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Concept: Glacial period


Little is known about the ice age human occupation of the Pacific Coast of Canada. Here we present the results of a targeted investigation of a late Pleistocene shoreline on Calvert Island, British Columbia. Drawing upon existing geomorphic information that sea level in the area was 2-3 m lower than present between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago, we began a systematic search for archaeological remains dating to this time period beneath intertidal beach sediments. During subsurface testing, we uncovered human footprints impressed into a 13,000-year-old paleosol beneath beach sands at archaeological site EjTa-4. To date, our investigations at this site have revealed a total of 29 footprints of at least three different sizes. The results presented here add to the growing body of information pertaining to the early deglaciation and associated human presence on the west coast of Canada at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Concepts: Earth, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Archaeology, Glaciology, Glacial period


Although Siberia was inhabited by modern humans at an early stage, there is still debate over whether it remained habitable during the extreme cold of the Last Glacial Maximum or whether it was subsequently repopulated by peoples with recent shared ancestry. Previous studies of the genetic history of Siberian populations were hampered by the extensive admixture that appears to have taken place among these populations, since commonly used methods assume a tree-like population history and at most single admixture events. Here we analyze geogenetic maps and use other approaches to distinguish the effects of shared ancestry from prehistoric migrations and contact, and develop a new method based on the covariance of ancestry components, to investigate the potentially complex admixture history. We furthermore adapt a previously devised method of admixture dating for use with multiple events of gene flow, and apply these methods to whole-genome genotype data from over 500 individuals belonging to 20 different Siberian ethnolinguistic groups. The results of these analyses indicate that there have been multiple layers of admixture detectable in most of the Siberian populations, with considerable differences in the admixture histories of individual populations. Furthermore, most of the populations of Siberia included here, even those settled far to the north, appear to have a southern origin, with the northward expansions of different populations possibly being driven partly by the advent of pastoralism, especially reindeer domestication. These newly developed methods to analyse multiple admixture events should aid in the investigation of similarly complex population histories elsewhere.

Concepts: Human, Human migration, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Last glacial period, Glacial period, Reindeer, Siberia


Coralgal reefs preserve the signatures of sea-level fluctuations over Earth’s history, in particular since the Last Glacial Maximum 20,000 years ago, and are used in this study to indicate that punctuated sea-level rise events are more common than previously observed during the last deglaciation. Recognizing the nature of past sea-level rises (i.e., gradual or stepwise) during deglaciation is critical for informing models that predict future vertical behavior of global oceans. Here we present high-resolution bathymetric and seismic sonar data sets of 10 morphologically similar drowned reefs that grew during the last deglaciation and spread 120 km apart along the south Texas shelf edge. Herein, six commonly observed terrace levels are interpreted to be generated by several punctuated sea-level rise events forcing the reefs to shrink and backstep through time. These systematic and common terraces are interpreted to record punctuated sea-level rise events over timescales of decades to centuries during the last deglaciation, previously recognized only during the late Holocene.

Concepts: Water, Oceanography, Future, Nature, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period


Reconstructions of the vegetation of Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) are an enigma. Pollen-based analyses have suggested that Europe was largely covered by steppe and tundra, and forests persisted only in small refugia. Climate-vegetation model simulations on the other hand have consistently suggested that broad areas of Europe would have been suitable for forest, even in the depths of the last glaciation. Here we reconcile models with data by demonstrating that the highly mobile groups of hunter-gatherers that inhabited Europe at the LGM could have substantially reduced forest cover through the ignition of wildfires. Similar to hunter-gatherers of the more recent past, Upper Paleolithic humans were masters of the use of fire, and preferred inhabiting semi-open landscapes to facilitate foraging, hunting and travel. Incorporating human agency into a dynamic vegetation-fire model and simulating forest cover shows that even small increases in wildfire frequency over natural background levels resulted in large changes in the forested area of Europe, in part because trees were already stressed by low atmospheric CO2 concentrations and the cold, dry, and highly variable climate. Our results suggest that the impact of humans on the glacial landscape of Europe may be one of the earliest large-scale anthropogenic modifications of the earth system.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Pleistocene, Paleolithic, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period


Human populations, along with those of many other species, are thought to have contracted into a number of refuge areas at the height of the last Ice Age. European populations are believed to be, to a large extent, the descendants of the inhabitants of these refugia, and some extant mtDNA lineages can be traced to refugia in Franco-Cantabria (haplogroups H1, H3, V, and U5b1), the Italian Peninsula (U5b3), and the East European Plain (U4 and U5a). Parts of the Near East, such as the Levant, were also continuously inhabited throughout the Last Glacial Maximum, but unlike western and eastern Europe, no archaeological or genetic evidence for Late Glacial expansions into Europe from the Near East has hitherto been discovered. Here we report, on the basis of an enlarged whole-genome mitochondrial database, that a substantial, perhaps predominant, signal from mitochondrial haplogroups J and T, previously thought to have spread primarily from the Near East into Europe with the Neolithic population, may in fact reflect dispersals during the Late Glacial period, ∼19-12 thousand years (ka) ago.

Concepts: Europe, Western Asia, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Glacial period


Reconstructing past ocean-climate environments and heat transport requires proxies from which these conditions can be quantified. This is particularly important for the evaluation of numerical palaeoclimate models. Here we present new evidence for a reduced North Atlantic Current (NAC) at the termination of the third last glacial, for which palaeocurrent information was previously unavailable. This is based on an exquisitely preserved set of buried iceberg scours seen in three-dimensional seismic reflection images from the mid-Norwegian slope. The scours were formed ∼430 ka during the transition from glacial to interglacial conditions. The spiral geometry of the scours suggests that they were carved by grounded icebergs influenced by tidal and geostrophic ocean currents. Using the ratio between the estimated tidal and geostrophic current velocities and comparing them with velocities from the Last Glacial Maximum and the present, we show that the stage 12 NAC velocities may have been ∼50% slower than the present.

Concepts: Present, Time, Physical oceanography, Atlantic Ocean, Past, Ice age, Glacial period, Gulf Stream


Global climate fluctuations have significantly influenced the distribution and abundance of biodiversity [1]. During unfavorable glacial periods, many species experienced range contraction and fragmentation, expanding again during interglacials [2-4]. An understanding of the evolutionary consequences of both historical and ongoing climate changes requires knowledge of the temporal dynamics of population numbers during such climate cycles. Variation in abundance should have left clear signatures in the patterns of intraspecific genetic variation in extant species, from which historical effective population sizes (Ne) can be estimated [3]. We analyzed whole-genome sequences of 38 avian species in a pairwise sequentially Markovian coalescent (PSMC, [5]) framework to quantitatively reveal changes in Ne from approximately 10 million to 10 thousand years ago. Significant fluctuations in Ne over time were evident for most species. The most pronounced pattern observed in many species was a severe reduction in Ne coinciding with the beginning of the last glacial period (LGP). Among species, Ne varied by at least three orders of magnitude, exceeding 1 million in the most abundant species. Several species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species showed long-term reduction in population size, predating recent declines. We conclude that cycles of population expansions and contractions have been a common feature of many bird species during the Quaternary period, likely coinciding with climate cycles. Population size reduction should have increased the risk of extinction but may also have promoted speciation. Species that have experienced long-term declines may be especially vulnerable to recent anthropogenic threats.

Concepts: Climate change, Endangered species, Extinction, Pleistocene, Ice age, Glacial period, Interglacial, IUCN Red List


Migratory behavior in birds is evolutionarily plastic, but it is unclear how this behavior responded during glacial cycles. One view is that at glacial maxima, species simply shifted their breeding ranges south of glacial ice and remained migratory. To test this hypothesis, we constructed ecological niche models for breeding and wintering ranges of 56 species, finding that 70% of currently long-distance North American migrant species likely lacked suitable breeding habitat in North America at the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), and we hypothesized that they reverted to the ancestral state of being tropical sedentary residents. A smaller percentage of short-distance migrants (27%) experienced altered migratory behavior at the LGM, although the ranges of all species were shifted southward, as traditionally envisioned. We suggest that many species oscillate between sedentary and migratory strategies with each glacial cycle acting as an adaptive switch. Thus, range shifts occur more frequently than speciation events and are inadequately depicted by phylogenetic reconstructions. We suggest that reconstructing the evolutionary history of traits, such as migratory behavior, is best served by using ranges at glacial maxima. A phylogeny of warblers strongly predicted LGM, but not present distributions, and suggested that migration was re-expressed from three tropical centers of warbler diversity. Understanding of evolutionary history will be improved when reconstructions use distributions relevant to the time of character transitions.

Concepts: Evolution, Phylogenetic tree, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glacial period, Timeline of glaciation


The giant deer Megaloceros giganteus is among the most fascinating Late Pleistocene Eurasian megafauna that became extinct at the end of the last ice age. Important questions persist regarding its phylogenetic relationship to contemporary taxa and the reasons for its extinction. We analyzed two large ancient cervid bone fragments recovered from cave sites in the Swabian Jura (Baden-Württemberg, Germany) dated to 12,000 years ago. Using hybridization capture in combination with next generation sequencing, we were able to reconstruct nearly complete mitochondrial genomes from both specimens. Both mtDNAs cluster phylogenetically with fallow deer and show high similarity to previously studied partial Megaloceros giganteus DNA from Kamyshlov in western Siberia and Killavullen in Ireland. The unexpected presence of Megaloceros giganteus in Southern Germany after the Ice Age suggests a later survival in Central Europe than previously proposed. The complete mtDNAs provide strong phylogenetic support for a Dama-Megaloceros clade. Furthermore, isotope analyses support an increasing competition between giant deer, red deer, and reindeer after the Last Glacial Maximum, which might have contributed to the extinction of Megaloceros in Central Europe.

Concepts: Deer, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Glacial period


The Willandra Lakes complex is one of the few locations in semi-arid Australia to preserve both paleoenvironmental and Paleolithic archeological archives at high resolution. The stratigraphy of transverse lunette dunes on the lakes' downwind margins record a late Quaternary sequence of wetting and drying. Within the Willandra system, the Lake Mungo lunette is best known for its preservation of the world’s oldest known ritual burials, and high densities of archeological traces documenting human adaptation to changing environmental conditions over the last 45 ka. Here we identify evidence at Lake Mungo for a previously unrecognised short-lived, very high lake filling phase at 24 ka, just prior to the Last Glacial Maximum. Mega-lake Mungo was up to 5 m deeper than preceding or subsequent lake full events and represented a lake volume increase of almost 250%. Lake Mungo was linked with neighboring Lake Leaghur at two overflow points, creating an island from the northern part of the Mungo lunette. This event was most likely caused by a pulse of high catchment rainfall and runoff, combined with neotectonic activity which may have warped the lake basin. It indicates a non-linear transition to more arid ice age conditions. The mega-lake restricted mobility for people living in the area, yet archeological traces indicate that humans rapidly adapted to the new conditions. People repeatedly visited the island, transporting stone tools across water and exploiting food resources stranded there. They either swam or used watercraft to facilitate access to the island and across the lake. Since there is no evidence for watercraft use in Australia between initial colonization of the continent prior to 45 ka and the mid-Holocene, repeated visits to the island may represent a resurrection of waterfaring technologies following a hiatus of at least 20 ky.

Concepts: Adaptation, Pleistocene, Last Glacial Maximum, Ice age, Last glacial period, Glaciology, Glacial period, Ice ages