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Headlines Published on 05 July 2012

Title Repopulating Europe after the Ice Age

The world was gripped in an Ice Age around 19 000 years ago, leaving large tracts cold, dry and inhospitable. Much of northern Europe was covered by ice, northern areas of what is now the United Kingdom were covered in ice, while its south was little more than a polar desert. The Ice Age, however, eventually came to an end and as the ice retreated, Europe once again began to be populated by human beings. New research drawing in expertise from the Czech Republic, Estonia, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom is giving us rare insight into how Europe became repopulated as the Ice Age ended. The findings were published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

European research is revealing the migration patterns of early Europeans during the Ice Age © Shutterstock
European research is revealing the migration patterns of early Europeans during the Ice Age
©  Shutterstock

'The end of the Last Glacial Maximum allowed people to recolonise the parts of Europe that had been deserted and this expansion allowed increase of human populations,' said lead author Sardinian-born Dr Maria Pala, who began research into the topic while at the University of Pavia in Italy before moving to the United Kingdom.

Led by Dr Pala, who is currently based at the University of Huddersfield, United Kingdom, and her team showed how the Near East was a major source of replenishment when huge areas of European territory became habitable again, up to 19 000 years ago.

The Last Glacial Maximum, or Ice Age as it is more commonly referred as, lasted for around 7 000 years. When it began some 26 000 years ago, it was thought that there were two principal safe havens for humans. They were thought to exist in a "Franco-Cantabrian" area which roughly coincides with northern Spain/southern France, and a 'Periglacial province' on the plains in the Ukraine.

By analysing large quantities of mitochondrial deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) from Europeans who belong to two major lineages — who share a common genetic ancestor — named J and T, the researchers filled in many of the gaps that have existed and created a more complete picture of early Europeans. What is known is that these haplogroups (groups sharing similar DNA traits such as J and T) originated in the Middle East, and up until now it was thought that they migrated to Europe in the Neolithic age, approximately 9 000 years ago.

However, the team provided evidence that shows humans belonging to the J and T haplogroups actually migrated to Europe much earlier than was previously thought, beginning as soon as the Ice Age started to end.

Aside from the purely scientific challenges and discoveries, Dr Pala believes that archaeo-genetics has important lessons to teach humanity: 'It (archaeo-genetics) helps us to reevaluate the perception of our identity. We are highly focused on identifying ourselves as Italians, British or whatever, but by analysing DNA we discover that originally, not such a long time ago, we came from a common source.'

More information:

  • The American Journal of Human Genetics
  • University of Huddersfield