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UPV/EHU

2013/1/15

Genetic research reveals that current population of Urdaibai probably descended from cave dwellers at Santimamiñe

The BIOMICs research team at the UPV/EHU (University of the Basque Country) has undertaken arqueogenetic research which shows that the Basque territory has been subject to occupation by populations going back, at least, to the Upper Paleolithic.

The comparison of DNA extracted from a Homo sapiens who inhabited the Santimamiñe Cave (in the Basque province of Biscay) some 4,000 years ago, and from 6 other bone remains found in the same cave, with the DNA of 158 persons currently living in the surrounding Urdaibai region, has shown that current individuals have maternal lineages very similar to the archaeological remains. The findings enable putting forward the hypothesis that the current population is descended from the ancient denizens of the Santimamiñe Cave.

Although this high genetic correspondence to such remote times might appear at first surprising, since the end of the 1990s there have been a number of international research projects that strongly indicated the great antiquity of the maternal lineages of the Basque population, pointing to this possibly going back to paleolithic periods in certain zones.

Nonetheless, to date there has been no conclusive evidence for the genetic continuity between those settlers and the autochthonous individuals currently residing in the region –this research from the UPV/EHU team would support the hypothesis held by these researchers.

The UPV/EHU BIOMICs team’s research began more than two years ago when collaboration began with the AGIRI Archeological Association which facilitated the genetic study of remains of bones of a hominid from some 4,000 years ago, found in excavations being undertaken at the Santimamiñe Cave. For over two years these remains were analysed by UPV/EHU researchers in collaboration with geneticists from the University of Strasbourg until they managed to decipher the mitochondrial DNA.

Once the DNA was extracted from the remains, the second phase was to compare this genetic analysis with the DNA of present-day inhabitants of the surrounding Urdaibai region. This process, initiated last Spring, was relatively simple, being sufficient to take a number (158) of saliva samples from members of different families in the area and compare them with the prehistoric lineages found at Santimamiñe.

The population of the Urdaibai zone is characterised for having maintained itself relatively stable in the area over time and thus enables us to have a high concentration of ancient lineages – an expected phenomenon given the perdurance of the original surnames of the area or the common usage of expressions and linguistic turns of phrase characteristic of the place and which indicate the lasting presence of past generations there. Now the genetic data has been brought together to contribute to enhancing knowledge of the biological history of this population.

The research received funding from the Department of Culture of the Provincial Government of Bizkaia, as well as from the Urdaibai District Authority. Once the research in Urdabai is concluded, it is hoped that, shortly, it will be extended to other regions of the Basque Country, using new studies of funerary sites from the same period and from other eras (the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, etc.) thus enabling extending the knowledge we currently have on the special characteristics of the Basque population. This populational group has sparked enormous scientific interest for its distinctive characteristics regarding the preservation of its pre-Indo-European language and its relative isolation from the influence of other peoples and cultures.

 

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