Ancient DNA confirms the North African origin of the first colonizers of the Canary Islands

Ancient DNA confirms the North African origin of the first colonizers of the Canary Islands



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A new study confirms North African provenance thanks to the first study of ancient DNA from the Canary Islands which includes archaeological samples from all the islands and the first to analyze the mitochondrial genome.

About 20 million years ago, volcanic activity caused the islands that make up the Canary archipelago to emerge from the deep sea, that's why these lands were never connected to the African continent. However, in the 13th century when European navigators discovered various groups of islands in the Atlantic, only the Canaries were inhabited.

This indigenous population had habits and dialects similar to the closest Berber populations, but they did not know the navigation methods. They were completely isolated from the African continent.

The subsequent conquests by the Kingdom of Castile, the beginning of the sugar cane plantations and the slave trade They caused the loss of not only the culture and language of these indigenous people, but your genetic makeup will be modified.

But the origin of these peoples has always aroused a lot of interest from the scientific community. Archaeological, anthropological, linguistic and genetic analysis has pointed in recent years to a Berber origin of the first Canarian inhabitants.

Now, a new study confirms North African provenance thanks to first study of ancient DNA from the Canary Islands which includes archaeological samples from all the islands and the first to carry out a thorough analysis of the mitochondrial genome. The results are published in the journal PLoS ONE.

"It is the first time that samples from the islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura have been included, and it is also the first time that a comparative analysis of all the islands has been made to try to explain how the aboriginal settlement of the archipelago occurred", stresses Rosa Fregel, author principal of the work and researcher at Stanford University (USA) and the University of La Laguna, and who has had the collaboration of the Canary Island museums and numerous experts in archeology and anthropology of the Canary Islands.

To shed light on the first colonizers of the archipelago who arrived in the Canary Islands around the year 1,000 CE, the team of scientists analyzed 48 ancient mitochondrial genomes - inherited directly from the mother and very useful for tracking human migrations - from 25 archaeological sites on the seven main islands.

[Tweet «Most of the haplogroups of the aboriginal populations of the Canary archipelago currently have a Mediterranean distribution»]

"We have carried out a phylogenetic analysis that has allowed us to estimate the most probable origin of the mitochondrial lineages –also called haplogroups– present in the Canarian aboriginal population and to determine if some of them are autochthonous to the islands," adds Fregel.

Four new autochthonous lineages of the Canary Islands

By comparing the mitochondrial lineages present in the Canary Islands with ancient and modern samples from North Africa, the research group found that most of the haplogroups of the aboriginal populations of the Canary archipelago currently have a Mediterranean distribution.

“Some are restricted to north central africa (Tunisia and Algeria), while others have a broader distribution, including the whole Maghreb, and in some cases, Europe and the Middle East”, Says the expert.

Certain lineages are further related to haplogroups that are typical of populations that expanded from the Near East and that starred in the Neolithic expansion with the acquisition of farming and herding techniques some 10,000 years ago, as confirmed by a recent analysis of ancient DNA in Morocco.

In this study, the migration of European Neolithic populations in North Africa 5,000 years ago.

"The presence of haplogroups of Mediterranean distribution in the aborigines of the Canaries confirms the impact of these prehistoric and historical migrations on the Berbers and indicates that they were already a mixed population at the time of the indigenous colonization of the islands", Fregel specifies.

But one of the most striking findings of the study published today is the identification of four new autochthonous lineages of the Canary Islands, whose distribution is similar to that of the already known U6b1 in the Canary Islands: H1e1a9, H4a1e, J2a2d1a and L3b1a12. "These new autochthonous lineages also have an antiquity that coincides with the arrival of human populations in the Canary Islands, so it is possible that they originated in the islands", explains the researcher.

[Tweet «There were at least two waves of settlement in #Canarias. One of them affected only the easternmost islands »]

Two waves of colonization in the Canary Islands

The study has also revealed a particular aboriginal colonization model, since the distribution of mitochondrial lineages was asymmetric on the islands. "It was observed that certain haplogroups (for example, U6c1) are exclusive to the islands closest to the mainland", Fregel emphasizes.

This result suggests that there were at least two waves of settlement in the Canary Islands. One of them affected only the easternmost islands.

Scientists further show that the aboriginal populations of the Canary Islands were not homogeneous and some of them, such as those of El Hierro and La Gomera, presented low genetic diversity.

"These observations seem to indicate that each aboriginal population had to face different situations determined by their isolation and the scarce contact between islands," says the scientist.

Islands with the capacity to support larger populations, such as Tenerife and Gran Canaria, they retained a high genetic variability, while others with more restricted means, such as La Gomera and El Hierro, had a lower genetic diversity. "This led to inbreeding and they had to counteract it by developing exogamous practices," concludes Fregel.

Bibliographic reference:

Fregel R, Ordóñez AC, Santana-Cabrera J, Cabrera VM, Velasco-Vázquez J, Alberto V, et al. (2019) «Mitogenomes illuminate the origin and migration patterns of the indigenous people of the Canary Islands». PLoS ONE 14 (3): e0209125. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0209125.

Via Sync


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