La Brana man: there’s a lot to learn from old blue eyes

Artist's impression of La Brana 1. (Pic: CSIC)
Artist’s impression of La Brana 1. (Pic: CSIC)

The cave-man from 7,000 years ago is not so different from the city-dwellers of today

Seven thousand years ago, in what is now north-west Spain, there lived a strange-looking man. Strange, at least, by modern standards: though dark-skinned and swarthy, with black or dark brown hair, he had jarringly blue eyes.

La Brana 1, as this ancient human has been named by researchers after the cave in which he was found, lived around the Cantabrian mountains on the northern coast, and died in his early thirties. He would have been a hunter-gatherer, equipped with bone and stone tools and fur clothing. A group of mountaineers discovered his remains, and that of another man, in 2006. Even after seven millennia, the man’s DNA was well preserved by the atmosphere in the cool, dry cave, allowing researchers to piece together his genome, and learn that he shared genes with Africans which gave him a dark complexion, but – unexpectedly – blue eyes like northern Europeans.

The blue-eyed man lived on the cusp of one of the great revolutions of human history. There have been a few; 40,000 or so years earlier, in the so-called “Great Leap Forward”, we moved from being little more than just another species of big African ape to the tool-using, clothes-wearing, language-speaking polymaths we are now. Seven thousand years later we began the industrial and technological revolutions that are still going on today.

And in La Brana’s time, the Mesolithic, humanity was undergoing a transformation as profound as either of those: the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the blue-eyed man and his local contemporaries was already being swept away, although he wouldn’t have known it, by agriculture. Humans were settling down. A few thousand miles to the east, in the Fertile Crescent, people had been growing crops and herding cattle for a millennium and more. The pharaonic dynasties of Egypt were still in the future, but their foundations had already been laid in the mud of the Nile valley.

More on human evolution

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Australopithecus sediba: can we stop calling it a ‘missing link?

This is the history of humanity: of change not through genes, but through culture, learned and passed on to our children. What might surprise us most about La Brana is not that he was different from us but that he was almost the same. His genome reveals a few minor distinctions from modern Europeans – unsurprisingly, he was likely lactose-intolerant, since he lived before the local domestication of the cow. But 7,000 years is the blink of an eye in evolutionary time. If La Brana had been adopted by a modern family, he could have walked among us, and lived as an unremarkable citizen of London or New York or Madrid.

By La Brana’s time, modern humanity had long since spread almost around the globe. Humans could be found from the far south of Argentina to the highlands of New Guinea, in seal fur around near the Arctic, in loincloths in the jungle. New research by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project, at the Natural History Museum, has shown that Britain had been settled and abandoned several times already over nearly a million years, by various human species including Neanderthals, by the time Homo sapiens managed to get a permanent foothold some time before 13,000 BC. These great people-movements required advanced technology – flint tools, fire, warm clothing, seaworthy vessels – but no huge changes to our anatomy.

That basic form has remained largely unchanged for around 200,000 years. It’s weak, compared with the vastly more robust Neanderthal, and slow, compared with most predators and prey, but our adaptability, our brains, have made us by far the most deadly hunter on the planet: every time we reached a new continent, our arrival was rapidly followed by the extinction of most local large animals. We haven’t changed much because we haven’t really had to: the human form has worked, everywhere we’ve been.

We look very different, of course. In general, people in sunnier areas have darker skin, which sounds like an evolutionary adaptation – and perhaps it is, although Jared Diamond points out that the correlation isn’t perfect and suggests that it’s just as much to do with sexual selection for local ideas of beauty. But these are surface changes, of skin and hair and eyes; a Polynesian child is not more adapted to sailing canoes than a Western one is. We are creatures of culture, naked apes designed to be adapted.

Perhaps La Brana looked strange to his contemporaries, or perhaps everyone looked like him, 7,000 years ago on the Spanish shores of the Mediterranean; perhaps he was beautiful, by the standards of the day. But he would have been a human. If he was reincarnated, and brought up here, he could have sold you coffee this morning and you wouldn’t have paid the slightest attention, apart from to those cold blue eyes in that dark brown face.

More by Tom Chivers

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Obama says cannabis is safer than alcohol. He’s right
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