DNA shows ancient hunter had blue eyes, dark skin
Frank Jordans (AP) / 31 January 2014
A hunter-gatherer who lived in Europe some 7,000 years ago probably had blue eyes and dark skin, a combination that has largely disappeared from the continent in the millennia since, scientists said on Tuesday.
The discovery, published in the journal Nature this week, was made by scientists from the United States, Europe and Australia who analysed ancient DNA extracted from a male tooth found in a cave in northern Spain. “We have the stereotype that blue eyes are found only in light-skinned people, but that’s not necessarily the case,” lead researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox said in an interview on Tuesday with The Associated Press.
Lalueza-Fox, who works at the
in Institute of Evolutionary
Biology , said the man’s skin
would have been darker than most modern Europeans, while his eyes may have
resembled those of Scandinavians, his closest genetic relatives today. The combination
of blue eyes and dark skin, which is sometimes seen in people with mixed
European and African ancestry, may once have been common among ancient European
hunter-gatherers, he said. Barcelona, Spain
The researchers also found the man had genes that indicated he was poor at digesting milk and starch, an ability which only spread among Europeans with the arrival of Neolithic farmers from the
Middle East. The arrival of this
group was also believed to have introduced several diseases associated with
proximity to animals — and the genes that helped resist them.
But the hunter-gatherer whose remains were found in the La Brana caves, near Spanish city of
, already had some
genes that would have helped him fight diseases such as measles, flu and
smallpox. This came as a surprise to researchers, indicating that the genetic
transition was already under way 7,000 years ago, Lalueza-Fox said. Leon
The lack of such genes among pre-Columbian populations in the
was one of the
reasons they were so susceptible to these diseases when the Europeans arrived. Americas
Researchers are hoping to make further discoveries from a second skeleton found at the site, said Lalueza-Fox.
Beth Shapiro, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the
, said the paper
showed how old DNA could be used to learn more about the appearance and traits
of ancient populations. University of California Santa Cruz
“I anticipate that this is just the beginning and am excited to see these sorts of analyses taking place,” said Shapiro, who wasn’t involved in the study. “I look forward to what else we will learn once we have population samples of paleogenomes (ancient DNA).”