An international research team used genetic analysis to find out which migration movements helped people survive the maximum of the last ice age in Europe. The study, published in the journal Nature, focused on the genomes of 356 individuals from ancient cultures, including countries in Europe and Central Asia. According to the participating Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, it is the largest genome data set ever created by European hunters and gatherers.
In their analysis, the researchers focused on people believed to be at least partially the ancestors of modern-day Western Eurasia people who lived between 35,000 and 5,000 years ago. The maximum of the last ice age was 25,000 to 19,000 years ago.
According to the study, between 32,000 and 24,000 years ago, the people of the so-called Gravettian culture were not alike across the European continent: the populations in the west and southwest (modern-day France and Iberia) were genetically different from those in central and southern Europe (modern-day Czechia and Italy).
According to the analysis, descendants of the West Gravettier stayed in southwest Europe during the cold maximum and later spread north and east across Europe. "With these finds, we can for the first time directly support the thesis that during the coldest phase of the last ice age, people sought refuge in south-western Europe, which offered more favorable climatic conditions," said lead author Cosimo Posth from the University of Tübingen.
The Italian peninsula, on the other hand, was probably not a place of retreat, contrary to what was assumed: the hunters and gatherers of the Gravettian culture living in central and southern Europe were no longer genetically detectable there after the cold maximum. So while the western Gravettier survived the glacial maximum, the eastern and southern Gravettier disappeared.
Instead, people of other origins settled on the Italian peninsula. "These people probably came to northern Italy from the Balkans around the time of the glacial maximum and spread to Sicily," said co-author He Yu from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.
About 14,000 years ago, the descendants of this group would have spread across Europe and displaced other populations. The cause could be global warming and the spread of forests across Europe, it said. "Possibly this was a reason for people from the south to expand their living space," said Johannes Krause, senior author of the study and director at the Max Planck Institute. "The earlier inhabitants, on the other hand, could have been pushed out with the disappearance of their habitat, the mammoth steppe."
The team consisted of 125 researchers. Among the 356 genomes analyzed were new datasets from 116 individuals from 14 European and Central Asian countries.