Carl Zimmer reports in the NYT:
DNA Deciphers Roots of Modern Europeans
JUNE 10, 2015
… On Wednesday in the journal Nature, two teams of scientists — one based at the University of Copenhagen and one based at Harvard University — 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.
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.
In other words, with “the Yamnaya” we’re likely talking about more or less the people also known as the Proto-Indo-Europeans, who used to be called the Aryans.
… 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.
Perhaps like the breakdown of the cultural barriers between the Roman men and the Sabine women?
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.
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.
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.
It’s a stereotype that the Eurasian Steppe tends to be violent, so therefore it can’t be true. The real reason Eastern Europe is called The Bloodlands is because of the beautiful red sunsets. Everybody knows that.
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.
For a dissenting view of the values and predilections of Eurasian steppe peoples:
On the other hand, Dr. Anthony cogently rebutted:
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.
What with them being so peaceful and all.
“I myself have a hard time wrapping my head around explanations for that,” he said.
I bet you do.
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. 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. …
“We can just say that the expansion fits very well with the geographical spread of the Indo-European language,” said Dr. Willerslev.