37,000-year-old bone reveals surprising connection between Ancient and Modern Europeans
A genetic analysis of a 37,000-year-old human bone from Russia has revealed a surprising genetic connection between ancient and modern Europeans. The DNA revealed close ancestry with the 24,000-year-old Mal’ta boy from central Siberia, European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, some contemporary western Siberians, and many Europeans, suggesting that a complex network of intermingling occurred across Europe over the past 50,000 years.
The new study, published today in the journal Science, sequenced the genome from one of the oldest fossils of anatomically modern humans from Europe – the shinbone of a man found in Kostenki in western Russia, which dates to between 36,200 and 38,700 years old. (The oldest yet was from the 45,000-year-old thighbone of a man found in western Siberia .)
Concentration of bones found at Kostenki 1 (photo by J.F. Hoffecker August 2008).
Kostenki (also spelled Kostyonki) is known for its high concentration of cultural remains of anatomically modern humans from the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic era. Years of excavations at Kostenki have unearthed a sophisticated took kit of prismatic blades, burins, bone antler, ivory artifacts, shell ornaments, and both human and animal remains. The discovery of a largely intact skull dating back 30,000 years was reconstructed several years ago.
Reconstruction of “Kostenki Man” from 30,000-year-old skull found at Kostenki. Created by Professor M. M. Gerasimov.
The results of the DNA analysis of the shinbone found at Kostenki revealed that genetically speaking, the individual was remarkably similar to people living in Europe today. “The findings suggests that Europe's past wasn't marked by waves of migration when people met, clashed, and mingled; rather, people arrived in a single event or as a continuous flow over millennia,” writes National Geographic .
Lead study author Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, said it appears there was a single, genetically similar population sprawling across the continent, from Russia to the Middle East to northern Europe.
"Rather than separate populations moving into each others' areas and having sex with each other," said Willerslev, "there was a single 'meta-population' having sex—or exchanging genes—in a complex and heterogeneous way." (A ‘meta-population’ is a group of distinct, separate populations that regularly mixed, grew and fragmented.)
The findings reveal that Europe has been a ‘melting pot’ for tens of thousands of years, and complicates the picture of its ancient past.
Featured image: Excavations at Kostenki. Credit: Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research