How analysing the genetics of ancient humans means changing ideas about our evolution
Gaia Vince, Mosaic Science
The Rock of Gibraltar appears out of the plane window as an immense limestone monolith sharply rearing up from the base of Spain into the Mediterranean. One of the ancient Pillars of Hercules, it marked the end of the Earth in classical times. Greek sailors didn’t go past it. Atlantis, the unknown, lay beyond.
In summer 2016, Gibraltar is in the throes of a 21st-century identity crisis: geographically a part of Spain, politically a part of Britain; now torn, post Brexit, between its colonial and European Union ties. For such a small area – less than seven square kilometres – Gibraltar is home to an extraordinarily diverse human population. It has been home to people of all types over the millennia, including early Europeans at the edge of their world, Phoenicians seeking spiritual support before venturing into the Atlantic, and Carthaginians arriving in a new world from Africa.
But I’ve come to see who was living here even further back, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when sea levels were much lower and the climate was swinging in and out of ice ages. It was a tough time to be alive and the period saw the species that could, such as birds, migrate south to warmer climes, amid plenty of local extinctions. Among the large mammal species struggling to survive were lions, wolves and at least two types of human: our own ‘modern human’ ancestors, and the last remaining populations of our cousins, the Neanderthals.
By understanding more about these prehistoric people, we can learn about who we are as a species today. Our ancestors’ experiences shaped us, and they may still hold answers to some of our current health problems, from diabetes to depression.