A new paper in Science, The makers of the Protoaurignacian and implications for Neandertal extinction, seems to establish definitively that the Aurignacian culture, often identified as the first modern human society within Europe, was in fact of modern humans. The part that is of interest to me is the DNA evidence from this paper. In particular, they got a good quality mtDNA sequence, and put it on a phylogenetic tree with other humans. As you can see, it is clearly within the clade of modern humans, and in particular non-African modern humans. More precisely, this individual is a basal branch of haplogroup R, which is common across western Eurasia, and ancestral to many common lineages. The fact that it’s basal isn’t too surprising, this individual is ~40,000 years in the past. Because of the rapid turnover of mtDNA lineages it isn’t surprising if past lineages have gone extinct in a given region, even if total genome content is passed down.
But, I do want to enter into the record that in concert with rumors I’ve been hearing as well as the broad picture of what ancient DNA is telling us about genetic turnover that I doubt that modern Europeans in any way descend from the Cro-Magnon populations of the first settlement of the continent by moderns. Rather, I’d bet that the “hunter-gatherer” ancestry of the Europeans of today goes no further back than the post-Gravettian cultures, and perhaps later. The genetic makeup of ancient populations seems to have been more complex than we’d have imagined, and there were meta-population dynamics which we’re only getting a good grasp of. With low population densities and a fragmented Pleistocene landscape it strikes me as plausible that Palearctic mammals in particular may be characterized by repeated resettlement of the frontier of the range from core source populations after local extinctions and retrenchments.