Archaeologists Dig up Spain’s Oldest Human Genome

Oldest Human Genome

Excavations in Cueva de Malalmuerzo. Credit: Pedro Cantalejo Credit: Pedro Cantalejo

Europe experienced a drastic change around the time of the last glacial maximum, roughly 20,000 years ago. Thick ice sheets covered the continent, resulting in sea levels that were over a hundred metres lower than they are today. However, despite these harsh conditions, early humans managed to survive by taking refuge in caves and rock shelters.

Archaeologists have recently uncovered remains from one of these caves, Cueva del Malalmuerzo near Granada in Spain, providing the oldest recorded human genome in the Andalusian region. This 23,000-year-old genome is one of the oldest on record and has been linked to a 35,000-year-old Belgian specimen found in 2016.

Despite the close proximity to North Africa, only a dozen kilometers away across the Strait of Gibraltar, researchers found no genetic connection to modern-day Moroccan lineages. The genetic material found in Cueva del Malalmuerzo is the complete set of an organism’s DNA, also known as a genome. Finding a genome is akin to discovering a box of building blocks with instructions instead of loose plastic bricks.

Oldest Human Genome

Human tooth recovered from Cueva de Malalmuerzo. Credit: Pedro Cantalejo

The preservation of genetic material for such long periods requires very specific conditions, which are not often found in hot and dry regions like south Spain and northern Africa. However, caves provide an exception to this rule, and the DNA in this particular dig was fortunately intact. The genome has allowed researchers to trace the specimen to a specific group of humans that settled in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the last Ice Age.

Researcher Wolfgang Haak describes the discovery as a remarkable finding, stating, “With Malalmuerzo, we managed to find the right place and the right time period to trace a Palaeolithic human group back to one of the proposed Ice Age refugia. It is remarkable to find such a long-lasting genetic legacy on the Iberian Peninsula, especially since this pre-Ice Age ancestry had long since disappeared in other parts of Europe.”

Interestingly, the oldest known genome originates from a female skull found in Czechia, which was identified from a 45,000-year-old skull. These discoveries provide valuable insight into the lives of our early ancestors and their ability to survive in challenging conditions.

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