-old individual from Romania. Crucially, most of this Neanderthal DNA comes in extremely long stretches. This shows that these individuals had Neanderthal ancestors some five to seven generations back in their family trees” says Mateja Hajdinjak.

Although only a handful of genomes from modern humans who lived at the same time in Eurasia as some of the last Neanderthals have been recovered, nearly all of them have recent Neanderthal ancestors. “The results suggest that the first modern humans that arrived in Eurasia mixed frequently with Neanderthals. They may even have become absorbed into resident Neanderthal populations. Only later on did larger modern human groups arrive and replace the Neanderthals” says Svante Pääbo, who coordinated the genetic research.

The findings are published in the journal Nature.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft [April 07, 2021]

Support The Archaeology News Network with a small donation!



Related articles

8,000-year-old shattered skull not due to cannibalism

The shattered skull of a hunter who lived about 8,000 years ago isn’t evidence of cannibalism, as scientists...

Leprosy DNA extracted from medieval skeletons in Denmark

The Danish medieval town of Odense is the final resting place for hundreds of people who died with...

Volunteers find 560,000-year-old milk tooth in France

French and Spanish volunteer archaeologists have discovered a child's milk tooth dating back 560,000 years in the mountains...

Religion is a potent force for cooperation and conflict

Across history and cultures, religion increases trust within groups but also may increase conflict with other groups, according...

Denisovan DNA in the genome of early East Asians

In 2006, miners discovered a hominin skullcap with peculiar morphological features in the Salkhit Valley of the Norovlin...

Primate evolution in the fast lane

The pace of evolution is typically measured in millions of years, as random, individual mutations accumulate over generations,...

The evolutionary benefit of human personality traits

Bold and outgoing or shy and retiring -- while many people can shift from one to the other...

‘Humanlike’ thought evolved 1.8 million years ago

By using highly advanced brain imaging technology to observe modern humans crafting ancient tools, an Indiana University neuroarchaeologist...