New simulation shows how climate during last glacial period impacted Europe’s genetic makeup

Image from the research on the different regions in Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum.
Image from the research on the different regions in Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum. Courtesy of PLoS ONE.

A new simulation by researchers at UCCS and the Université de Montréal shows how humans in Europe responded to the last period of glacial expansion, and how it impacted the genetic makeup of those people, in a new article published June 19. “Habitat suitability and the genetic structure of human populations during the Last Glacial Maximum in Western Europe” was published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Colin Wren, assistant professor of anthropology at UCCS, worked with Ariane Burke, professor of anthropology at the Université de Montréal, to identify how people responded to patterns of environmental change. Wren and Burke found that southwestern France acted as a central region for five core areas, while glaciers in the Alps separated Italy from the rest of western Europe.

“There has long been a recognition that human-made artifacts, like stone tools and art objects, of southwestern Europe and Italy have been a little different from one another,” Wren said. “We were interested in understanding whether the pattern of suitable habitat may have contributed to these regions being separated from one another, and what effect that may have had on the population dynamics. This was a particularly harsh time in the human past and studying how people responded to that climatic condition is fascinating.”

The southwest of France experienced higher birth rates 19,000-23,000 years ago during the research period, which resulted in those people moving into areas like modern-day Spain, Portugal, Switzerland and western Germany. The movement of people from this central region resulted in a genetic homogenization in those regions, while Italy was an exception because of the unsuitable habitat and glaciers in the Alps.

“A better understanding of how people responded to patterns of environmental change in the past has value to current climate issues,” Wren said. “This research also impacts the genetic legacy of western European populations and adds new information to the recent surge in ancient DNA research from various regions and times in the past.”

Wren and Burke worked with additional researchers with the Hominin Dispersals Research Group at UdeM. Grants from the Fonds de recherche du Québec and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada supported the work. The article is available online through PLoS ONE.

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