Mesolithic Hunter-Gatherers Had Blue Eyes, Dark Skin
January 27, 2014

European Hunter-Gatherers May Have Had Blue Eyes And Dark Skin

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A 7,000 year old man from the Mesolithic Period, named La Braña 1 and recovered at the La Braña-Arintero site in Valdelugueros, Spain, reportedly had blue eyes and dark skin. The study, published in Nature and led by Carles Lalueza-Fox of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), represents the first recovered genome of an European hunter-gatherer.

Ending with the advent of agriculture and livestock farming from the Middle East, the Mesolithic lasted from around 10,000 years ago to 5,000 years ago - sandwiched between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic. The carbohydrate-based diet and new pathogens transmitted from domesticated animals that emerged in the Neolithic entailed metabolic and immunological challenges that were reflected in genetic adaptations of post-Mesolithic populations. Included in these adaptations was the ability to digest lactose, which La Braña 1 could not do.

Lalueza-Fox said, "However, the biggest surprise 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, although we cannot know the exact shade."

Lalueza-Fox, who also works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (a joint center of CSIC and the University Pompeu Fabra (UPF), located in Barcelona, added, "Even more surprising was to find that he possessed the genetic variations that produce blue eyes in current Europeans, resulting in a unique phenotype in a genome that is otherwise clearly northern European."

The genome analysis suggests the current populations in closest relation to La Braña 1 are in northern European countries such as Sweden and Finland. The researchers, including scientists from the Center for Geogenetics in Denmark, also found La Braña 1 has a common ancestor with the settlers of the Upper Paleolithic site of Mal'ta — located in Lake Baikal, Siberia — whose genome was recovered a few months ago.

Lalueza-Fox concludes, "These data indicate that there is genetic continuity in the populations of central and western Eurasia. In fact, these data are consistent with the archeological remains, as in other excavations in Europe and Russia, including the site of Mal'ta, anthropomorphic figures – called Paleolithic Venus – have been recovered and they are very similar to each other."

In 2006, a chance discovery led Julio Manuel Vidal Encinas, archeologist of the Council of Castilla y Leon, to the La Brana-Arintero site. The cold, mountainous location of the cave nearly 5,000 feet above sea level has a steady temperature which contributed to the "exceptional" preservation of the DNA from the two individuals found inside. The remains were named La Braña 1 and La Braña 2.

According to Inigo Olalde, graduate student at the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva, "The intention of the team 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."

Image 2 (below): La Braña 1, the name used to baptize a 7,000-year-old individual from the Mesolithic Period, had blue eyes and dark skin. Credit: PELOPANTON / CSIC