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Major global study lifts lid on DNA history of early Europeans

A major new study has shown, in greater detail than ever before, DNA evidence of the ancestry of Southeastern Europeans.

Cutting-edge techniques have allowed researchers from across the globe to analyse the DNA of 225 ancient individuals from the region.

The ancient DNA study, published in the journal Nature, lifts the lid on the genomic history of early Europeans.

It is the second largest ancient DNA study ever completed, involving an international team of 117 archaeologists, anthropologists, and geneticists from 82 institutions across Europe and the United States.

Around 8,500 years ago, agriculture spread into Europe from the southeast, accompanied by a movement of people from Anatolia, now part of modern Turkey. The study reports on DNA data from 225 ancient people who lived both before and after this transition and documents the interaction and mixing of these two genetically different groups of people.

Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg, a consulting anthropologist at Harvard Medical School, who identified and sampled many of the skeletons, said: “Southeastern Europe was the beachhead in the spread of farming from Anatolia into Europe. This study is the first to provide a rich genetic characterization of this process by showing how the indigenous population interacted with incoming Asian immigrants at this extraordinary moment in the past.”

Professor Malcolm Lillie, an expert in prehistoric archaeology from the University of Hull was part of the investigation team.

He said: “The transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers has been viewed as a watershed moment in terms of human groups, and the development of complex society. In the last decade, with the increased application of DNA studies, there has been an upsurge of interest in refining our understanding of the mechanisms through which farming disseminated from Anatolia into Europe.”

Whilst developments of farming in Anatolia are generally well researched, what researchers didn’t understand in any detail, is how the knowledge of farming moved through Anatolia into Europe.

Professor Lillie said: “This research shows as these farming groups moved across Europe, they were interacting with Southeast European hunter-gatherer populations”.

“More so than ever before, we can actually see the genetic ancestry of the first farmers, and demonstrate conclusively that they were interacting with indigenous populations at various times across the prehistoric periods studied.

“There have always been varying hypotheses as to whether the knowledge of farming spread by the movement of people, or the movement of ideas, or a combination of both. What this study is showing is that the movement of people is fundamental to this process, and that the ancestry of Southeastern Europeans is derived from a combination of hunter-gatherers from the west, hunter-gatherers from the east and Neolithic farmers from Anatolia”.

“What’s more, we found evidence that the mixing continues all the way through from 12000BC to the Bronze Age at ca. 2000BC, or even slightly later.”

Professor Lillie has been studying the prehistoric populations of Ukraine since the early 1990’s. His collaborations with colleagues in Ukraine led to his involvement with researchers at Harvard on this study.

He said: “Ukraine is special in that there is a concentration of very large cemeteries, dating from ca. 10,200BC onwards”.

“For the DNA from Anatolian farmers to appear in earlier Neolithic populations, they would have had to have travelled all the way up through the Balkans and around the Northwestern edge of the Black Sea, then eastwards into central Ukraine”.

“We found one individual with DNA that was entirely derived from Northwestern Anatolian-Neolithic-related ancestry, which was unusual and totally unexpected. At this time, the earlier Neolithic populations of Ukraine were primarily following fisher-hunter-forager subsistence strategies, with only limited evidence to suggest that some animal husbandry was known”.

“For a long time we have worked to understand the nature of the transition to farming in Europe, and up to this point the general picture is one of relatively complex fisher-hunter-forager groups in Ukraine in the earlier Neolithic period, with very little evidence to suggest any direct influences from Anatolian farmers’.  We now have evidence there was some direct influence from Anatolia at a much earlier period than was believed, although we now need to refine our understanding of the sources for these influences.”

Professor David Reich, one of the researchers who led this study at Harvard Medical School, said: “These very large ancient DNA studies, involving intense collaboration between geneticists and archaeologists, are making it possible to build up a rich picture of key periods of the past that could only be weakly glimpsed before. Studies on this scale represent a coming of age for the field of ancient DNA—I look forward to what we will learn when similar approaches are applied elsewhere in the world.”  


"For a long time we have worked to understand the nature of the transition to farming in Europe, and up to this point the general picture is one of relatively complex fisher-hunter-forager groups."

Professor Malcolm Lillie, University of Hull

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