For hundreds of years, the reconstruction of early history of Europe by archaeologists was done by digging up ancient settlements and observing the objects that their inhabitants left behind. But currently, the researchers have been scrutinizing something much more intriguing than chariots and swords: DNA.
Two teams of scientists, one based at the University of Copenhagen and the other based at Harvard, presented the largest studies to date of ancient European DNA taken from 170 skeletons from the dead bodies from Russia to Spain.
Both studies indicate that today’s Europeans descend from three groups who moved into Europe at different stages of history.
The first group was the hunter-gatherers who came to Europe 45,000 years ago. Next came the farmers around 8,000 years ago from the Near East.
A group of nomadic sheepherders was the last group from Western Russia called the Yamnaya, who came 4,500 years ago. The authors of the recent studies also say that the language of Yamnaya may be the source of many languages spoken in Europe today.
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 team from Harvard University took DNA from 69 human remains dating back 8,000 years and catalog the variations at 400,000 different points on a genetic level. The Cop team took DNA from 101 skeletons whose age was 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 around 9,000 years ago, Europe was the place of a genetically distant population of hunter-gatherers, the researchers found. Then, between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, the genetic profiles of the inhabitants in some parts of Europe changed to a great extent, taking DNA from Near Eastern populations.