The survivors of the Ice Age took refuge in the Iberian Peninsula

Reconstruction of a Gravettian hunter-gatherer inspired by finds from Candide Arene, Italy. / Tom Bjoerklund

A massive paleogenetic study confirms that several areas of the territory functioned as a climate refuge during the glacial maximum some 25,000 years ago, and they rule out that the same thing happened in Italy

In the same way that now the climate warms up, in other times it cooled down. And in some a lot, in the periods known as ice ages. How did human beings respond to these situations in prehistory? Paleogenetics, which is the study of the past from the genetic material preserved in ancient organic remains, is beginning to provide some answers. A large-scale genomic analysis of this type, published in the latest issue of the journal 'Nature', reveals the movements of some groups of hunter-gatherers during the Upper Paleolithic, who ended up 'refugeing' in the Iberian Peninsula and some areas of southern France during the glacial maximum, that is, when the cold weather was most extreme. The investigation has concluded that, contrary to what was believed until now, humans disappeared from the Italian peninsula, an area that had traditionally been understood as a climate refuge.

An international team made up of researchers from the University of Tübingen, the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Paleoenvironment, Peking University and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, in collaboration with 125 other scientists from various countries, has reconstructed the movements of “our Ice Age ancestors” from the largest dataset of European prehistoric hunter-gatherer genomes analyzed to date: those of 356 individuals from different European and Central Asian countries in a time span spanning 35,000 to 5,000 years ago. years. The study included for the first time the genomes of people who lived during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), the coldest phase of the last Ice Age, around 25,000 years ago.

The researchers have verified – “surprisingly”, as they emphasize – that the populations of different regions associated with the Gravettian culture, which spread throughout the European continent between 32,000 and 24,000 years ago, were not closely related to each other. They were indeed linked by a common archaeological culture – they used similar tools and produced similar furniture art, just as we use the same screwdrivers and hammers as the natives of Madagascar – but they were not directly 'related'.

The Gravettian is a prehistoric culture of the European Upper Paleolithic with very specific tools and is known for its statuettes, generally sculpted in ivory or limestone, such as the famous Lady of Brassempouy. It owes its name to the La Gravette deposit, located in the Dordogne, France. In our environment, in the Cantabrian Sea, until recently the Gravettian was a not very well known period, present in deposits such as Cueto de la Mina (Asturias), Cueva Morín and El Castillo (Cantabria), Bolinkoba and Antoliñako Koba (Bizkaia), or Amalda and Ametzagaina (Gipuzkoa).

The point is that the groups labeled Gravettians spread across Europe around 32,000-24,000 years ago. But despite all of them sharing their cultural traits, the Gravettian populations of western and eastern/southern Europe were genetically different. And furthermore, the western population –the one that lived in present-day France and the Iberian Peninsula– survived during the Last Glacial Maximum, while the eastern and southern Gravettian populations –present-day Italy and the Czech Republic– disappeared.

genetic confirmation

The descendants of the western Gravettian groups remained in southwestern Europe during the coldest period of the last Ice Age (25,000 to 19,000 years ago) and then spread northeast to the rest of Europe. So "with these findings, we can directly support, for the first time, the hypothesis that during the Last Glacial Maximum people found refuge in the climatically most favorable region of southwestern Europe," says Cosimo Posth of the University of Tübingen & Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment, one of the authors of the article published in 'Nature', 'Palaeogenomics of Upper Palaeolithic to Neolithic European hunter-gatherers'.

Until now it had been taken for granted that the Italian peninsula was also another climate refuge for humans during that phase of extreme cold weather. However, the researchers have found evidence to the contrary: Gravettian and "central and southern European" hunter-gatherer populations are no longer genetically detectable after LGM. Instead, people with a new gene pool settled in these areas. "We discovered that the individuals associated with a later culture, the Epigravetian, are genetically distinct from the earlier inhabitants of the area," explains He Yu, co-author of the study. "Presumably these people came from the Balkans, first arrived in northern Italy around the time of glacial maximum, and spread as far south as Sicily."

The genomes analyzed also show that the descendants of these Epigravetian inhabitants of the Italian peninsula spread throughout the rest of Europe around 14,000 years ago, replacing the populations associated with the Magdalenian culture. The team of researchers describe a large-scale genetic replacement that could be due, in part, to climate changes that forced the population to emigrate: "At that time, the climate warmed rapidly and considerably and forests spread across the entire continent European. This may have prompted southerners to expand their range. It is possible that the previous inhabitants migrated north as their habitat, the 'mammoth' steppe, diminished,” says Johannes Krause, co-author of the study.