Hunter-gatherers resettled central Europe from southwest 18,000 years ago

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Reconstruction of a hunter-gatherer of the Gravettian culture (32,000 to 24,000
Reconstruction of a hunter-gatherer of the Gravettian culture (32,000 to 24,000 years ago), inspired by the archaeological finds at the Arene Candide site (Italy). Photo: Tom Bjoerklund
International research team creates largest genome analysis of ice-age ancestors to date

Who resettled Central Europe after the last ice age when the ice sheets were at their greatest? This has been a topic of debate for over 100 years. Now an international research team led by the University of Tübingen and including the University of Göttingen, has conclusively proved the genetic history of European ancestors using the largest genome data set of European hunter-gatherers ever compiled. Previous hypotheses about the population history of early modern humans were mainly based on archaeological finds. However, this research reveals the actual settlement processes and interactions of the ice-age and post-glacial hunter-gatherer societies in Europe. The results were published in Nature.

To make this discovery, 125 scientists worked together to analyse the genomes of 356 prehistoric individuals from different archaeological cultures, including new genome data sets from 116 individuals from 14 different European and Central Asian countries. Since 2016, research in Prehistory and Early History at the University of Göttingen together with researchers in Poland has made available important human remains from the Late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods in northern Germany and Poland. One significant result is the striking genetic similarity between human remains around 18,000 years old from south-western Europe and those from the Maszycka Cave in southern Poland.

"This confirms the results of previous archaeological research," explains Professor Thomas Terberger, University of Göttingen and Lower Saxony State Office for Heritage. "It was the people from the Magdalenian cultures, known for their cave paintings in Lascaux and Altamira, who colonised Central Europe from the southwest after the retreat of the glaciers. They established their settlements in the low mountain zone between the Rhine and the Oder over the next 3,500 years."

About 14,000 years ago, the warming at the end of the Ice Age brought about a population change that gave rise to the hunter-gatherer population of the post-glacial period. The University of Göttingen has been carrying out research with partners and in collaboration with the Brandenburg State Archaeology Department at a burial site that is around 8,000 years old in Groß Fredenwalde in the region of Uckermark in northern Germany. A number of individuals from this burial site characterise the population in appearance: they had dark skin and blue or green eyes. "These individuals correspond to the typical Mesolithic indigenous population of Central Europe," says Terberger. "Interactions between the individuals from Groß Fredenwalde and the hunter-gatherer communities in Eastern Europe are shown in their genes and this is the first time that this has been detected. The Eastern European community then differed in external appearance as they had lighter skin and dark eyes." The Baltic Sea formed during this time and this probably promoted an increase in east-west contacts.

And there was yet another surprise at the burial site in Groß Fredenwalde: a young man buried around 5,000 BC, who lived in Brandenburg at the same time as early farmers from south-eastern Europe and certainly had contact with the settlers from time to time, shows no sign of genetic mixing. "The late hunter-gatherers and early farmers in Brandenburg had been in contact for generations before 7,000 years ago, but they obviously did not share their bread and beds," says Terberger.

This research was made possible thanks to the Volkswagen Foundation that funded the project "Climate Change and Early Humans in the North" and the German Research Foundation (DFG) that funded "The Mesolithic Burial Site of Groß Fredenwalde (Brandenburg) - Late Hunter-Gatherers in a Changing World".

Original publication: Cosimo Posth et al. Paleogenomics of Upper Paleolithic to Neolithic European hunter-gatherers. Nature 2023.’023 -05726-0