Most European men descended from one hunter - study

CNN Science News
November 10, 2000
Web posted at: 4:44 PM EST (2144 GMT)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Around 80 per cent of European men are descended from a single primitive hunter, according to a new study.

Researchers analysing the Y chromosome taken from more than 1,000 men from 25 different locations in Europe found a pattern that suggests four out of five shared a common male ancestor about 40,000 years ago.

Peter Underhill, a senior researcher at the Stanford University Genome Technology Centre and co-author of the study, said the research supports conclusions from archaeological, linguistic and other DNA evidence about the settlement of Europe by ancient peoples.

"When we can get different lines of evidence that tells the same story then we feel we are telling the true history of the species," said Underhill.

The study, co-authored by Underhill and more than a dozen researchers from Stanford and Europe, appeared on Friday in the journal Science.

Underhill said the researchers used the Y chromosome in the study because its rare changes establish a pattern that can be traced back hundreds of generations, thus helping to plot the movement of ancient humans.

The Y chromosome is inherited only by sons from their fathers. When sperm carrying the Y chromosome fertilises an egg it directs the resulting child to be a male. An X chromosome from the father allows a fertilised egg to be female.

The Y chromosome has about 60 million DNA base pairs. Changes in those base pairs happen infrequently, said Underhill, but they occur often enough to establish patterns that can be used to trace the ancestry of people.

He said that researchers looking at the 1,007 chromosome samples from Europe identified 22 specific markers that formed a specific pattern of change. About 80 percent of all European males shared a single pattern, suggesting that they had a common ancestor thousands of generations ago.

Ice age isolation

Underhill said the basic pattern had some changes that apparently developed among people who once shared a common ancestor and then were isolated for many generations.

This scenario, he said, supports other studies about the Paleolithic European groups. Those studies suggest that primitive, stone age humans came to Europe, probably from Central Asia and the Middle East, in two waves of migration beginning about 40,000 years ago.

Their numbers were small and they lived by hunting animals and gathering plant food.

About 24,000 years ago, the last ice age began, with mountain-sized glaciers moving across most of Europe. Underhill said that the Paleolithic Europeans retreated before the ice, finding refuge for hundreds of generations in three areas: what is now Spain, the Balkans and the Ukraine.

When the glaciers melted, about 16,000 years ago, the Paleolithic tribes resettled Europe. Y chromosome mutations occurred among people in each of the ice age refuges.

He said the research shows that a pattern that developed in Spain is now most common in northwest Europe, while the Ukraine pattern is mostly in Eastern Europe and the Balkan pattern is most common in Central Europe.

About 8,000 years ago, said Underhill, a more advanced people, the Neolithic, migrated to Europe from the Middle East, bringing with them a new Y chromosome pattern and a new way of life: agriculture. About 20 percent of Europeans now have the Y chromosome pattern from this migration.

The researcher said that archaeological digs in European caves clearly show that before 8,000 years ago most humans lived by gathering and hunting. After that, there are traces of grains and other agricultural products.

Earlier studies had traced European migration patterns using the DNA contained in the mitochondria, a key part of each cell. This type is DNA is passed down from mother to daughter.

Antonio Torroni, a researcher at the University of Urbino, Italy, who first proposed that early humans retreated to Spain during the ice age, said in Science magazine that the Y chromosome study "fits completely" with the mitochondria studies.

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