There’s a new paper in PNAS, Ancient genomes link early farmers from Atapuerca in Spain to modern-day Basques. It is a nice complement to the earlier paper on an earlier Iberian Neolithic sample. These individuals all date to a later period, most ~5,000 years ago, and one ~3,500 years. Despite the media hype, the results of this paper were pretty much expected, and it’s the final nail in the coffin of the idea that the Basque language and culture are relics of Paleolithic Europe. Rather, it confirms the result that the Basque descend in large part from agriculturalists who brought the Neolithic revolution to Europe. The genetic result began to be clear as early as 2010, when PLOS BIOLOGY published A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages. The interpretation of that paper was wrong in some of the specific detail. It is quite likely that the R1b haplogroup did not come with the first farmers, but that it was a later arrival. But, the authors were early in refuting the contention that the high frequency of this lineage among Basques was ipso facto evidence that it was a primal Paleolithic signature. In fact much of that work exhibited some circularity, with the premise that Basques were primal descendants of hunter-gatherers being the linchpin for archaeogenetic inferences which then came back around to pointing out that the intuited genetic distinctiveness of the Basques was further evidence of their uniqueness.
The admixture plot to the left reiterate a few things I’ve been asserting of late. First, the Spanish Basque are unique in having weaker signatures of being impacted by North African gene flow and the genetic signal associated with people from the Eurasian steppe than other groups in the Iberian peninsula. This isn’t a new finding. What is interesting though is that the authors confirm through a variety of methods that the Basque have Western European hunter-gatherer gene flow which post-dates the arrival of the first farmers. The earlier paper I allude to above suggested that the Iberian Cardial individual, which predates the oldest of these samples by ~2,500 years, had hunter-gatherer ancestry which exhibited affinities with a Hungarian, and not Spanish, sample. In other words, the first European farmers were themselves a compound population to begin with. Subsequent to their expansion all across Europe they seem to have absorbed local hunter-gatherer populations. This is the resurgence of hunter-gatherer ancestry over thousands of years that David Reich has mentioned before. This was a phenomenon across much of Europe, not just in the Iberian peninsula.
Which brings us to how we go about solving this puzzle. It seems that archaeologists and anthropologists have to start tackling the issue. One possibility is that the human geography of ancient Neolithic Europe was intercalated, with hunter-gatherer populations occupying zones between the expanding farmers which were not amenable to their agricultural practices. I suspect that the Pygmy example might be informative, as this group has had a long period of symbiotic coexistence with agriculturalists. Note also that the results from earlier work suggests that the fraction of hunter-gatherer ancestry increased even before the arrival of the Eurasian Steppe populations, which changed the character of Europe’s north, and to a lesser extent south.
Finally, there’s the enigma of the Basque language. The authors of the above paper mention possible connections with Paleo-Sardinian, which predates Romance dialects on the island. And Sardinians, like Basques, exhibit strong signatures of farmer ancestry. In fact, Sardinians have more farmer ancestry than any other Europeans, likely due to marginal pre-Neolithic presence on the island. The genetic closeness of the farmer groups from Spain up into Germany in the early Neolithic indicates a rapid expansion from a small founding stock with roots in the Balkans and or Anatolia. This sort of expansion is highly likely to be accompanied by the spread of the common language and culture of these people, and in that way the Basque can actually give us some vague insight as to the cultural character of the first Neolithic people, not, the hunter-gatherers. These results reiterate that some of the ancestry of the Basques does derive from the people of Paleolithic history in a genetic sense. But perhaps more importantly, it points the likelihood that there was a massive cultural rupture between Ice Age and Neolithic Europe, and the Basque stand with the latter.