Who were the first Brits? Earliest UK residents were diverse - study

Scientists looked at the oldest DNA samples of humans in the British Isles and found that rather than being homogenous, they were diverse populations from the start.

 British flag waving in the breeze (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
British flag waving in the breeze
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The United Kingdom is a diverse nation, filled with different ethnicities and identities. But according to a new study, this tradition of diversity may go all the way back to the end of the last ice age.

The new study, the findings of which were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, sheds light on two distinct human populations that settled in the British Isles in the Late Glacial Palaeolithic era.

All this was accomplished by studying the oldest human DNA recovered so far from either Great Britain or Ireland.

Who were the original Brits? Studying the settlers of post-ice age Britain

It is debated when humans first arrived in the British Isles. However, there were considerable changes throughout the region of what is now Europe due to the genetic and climate changes, population shifts and cultural diversification that came with the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). This makes sense, since the thawing that accompanied the warmer temperatures changed the landscape, making previously uninhabitable areas now able to support life.

While it is unclear when humans first walked on British soil, the oldest samples have been obtained by scholars in the UK.

A British Army soldier stands near his national flag, November 18, 2015 (credit: REUTERS)A British Army soldier stands near his national flag, November 18, 2015 (credit: REUTERS)

This was important, as analyzing it could help shed light on the origin of Britain's early inhabitants and where they came from.

The DNA samples scientists studied for this research came from two locations. The first came from Gough's Cave, a cavern in Chedder, Somerset, England. 

Famously, this site is home to Cheddar Man, Britain's oldest complete human skeleton whose remains date all the way back to approximately 7150 BCE. However, other remains, albeit not a full skeleton, were also found in the cave that date back even longer, some of them to around 14,900 years ago.

The second DNA sample studied comes from Kendrick's Cave in Llandudno, Wales. This site has also been home to human remains, and also famously was where the Kendrick's Cave Decorated Horse Jaw was discovered, an ancient piece of portable art dating back to around 10,000 years ago or more.

These are two of the most famous sites of this time period in the British Isles and analysis of them have already provided considerable data about who these people are and how they lived.

But what more can we learn? Do we know if they were related? Were they originally from the same population?

To do this, the researchers made use of a number of techniques such as DNA extraction and sequencing and radiocarbon dating, all to get the most useful information possible to tell us everything baout where these people came from.

And surprisingly, there were some big differences.

The DNA samples from Gough's Cave came from a female who died around 15,000 years ago. This actually tells us quite a lot. Specifically, genetics is a match for Magdalenian cultures, which were an Upper Paleolithic group of cultures that lived in Western Europe. 

Further, these samples seem closely related to ones found in Spain and Belgium. 

But the Kendrick's Cave DNA sample bore no such similarities. Rather, this sample, which dated back around 13,500 years ago, has a different origin altogether, most notably to a population that could be found in some sites such as in Italy. 

But they don't just differ based on genetics. The earliest-known British residents also differed in other aspects.

For example, the humans found in Gough's Cave mainly ate animals like aurochs - a type of wild cattle - deer and horses. By contrast, the Kendric's Cave humans ate mostly marine foods and sea mammals. 

There were cultural differences between the groups, too. For example, Gough's Cave had the remains of human and animal bones that had signs of being modified by humans. Human skulls were made into cups in what is widely believed to be a sign of ritualistic cannibalism - all of which are signs of Magdalenian culture, as well.

While the Kendrick's Cave humans also seemingly left animal and human bones around, these had no signs of being eaten by humans. Rather, it seems to have just been for burials. 

But either way, this shows that a human presence in Britain goes back at least 15,000 years, but that its inhabitants have often been diverse.