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Open Access Research article

The mitochondrial lineage U8a reveals a Paleolithic settlement in the Basque country

Ana M González1*, Oscar García2, José M Larruga1 and Vicente M Cabrera1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genetics, Faculty of Biology, University of La Laguna, 38271 Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain

2 Area de Lab. Ertzaintza, Universidad del País Vasco, Larrauri Mendotxe Bidea 18, 48950, Erandio, Bizkaia, Spain

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BMC Genomics 2006, 7:124  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-7-124

Published: 23 May 2006

Abstract

Background

It is customary, in population genetics studies, to consider Basques as the direct descendants of the Paleolithic Europeans. However, until now there has been no irrefutable genetic proof to support this supposition. Even studies based on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), an ideal molecule for constructing datable maternal genealogies, have failed to achieve this. It could be that incoming gene flow has replaced the Basque ancient lineages but it could also be that these lineages have not been detected due to a lack of resolution of the Basque mtDNA genealogies. To assess this possibility we analyzed here the mtDNA of a large sample of autochthonous Basques using mtDNA genomic sequencing for those lineages that could not be unequivocally classified by diagnostic RFLP analysis and control region (HVSI and HVSII) sequencing.

Results

We show that Basques have the most ancestral phylogeny in Europe for the rare mitochondrial subhaplogroup U8a. Divergence times situate the Basque origin of this lineage in the Upper Palaeolithic. Most probably, their primitive founders came from West Asia. The lack of U8a lineages in Africa points to an European and not a North African route of entrance. Phylogeographic analysis suggest that U8a had two expansion periods in Europe, the first, from a south-western area including the Iberian peninsula and Mediterranean France before 30,000 years ago, and the second, from Central Europe around 15,000–10,000 years ago.

Conclusion

It has been demonstrated, for the first time, that Basques show the oldest lineages in Europe for subhaplogroup U8a. Coalescence times for these lineages suggest their presence in the Basque country since the Upper Paleolithic. The European U8 phylogeography is congruent with the supposition that Basques could have participated in demographic re-expansions to repopulate central Europe in the last interglacial periods.