August 21, 2016

Paleolithic European mtDNA lineage U5b2c1 in Carthaginian man


Elizabeth A. Matisoo-Smith et al. A European Mitochondrial Haplotype Identified in Ancient Phoenician Remains from Carthage, North Africa. PLoS ONE 2016. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0155046]


While Phoenician culture and trade networks had a significant impact on Western civilizations, we know little about the Phoenicians themselves. In 1994, a Punic burial crypt was discovered on Byrsa Hill, near the entry to the National Museum of Carthage in Tunisia. Inside this crypt were the remains of a young man along with a range of burial goods, all dating to the late 6th century BCE. Here we describe the complete mitochondrial genome recovered from the Young Man of Byrsa and identify that he carried a rare European haplogroup, likely linking his maternal ancestry to Phoenician influenced locations somewhere on the North Mediterranean coast, the islands of the Mediterranean or the Iberian Peninsula. This result not only provides the first direct ancient DNA evidence of a Phoenician individual but the earliest evidence of a European mitochondrial haplogroup, U5b2c1, in North Africa.

The lineage is the same one as La Braña 1, an Epipaleolithic man buried in a cave at the mountains NE of León. Its presence on a Carthaginian from the 6th century BCE almost certainly indicates that he had native Iberian maternal ancestry, that his family had arrived to Carthage from Gadir (modern Cádiz) or some of the other Phoenician colonies of Andalusia. The location of his burial at the acropolis and the wealth of the burial goods indicate that he belonged to the highest social elite of the still incipient Carthaginian empire. He has been nicknamed "Ariche" (the loved one) and his face reconstructed as you can see in this blog.

Thanks to Jamel of Lapurdi for the reference an a nice related discussion.


  1. So would that mean he would of had a brownesss hue since La Braña 1 was dark skin if I'm not mistaken .

    The people here have an interesting view point on this topic .

    1. "since La Braña 1 was dark skin if I'm not mistaken"...

      We do NOT KNOW that, in spite of some interpretations of the genetic evidence, definitely exaggerated. What we know is that they carried the "dark variant" in one of the genes involved in skin color, SLC24A5.

      This gene is known to be now effectively universal among native Europeans and also strongly correlated to skin color in Indians but it is irrelevant for example in East Asia, whose "whiteness" pathway is totally different, just as the blond pathway in Australasia is different from that in Europe, etc. (similar result doesn't necessarily mean same means, same alleles).

      A most important study on this issue was done in Cape-Verdeans, a mixed Afro-Iberian population, and the result is that said gene only weights 15% and that all the known genes (four) only weight together 40%, with other 40% attributed to unknown genetic variance and 20% to non-genetic factors. See:

      So basically all we can say is that Paleoeuropeans were MAYBE a bit darker than modern Europeans and that probably the "light variant" of said gene (arrived from West Asia in the Neolithic) was under strong positive selection, either because of social/sexual selection (IMO unlikely) or because it gave some sort of advantage, IMO much more likely: Neolithic diet was poor in vitamin D: they ate almost no fish, which is almost the only dietary input of such vitamin, while Paleolithic Europeans did eat a lot of fish and seafood. So basically, with such a (grain, legumes, veggies, meat and dairies rich, but fish-poor) diet, and with no pharmacological supplements yet available, people with darker skin color would have got many health issues, particularly children, not just bone issues but even neurological ones, and the only remedy were to eat plenty of fish (seems they were not into it on cultural grounds) or to naturally suffer selection for lighter skin color (within a rather outdoors lifestyle). This is surely also true for people of dark pigmentation living at high latitudes today: they (and very especially children and pregnant/breastfeeding mothers) must supplement their diet with some dietary source of vitamin D, fish being the most readily available (today there are also pills but some have doubts about their effectiveness).

    2. Also, the mtDNA says nothing about his skin color, only about his maternal ancestry. It could affect cell metabolism (that's what mitochondria do) but no conclusive evidence is known that any lineage is more or less effective in this aspect.

    3. I was chewing a bit more about this and, well, what we "know" (or think we know) regarding Paleo-Europeans is that they could be some 15% darker than Neolithic Europeans (coming from West Asia and only gradually admixing). We also know that they were (almost?) universally blue-eyed, while Neolithic settlers were not. Unlike with skin color, blue eye color is straightforward, with only one group of alleles producing it (green, amber, etc. seem to be product of carrying two different alleles of the relevant OCA gene but ill-understood because it's not simple Mendelian heritage but more complex).

      So your typical Paleoeuropean, say La Braña 1, could be approx. 15% darker than a modern local and should also be blue-eyed, something that is counter-intuitive but apparently quite real.

      And I must insist that haploid (uniparental) lineages are pretty much meaningless for these issues anyhow. You have distant patrilineal R1b "cousins" in Cameroon and Scotland and also in Uyghuristan, you also have distant patrilineal R1a "cousins" in Russia and Bangla-Desh, or N1 "cousins" in Mongolia and Finland, or E1b1 "cousins" in much of Africa and also many parts of Europe. Patri and matrilineages are very useful in order to reconstruct the long-term movements of people in the forgotten past but they have only very weak or no relationship with phenotype, looks. That's in the nuclear genome, where 99% of genes exist, being subject to admixture and reshuffling every single generation.


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