Just Call This Hunter-Gatherer Ol’ Blue-Eyes

DNA from an ancient human tooth found in a cave in Spain reveals one European hunter-gatherer’s complexion

Researchers recreated what the 7,000 year-old man likely looked like. Photo: PELOPANTON / CSIC

The stereotype of a European man, throughout the ages, almost always features a light complexion. But according to a new analysis of DNA extracted from a 7,000-year-old tooth recovered from a cave in Spain, fair skin might not have been the norm for Europeans until much later. The analysis showed, too, that this man had blue eyes, a genetic anomaly that researchers had assumed arose after the mutation that gave rise to lighter-colored skin.

These findings came as a surprise even to the scientists conducting the study, the Guardian reports

“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.”

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....

On top of the scientific impact, artists might have to rethink their drawings of the people. “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.

The ancient man, whose remains were found in a cave in Leon, represents the first fully sequenced genome of a pre-agricultural European, the New Scientist says. The genome also provided a window into human evolution: some immunity genes that researchers had assumed evolved later in human history, for example, turned up in these remains. Comparing the genome to modern humans, the Guardian says, revealed that Swedish and Finnish people living today are the closest genetic match to the ancient man. 

Finally, the remains provide details about how agriculture shaped not only our diet but our genes. "The early European would have subsisted on a diet of mainly protein, and his DNA reveals that he was lactose-intolerant and unable to digest starch," the BBC reports. "These are traits that came after agriculture was adopted and people changed what they ate."

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