DNA Analysis Reveals Eight Previously Unknown Groups of Ancient Europeans

In a genetic study of prehistoric Europe The New York Times called “the most robust analysis yet” on the topic, researchers landed on a surprising discovery: eight previously unidentified groups of ancient humans.

The groups’ names: the Gravettian, Vestonice, Fournol, GoyetQ2, Villabruna, Oberkassel, Sidelkino, and Aurignacian.

The findings were published in the journal Nature as two separate studies on March 1. They included the results of examinations involving the remains of 357 ancient Europeans. Among several waves of hunter-gatherers that migrated into the continent between 45,000 and 5,000 years ago, they found groups more genetically distinct from each other than today’s Europeans and Asians.

The populations coexisted in Europe for thousands of years, interfacing through trade and cultural cross-pollination. Some groups endured the Ice Age (which ended about 10,000 years ago), while others vanished — possibly due to strife between conflicting groups, the Times said.

Vanessa Villalba-Mouco, a paleogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and an author of both studies, said that it’s a significant step forward in understanding these still-mysterious human ancestors.

New insights

When Europe’s first farmers arrived from the Middle East around 8,000 years ago, they encountered the remnants of these eight groups. Light-skinned, dark-eyed people resided in the east, and possibly dark-skinned and blue-eyed people lived westward.

The process was far from linear. Climate change events like the advance and retreat of glaciers in northern Europe drove sweeping shifts in the landscape for hunter-gatherers. Adaptations in tools and survival methods reflected the changes.

After Neanderthals disappeared about 40,000 years ago, a new culture called the Gravettian began to replace them. As temperatures dropped across the continent, Gravettian people came to prominence through hunting woolly mammoths and other big game. They also made Venus figurines, the statuettes varyingly interpreted to represent fertility or survival.

four hunter gatherers walking through the forest

Imagining a tribe of hunter-gatherers on the move. Photo: Shutterstock


The researchers found Gravettian remains with separate genetics in two disparate areas, suggesting two distinct groups: one in France and Spain, and one in Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

The studies called the western population the Fournol people and found a genetic link between it and 35,000-year-old Aurignacian remains in Belgium. They called the eastern group Vestonice and discovered that they share ancestry with 34,000-year-old hunter-gatherers from Russia.

The Fournol survived the Ice Age that set in several thousand years after their arrival, but the Vestonice did not. Studying the genetics of Europeans after the Ice Age, researchers found no traces of Vestonice. Instead, they detected genes from a population of hunter-gatherers that apparently arrived from the Balkans, known as the Villabruna. They moved into Italy, replacing the Vestonice.

As for the Fournol, some migrated even further north, creating a population the researchers called the GoyetQ2.

About 14,000 years ago, the GoyetQ2 and Villabruna encountered each other and produced another genetically distinct group: the Oberkassel.

A changing climate prompts migration

Study author Cosimo Posth, a paleogeneticist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, speculated that climate change redistributed the groups. Around the time the Oberkassel emerged, forests sprang up across much of Europe during a pronounced warming period.

The Oberkassel people may have been better at hunting in forests, whereas the GoyetQ2 retreated with the shrinking steppes.

Ranging eastward, the Oberkassel ran into a new group of hunter-gatherers, who likely came from Russia. The scientists named this group’s descendants, who lived in and around Ukraine, the Sidelkino.

By the time the first farmers arrived from Turkey about 8,000 years ago, three large groups of hunter-gatherers proliferated in Europe: the Oberkassel, the Sidelkino, and the Iberians. Living Europeans carry some of their genes, and that enabled Posth and his colleagues’ educated guesses about the physical appearances of the ancient populations.

a german forest

Warming conditions brought dense forests to much of Europe, prompting migration. Photo: Shutterstock


Soon after agriculture arrived, the hunter-gatherer groups began mixing more freely. The newcomers could have forced them to the continent’s fringes initially. Then, the agricultural communities started assimilating them.

The researchers in the studies paint a fascinating picture of ancient hunter-gatherer history in Europe, largely thanks to 150 years’ worth of digs and stored remains. It will be even easier to study these and other possible groups elsewhere. As of recently, it’s become possible to extract human DNA from cave sediments.

If one thing’s clear from the new research, it’s that the human family tree is a huge and intricate structure — and that we’re still constantly discovering new branches.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.