15,000-year-old DNA reveals prehistoric African culture

Science magazine opens a window on the past with DNA samples from Africa’s oldest cemetery:

The origins of the ancient Moroccans, known as the Iberomaurusians because 20th century archaeologists thought they were connected to peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, have been a mystery ever since the Grotte des Pigeons cave was discovered near Oujda, Morocco, in 1908. Starting 22,000 or so years ago, these hunter-gatherers eschewed more primitive Middle Stone Age tools, such as larger blades used on spears, to produce microliths—small pointed bladelets that could be shot farther as projectile points or arrowheads. Similar tools show up earlier in Spain, France, and other parts of Europe, some associated with the famous Gravettian culture, known for its stone figurines of curvaceous women.

“The idea in the 1960s was that the Iberomaurusians must have got the microblades from the Gravettian,” says co-author and archaeologist Louise Humphrey of the Natural History Museum in London. During the ice age 20,000 years ago, sea level would have been lower and the Iberomaurusians were thought to have crossed the Mediterranean by boat at Gibraltar or Sicily.

Humphrey and her Moroccan colleagues got a chance to test this view after they discovered 14 individuals associated with Iberomaurusian artifacts at the back of the Grotte des Pigeons cave in 2005. Paleogeneticists Marieke van de Loosdrecht and Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (SHH) in Jena, Germany, with Matthias Meyer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, used state-of-the-art methods to extract DNA from the ear bones of skeletons that had lain undisturbed since they were buried about 15,000 years ago.

DNA in hand, Van de Loosdrecht and Choongwon Jeong, also ​of the SHH, were able to analyze genetic material from the cell’s nucleus in five people and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from seven people. But they found no genetic tie to ancient Europeans. Instead, the ancient Iberomaurusians appear to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans: They shared about two-thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago, and one-third with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania.

The Iberomaurusians lived before the Natufians, but they were not their direct ancestors: The Natufians lack DNA from Africa, Krause says. This suggests that both groups inherited their shared DNA from a larger population that lived in North Africa or the Middle East more than 15,000 years ago….


The study itself is published here.