A DNA test of a 7,000 year old tooth of European hunter-gatherer has given scientists evidence that unlike most representations of European hunters with blond hair and blue eyes, Mesolithic people actually had an unusual mix of blue eyes, black or brown hair, and dark skin. Also, much like many black people today, testing shows that the people were probably lactose intolerant.
“Before we started this work, I had some ideas of what we were going to find,” said Carles Lalueza-Fox, who led the study at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona. “Most of those ideas turned out to be completely wrong.”
The Spanish team started their work after a group of cavers stumbled upon two skeletons in a deep and complex cave system high up in the Cantabrian Mountains of northwest Spain in 2006. The human remains, which belonged to two men in their early 30s, had been extremely well preserved by the cool environment of the cave.
Carbon dating put the remains at around 7,000 years old, before farming had swept into Europe from the Middle East. The timing fitted with ancient artefacts found at the site, including perforated reindeer teeth that were strung and hung from the people’s clothing.
The scientists focused their efforts on the better preserved of the two skeletons. After several failed attempts, they managed to reconstruct the man’s entire genome from DNA found in the root of a third molar. It is the first time researchers have obtained the complete genome of a modern European who lived before the Neolithic revolution.
The DNA threw up a series of surprises. When Lalueza-Fox looked at the genome, he found that rather than having light skin, the man had gene variants that tend to produce much darker skin. “This guy had to be darker than any modern European, but we don’t know how dark,” the scientist said.
“You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eye colour,” Lalueza-Fox said. Details of the study are published in the journal, Nature.