Maternal ancestors: ice age Europe and Britain

In my previous post on my deep maternal ancestors ( I summarized the “grandmothers” who contributed specific mutations to my mtDNA that allow me to trace them (and approximately when and where they lived) all the way back  to Mitochondrial Eve, the most recent common maternal ancestor of all living humans. These women were real and specific individuals, and Sykes and others have given the older ones specific names (usually starting with the letter of the haplogroup they founded).  I have followed this by giving names to the founders of the subgroups to which I belong. In this post, I  give a brief biography of each of these ancestral grandmothers, starting with Mitochondrial Eve, placing them in evolutionary, geographic, and climatic context.

Mitochondrial Eve (haplogroup L1)

Mitochondrial Eve

Mitochondrial Eve

Mitochondrial Eve, my great*9,650th grandmother, lived approximately 192,400 years ago in southern Africa. Her haplogroup L1 is ancestral to all mitochondrial haplogroups found today. It is currently thought that Mitochondrial Eve was a member of a relatively small interbreeding population of between 1,500 to 16,000 individuals in and around Tanzania. Tishkoff et al (2009) extrapolated that Eve’s location was somewhere around the Angola-Namibia border near the Atlantic Ocean, which is consistent with other studies that have associated Eve’s haplogroup L1 with the “click languages” of southern and eastern Africa (such as those used by the bushmen of Namibia).

Lara (Haplogroup L3)



Lara lived approximately 71,600 years ago in Africa, which would make her my great*3,600th grandmother. L3 is the haplogroup from which the haplogroups M and N are believed to have arisen. These latter two haplogroups are ancestral to all haplogroups outside Africa, and are believed to represent the initial successful migration by modern humans out of Africa. Today,  haplogroup L3 is confined to Africa and emigrant African populations. It is most common in East Africa.

Nasreen (Haplogroup N, Eurasia)



It has been estimated that from a population of 2,000 to 5,000 individuals in Africa, only a small group, possibly as few as 150 to 1,000 people, crossed the Red Sea around 70,000 years ago. Today at the Bab-el-Mandeb straits, the Red Sea is about 20 kilometres wide, but 70,000 years ago sea levels were 70 meters lower (owing to glaciation) and the water was much narrower. Though the straits were never completely closed, there may have been islands in between which could be reached using simple rafts.

Nasreen, the founder of the N haplogroup, either lived in East Africa shortly before the exodus from Africa  or in the Arabian Pensinsular shortly after the exodus from Africa. Nasreen has been dated to 71,200 years ago.

Of all the lineages present in Africa only the female descendants of one lineage, mtDNA haplogroup L3, are found outside Africa. Had there been several migrations one would expect descendants of more than one lineage to be found outside Africa. (55,800-87,100 years).

Rohani and Rian (Haplogroup R, West Eurasia)



Oppenheimer (2006) named the South Asian ancestral mother of the R haplogroup as Rohani who lived 66,600 (52,600-81,000) years ago. The period from 74,000 to 58,000 years ago was a period of intense cold in the Northern Hemisphere and the Europeans’ ancestors were unable to move back into the Levant from Asia for over 10,000 years. During this period,  a later West Eurasian ancestral mother for haplogroup R has been identified by Soames et al (2009). She has not been given a name by Sykes or Oppenheimer, and I am calling her Rian (after the great-grandmother of Elrond). She lived 59,100 years ago, which makes her my great*2,900th grandmother. Although Rian is not the founder of the R haplogroup per se, she is the most recent common ancestor for all descendents of the R haplogroup in Europe.

Europa (Haplogroup U)



Haplogroup U originated some 54,000 years ago in the Middle East, and gave rise to all the native European haplogroups. For this reason, Oppenheimer gave the name Europa to the ancestral mother of haplogroup U. Europa lived around 54,000 years ago, making her my great*2,730th grandmother.

Dramatic warming of the climate in the period 58,000 to 48,000 years ago meant groups were finally able to move north up the Fertile Crescent returning to the Levant. From there they moved into Europe via the Bosporus from 50,000 years ago. Given the uncertainties involved in dating the mtDNA mutations, the move into Europe can be more accurately dated by looking at the climatic opportunities (Oppenheimer 2003).

From 56,000 to 50,000 years ago, there followed in quick succession a run of four warm and wet periods. Apart from the opening of the Fertile Crescent corridor, dry areas of the Levant such as the Negev Desert became potentially habitable. Europa probably lived in the Levant and her earliest daughter lines entered Europe between 50,000 and 55,000 years ago.

Several lineages followed the great herds of buffalo, antelope, woolly mammoths, and other animals from the Fertile Crescent region through what is now modern-day Iran to the vast steppes of Central Asia. These semi-arid grass-covered plains formed an ancient “superhighway” stretching from eastern France to Korea. Having migrated north out of Africa into the Middle East, these people then traveled both east and west along this Central Asian route. Others traveled westward into Europe. These Upper Paleolithic people, the Cro-Magnon, dominated the human expansion into Europe that eventually lead to the demise of the native Neanderthal population by around 30,000 years ago.

From around 45,000 years ago until 43,000 years ago, the climate became much colder, causing a mini-Ice Age in Europe. Beginning about 40,000 years ago the Earth’s climate shifted and became colder and more arid. This marked the beginning of the most recent Ice Age  (the Würm Ice Age) which lasted over 20,000 years. Drought hit Africa reverting the grasslands of Northern Africa to desert. For the next 20,000 years the Saharan Gateway between Africa and the Middle East was effectively closed.

Ursula (Haplogroup U5)

Haplogroup U5 UrsulaThe clan of Ursula (Latin for she-bear) is the oldest of the seven native European clans (the seven U haplogroups found in Europe, whose founders were dubbed the seven daughters of Eve by Sykes). Ursula is estimated to have lived 36,000 years ago, making her my great*1830 grandmother. Ursula lived in Europe during the relatively warmer period of the Hengelo interstadial (38,000 to 36,000 years ago). Summer temperatures were similar to the present day, but winters were markedly colder, with snow cover on the plains of Europe for three to six months of the year and much greater climate variability than today.

DNA tests on ancient skeletons have shown that U5 was the principal mitochondrial haplogroup of Paleolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Northern Europe. U5 has been found in human remains dating from the Mesolithic in England, Germany, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, and France. Ancient DNA tests conducted in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia indicate that the frequency of U5 has progressively declined over time through the Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Middle Ages. Nowadays it remains most common in the far north of Europe, where the Mesolithic population has been least affected by subsequent migrations.

According to Bryan Sykes (2001), Ursula was likely born in the mountains of Greece near Delphi,  close to the beginning of the Ice Age. At the time he was writing, Ursula was dated to around 45,000 years ago, the time when  modern humans first moved into Europe. With the more recent dating to around 36,000 years ago it is possible that Ursula lived further west, perhaps even as far west as Spain.  In any case, the world that Ursula was born into was a lot colder than it is today, and would get colder still in the following millennia. She was part of a semi-nomadic band who followed the deer or bison herds between their summer and winter grazing lands. Ursula and other women spent a lot of time gathering food: fruit, berries, nuts, roots, as well as small animals and bird eggs. Life was extremely hard, with high risk of injuries in hunting, and of being taken by predators such as lions and leopards, as well as the ever present risk of starvation  in bad years. The average life expectancy at that time is estimated to be around 35 years.  However, life expectancy was lower for women than men, with few women surviving into their thirties.

Ursula probably gave birth to her first daughter around age 15 and she would have nursed the baby and carried it on her back while she foraged in the forest. Three or four years later, she had another baby daughter, and both daughters grew up strong and healthy and gave Ursula grand-daughters. Ursula probably died in her 30s, perhaps because she lost too many teeth to chew the tough food that was the staple between animal kills, or perhaps because she was unable to escape a predator, or in childbirth. The oldest known cave paintings in Europe date from the time of Ursula, the Aurignacian period (38,000 to 30,000 years ago), and these paintings often depict dangerous animals such as lions, bears, hyaenas, and woolly rhinoceroses, as well as humans, horses, and other food animals. Ursula’s time was in the period when humans developed art, music and personal decoration.

Udala (Haplogroup U5a)



Haplogroup U5a is a lineage that branched off from U5 approximately 26,900 years ago, and is mostly distributed in southern Europe today. Sykes did not name the U5a founder, I have chosen the Basque name Udala. Udala lived around 26,900 years ago, making her my great*1,375th grandmother.  Not long before her time, humans intentionally began producing sculptures for the first time. The Venus of Willendorf (illustrated left) dates from around 24,000 years ago.

Udala lived in a slighter warmer period (the Denenkamp interstadial 30,000 to 25,000 years ago) that preceded the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) when much of northern Europe was covered in thick ice sheets, and much of Europe south of the ice sheets was permafrost and unsuitable for human occupation.

Haplogroup U5 and its subclades U5a and U5b form the highest population concentrations in the far north, in Sami (Laplanders), Finns, and Estonians, but it is spread widely at lower levels throughout Europe. For example, Cheddar Man, the oldest remains of anatomically modern humans in Britain, was in Haplogroup U5a. The Cheddar Man is the nickname for the ancient human remains found in Cheddar Gorge; his approximate date of death was 7150 BCE (9162 years ago).

Although U5 is now ubiquitous in Europe, the oldest Europa great-granddaughter, U5a, is commonest in the Basque country of northern Spain. One of the few European refuges during the last ice age, the Basque region managed to preserve more of its original genetic diversity than did other parts of Western Europe. We can thus assume that Udala either lived near the Basque region of South-West Europe or her descendents were forced into that region as Europe entered the Last Glacial Maximum period from around 23,000 to 16,500 years ago.

Between around 30,000 and 26,000 years ago, modern humans reached Britain only to retreat again from the advancing ice. Its possible, but perhaps unlikely, that Udala was one of these early pioneers whose descendents took refuge from the ice further south. Because so much of the Earth’s water was trapped in ice, the sea’s level was about 127 m (417 ft.) lower than it is today. Consequently, Britain was joined to Ireland by an exposed “land bridge,” making transit between those regions more practical as boats were no longer needed for the journey. The lowered sea level also joined Britain to Continental Europe by an area of dry land, known today as Doggerland (which extended also to Norway). This meant that humans retreating from the ice would have been able to walk south into Europe.

Urd (Haplogroup U5a1)



During the last ice age, Northern Europe was depopulated, with isolated surviving groups locked in southern refuges. Urd lived in the Basque refuge around 18,200 (9,800-27,100) years ago. I have named Urd after one of the three Norns (the Fates of Scandinavian mythology), the Norn of the past. Urd is my great*940th grandmother.

The Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) covered much of Europe in thick ice sheets from 23,000 to 16,500 years ago. Much of Europe south of the ice sheets was permafrost and unsuitable for human occupation. There were three main refuge areas of Southern Europe to which the Palaeolithic peoples of Europe retreated. From west to east, the first consisted of parts of France and Spain either side of the Pyrenees, in the Basque country. The second refuge area was Italy, with more or less continuous local occupation. The third was the Ukraine, a large area north of the Black Sea defined by two great rivers, the Dnepr and the Don, and separated from the rest of Southern Europe by the Carpathian Mountains, which were partially glaciated at the LGM.

During the LGM, permafrost extended down to southern France, just north of Bordeaux and into the uplands of northern Provence. The areas just to the south of the main ice sheets had little or no vegetation. Only in the Dordogne region of southwest France and the foothills of the Pyrenees, where modern humans had lived for millennia before the LGM, is there widespread evidence of their having stuck it out during the LGM (Burroughs 2005). This region was arid semi-desert with little thick woody vegetation. The main refugia for deciduous trees and pines were on the western side of the mountains in Greece.

The sudden changes in climate during this period were unlike anything we have experienced in recorded history. The sudden jumps associated with centuries-long fluctuations were typically in the range of 5 to 10 C in average temperatures. But decade to decade variations were much greater. These wild swings in climate would have required an extraordinarily adaptable and migratory lifestyle, as well as making any form of agriculture impossible.

Urd lived in the Basque region and probably was part of a group who moved seasonally between the sea shore in the winter and inland areas where game animals and edible plants were plentiful in the summer.

Una (Haplogroup U5a1a)



Una probably lived two or three thousand years before people re-inhabited Britain at around 12,000 years ago. She may have lived in the Basque region or perhaps a little further north.  Una is my great*780th grandmother.

She may well have  been part of the Magdalenian culture in the foothills of the Pyrenees who produced the stunning cave paintings at sites such as Roc-de Sers, Lascaux, and Niaux (more on this in my next post).

Ulfa (Haplogroup U5a1a1)



Haplogroup U5a1a1 originated around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. I have given the name Ulfa (Old Norse for female wolf) to the ancestral mother of U5a1a1. Ulfa lived around 12,000  years ago, making her my great*630th grandmother.

The end of the last Ice Age can be identified with the sudden warming in the period known as the Bølling/Allerød interstadial, that commenced 14, 600 years ago. This warm period is associated with a rise in sealevel and substantial melting of the Finnoscandian ice sheet. During this interstadial, woodland cover extended further northwards and people spread from the southern refuges into Switzerland, southern  Germany and Belgium.

Sites such as Gough’s Cave in Somerset dated at 14,000 years ago provide evidence suggesting that humans returned to Britain towards the end of this ice age, in a warm period known as the Dimlington interstadial, although further extremes of cold right before the final thaw probably caused them to leave again and then return repeatedly. The environment during this ice age period would have been a largely treeless tundra, eventually replaced by a gradually warmer climate, perhaps reaching 17 degrees Celsius in summer, encouraging the expansion of birch trees as well as shrub and grasses.

Two colder periods interrupted the Bølling/Allerød interstadial. Firstly, the Older Dryas occurred at 14,100 years ago and then the very dramatic reversal of the Younger Dryas occurred during the period 12,900 to 11,600 years ago. During the Younger Dryas there was a temporary disappearance of the woodland cover that had previously extended over much of Europe. When the Younger Dryas ended, the change for northern Europe was dramatic. Annual average temperatures rose by about 15 °C with a midsummer rise of 5 °C  and in midwinter by over 20 °C.  It was towards the end of the Younger Dryas that humans returned to Britain, this time permanently, with perhaps Ulfa among them.

Many animal species also returned to inhabit the land.  At this time, Ireland and Britain were still joined to continental Europe by Doggerland, and so the reoccupation of Britain approximately 12,000 years ago would have been on foot. I like to imagine that Ulfa was one of the first humans to return to Britain after the ice.

Urwen (Haplogroup U5a1a1* Group B)



Urwen, the maternal founder of this subgroup, probably lived around 6000 years ago. I somewhat arbitrarily give her a date of 5300 years ago, the time when British took up farming. She is named after the second child of Húrin and Morwen, and is my great*292nd grandmother.

After the end of the last Ice Age (around 11,500 years ago), Ireland once again became separated from Britain due to the rising tides. Later (around 8,500 years), Britain was also cut off from the rest of Europe by the same phenomenon, albeit at a much higher level. So Urwen probably lived in Britain or Ireland.  The final collapse of the ice age heralded the dawn of agriculture.

Urwen is the last of my maternal ancestors identifiable through the mitochondrial DNA analysis. She lived in the neolithic age at the beginning of agriculture in Britain about 3300 BCE. The Neolithic period in the British Isles was characterised by the adoption of agriculture and sedentary living, leading to the gradual decline of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. To make room for the new farmland, these early agricultural communities undertook mass deforestation across the islands, dramatically and permanently transforming the landscape.

The Neolithic also saw the construction of a wide variety of monuments in the landscape, many of which were megalithic in nature. The earliest of these are the chambered tombs of the Early Neolithic. Newgrange in County Meath, western Ireland, is a chambered tomb built around 5200 years ago, about the time that Urwen lived. In the Late Neolithic, this form of monumentalization was replaced by the construction of stone circles, such as Stonehenge, a trend that would continue into the following Bronze Age.

Wayland’s Smithy is a Neolithic long barrow and chamber tomb site located near the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which I visited in 1992. This barrow was built in two phases, a timber chambered oval barrow built around 5700 years ago and the second stone chambered long barrow around 5400 years ago, the time of Urwen.


13 thoughts on “Maternal ancestors: ice age Europe and Britain

  1. Pingback: Maternal ancestors: Bronze age, iron age, Roman Britain | Mountains and rivers

  2. Pingback: 99 Word Flash Fiction: Our cousins | Reflections and Nightmares- Irene A Waters (writer and memoirist)

    • We are part of the same tribe! I have been thinking I should do another DNA test, given the increase in the amount of information that can be obtained for less cost. I was looking around and came across which I had not known about. Do you recommend it? I am interested to get the detailed information about SNPs etc, not just the %ethnicity etc which some testing sites provide. Regards, Colin

      • Hi Colin, I found your site after searching for more info on U5a1a1- which is also my haplogroup. I used 23andme and I do recommend it. the service is straight forward, and the info is relatively detailed. I have found it enlightening and really exciting!

      • Yes, I took a look at 23andme and it seemed to be a good service. I’ve been waiting till I am less busy, and tests are cheaper and more extensive. But sometime soon, I will do another test. I also have a lot of additional family history information that I need to follow up, and looking forward to finding some time to do that.

  3. Great article. I just discovered through FTDNA that I am at U5a1a1. So, it sounds like the origen of our maternal ancestor is in Great Britain and Ireland, correct?

    • Well we share a remote ancestor born 12,000 years ago. At that time, Britain was joined to Europe and its probably not possible to know whether our ancestor lived in Britain or on what is now continental Europe. But either her, or one of her descendants around 10,000-12,000 years ago, probably walked to Britainas the ice sheets retreated. Regards, Colin

  4. So fascinating! My first DNA test with a company called TribeCode said I was 6% Basque. I am, per 23andMe, U5a1a1. This gives credence to that first test.

    • Lorna,
      Hallo, long-lost cousin of the Ulfa clan. I have been waiting a few years for DNA testing to become better and cheaper. Maybe its time for me to do one of the more comprehensive tests and see what else I can find out,
      Regards, Colin

    • I had more detailed results detailing the specific mutations in my mitochondrial DNA. Some research on the web enabled me to pin down the more detailed subgroup. But it took some effort. Probably less effort (more money) to find a lab that will do more detailed haplogroup, or give the detailed results.

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