5,000-Year-Old DNA Could Solve The Mystery Of Genetic Changes In Europe

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Jan Bartek – AncientPages.com – Something very strange and unexplained happened with European DNA about 5,000 years ago. For reasons totally unknown, the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture were suddenly replaced, and scientists do not why.

5,000-Year-Old DNA Could Solve The Mystery Of Genetic Changes In Europe

Map of Europe. Credit: Pixaby – MabelAmber – Public Domain

As previously reported on AncientPages.com, ancient DNA recovered from a series of skeletons in central Germany up to 7500 years old has been used to reconstruct the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe. A study conducted by an international team of researchers at the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD), and their colleagues from the University of Mainz, Germany, and the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, reveals a dramatic series of events including major migrations from both Western Europe and Eurasia, and signs of an unexplained genetic turnover about 4000-5000 years ago.

Now, researchers report they have recovered DNA from two men buried 5,000 years ago in barrow burial mounds in Serbia. DNA analysis is currently conducted by scientists and the results may solve the enigmatic mystery of genetic changes in Europe.

The DNA was retrieved from two 1.8 meters tall (5.9 feet) men who were robustly built. They were much taller than the local population who were much smaller in stature, about 1.6 m. (5.2 feet), said Dr. Piotr Wlodarczak from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who led the excavations in which the two men were discovered in digs.

“These big men and their burial customs are known to have come from the dry grassy plains of the steppes in what is now southern Russia and eastern Ukraine. Many of these barrow burial mounds belonging to the nomadic Yamnaya people can be found in these areas,” the Jerusalem Post reports.

What Caused The Unexplained Change In Europeans' DNA 4000-5000 Years Ago? Scientists Say The Genetic Turnover Remains A Mystery

Neolithic village. Credit: Biswarup Ganguly – CC BY 3.0

About 5,300 years ago, the local hunter-gatherer cultures were replaced in many places by nomadic herders, dubbed the Yamnaya, who were able to expand rapidly by exploiting horses and the new invention of the cart, and who left behind big, rich burial sites.

Archeologists have long known that some of the technologies used by the Yamnaya later spread to Europe. But the startling revelation from the ancient DNA was that the people moved, too – all the way to the Atlantic coast of Europe in the west to Mongolia in the east and India in the south. This vast migration helps explain the spread of Indo-European languages. And it significantly replaced the local hunter-gatherer genes across Europe with the indelible stamp of steppe DNA, as happened in Britain with the migration of the Bell Beaker people to the island.

As reported earlier, scientists have previously discovered ancient DNA reveals surprising stories about migrations and the genetic mixing of our ancestors.

Dr. Piotr Wlodarczak explained the two skeletons he and his team unearthed in the Vojvodina district in Serbia on the lower Tisza River, at the very western edge of the Eurasian steppe differed from the rest of the local population.

“There was a big physical difference between these people and the people who settled Europe in the Neolithic times,” Wlodarczak told The Jerusalem Post.

“There was a migration related to the steppe territories from nomads, mostly cattle herders. Such people generally created a military social system, like the Tatars.”

The barrow burial mounds, also known as kurgans, were constructed by the nomadic peoples of the steppes using mounds of earth and stones that were raised over a grave and included a burial chamber for the dead within the artificial burial mound. It was a popular form of burial in the area during the third century BCE and was connected to the expansion into Europe of the first Indo-European tribes, Wlodarczak said.

The two ancient skeletons were covered in red dye made of ochre, a natural clay earth pigment. Most likely the red dye played an important part in the burial rituals of the people and possibly helped with the mummification process.

5,000-Year-Old DNA Could Solve The Mystery Of Genetic Changes In Europe

Remains of one of the ‘robust men’ unearthed in the burial mounds in Šajkaška, Serbia. Credit: P. Wlodarczak

The two mounds were the type in which it was common to bury males, but in some cases, they were also used for women, or even whole families.

“There were chiefdoms at the time and a new emergence of early elites in the society,” Wlodarczak said. “In this western part of the steppes society, single graves under barrows are typical. But in the [eastern] steppes, you can find many graves under barrows where whole families are buried.”

Though the skeletal remains were found in good condition it is often a challenge to come across DNA material that is equally well-preserved. Nevertheless, researchers are optimistic and genetic analysis is now conducted by Harvard University paleogeneticist David Reich.

5,000-Year-Old DNA Could Solve The Mystery Of Genetic Changes In Europe

Excavations at the barrow burial mounds in Šajkaška, Serbia. Credit: P. Wlodarczak

As the Jerusalem Post reports, the “DNA material being analyzed at Reich’s labs may provide important new genetic clues and confirmation about the westward migration pattern of the nomadic, horse-riding, cattle-herding people from the steppes and their connection with the agricultural people of Central Europe, including the Corded Ware culture, an important early European community, he said.

“This expansion of steppe tribes is an important event in European prehistory because there was a big demographical change provided by the people who came from the steppes,” he added.

See also: More Archaeology News

Many indicators have pointed toward a total genetic replacement of Yamnaya DNA over the local European farming communities, Wlodarczak said.

Coupled with archaeological finds, the results of their genetic analysis could aid in providing definitive answers to the genetic patterns of the nomads from the eastern steppes in relation to the local peoples, he said.

Hopefully, scientists can with help of the DNA results shed more light on the identity and ancient European people.

Written by Jan Bartek – AncientPages.com Staff Writer



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