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DNA from Llandudno body reveals history of ice age migration to British Isles

24 Oct 2022 4 minute read
The Great Orme, Llandudno. Picture by Mike Gentry (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The oldest human DNA data obtained on the British Isles, including from a body in Wales, shows that two very distinct groups migrated there at the end of the last ice age.

Researchers examined the DNA from a man from Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme, Llandudno, as well as the DNA of a woman from Gough’s Cave, Somerset, where the famous Cheddar Man was discovered.

In the study, the DNA from the woman at Gough’s Cave showed she died about 15,000 years ago and suggests her ancestors were part of an initial migration into north-west Europe around 16,000 years ago.

However, the man from Kendrick’s Cave, Llandudno is from a later period, around 13,500 years ago, with his ancestors being part of a western hunter-gatherer group that migrated to Britain around 14,000 years ago.

This first genetic data from Palaeolithic humans suggests the groups differed in what they ate and how they lived, and reinforces that the group found in present-day England took part in cannibalism.

Study co-author Dr Rhiannon Stevens, from the UCL Institute of Archaeology, said: “Chemical analyses of the bones showed that the individuals from Kendrick’s Cave ate a lot of marine and freshwater foods, including large marine mammals.

“Humans at Gough’s Cave, however, showed no evidence of eating marine and freshwater foods, and primarily ate terrestrial herbivores such as red deer, bovids (such as wild cattle called aurochs) and horses.”

The researchers said the discovery of items such as a decorated horse jawbone at Kendrick’s Cave suggests the cave was used as a burial site.

In contrast, animal and human bones found in Gough’s Cave have shown that some human skulls were modified into ‘skull-cups’, suggesting evidence for ritualistic cannibalism.

‘Old stone age’

The study, from the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, the Natural History Museum and the Francis Crick Institute, used radiocarbon dating, a common method for dating materials, as well as DNA extraction and sequencing to look at the skeletal material from more than 13,500 years ago.

The researchers said their findings mean these genome sequences now represent the earliest chapter of the genetic history of Britain, though ancient DNA and proteins could take things back even further.

The new study also revealed that Cheddar Man, who was discovered in 1903, had a mixture of ancestries, mostly (85%) western hunter-gatherer and some (15%) of the older type.

Dr Mateja Hajdinjak, from the Francis Crick Institute and co-author on the study, said: “Finding the two ancestries so close in time in Britain, only a millennium or so apart, is adding to the emerging picture of Palaeolithic Europe, which is one of a changing and dynamic population.”

The migrations described in the new study occurred after the last ice age, when around two-thirds of Britain was covered by glaciers.

As the climate warmed up and the glaciers melted, humans began to move back into northern Europe.

Study co-author Dr Sophy Charlton, who undertook the study while working at the Natural History Museum, said: “The period we were interested in, from 20-10,000 years ago, is part of the Palaeolithic – the Old Stone Age.

“This is an important time period for the environment in Britain, as there would have been significant climate warming, increases in the amount of forest and changes in the type of animals available to hunt.”

To date, very few skeletons of this age have been discovered in Britain, with around 12 across six different geographical sites.

The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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Y Cymro
Y Cymro
1 year ago

Extremely interesting findings. I’d like also to see DNA information regarding the Red Lady of Paviland cave (male) that’s the oldest modern human burial in Western Europe dating back to 34,000 years that was found in the Gower peninsular way back in 1823 by William Buckland. I’m aware some chemical analysis of the bones have been taken and the results show that the young male were born & lived in the Gower area of what is now South Wales and is the earliest human in Britain and effectively is the first Welshman. And I suppose seeing most of the Northern… Read more »

Ivor Schilling
Ivor Schilling
1 year ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

Now that’s what I call deep roots.

But how does the fact that “some human skulls were modified into ‘skull-cups'” thereby suggest evidence of ‘ritual cannibalism’? Struggling to make the link there. Surely not a deliberate slur against the aboriginals of these islands?

Kerry Davies
Kerry Davies
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivor Schilling

How you get from the existence of skull cups to the practice of cannibalism is an interesting speculative leap that says most about the fevered brain making the leap. Many societies keep the skulls of their forebears and nobody accuses them of “granny eating”.

As for dietary differences the Paviland Red Lady lived many miles from the sea so his diet had no maritime components. The question is; how far would the residents of Cheddar need to walk to avail themselves of a Great Orme type diet?

Ivor Schilling
Ivor Schilling
1 year ago
Reply to  Kerry Davies

People should be excused any degree of paranoia from Welsh people on any such matters. We are used to it, are we not?

Found this, which is interesting though:

1 year ago
Reply to  Y Cymro

“….is the earliest human in Britain and effectively is the first Welshman.”
!!! cough!

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