Unique discovery in cave in southern Spain rewrites history of Europeans

by Lorraine Williamson
history of Europeans


ANDALUCIA – Two teeth from a 23,000-year-old male individual found in the cave of Malalmuerzo (Moclín, Granada) have shaken up the genetic history of ancient Europeans. 

An international team of researchers, including experts from the University of Cadiz, has analysed ancient human DNA from several archaeological sites in Andalucia. 

In the process, unique traces 23,000 years old were found in a cave in Malalmuerzo, Granada. The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, analyses the oldest genome of southern Iberia from the cave of Malalmuerzo (Granada), and genomes of early farmers 7,000-5,000 years old from other sites such as the cave of Ardales (Málaga). 

The history of Europeans

The Iberian Peninsula plays a very specific and important role in reconstructing the history of human populations. This has already been shown by several studies carried out in recent years by different scientists from the University of Cadiz.  

Due to its location in southwestern Europe, this area acts as a cul-de-sac of Eurasia and for that reason became the starting point and destination of population movements after the drastic contractions and expansions faced by Paleolithic populations before and after the last Ice Age. So important, in fact, that previous studies focusing on genomic data from hunter-gatherers in Iberia from 13,000 to 8,000 years ago have already shown that a much older Paleolithic lineage pattern has persisted than in other parts of Europe. There it has often been replaced by a new pattern. 

Link to previous findings  

The survival of DNA from ancient organisms is limited by time and climate, making the recovery of DNA from hot, dry climates a huge challenge. Andalucia has similar climatic conditions to regions in North Africa, whose record for recovering ancient DNA comes from 14,000-year-old humans from a cave in Morocco. But despite the 13-kilometre distance across the Mediterranean Sea between southern Iberia and North Africa and the presence of parallels in the archaeological data, the authors of this paper found no direct genetic links between the two regions.  

Cogesa Expats

This new research not only provides new data from regions where DNA repair is difficult, but also fills in gaps in the previous study of Paleolithic human populations. The new data allowed researchers to investigate the role of southern Iberia as a refuge for Ice Age populations. They also studied possible contacts with inhabitants across the Strait of Gibraltar during the last ice age, when sea levels were much lower than today. The 23,000-year-old individual from the Malalmuerzo cave now sheds light on human populations at a time when much of Europe was covered by huge ice sheets. 

There is also a direct genetic link between a 35,000-year-old Belgian individual and Malalmuerzo’s new genome. And even with even older inhabitants, from 45,000 years earlier. 

The role of the Iberian Peninsula in the Ice Age 

This means that the individual from Malalmuerzo’s cave is connected not only to Western European ancestors during the first moments of habitation, but also to hunter-gatherers in France and Iberia who lived long after the last ice age. Malalmuerzo’s genome supports the role of the Iberian Peninsula as “the main refuge for Paleolithic human populations during the last Ice Age.  

The end of the Ice Age 

At the end of the Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago, the weather quickly warmed up. Forests grew again and many populations returned north. 

‘The Iberian Peninsula was less affected by these new waves of migration, and we see how the inhabitants continue to retain genetic characteristics more similar to the populations that reached the Iberian Peninsula during the Upper Paleolithic,’ said one of the researchers. It proves “that human history is full of evolutionary successes and failures, and that many of them depended directly on the climatic conditions of the time and man’s ability to adapt to the environment. 

Also read: The cave of Altamira – prehistoric art

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