Online Journal of Anthropology



More local adaptations in European genes were contributed by Stone Age hunters than farmers


Modern humans have adapted to their local environments over many thousands of years, but how genetic variation contributed to this adaptation remains debated. Using genomes from humans that lived between 45,000 and 7,000 years ago, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have shown that adaptation to local environments has resulted in genetic variants reaching high frequencies in European groups. Interestingly, most of the adaptive variants were present already in an early hunter-gatherer, but not in an early farmer. This suggests that hunter-gatherers, who lived in Europe for thousands of years before the arrival of farmers, were adapted to local environments and contributed adaptive genetic variants to present-day Europeans.


Humans have few genetic differences among individuals, and most of these differences have no effect on phenotype or fitness. The role of local adaptation in population differentiation thus remains unclear.


Using the genome of a 45,000 year old early modern Eurasian from Ust’-Ishim, researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig investigated the few genetic variants that have large frequency differences between Africans and non-Africans. “When we first heard about the Ust’-Ishim genome we got immediately excited. This individual is extremely useful in that it provides direct information on the genetics of a population that had experienced the out-of-Africa migration, but had not had much time to adapt to Eurasian environments”, says Aida Andrés, who led the scientific team.


Her team finds that about 70% of the genomic variants with large frequency differences between Africans and non-Africans are random changes that may have occurred during times of small population size, such as during the migration out of the African continent about 50,000 years ago. Less than 30% of the variants were found to have increased in frequency during or after the colonization of Europe. These are enriched in likely functional parts of the genome such as those that encode proteins and regulate the activity of genes. This suggests that some of them rose in frequency due to positive selection for locally adaptive traits.


Genetically more hunter than farmer


The genomes of additional ancient Europeans provided more detail on local adaptation in Europe. The team showed that an early hunter-gatherer carried more variants that have increased quickly in frequency in Europe than an early farmer. “It is quite striking that, while the Neolithic farming revolution brought a lifestyle to Europe that still persists today, the hunter-gatherers provided the majority of genetic adaptations to the local European environment”, says Felix Key, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig and first author of the paper. Eye pigmentation is among the traits likely influenced by hunter-gatherer variants, and the team speculates that these variants may be beneficial in populations living at high latitudes with limited exposure to UV light. However, Key is cautious, commenting that: ‘We have to note that our functional understanding of human genetic variants is still limited.’


Andrés sees great potential for this approach in the future: “Combining modern and ancient genomes improves our ability to understand local adaptation. The resolution of studies like ours will keep improving with the growing availability of high-quality ancient genomes.” She predicts that “With additional data we are likely to find similar evidence of genetic adaptations in other continents, too”.


(Text & Images’ Source: article by AA/FMK/SP, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology)







A new study of humans on Sanak Island, Alaska and their historical relationships with local species suggests that despite being super-generalist predators, the food gathering behaviors of the local Aleut people were stabilizing for the ecosystem.


The findings, presented in a paper published today in Nature Scientific Reports, provide novel insights into how human roles and behavior impact complex ecological networks and offer new quantitative tools for studying sustainability.


With a team of ecologists and archeologists, SFI’s Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne wanted to understand the niche humans filled in Sanak’s marine ecosystems by compiling and analyzing local food web data. “It’s the first highly detailed ecological network data to include humans, which allows us to ask questions about how they compare in their roles to other predators,” says Dunne. “Unlike most ecological studies that ignore humans or consider them as external actors, our analysis includes them as an integral part of the ecosystem.”


For roughly 7,000 years, the Sanak Aleuts hunted marine mammals and fishes in the nearby open water and gathered shellfish and algae closer to shore. Dunne and her colleagues put together a precise picture of the local marine food webs by studying the bones and shells left behind in middens, or trash heaps, through oral histories gathered from Aleut elders, and with ecological data.


Through analysis of the network structure of the food webs, they discovered that in both the intertidal and nearshore food webs, humans fed on approximately a quarter of the species present, far more than other predators in the systems. This varied diet, ranging from primary producers like algae to top carnivores like sea lions, puts humans in a niche similar to other super-generalist predators like Pacific cod.


And like other generalists, the Aleuts prey-switched. As a favored prey species became difficult to find due to population decreases or unfavorable environmental conditions, the Aleuts chose alternative food sources. In food webs where predators prey-switch, dwindling prey populations can bounce back and extinctions are rare. “It’s a very stabilizing behavior for the system,” says Dunne.


In addition, while simple technologies like fish hooks, spears, and kayaks helped the Aleut hunt some of their prey more strongly than expected for non-human predators, Dunne’s analysis of the dynamics of model food webs suggests that as long as such strong hunting was limited to a few prey species, it would cause few extinctions.


Modern fisheries can put a very different pressure on food webs, she notes. Advanced technology allows for highly intensive fishing, and in many cases as a resource becomes scarce, its value goes up. In these cases, such as with Bluefin tuna that are highly prized for sushi, “increased rarity increases economic value, leading to increased harvesting pressure at just the wrong time,” says Dunne. “You’re not only driving those populations to extinction, you’re also introducing a destabilizing dynamic into the system.”


Read the paper in Nature Scientific Reports (February 17, 2016)


(Text & Images’ Source: Santa Fe Institute)