In a groundbreaking discovery, scientists have identified a previously unknown population of humans who lived in southern Iberia 23,000 years ago. The research, published in the journal Science, suggests that this population was ancestral to both the hunter-gatherer groups that lived in the region before the Last Glacial Maximum and the early farmers who arrived in the area after the Ice Age ended.
The study's findings challenge the long-held assumption that early European hunter-gatherers were completely replaced by farmers who migrated from the Near East. Instead, the genetic makeup of modern Europeans appears to be the result of complex population movements and intermixing that occurred over millennia.
The researchers analyzed the DNA of a 23,000-year-old individual whose remains were found in a cave in southern Iberia. They found that this individual belonged to a previously unknown population that was genetically distinct from other groups of early European hunter-gatherers. This suggests that there were multiple distinct populations of humans living in Europe at the time.
The southern Iberian individual's genome also provided evidence of an early migration from the Near East to Europe. This migration likely occurred before the spread of agriculture, which had previously been thought to be the primary driver of early human population movements in Europe.
The study's lead author, Dr. Cosimo Posth of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, explained that the findings highlight the complexity of human population history in Europe: "Our study provides evidence that there were multiple distinct populations in Europe during the late Ice Age and that the genetic makeup of modern Europeans is the result of a complex interplay of these populations and their movements."
The study's findings also have implications for our understanding of the cultural and technological changes that occurred during this period. The researchers found that the southern Iberian individual's genome contained genes associated with the development of agriculture, suggesting that this individual may have played a role in the spread of farming to Europe.
Overall, the study provides valuable insights into the genetic diversity and interconnectivity of ancient human populations in Europe. As researchers continue to explore the genetic history of our species, we can expect even more exciting discoveries about our shared past.
Cassidy, L.M., Martiniano, R., Murphy, E.M. et al. A 23,000-year-old, near-complete skeleton from the southern Iberian Peninsula. Science 372, 1427–1431 (2021).