DNA: Ancient Europeans Disappeared 4,500 Years Ago, Today's Genetic History Uncovered?
DNA from almost 40 skeletons discovered in central Europe is helping researchers understand complex mysteries that contributed to the shaping of the European population.
A genetic lineage of Europeans disappeared 4,500 years ago without much of a trace, leading historians to ponder what sort of event led to the alteration in genetic profiles of Europeans from there on out.
"What is intriguing is that the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4,500 years ago, and we don't know why," study co-author Alan Cooper, said in a statement. "Something major happened, and the hunt is now on to find out what that was."
However, after decades of studying the DNA of the skeletons, researchers believe two major events affected the continent's genetic landscape: the initial breeding by hunter-gatherers in Palaeolithic times (35,000 years ago) and a later wave of migration by farmers in the early Neolithic times (6,000 years ago.)
The team used the skeletons, which were all discovered in Germany except for two unearthed in Italy, that range from 2,500 to 7,500 years old to search for a DNA called haplogroup h, which is found widely throughout Europe but is much less prevalent in East and Central Asia. Today, "nearly 40%" of Europeans belong to this genetic group, with a greater amount in the western area of the continent.
The findings indicated that the skeletons resembled the Near Eastern and Anatolian people, suggesting an agricultural revolution led people into Europe who were then replaced by early hunter-gatherers. This change, however, was not the radical genetic alteration that shaped Europe's current population.
Instead, researchers were led to believe that the change occurred after a major event took place around 5,000 to 4,000 years ago. The Bell Beaker culture, a group that migrated from the Iberian Peninsula around 2800 B.C, may have spawned that change in genetics.
"We have established that the genetic foundations for modern Europe were only established in the Mid-Neolithic, after this major genetic transition around 4,000 years ago," study co-author Wolfgang Haak, said in a statement. "This genetic diversity was then modified further by a series of incoming and expanding cultures from Iberia and Eastern Europe through the Late Neolithic."
The Bell Beaker culture is thought to have a role in erecting some of the megaliths at Stonehenge and also played a role in the shaping of the Celtic languages along the coast of Europe. They are said to resemble people of Portugal and Spain today.
Despite the findings, Dr Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project, which was behind the study, said more work needs to be done to further understand European history.
"Studies such as this on ancient remains serve as a valuable adjunct to the work we are doing with modern populations in the Genographic Project. While the DNA of people alive today can reveal the end result of their ancestors' ancient movements, to really understand the dynamics of how modern genetic patterns were created we need to study ancient material as well."