At redshift z = 2, when the Universe was just three billion years old, half of the most massive galaxies were extremely compact and had already exhausted their fuel for star formation1,2,3,4. It is believed that they were formed in intense nuclear starbursts and that they ultimately grew into the most massive local elliptical galaxies seen today, through mergers with minor companions5,6, but validating this picture requires higher-resolution observations of their centres than is currently possible. Magnification from gravitational lensing offers an opportunity to resolve the inner regions of galaxies7. Here we report an analysis of the stellar populations and kinematics of a lensed z = 2.1478 compact galaxy, which—surprisingly—turns out to be a fast-spinning, rotationally supported disk galaxy. Its stars must have formed in a disk, rather than in a merger-driven nuclear starburst8. The galaxy was probably fed by streams of cold gas, which were able to penetrate the hot halo gas until they were cut off by shock heating from the dark matter halo9. This result confirms previous indirect indications10,11,12,13 that the first galaxies to cease star formation must have gone through major changes not just in their structure, but also in their kinematics, to evolve into present-day elliptical galaxies.

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S.T., J.Z., G.M., N.Y.L., C.L.S., C.G.-G. and M.S. acknowledge support from the ERC Consolidator Grant funding scheme (project ConTExt, grant number 648179). C.G. acknowledges support from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 10123). G.M. acknowledges support from the Carlsberg Foundation and from the VILLUM FONDEN Young Investigator Programme (grant number 13160). S.Z. and A.G. acknowledge support by the EU Marie Curie Career Integration Grant “SteMaGE” number PCIG12-GA-2012-326466 (call identifier FP7-PEOPLE-2012 CIG). J.Z. acknowledges support of the OCEVU Labex (ANR-11-LABX-0060) and the A*MIDEX project (ANR-11-IDEX-0001-02) funded by the ‘Investissements d’Avenir’ French government programme managed by the French National Research Agency (ANR). We thank M. Yun and R. Cybalski for providing the deep Spitzer data, and D. Watson and F. Valentino for discussions.

Author information


  1. Dark Cosmology Centre, Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Juliane Maries Vej 32, København Ø, 2100, Denmark

    • Sune Toft
    • , Johannes Zabl
    • , Nicholas Y. Lee
    • , Carlos Gómez-Guijarro
    • , Mikkel Stockmann
    • , Georgios Magdis
    •  & Charles L. Steinhardt
  2. Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planétologie (IRAP), Université de Toulouse, CNRS, UPS, F-31400 Toulouse, France

    • Johannes Zabl
  3. Université Lyon, Université Lyon 1, Ens de Lyon, CNRS, Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon UMR5574, F-69230 Saint-Genis-Laval, France

    • Johan Richard
  4. Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica–Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Largo Enrico Fermi 5, 50125 Firenze, Italy

    • Anna Gallazzi
    •  & Stefano Zibetti
  5. Department of Astronomy, New Mexico State University, 1320 Frenger Mall, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003-8001, USA

    • Moire Prescott
  6. Dipartimento di Fisica, Università degli Studi di Milano, via Celoria 16, I-20133 Milano, Italy

    • Claudio Grillo
  7. European Southern Observatory, Karl-Schwarzschild-Straße 2, 85748 Garching bei München, Germany

    • Allison W. S. Man
  8. Institute for Astronomy, Astrophysics, Space Applications and Remote Sensing, National Observatory of Athens, GR-15236 Athens, Greece

    • Georgios Magdis


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S.T. conceived the study, was the Principal Investigator of the XSHOOTER programme, performed the Galfit analysis and produced Figs 2, 3, 4 and Extended Data Figs 3, 4 and 6. S.T. and J.Z. wrote the paper. J.Z. reduced the XSHOOTER data, performed the pPXF analysis and lensing model systematic error analysis. J.Z. also produced Fig. 1 and Extended Data Figs 5 and 7. A.G. performed the stellar population synthesis modelling of the spectrum and photometry. S.Z. performed the emission line analysis, produced the resolved stellar population maps and Extended Data Fig. 2. J.R. performed the lensing analysis, and source plane reconstruction. M.P. performed the Markov chain Monte Carlo dynamical modelling and produced Extended Data Fig. 8. C.G. produced the colour composite HST images in Fig. 1 and Extended Data Fig. 1. A.W.S.M. performed the Galfit Markov chain Monte Carlo analysis. G.M. derived the SFR limit from the MIPS data. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sune Toft.

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