Research Article: Habitat suitability and the genetic structure of human populations during the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM) in Western Europe

Date Published: June 19, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Colin D. Wren, Ariane Burke, Michael D. Petraglia.


Human populations in Western Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum were geographically constrained to glacial refugia by the severity of the climate and ecological risk factors. In this research we use an agent-based model of human mobility and interaction, based on ethnographic and archaeological data, to explore the impact of ecological risk on human population structure via a reconstructed landscape of habitat suitability. The agent-based model allows us to evaluate the size and location of glacial refugia, the size of the populations occupying them and the degree of genetic relatedness between people occupying these areas. To do this, we model the probability of an agent foraging groups’ survival as a function of habitat suitability. The model’s simulated “genomes” (composed of regionally specific genetic markers) allow us to track long-term trends of inter-regional interaction and mobility. The results agree with previous archaeological studies situating a large glacial refugium spanning southern France and northeastern Spain, but we expand on those studies by demonstrating that higher rates of population growth in this central refugium led to continuous out-migration and therefore genetic homogeneity across Western Europe, with the possible exception of the Italian peninsula. These results concur with material culture data from known archaeological sites dating to the Last Glacial Maximum and make predictions for future ancient DNA studies.

Partial Text

This paper explores the impact of environmental constraints on the size, distribution and structure of human populations living in Western Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum 19–23 kyrs BP). A habitat suitability (HS) index developed elsewhere [1] is used to establish the characteristics of a landscape that affects the spatial distribution and probability of survival of regional populations. We then use an agent-based model to explore the impact of different scales of mobility on the size and level of connectivity between regional populations, as well as their genetic makeup.

We created an ABM (LGM_ecodynamics 1.1) that is a modification of hominin_ecodynamics 2.0 designed by Barton and Riel-Salvatore [37]. The purpose of LGM_ecodynamics (download here: is to evaluate to what extent the heterogeneous habitat of Western Europe during the LGM affected the structure and connectivity of the metapopulation (a regional grouping of connected populations of a species [38]) and what effect that may have had on the distribution and survival of regional populations. We model the mobility of individual hunter-gatherer families (“agents”) within annual territories and the long-term population dynamics as agents interact with the landscape and with one another. Following the original model, agents maintain home-range fidelity by moving within a specified radius (fradius) around a fixed central home cell. Note that movement occurs by “teleportation”, i.e., intermediate cells are ignored and we do not explicitly model the relative differences in the cost of travel. However, the probability that a given cell will be selected for movement decreases with distance which, with a monthly time step, works as a loose proxy for cost of movement. Large-scale shifts in the spatial distribution of the metapopulation occur as newly produced agents are deposited on a new cell and are affected by differential mortality rates linked to habitat suitability (HS).

We designed two initial experiments to test the model parameters and make sure they are not producing unexpected results. Experiment 1 tests the impact of the mobility parameter. We used that experiment to design a weighted random-walk pattern of mobility, weighted such that the each cell’s HS value and the distance away from a group are used as the relative probability of that cell being chosen out of all of the cells in the radius being considered (also known as roulette wheel selection and fitness proportionate selection) [51,52]. Experiment 2 tests the impact of different values of the fradius parameter. See the supplementary information for a full description of these experiments and their results (S1 Appendix). Following the successful conclusion of experiments 1 and 2, we designed a model to test the impact of habitat suitability on population size and structure, described below.

The goal of this research is to test the impact of habitat suitability [1] on the demographic and genetic structure of human populations living in Western Europe during the LGM. Habitat suitability is an index defined by a combination of topographic (elevation and slope) and seasonal climate variables, with emphasis on variability.