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Genetics traces the first modern humans in Europe

Genetics traces the first modern humans in Europe

Scientists have revealed a link between the genome of the first Homo sapiens who arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago, and who were thought to have no genetic heritage, and the genomes of later Paleolithic populations known for their statues of Venus.

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The discovery was made from skull fragments from the archaeological site of Buran-Kaya III, on the Crimean peninsula in the northern Black Sea, which were excavated more than a decade ago.

These are the bones of two people dating between 36,000 and 37,000 years ago, whose genomes could recently be extracted using new techniques, according to a study published this week in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

An international team of researchers compared their genome with data from DNA banks, and in particular with the oldest anatomically modern human genome in Europe, which was sequenced on the skull of a woman about 45,000 years ago (found on the territory of the present-day Czech Republic).

This is the period in which the first Homo sapiens landed from Africa on the Eurasian continent, where the population was distributed in successive waves. Part of this pioneer population has established itself in Asia in a permanent way because it has left a genetic legacy even among the current population.

The story was messier for the European branch, for which no genetic fingerprint has yet been found, indicating its disappearance. “To be completely replaced,” several thousand years later, by a new wave of migration including Boran-Kaya III humans, who are genetically close to us, explained Eva Maria Gegel, AFP research director for the French scientific organization CNRS. And co-author of the study.

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Climate crisis

The origin of this decline: climate cooling and aridity, which occurred between -45,000 and -40,000 years ago, and which was exacerbated by a massive eruption of the Phlegrean Fields volcano (Italy) that covered part of Europe in an “ash cloud”. .

This environmental crisis could have been “severe enough to lead to the disappearance of these early Homo sapiens and perhaps also Neanderthals,” another human species that became extinct in the same period, the geneticist continues.

But the discovery of its trace in the human genome from the Crimean site suggests that a portion of this pioneer population ultimately survived the catastrophe. “It was difficult for everyone, but there must have been a few individuals left since they left behind part of their genes,” explains Terry Grange, director of research at the National Center for Scientific Research and co-author.

“Their descendants could have interbred with the new arrivals after the climate became wetter and wetter,” adds Eva Maria Gegel.

Another discovery: The two humans from the Crimean site, which were also compared to more recent genomes, are genetically related to Western European populations associated with the Graphite culture, which existed between -31,000 years ago and -23,000 years ago. A culture known for producing female figurines called Venus, or Lady Prasembwe, an ivory figurine representing a human head.

Excavations of Boran Kaya III have uncovered very similar objects (stone tools, a huge ivory plaque) but the relationship with graffiti in the West has been a matter of debate among archaeologists. “The two productions were geographically far apart, and there was a gap of more than 5,000 years,” confirms Thierry Grange.

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His work provides genetic evidence that graffiti culture has origins in the East. Finally, our ancestors migrated from Eastern Europe to the West, “contributing to the genomes of current Europeans,” Eva-Maria Gegel concludes.