Ice Age Europe: More Dramatic Than You Thought

From the Washington Post:

Take Ice Age Europe, for example. A new study of genetic material from the period reveals a continent roiling with change.

First, an upstart band of modern humans arrived, slowly pushing their ancient predecessors out of existence. But soon that new lineage was swept aside by a group of big game hunters. For the next 15,000 years, the older community lay in wait in a remote corner of the continent before bursting back onto the scene. The usurpers were overturned, and history barreled forward. And all of this happened against a backdrop of dramatic environmental change — waves of cold and heat that sent glaciers surging back and forth across the continent.

This reconstruction is based on DNA taken from 51 ancient humans. Is it accurate? Who knows? More:

Radiocarbon dating pegs the Goyet individual at some 35,000 years old, making him a likely member of the Aurignacian culture. These stone toolmakers produced the oldest known example of human figurative art — a 40,000-year-old figurine called the “Venus of Hohle Fels” — as well as countless cave paintings.

Goyet guy’s DNA is also strikingly similar to many modern Europeans’. Does this mean that his family were the final colonizers of the continent?

Not quite. Around 1,000 years after the Goyet individual was found, a new culture swept through Europe: the Gravettians. … The Gravettians’ DNA was significantly different from their Aurignacian predecessors, suggesting that they were a completely separate lineage.

Goyet guy’s descendants retreated to the Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) and waited for their time to come again.

It did, some 15,000 years later. Probably spurred by climate changes as glaciers began to recede, this dormant lineage expanded back into the rest of Europe, bearing a new culture known as Magdalenian. Not long after that, their genomes started to look like those of people from the Middle East and the Caucasus, suggesting that new arrivals from the southeast were mingling with — and in some cases supplanting — the existing population.

It’s fascinating stuff. As reconstructed, these people looked pretty much like us:


Humans apparently lived through the last interglacial warm period prior to the present one, but they left little trace. Human civilization has pretty much all developed during the current interglacial period, roughly the last 12,000 years. The roots of our culture lie in the last Ice Age, which perhaps explains something about us.