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A drawing of a male-hunter gatherer.

An artistic impression of the blue-eyed male hunter-gatherer.

RENDERING BY CSIC

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published January 26, 2014

Apologies to Frank Sinatra, but the real Ol' Blue Eyes has been found—a 7,000-year-old Spaniard whose fossil genes reveal that early Europeans sported blue eyes and dark skin.

Mapping the blue-eyed boy's genes is part of ongoing effort to uncover the DNA of ancient humans. The new study in the journal Nature, led by Inigo Olalde of Spain's Institut de Biología Evolutiva in Barcelona, reports the genetic map of a skeleton found in a Spanish cave. (See also: "Modern Europe's Genetic History Starts in Stone Age.")

Why It Matters

Scholars had suspected that blue eyes arrived as an import into Europe, brought by late-arriving farmers who invaded the continent more than 5,000 years ago. Contrary to the conventional picture of a blue-eyed, fair-haired northern European, the study suggests that blue eyes were already common among the continent's early hunter-gatherers, along with darker skin.

But those aren't the only results that matter from the study. The researchers also discovered that a number of disease-resistance genes seen in modern Europeans were active in the ancient Spaniard's gene map. And the study adds genetic support to archaeological findings that hint that a widespread hunter-gatherer culture cut continuously across Europe in prehistory.

What They Did

The researchers extracted DNA from a tooth found with the skeleton of man, dubbed La Brana 1, uncovered in a cave near León, Spain, in 2006.

In the lab, they compared the DNA from the man with DNA from other Stone Age Europeans, such as Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old "Iceman" of the Alps (whose people were farmers), and older, partial samples of genes recovered from hunter-gatherer burials in Sweden, Finland, and Siberia.

They also compared the results against the DNA of 35 modern-day Europeans.

What They Found

Around 7,000 years ago, a Stone Age culture spread across Europe, made famous by discoveries of small, rotund "Venus" figurines found in their burials. The study results suggest those people were genetically connected—one thin population of dark-haired hunter-gatherers whose domain reached from Spain to Siberia. They were also partly the ancestors of many of today's northern Europeans.

Moreover, the ancient Spaniard had multiple genes linked to disease immunity, resistance to bacteria, and risks for musculoskeletal ailments, ones seen in people today. Understanding the origin of these genes can help better explain their function, which could aid medical studies, for example.

For fans of the "Paleo Diet" and other get-back-to-nature notions, the study brings some good news, suggesting that people carry around plenty of genes left over from their primeval forebears. The survival of some disease-resistance genes that mattered greatly in antiquity, as shown by their continuity in modern humans, also can help show how evolution worked its magic on us, and is still working today.

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36 comments
James Adams
James Adams

Somebody's wrong. Widely accepted scholarship says the Venus figurines date from 11,000 to 35,000 years ago.  The eye/skin thing is interesting but the link to Venus figurines   ...questionable.

Mohan Madwanna
Mohan Madwanna

Whether blue eyes are originated in Caucasians or colored people. I am not sure. Is there anybody help me to solve the riddle?  

Fire Haired
Fire Haired

"Around 7,000 years ago, a Stone Age culture spread across Europe, made famous by discoveries of small, rotund "Venus" figurines found in their burials. The study results suggest those people were genetically connected—one thin population of dark-haired hunter-gatherers whose domain reached from Spain to Siberia. They were also partly the ancestors of many of today's northern Europeans"


Just saying I have mtDNA U5b2a2(La Brana-1 had U5b2c1) I am very proud of my European hunter gatherer ancestry, and also my near eastern farmer ancestry.


There isn't enough ancient DNA to prove the people of Upper Palaeolithic Europe were THE ancestors of Mesolithic Europeans. They most likely did but we need ancient DNA to "prove" it. I have just begun to learn about cultures of Upper Palaeolithic Europe and it seems the same people lived there for 10,000's of years all the way up to La Brana-1. There are two pre-U5 samples from Dolni Vestonice site in Czech Republic dated to 31,155 years old(maybe that date is off) that site also had many Venus figurines and were typical Gravettian people. I have also seen a lot of evidence that MA-1 and AG2 were like the eastern branch of a huge related population that stretched from Iberian to Siberia. At the Mal'ta site I have heard there were ivory figurines of naked women similar to the ones in Europe from the Upper Palaeolithic.


"They were also partly the ancestors of many of today's northern Europeans""


True but doesn't tell the full story. Europeans like Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, Finnish, Russians, various Uralic and Turkic people in Russia, and Swedish-Norwegian probably trace the majority of their ancestry to these hunter gatherers. In central Europe, British isles, and eastern Europe(Balkans-) they may also have majority hunter gatherer ancestry and if not majority close to 50%. Percentages vary in southern Europe in Iberia and Balkans(Greece-) it could be as high as 30-40% or as low as something like 20%, French are very intermediate between north-west Europeans and Iberians the further south the more similar to Iberians the further north the more similar to north-west Europeans. In Italy(lower the more south you go), Greece, and Sardinia hunter gatherer ancestry I don't know is maybe something like 10-30%.


My estimates were based on an admixture made by Laz 2013. WHG-EEF-ANE. WHG is based on ~8,000 year old hunter gatherer from Luxembourg, EEF is based on ~7,500 year old farmer from Germany, ANE is based on ~24,000 year old MA-1 boy from Siberia.


No one knows what the origin of unique pigmentation in Europe is. Ancient DNA has found that the mutations most associated with European light skin came with near eastern farmers(they are near eastern not European), light eyes existed and were probably popular in hunter gatherers, hunter gatherers likely had dark skin but skin color is still unknown, farmers likely had skin tone like modern southern Europeans(especially Sardinians who are almost no different genetically), both farmers and hunter gatherers were likely mainly black(or at least dark) haired.


The main think that connects north Europeans and makes them distinct from south Europeans is more hunter gatherer ancestry even though those hunter gatherers in the last 10,000 years may have been totally dark haired, dark brown skinned, and blue eyed. A lot can change through selection of genes in 10,000 years. The paleness(not counting light eyes and probably light hair) in northern Europe may come from their near eastern ancestry. Just evolved into something extreme.

Fire Haired
Fire Haired

Here is an article I made about this.


http://www.theapricity.com/forum/showthread.php?112037-La-Brana-1-had-blue-eyes-dark-skin-dark-hair-and-Y-DNA-C1a2-V20


The skin color of La Brana-1(dated a little over 7,500 years old) is not known. He was missing three mutations(in genes SLC24A5, SLC45A2, and TYR) which are most associated with light skin in Europe today. The problem is that the mutations in SLC24A5 and TYR are just as popular in near easterns(who are generally brown skinned) as in Europeans, plus the one in TYR only reaches around 50%. The one in SLC45A2 is practically 100% in Europeans and around 50% in near easterns. There are definitely other reasons why Europeans have light skin and have not been discovered. A good guess is that he had dark skin(but what shade) but there is also a possibility he had light skin like modern Europeans(especially northern).


Today in Europe light hair-skin-eyes all correlate very well with each other and with "hunter gatherer" ancestry. Hair color is directly connected with eye color. An ancient people who were mainly dark haired, dark skinned, and light eyed is not constant at all with modern people. It is pretty certain though that la Brana-1 and an ~8,000 year old hunter gatherer from Luxembourg had black hair(or at least dark brown) and light eyes. Like La Brana-1 the hunter from Luxembourg was missing those three mutations that are very associated with modern Euro light skin.



first last
first last

"a 7,000-year-old Spaniard"


Shame on National Geographic; this study clearly does not call the ancient man a Spaniard.  


Indeed, the nation of Spain did not exist at the time.  Moreover,  the present-day patterns of human genetic diversity are rarely identical to what existed in the past, and social groups have changed over time, in name and composition. To be sure, There is no clear-cut connection between an individual’s DNA and his or her ethnic affiliation.

robert brooke
robert brooke

Is there any correlation between eye color and resistance or susceptibility to certain medical conditions?Ethnic origin can be a risk factor for some genetic disorders.There are disorders affecting complexion.I remember reading an article about blue skinned people.An ancestor had the gene for methemoglobulinemia,a disorder in which there is an excess of methemoglobulin in the blood,causing those affected to have a bluish complexion.

Sue Ferguson
Sue Ferguson

Amazing what scientists are discovering via DNA testing.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I was just wondering if there are any primates with blue eyes? I also wonder how much longer will it take before the primates that are here now become advanced and start being more like early man, and how the species will coexist with us. I mean sooner or later it seems like there will be more than one sentient species sharing this planet.?!

Diane H.
Diane H.

I was recently looking at the statue's of the Sumerians and wondered why the eyes were blue (actually big and blue). Makes me still wonder.

Bee Farms
Bee Farms

huge changes to the balances of nature from then til now. 

John Caro
John Caro

We are adapting, as we always have, to the conditions we find ourselves in. Even if those conditions include modern medicine or Franken-foods. We are living beyond our means though, and will exaust our natural resources on this course. We have to make changes before more disasters happen. Just one of any kind could wipe us out.  

L Par
L Par

You both should get your genes screened for fun. 23andme is very good. Then you would see that a few years of modern medicine or good food/genetically altered food is a tiny blip that would have little impact on a genome that is revealed over tens of thousands of years. 


For example, you may find you have genetic markers for things like a propensity for obesity because of ancestors who survived famines over the course of centuries upon centuries. You may find you have markers for diseases that are part of surviving worse diseases, like hemachromatosis, seen primarily in Celtic peoples, who shared a common ancestor who stored iron in organs rather than so much in the blood, thought to protect against black plague, a disease where huge blood filled buboes or bubbles of infection formed and could burst, leaving the person without enough iron to form new blood cells to carry oxygen. They would die not only of infection but anemia. Unless you had this genetic mutation, whereby you have too much iron stored where the plague can't get it, you would die of the anemia and weakness of the black plague if you survived the infection and pain. A second infection would get you without this mutation, which many people have today and don't know it.


Or you may have a genetic marker for sickle cell disease. You have a hard time getting malaria with blood cells shaped like that. Your genome tells you whether your ancestors were in Africa or were more like Oetzi. But there would have to be ten thousand years going by before we could see a genetic marker for someone who evolved to adapt to such extremes. To adapt to the high salt diet of modern times would take millennia. Probably most of those folks reproduce successfully before dying. 


Btw, those who have genetic markers for high blood pressure affected by salt are likely those who had ancestors who came from thousands of years of near-salt free habitat, such as central Africa or the remote pristine breadbasket of Eastern Europe cut off from contact, not the pre-Roman and Roman roadways.


You only have the problem to begin with because of tens of thousand of years of adaptation, where people didn't have the mutation would die off. People who needed more salt didn't make it. People who can't have/don't need too much salt survived.


So modern foibles to tens of thousands of years of survival to get in response to harsh condition where many died before reproducing. It's not likely the mild conditions of modern society will do much to shape the genome unless it kills off hoards of humanity before they have kids.

Dwayne LaGrou
Dwayne LaGrou

I have to wonder that because of the advances in medical science that has enabled many people who are alive today that would not have survived back then, If it is creating many weaknesses in our gene pool that will end up hurting our future survival due to a lack of the old "Survival of the fittest" type of genes?

I mean just because I have lived long enough to have passed down my genes even though I may have ailments like high blood pressure or other types of illnesses that would not have been able to be passed down back then! It just makes me wonder.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@Dwayne LaGrouNot likely to happen as that niche is already taken. For evolution to happen, the changes have to make you better at filling a niche. Modern humans haven't been too kind with others trying to fill their niche. The evolutionary pressure would be to avoid doing anything that brings you in direct conflict with humans.

Tim Jensen
Tim Jensen

@Dwayne LaGrou Just because man has evolved to the point he has, doesn't mean other primates will, as well. Evolution isn't proceeding towards some "goal." 
Man's track record with other "sentient beings" isn't too great, either. Up until several thousands of years ago, there was more than one species of human on the planet. 

James Scott
James Scott

White people in America doing their history play. They dont want to acknowledge that the dark skin tone they refer to in this article is representation of a African man. They even used a old picture to make the argument that his skin tone is darker. Having one to believe the picture at the top is new but its old. Why not post the new darker image?

Even how the article refers to "dark skin" instead of saying African skin sends off bells. Every human being will wonder what race are they referring too saying dark skin. But African was dropped intentionally.

Craig Nordmark
Craig Nordmark

@L ParI'm a bit of a pessimist but I see humans undergoing a de-evolution due to modern medicine, technology and society. There are very few things now that will prevent you from passing your genes on to the next generation and those offspring will also be helped to survive to pass on their genes.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

@L Par Genebase.com is a better, more scientific source for any individual's haplotype or subclade.   23and me just doesn't provide the genetic maps with the necessary mutations,  will not answer scientific questions orprovide any proof support health related concerns.

F Khat
F Khat

@Dwayne LaGrou humans are adapting.  They are adapting to a world, and a new niche they are making for themselves.  The "fittest" are still rising, it is just not the fittest at surviving the wild, but navigating the new one.  This does mean humans better push the reset button or keep making that new place for themselves, because once adapted, they may not fit the nature niche they left.  And btw, this is a radical idea, but as for strengthening the species towards this new niche, the poor and tainted food IS Still the Darwinian process n action...after all, only the fittest in this new niche is going to HAVE real food and access to real food that lets them and their offspring keep thriving and out thinking and out maneuvering their rivals...it just isn't the majority.

Thanos A.
Thanos A.

@Dwayne LaGrou and you'd be right. We're a domesticated species, and the "bad" genes will be our undoing in the end. 

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

@Dwayne LaGrouYes, very good.  Survival of the fittest.  I have thought this for some time. It is the case with the animal kingdom.  Why not also with humans? 

Roger Bird
Roger Bird

@Dwayne LaGrou  It is much more likely that our epigenetic pool is taking a hit from all of the frankenfoods that we are eating.  It has been demonstrated that these kinds of hits will impact even the grandchildren.

Jenn LaClair
Jenn LaClair

Those other beings did not just disappear. The Neanderthal for example interbred with early humans and their genes can still be found in modern human DNA.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

@Christopher Johnson @John Caro 

Epidemiologically speaking, unless a disaster is so huge as to exterminate all members of a species (i.e volcanic explosion such as Mt St Helens that wiped out 300,000 animals but not all of one species ((as far as we know))), 1% of any species will survive the disaster.  If the infrastructures allowing the survival of that 1% are also wiped out, then extermination and extinction of that species will occur. 


So, most probably the rest of the world will survive us and do it with health, happiness and prosperity.  Thank goodness. 

Gabriele Menefee
Gabriele Menefee

@F Khat @Dwayne LaGrou 

Well, with humans these days - survival of the fittest doesn't matter as much.  It's survival of the smartest.  Technology has risen to the forefront rather than hunting, gathering, etc.


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