The First Recovered Genome Of A European Hunter-Gatherer Shows They Had Blue Eyes, Dark Skin

By Ajit Jha on January 26, 2014 5:42 PM EST

La Brana 1
For the first time, researchers have recovered the genome of a European hunter-gatherer who lived nearly 7,000 years ago, and found that the individual had some contrasting traits. (Photo: PELOPANTON / CSIC)

Researchers from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) have, for the first time, recovered the genome of a European hunter-gatherer. The 7,000-year-old bones were from an individual who lived during the Mesolithic area, and scientists named him (or her) La Braña 1, after the cave that the bones were found in. The study was published in Nature.

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In 2006, it was a chance discovery that led Julio Manuel Vidal Encinas, archaeologist of the Council of Castilla y León to the cave, La Braña-Arintero. The cave's steady temperature and depth of 1,500 meters below sea level contributed to the "exceptional" preservation of La Braña 1's DNA. Aside from La Braña 1, the excavators also found other remains, which they named La Braña 2.

The Mesolithic phase of pre-civilization covers a period between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, and culminates with arrival of agriculture and livestock from the Middle East. The subsequent Neolithic period was characterized by a carbohydrate-based diet, along with the emergence of new pathogens from domesticated animals. These changes entailed metabolic and immunological challenges that caused certain genetic adaptations like the ability to digest lactose. These genetic changes are not evident in the 7,000-year-old La Braña 1.

While Mesolithic characteristics in La Braña 1 were as expected, the biggest surprise, according to Carles Lalueza-Fox, a researcher from CSIC, "was to discover that this individual possessed African versions in the genes that determine the light pigmentation of the current Europeans, which indicates that he had dark skin," he said in a statement.

The researchers, however, could not determine La Braña 1's exact shade. The researchers were also surprised to find that that La Braña 1 had blue eyes, a European trait.

The team's work is not done, however, and their intention "is to try to recover the genome of the individual called La Braña 2, which is worse preserved, in order to keep obtaining information about the genetic characteristics of these early Europeans," said Iñigo Olalde, lead author of the study, in the statement.

It is evident from the genome study that La Braña 1 resembles populations from Sweden and Finland in northern Europe. The research has also brought to light a common ancestor of La Braña 1 in the settlers of the Upper Paleolithic site of Mal'ta, whose genomes were recovered recently in Siberia. 

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