[language] Overlapping genetic and archaeological evidence suggests neolithic migration

H.M. Hubey hubeyh at mail.montclair.edu
Thu Sep 12 03:52:37 UTC 2002

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Public release date: 10-Sep-2002
Contact: Ruthann Richter
richter1 at stanford.edu
Stanford University Medical Center

Overlapping genetic and archaeological evidence suggests neolithic migration

STANFORD, Calif. - For the first time, Stanford researchers have compared
genetic patterns with archeological findings to discover that genetics can help
predict with a high degree of accuracy the presence of certain artifacts. And
they say the strength of this link adds credence to theories that prehistoric
people migrated from the Middle East to Europe, taking both their ideas and
their way of life with them.

"The recovery of history is really a jigsaw puzzle," said Peter Underhill, PhD,
senior research scientist in the department of genetics and one of the study's
authors. "You have to look at genetics, material culture (archeological
findings), linguistics and other areas to find different lines of evidence that
reinforce each other."

The researchers' mathematical analysis showed that a pair of mutations on the Y
chromosome, called Eu9, predicted the presence of certain figurines from the
Neolithic period with 88 percent accuracy and the presence of painted pottery
with 80 percent accuracy. The study is published in the September issue of

"The strength of the association is very surprising," said Roy King, MD, PhD,
associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford who
co-authored the study. "The genetic measures are very precise, and archaeology
is pretty precise - either a figurine is there or it isn't. The strength of the
correlation is driven by the strength of our measures."

It is known that agriculture spread from the Middle East to Europe during the
Neolithic period about 12,000 years ago, but for many years archeologists have
debated how this occurred. Was it due to the movement of people or to the
movement of ideas? Previous genetic analysis of people living today suggests a
migration - that the people moved - but critics have questioned this view. The
latest study reinforces evidence of a migration in which people brought their
ideas and lifestyle with them.

Genetics can answer the question in a roundabout way. Human DNA sequences today
may shed light on our ancestors because some portions of the human genome
change very slowly. One of these is the Y chromosome. Women carry two X
chromosomes, while men have one X and one Y. The X and Y cannot exchange DNA
like the 22 pairs of non-sex chromosomes in humans or the paired X chromosomes
in women. As a result, a man should have a carbon copy of the Y chromosome of
his father, grandfather and so on. But sometimes a harmless mutation, a
misspelling in the genetic code, occurs. The mutation will be passed on to all
the man's male descendants. If millions of men have the same mutation, then
they all share a distant paternal ancestor.

Underhill studies pairs of mutations on the Y chromosome in current
populations. He combines data about the geographic distribution of the
mutations with information about when the mutations arose to trace historical

While reading a previous paper on Y-chromosome mutations in Science that
Underhill co-authored, King thought the geographic distribution of some pairs
of mutations paralleled that of Neolithic decorative ceramics. King, a
psychiatrist with a PhD in mathematics and a deep interest in art history,
called Underhill and suggested they compare the two sets of data.

Critics argue that the contemporary gene pool does not reflect what happened
thousands of years ago because people have moved around too much since then.
Many also see genetics as an entirely separate line of investigation from
archaeological work. Researchers had compared genetic studies to language
evolution, but no one had attempted to link genetics and material culture.
Underhill agreed to undertake the analysis with King.

The Science paper Underhill co-authored described the Y chromosomes of more
than 1,000 men in 25 different Middle Eastern and European geographic regions.
They found that the frequency of four pairs of mutations was highest in the
Middle East but also significant in eastern and southern Europe. While it is
likely that all the mutations studied originated prior to the Neolithic period,
the distribution suggested a westward migration.

The researchers took the distribution of the four pairs of Y-chromosome
mutations found to originate in the Middle East and compared it to the regions
where certain decorated ceramics have been found in Neolithic sites. They
focused on figurines and pottery with painted geometric and abstract designs.
Most of the figurines are female; researchers have speculated that they were
used for magic or religious purposes, as amulets or charms, or even as dolls
for children, King said.

The researchers found a strong correlation in their study between the
Y-chromosome mutations and the presence of certain artifacts. Nonetheless,
Underhill remains cautious. "No gene on the Y chromosome is going to program
you to make pottery," he said. Instead, the Y-chromosome mutation pairs used in
the study are simply population markers that in this case were compared to
ceramics. The same mutations could be compared to many different types of

King and Underhill hope that archaeologists will follow them in trying to blend
these two lines of historical evidence. They are continuing to gather genetic
data from areas in Greece near Neolithic archaeological sites and in western
Turkey, which researchers believe to be the jumping-off point for Neolithic

Stanford University Medical Center integrates research, medical education and
patient care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of
Medicine, Stanford Hospital & Clinics and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at
Stanford. For more information, please visit the Web site of the medical
center's Office of Communication & Public Affairs at


M. Hubey

hubeyh at mail.montclair.edu /\/\/\/\//\/\/\/\/\/\/http://www.csam.montclair.edu/~hubey

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