Irish-led team discovers new strand of ancient European human genome

16 Nov 2015

The remains discovered by the team. Image via Daniel Bradley/TCD

An international team led by scientists from Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and Cambridge University in the UK has discovered a new genetic strand of an ancient human European hunter-gatherer descendent.

The discovery of the ancient European human genome was by no means an easy feat given that it is considered notoriously difficult to work with ancient DNA samples as they degrade over time and often vanish before researchers are able to analyse them.

But, thankfully, the team was able to locate genomes from the remains of two individuals found in a cave in Georgia, as caves are often the best locations for DNA to be preserved in due to their cool, dry environment.

From their analysis, the genomes discovered in the Georgian caves show the pair lived in the Caucasus thousands of years apart, 13,300 and 9,700 years ago.

And now it appears that among the genomes sequenced is the first ever sequencing of one from the Late Upper Palaeolithic period with the results published today (16 November) in Nature Communications.

The entrance to the Satsurblia Cave in Georgia where the remains was discovered.  Image via Daniel Bradley/TCD

The entrance to the Satsurblia Cave in Georgia where the remains was discovered. Image via Daniel Bradley/TCD

To put into terms the life that these people would have led, their existence as hunter-gatherers would have been shortly after the melting of the ice sheets that followed the ending of the Ice Age and thousands of years before humans began organised agriculture.

“This new lineage diverged from western European hunter-gatherers around the time of the first migrations of early modern humans into Europe about 45,000 years ago and from the ancestors of early farmers around the time of the glacial maximum, 25,000 years ago,” said Andrea Manica of Cambridge University who was involved in the study.

However, the long isolation of the Caucasus strand of ancestry from other European components ended in the Bronze Age when it swept into Europe carried by horse-borne Steppe herders.

But while it is associated with the earliest European humans, this particular strand influenced human development further east in central and south Asia, where this strand of ancestry may have flowed in with the bringers of Indo-Aryan languages.

The lead researcher for the TCD team, Prof Daniel Bradley, said of the discovery: “This is a major new piece in the human ancestry jigsaw, the influence of which is now present within almost all populations from the European continent and many beyond.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic