BERLIN – A hunter-gatherer who lived in Europe 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.
The discovery, published in the journal Nature, was made by scientists from the United States, Europe and Australia who analyzed ancient DNA extracted from a male tooth found in a cave in northern Spain.
Lead researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox, who works at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona, 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 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 Leon 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 underway 7,000 years ago, Lalueza-Fox said. The lack of such genes among pre-Columbian populations in the Americas was one of the reasons they were so susceptible to these diseases when the Europeans arrived.