Europe was no balmy paradise during the Ice Age, with the vast glaciers that blanketed large parts of the continent rendering wide swathes inhospitable for humans. But our species – a new immigrant to Europe – endured, though with great hardship.
Researchers on Wednesday (Mar 1) unveiled an analysis of genome data from 356 hunter-gatherers who lived in the region between 35,000 and 5,000 years ago, a span that included the Ice Age’s coldest interval between 25,000 and 19,000 years ago. This enabled them to decipher prehistoric Europe’s population dynamics, including the movement of groups of people and some key physical traits.
While some populations hunkered down and survived in relatively warmer parts of Europe, including France, Spain and Portugal, others died out on the Italian peninsula, the study showed. It also provided insight into the advent of characteristics such as light skin and blue eyes in Europeans.
“It is the largest ancient genomic dataset of European hunter-gatherers ever produced,” said paleogeneticist Cosimo Posth of the University of Tübingen in Germany, lead author of the study published in the journal Nature.
“It refreshes our knowledge of how human beings survived the Ice Age,” added paleogeneticist and study co-author He Yu of Peking University in China.
Europe had been the domain of the Neanderthals, our robust and large-browed cousins, but they went extinct roughly 40,000 years ago once our species, Homo sapiens, established a firm foothold on the continent. Homo sapiens arose roughly 300,000 years ago in Africa, then spread worldwide, reaching Europe at least 45,000 years ago.
Various groups of hunter-gatherers roamed the European landscape, hunted large mammals including woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos and reindeer, and collected edible plants. During the Ice Age’s coldest period, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, ice sheets called continental glaciers covered half of Europe, with much of the rest in tundra conditions with frozen subsoil.