[lg policy] DNA Deciphers Roots of Modern Europeans

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Jun 13 15:21:11 UTC 2015


DNA Deciphers Roots of Modern Europeans

JUNE 10, 2015
  Photo
  A male skeleton associated with the Yamnaya culture near Samara, Russia.
Credit Pavel Kuznetsov

 Carl Zimmer

MATTER <http://www.nytimes.com/column/matter>
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For centuries, archaeologists have reconstructed the early history of
Europe by digging up ancient settlements and examining the items that their
inhabitants left behind. More recently, researchers have been scrutinizing
something even more revealing than pots, chariots and swords: DNA.

On Wednesday in the journal Nature, two teams of scientists — one based at
the University of Copenhagen and one based at Harvard University
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/h/harvard_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org>
— presented the largest studies to date of ancient European DNA, extracted
from 170 skeletons found in countries from Spain to Russia. Both studies
indicate that today’s Europeans descend from three groups who moved into
Europe at different stages of history.

The first were hunter-gatherers who arrived some 45,000 years ago in
Europe. Then came farmers who arrived from the Near East about 8,000 years
ago.
   Matter <http://www.nytimes.com/column/matter> Matter. It’s the stuff of
everything — large and small.

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See More » <http://www.nytimes.com/column/matter>

Finally, a group of nomadic sheepherders from western Russia called the
Yamnaya arrived about 4,500 years ago. The authors of the new studies also
suggest that the Yamnaya language may have given rise to many of the
languages spoken in Europe today.
Photo
  A Yamnaya skull found near Samara, Russia, colored with ocher. Yamnaya
expansion into Europe was most likely relatively peaceful. Credit Natalia
Shishlina

Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist at University College Dublin who was not
involved in either study, said that the new studies were “a major
game-changer. To me, it marks a new phase in ancient DNA research.”

The two teams worked independently, studying different skeletons and using
different methods to analyze their DNA.

The Harvard team collected DNA from 69 human remains dating back 8,000
years and cataloged the genetic variations at almost 400,000 different
points. The Copenhagen team collected DNA from 101 skeletons dating back
about 3,400 years and sequenced the entire genomes.

Both teams also compared the newly sequenced DNA to genes retrieved from
other ancient Europeans and Asians, and to living humans.

Until about 9,000 years ago, Europe was home to a genetically distinct
population of hunter-gatherers, the researchers found. Then, between 9,000
and 7,000 years ago, the genetic profiles of the inhabitants in some parts
of Europe abruptly changed, acquiring DNA from Near Eastern populations.

Archaeologists have long known that farming practices spread into Europe at
the time from Turkey. But the new evidence shows that it wasn’t just the
ideas that spread — the farmers did, too.

The hunter-gatherers didn’t disappear, however. They managed to survive in
pockets across Europe between the farming communities.

“It’s an amazing cultural process,” said David Reich, a geneticist at
Harvard Medical School who led the university’s team. “You have groups
which are as genetically distinct as Europeans and East Asians. And they’re
living side by side for thousands of years.”

Between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago, however, hunter-gatherer DNA began
turning up in the genes of European farmers. “There’s a breakdown of these
cultural barriers, and they mix,” said Dr. Reich.

About 4,500 years ago, the final piece of Europe’s genetic puzzle fell into
place. A new infusion of DNA arrived — one that is still very common in
living Europeans, especially in central and northern Europe.

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The closest match to this new DNA, both teams of scientists found, comes
from skeletons found in Yamnaya graves in western Russia and Ukraine.

Archaeologists have long been fascinated by the Yamnaya, who left behind
artifacts on the steppes of western Russia and Ukraine dating from 5,300 to
4,600 years ago. The Yamnaya used horses to manage huge herds of sheep, and
followed their livestock across the steppes with wagons full of food and
water.

It was an immensely successful way of life, allowing the Yamnaya to build
huge funeral mounds for their dead, which they filled with jewelry, weapons
and even entire chariots.
Photo
  A skeleton buried by a Middle Neolithic culture found near Saxony-Anhalt,
Germany. A review of DNA from skeletons across Europe indicated that
today's Europeans are descended from three groups who moved there at
different stages of history. Credit Juraj Lipták/LDA Sachsen-Anhalt

David W. Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College and a co-author on
the Harvard study, said it was likely that the expansion of Yamnaya into
Europe was relatively peaceful. “It wasn’t Attila the Hun coming in and
killing everybody,” he said.

Instead, Dr. Anthony thought the most likely scenario was that the Yamnaya
“entered into some kind of stable opposition” with the resident Europeans
that lasted for a few centuries. But then gradually the barriers between
the cultures eroded.

The Copenhagen team’s study suggests that the Yamnaya didn’t just expand
west into Europe, however. The scientists examined DNA from 4,700-year-old
skeletons from a Siberian culture called the Afanasievo. It turns out that
they inherited Yamnaya DNA, too.

Dr. Anthony was surprised by the possibility that Yamnaya pushed out over a
range of about 4,000 miles. “I myself have a hard time wrapping my head
around explanations for that,” he said.
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Recent
Comments
RPB 22 hours ago

Ah, the cultural backlash against science. Stop whining and crying.Oops, I
guess I'll get kicked out along with the rest of the nobel...
Dudie Katani 22 hours ago

You all have it wrong. The ancestors of the Europeans were not who is
claimed sin the article but little green( men and women from the...
poslug 22 hours ago

Rivers and population remains dating/distribution would be interesting
here. The Danube presented a considerable barrier in the Roman era to...

   - See All Comments
   - Write a comment

The two studies also add new fuel to a debate about how languages spread
across Europe and Asia. Most European tongues belong to the Indo-European
family, which also incudes languages in southern and Central Asia.

For decades, linguists have debated how Indo-European got to Europe
<http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/science/new-light-on-the-roots-of-english.html>.
Some favor the idea that the original farmers brought Indo-European into
Europe from Turkey. Others think the language came from the Russian steppes
thousands of years later.

The new genetic results won’t settle the debate, said Eske Willerslev, an
evolutionary biologist at Copenhagen University who led the Danish team.
But he did think the results were consistent with the idea that the Yamnaya
brought Indo-European from the steppes to Europe.

The eastward expansion of Yamnaya, evident in the genetic findings, also
supports the theory, Dr. Willerslev said. Linguists have long puzzled over
an Indo-European language once spoken in western China called Tocharian. It
is only known from 1,200-year-old manuscripts discovered in ancient desert
towns. It is possible that Tocharian was a vestige of the eastern spread of
the Yamnaya.

“We can just say that the expansion fits very well with the geographical
spread of the Indo-European language,” said Dr. Willerslev.

Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary
Anthropology, said that the new studies were important, but were still too
limited to settle the debate over the origins of Indo-European. “I don’t
think we’re there yet,” he said.

Dr. Heggarty noted that the studies showed the arrival of Yamnaya in
Central Europe about 4,500 years ago. But Greek is an Indo-European
language, and the oldest evidence of writing in Europe shows that Greek had
developed about 3,500 years ago. By then, it was distinct from other
Indo-European languages in Southern Europe, like Latin.

If the Yamnaya were the source of Indo-European languages, they would have
had to get to southern Europe soon after they made it to Central Europe.

Dr. Heggarty speculated instead that early European farmers, the second
wave of immigrants, may have brought Indo-European to Europe from the Near
East. Then, thousands of years later, the Yamnaya brought the language
again to Central Europe.

More ancient DNA could swing the balance of evidence in favor of one theory
over the other, Dr. Heggarty said. A stronger case for a steppe origin of
Indo-European might emerge, for example, if scientists discovered that
Greeks around 4,500 years ago abruptly acquired Yamnaya DNA.

“Let’s see whether they look like the steppe people or not,” he said.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/16/science/dna-deciphers-roots-of-modern-europeans.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=c-column-middle-span-region&region=c-column-middle-span-region&WT.nav=c-column-middle-span-region


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