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Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals the ‘Mythical’ Heritage of Modern Greeks

Ancient DNA Analysis Reveals the ‘Mythical’ Heritage of Modern Greeks


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Phys Org reports that a recent analysis of ancient DNA suggests that Ancient Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically identical, with both peoples descending from early Neolithic farmers. The study also reveals that they are both closely related to modern Greeks.

Who Were the Minoans?

The Minoan and the Mycenaean Civilizations, are widely considered the first literate civilizations of the Western World and the ancestors of what later would be defined as Classical Greece. However, many questions about the origins of the Minoans and their ties to the Mycenaeans have long perplexed historians and archaeologists alike. The main question is: where did these people came from?

  • Origins of the Mysterious Minoans Unraveled by Scientists
  • Does the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus Hold the Key to Discovering the Secrets of the Minoan History?
  • Traces of the Minoan Civilization from Egypt to Syria

The detail of the Potnia Theron belongs to the largest piece of Mycenaean wall painting preserved in Mycenae (CC BY 2.0 )

As a previous Ancient Origins article reports , the examination of DNA from teeth taken from Bronze Age Cretan skeletons cleared up the mystery to some extent. American and Cretan researchers showed that ancient Cretans of the Minoan civilization have the closest relationship to both Neolithic and modern Europeans, according to a paper published in the journal Nature Communications. The first advanced Bronze Age civilization of Europe was established by the Minoans about 5,000 years ago. However, according to their estimations people first arrived on Crete about 9,000 years ago, about the same time as the development of agriculture in the Near East and the migrations that brought farming to Europe, the authors wrote.

The "Blue Boy" or the "Saffron-Gatherer". Minoan fresco from Knossos (Evans reconstruction) ( CC BY SA 4.0 )

Arthur Evans, an archaeologist who exposed the Minoan civic center of Knossos in 1900, named the Minoans after mythical King Minos of Knossos, the ancient people’s capital. Based on similarities in art, burials and the shared practice of wearing codpieces, Evans speculated that they were refugees from Egypt’s Delta after King Narmer conquered northern Egypt about 3000 BC. Geneticist George Stamatoyannopoulos of the University of Washington in Seattle, along with Hughey and other researchers, was able to extract mitochondrial DNA from the teeth of 37 ancient Minoans and compared it to 135 ancient and modern populations. The team found the Minoans had 21 mtDNA markers, including six unique to themselves and 15 common in Neolithic, Bronze Age and modern Europeans. None of the ancient Minoans had mitochondrial DNA similar to modern African people, proving how sadly mistaken Evans had been with his theories.

Archaeological Museum of Herakleion, Crete. Minoan bull-leaping fresco (1600-1450 BC) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Recent Study Disproves Previous Questionable Studies

A paper published yesterday in Nature , correlates with the previous study of Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos and suggests that the Minoans had deep roots in the Aegean. In this further analysis, Stamatoyannopoulos has worked in conjunction with Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute, who undertook comprehensive genomic DNA sequencing using techniques developed in his laboratory, and P David Reich of Harvard Medical School, who worked with Iosif Lazaridis on collation and statistical genetic analysis of the data. The researchers analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of nineteen ancient individuals – including ten Minoans from Crete dating to 2900 to 1700 BC, four Mycenaeans from the archaeological site at Mycenae and other cemeteries on the Greek mainland dating from 1700 to 1200 BC, and five people from other early farming or Bronze Age. The main ancestors of both the Minoans and Mycenaeans were natives of the Neolithic Western Anatolia and Greece and the two groups were very closely related to each other, and to modern Greeks.

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia, and Iran. This finding suggests that some migration occurred in the Aegean and southwestern Anatolia from further east after the time of the earliest farmers," Iosif Lazaridis from Harvard University‏ told Phys Org .

The lady from Mycenae as depicted in a fresco at Mycenae, mainland Greece

Motivation Behind the Meticulous Study

The passion for history and justice were the main motivations of Dr. Stamatoyannopoulos when he launched this ambitions project, "For over a hundred years, many hotly contested theories have circulated concerning the origin of the inhabitants of Bronze Age, Classical, and modern Greece, including the so-called 'Coming of the Greeks' in the late second millennium, the 'Black Athena' hypothesis of the Afroasiatic origins of Classical Greek civilization, and the notorious theory of the 19th century German historian Fallmerayer, who popularized the belief that the descendants of the ancient Greeks had vanished in early Medieval times," he told Phys Org .

And despite the new study not replying definitively to every question there is, it definitely provides some key answers. The greatest example of all, is how the findings disprove the widely accepted until now theory that the Mycenaeans were a foreign population in the Aegean and were not related to the Minoans. The findings also disprove the theory that modern Greeks are not descendants of the Mycenaeans and later ancient Greek populations.

Ultimately, from a scientific point of view, the study once again highlights the incredible potential of ancient DNA analysis as a tool in the hands of scientists who attempt to solve perplexing historical issues.


Racial Reality

This new study refutes Nordicist and Afrocentrist claims of population replacement in Ancient Greece, showing that modern Peloponnesean Greeks are most closely related to other Southern Europeans, and far from both Slavic and non-European groups. They're also distinct from Greek-speaking populations in Asia Minor, only partly overlapping with those on the Aegean coast nearest to Greece.

4 comments

Indeed. The claims by Richard Lynn that mass miscegenation occurred in Greece is ridiculous. Number one, the Neotholic population which came into Europe from the Near east 7000 years ago has been in Europe long before the beginning of ancient Rome and Greece. Aristotle even mentioned that he noticed a difference between Greeks and Northern Europeans, stating they had a medium skin tone and where an "ideal people". Also, the Romans referred to the Celts as "red haired barbarians" indicating this difference existed during the classical era.

Southern Europeans are the same as Northern Europeans in terms of genetic admixture except that there is more of the Neothlic contribution in the south, hence the difference. This genetic make up of Europe is the reason why dark or light hair, as well as other traits, can be found all across the continent because the mixture of Near eastern farmer and hunter gather is distributed all across the continent, just in different percentages. Genetically, Europeans are all still very closely related.

It's strange to compare the greeks with distant slavic nations, but to forget to make a comparison with the greek neighbours - bulgarians, as from Bulgaria the slavic identity historically emerged.

The Slavic homeland is north of the Balkans, and South Slavs have a lot of indigenous Balkan ancestry, so they're not a good reference population.


"Thieves and Canaanites"

As Egyptians built pyramids and Mesopotamians constructed ziggurats some 4,500 years ago, the Canaanites began to develop towns and cities between these great powers. They first appear in the historical record around 1800 B.C., when the king of the city-state of Mari in today’s eastern Syria complained about “thieves and Canaanites.”

Diplomatic correspondence written five centuries later mentions several Canaanite kings, who often struggled to maintain independence from Egypt. “The land of Canaan is your land and its kings are your servants,” acknowledged one Babylonian monarch in a letter to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten.

Biblical texts, written many centuries later, insist that Yahweh promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites after their escape from Egypt. Jewish scripture says the newcomers eventually triumphed, but archaeological evidence doesn’t show widespread destruction of Canaanite populations. Instead, they appear to have been gradually overpowered by later invaders such as the Philistines, Greeks, and Romans.

The Canaanites spoke a Semitic language and were long thought to derive from earlier populations that settled in the region thousands of years before. But archaeologists have puzzled over red-and-black pottery discovered at Canaanite sites that closely resembles ceramics found in the Caucasus Mountains, some 750 miles to the northwest. Historians also have noted that many Canaanite names derive from Hurrian, a non-Semitic language originating in the Caucasus.

Whether this resulted from long-distance trade or migration was uncertain. The new study demonstrates that significant numbers of people, and not just goods, were moving around during humanity’s first era of cities and empires. The genes of Canaanite individuals proved to be a mix of local Neolithic people and the Caucasus migrants, who began showing up in the region around the start of the Bronze Age.

Carmel adds that the migration appears to have been more than a one-time event, and “could have involved multiple waves throughout the Bronze Age.”

One brother and sister who lived around 1500 B.C. in Megiddo, in what is now northern Israel, were from a family that had migrated relatively recently from the northeast. The team also noted that individuals at two coastal sites—Ashkelon in Israel and Sidon in Lebanon—show slightly more genetic diversity. That may be the result of broader trade links in Mediterranean port towns than inland settlements.

Glenn Schwartz, an archaeologist at Johns Hopkins University who was not involved in the study, said that the biological data provides important insight into how Canaanites shared a notable number of genes as well as cultural traits. And Haber from the Wellcome Trust noted that the quantity of DNA results is particularly impressive, given the difficulty of extracting samples from old bones buried in such a warm climate that can quickly degrade genetic material.


Ancient DNA analysis reveals Minoan and Mycenaean origins

An analysis of ancient DNA has revealed that Ancient Minoans and Mycenaens were genetically similar with both peoples descending from early Neolithic farmers.

They likely migrated from Anatolia to Greece and Crete thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age. Modern Greeks, in turn, are largely descendants of the Mycenaeans, the study found.

The discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations on the island of Crete and on mainland Greece in the late 1800s gave birth to modern archaeology and opened a direct window into the European Bronze Age. This period of history had previously been glimpsed only though Homer's epics, the Iliad and Odyssey.

The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete beginning in the third millennium before the Common Era. and was astonishingly advanced artistically and technologically. The Minoans were also the first literate people of Europe. The Mycenaean civilization developed in mainland Greece in the second millennium before the Common Era. It shared many cultural features with the Minoans. They used the Linear B script, an early form of Greek.

The origins of the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples, however, have puzzled archaeologists for over 100 years. It is widely believed that they derived from different ancestral populations. A new analysis of well-preserved Minoan and Mycenaean DNA now provides many answers and insights.

An international team of researchers from the University of Washington, the Harvard Medical School and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, together with archaeologists and other collaborators in Greece and Turkey, report the first genome-wide DNA sequence data on the Bronze Age inhabitants of mainland Greece, Crete, and southwestern Anatolia.

UW Medicine researcher, George Stamatoyannopoulos, professor of genome sciences and of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the senior author on the paper describing the new findings.

The study appears August 2 in the advanced online edition o the journal Nature.

The researchers analyzed tooth DNA from the remains of 19 ancient individuals who could be definitively identified by archaeological evidence as Minoans of Crete, Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, and people who lived in southwestern Anatolia.

The DNA samples were collected by Stamatoyannopoulos and his archaeologist collaborators, and were initially analyzed in his laboratory. Subsequently, Stamatoyannopoulos began collaborating with Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute, who undertook comprehensive genomic DNA sequencing using techniques developed in his laboratory, and P David Reich of Harvard Medical School, who worked with Iosif Lazaridis on collation and statistical genetic analysis of the data.

The compared the Minoan and Mycenaean genomes to each other and to more than 330 other ancient genomes and over 2,600 genomes of present-day humans from around the world.

Study results show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically highly similar - but not identical - and that modern Greeks descend from these populations. The Minoans and Mycenaeans descended mainly from early Neolithic farmers, likely migrating thousands of years prior to the Bronze Age from Anatolia, in what is today modern Turkey.

"Minoans, Mycenaeans, and modern Greeks also had some ancestry related to the ancient people of the Caucasus, Armenia, and Iran. This finding suggests that some migration occurred in the Aegean and southwestern Anatolia from further east after the time of the earliest farmers," said Lazaridis.

While both Minoans and Mycenaeans had both "first farmer" and "eastern" genetic origins, Mycenaeans traced an additional minor component of their ancestry to ancient inhabitants of Eastern Europe and northern Eurasia. This type of so-called Ancient North Eurasian ancestry is one of the three ancestral populations of present-day Europeans, and is also found in modern Greeks.

A passion for history inspired Stamatoyannopoulos to initiate this project: "For over 100 years, many hotly contested theories have circulated concerning the origin of the inhabitants of Bronze Age, Classical, and modern Greece, including the so-called 'Coming of the Greeks' in the late second millennium, the 'Black Athena' hypothesis of the Afroasiatic origins of Classical Greek civilization, and the notorious theory of the 19th century German historian Fallmerayer, who popularized the belief that the descendants of the ancient Greeks had vanished in early Medieval times."

While the new study does not resolve all the outstanding questions, it provides key answers. Importantly, the findings disprove the widely held theory that the Mycenaeans were a foreign population in the Aegean and were not related to the Minoans. The results also dispel the theory that modern Greeks did not descend from the Mycenaeans and later ancient Greek populations.

In broad strokes, the new study shows that there was genetic continuity in the Aegean from the time of the first farmers to present-day Greece, but not in isolation. The peoples of the Greek mainland had some admixture with Ancient North Eurasians and peoples of the Eastern European steppe both before and after the time of the Minoans and Mycenaeans, which may provide the missing link between Greek speakers and their linguistic relatives elsewhere in Europe and Asia.

The study thus underscores the power of analysis of ancient DNA to solve vexing historical problems, and sets the stage for many future studies that promise to untangle the threads of history, archaeology, and language.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system.


Ancient DNA revealed: Present-day Greeks are genetically identical to populations of 2,000 BC.

The Minoan civilization in Crete, the Greek culture in mainland and the Cycladic culture in the Aegean had one thing in common: genetic similarities during the early Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago.

This is according to a new international scientific study in which Greek and foreign researchers conducted ancient DNA analyzes in the area. This research sheds more light on the origins of the first major Bronze Age cultures in Europe, the role of migration and the emergence of the Indo-European languages.

This is the first study to "read" complete genomes of skeletons found at various archeological sites in the Aegean and the wider Greek area. More specifically, four from the Early Bronze Age and two from the Middle Bronze Age.

Mitochondrial genomes were also analyzed from 11 other early Bronze Age individuals. The analysis of all these genomes allowed the experts to perform demographic and statistical analyzes and to draw conclusions about the history of the ancient populations of the region.

The researchers, led by Professor Christina Papageorgopoulou of the Laboratory of Natural Anthropology of the Department of History and Ethnology of Democritus University of Thrace and Anna-Sappho Malaspina of the Department of Computational Biology of the University of Lausanne concluded that the first cultures that built monumental palaces and urban centers in Europe, are genetically more homogeneous than expected.

According to the scientists, these findings are significant because they suggest that the important innovations - such as the use of metals and intensive trade - that occurred during the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age were not only due to mass migration from the East to the Aegean, but also to the cultural continuity of the local agricultural Neolithic populations of the Aegean.

Based on palaeogenetic data, Aegean populations of the Early Bronze Age appear to have been shaped to a relatively small extent by eastern migrations.

At the same time, the study found that the people of North Aegean until the Middle Bronze Age, 4,000 to 4,600 years ago, had more significant genetic differences than the differences they had in the Early Bronze Age.

In particular, these people had about 50% in common with people from the Ponto-Caspian Steppe, a large geographic area that stretched between the Danube and Ural rivers and north of the Black Sea.

In fact, based on genetic findings, today's Greeks are quite similar genetically to those populations of the North Aegean of 2,000 BC. The study also assumes that waves of migration from the great steppe north of the Aegean shaped modern Greece.

According to the researchers, all of these possible waves of migration preceded the emergence of the earliest form of the Greek language, supporting theories about the emergence of the early Greek language and the development of Indo-European languages in either Anatolia or the steppe of Pontus-Caspian.

The Bronze Age in Eurasia was marked by decisive changes at the social, political, and economic levels, visible in the emergence of the first large urban centers and palaces that laid the foundation for modern economic and political systems.

However, despite the importance of understanding the emergence of these early European civilizations and the spread of Indo-European languages, the genetic origins of the populations behind this crucial transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, and their contribution to the present-day Greek population, controversial questions remain, according to researchers.

However, it is hoped that further studies analyzing integrated genomes between the Mesolithic and the Bronze Age in the regions of Armenia and the Caucasus will shed more light on the origins of migrations to the Aegean and better reconcile paleogenetic data with archeological and geological .

Finally, it should be noted that the new study involved many other Greek researchers from the Ephorate of Antiquities of Kozani and Florina and the Universities of Democritus, Aristotle and the Aegean.


DNA Reveals Origin of Crete’s Ancient Minoan People

Analysis of DNA from ancient remains on the Greek island of Crete reveals that the Minoans were actually indigenous Europeans, shedding new light on a debate over the provenance of this ancient culture.

In the past, scholars have argued the advanced Bronze Age civilization arrived from Africa, Anatolia or the Middle East.

The concept of the Minoan civilization was first developed by Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who unearthed the Bronze Age palace of Knossos on Crete in the early 1900s.

Evans named the people who built these cities after the legendary King Minos who, according to tradition, ordered the construction of a labyrinth on Crete to hold the mythical half-man, half-bull creature known as the minotaur.

Evans was of the opinion that the real-life Bronze Age culture on Crete must have its origins elsewhere. And so, he suggested that the Minoans were refugees from Egypt’s Nile delta, fleeing the region’s conquest by a southern king some 5,000 years ago.

“He was surprised to find this advanced civilization on Crete,” said co-author George Stamatoyannopoulos, from the University of Washington in Seattle, told the BBC.

The evidence for this idea included apparent similarities between Egyptian and Minoan art and resemblances between circular tombs built by the early inhabitants of southern Crete and those built by ancient Libyans.

But other archaeologists have argued for origins in Palestine, Syria, or Anatolia.

In this study, Prof Stamatoyannopoulos and colleagues analyzed the DNA of 37 individuals buried in a cave on the Lassithi plateau in the island’s east. The majority of the burials are thought to date to the middle of the Minoan period – around 3,700 years ago.

The analysis focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) extracted from the teeth of the skeletons, This type of DNA is stored in the cell’s “batteries” and is passed down, more or less unchanged, from mother to child.

They then compared the frequencies of distinct mtDNA lineages, known as “haplogroups”, in this ancient Minoan set with similar data for 135 other populations, including ancient samples from Europe and Anatolia as well as modern peoples.

The comparison seemed to rule out an origin for the Minoans in North Africa: the ancient Cretans showed little genetic similarity to Libyans, Egyptians or the Sudanese. They were also genetically distant from populations in the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudis, and Yemenis.

The ancient Minoan DNA was most similar to populations from western and northern Europe. The population showed particular genetic affinities with Bronze Age populations from Sardinia and Iberia and Neolithic samples from Scandinavia and France.

They also resembled people who live on the Lassithi Plateau today, a population that has previously attracted attention from geneticists.

The authors therefore conclude that the Minoan civilization was a local development, originated by inhabitants who probably reached the island around 9,000 years ago, in Neolithic times.

“There has been all this controversy over the years. We have shown how the analysis of DNA can help archaeologists and historians put things straight,” Prof Stamatoyannopoulos told BBC News.

“The Minoans are Europeans and are also related to present-day Cretans – on the maternal side.”

He added: “It’s obvious that there was very important local development. But it is clear that, for example, in the art, there were influences from other peoples. So we need to see the Mediterranean as a pool, not as a group of isolated nations.”

“There is evidence of cultural influence from Egypt to the Minoans and going the other way.”


Five Amazing Things We Learned About History From Ancient DNA In 2018

Every year ancient DNA research deepens our understanding of history a bit more, and 2018 was truly a remarkable year for ancient DNA research. By February the total number of genomes characterized from ancient individuals surpassed 1,300. I want to highlight five of what I think are the most interesting discoveries made this year, although I had to cheat a bit by grouping multiple papers together under each topic.

In 2018 researchers sequenced five new genomes from Neanderthals living between 39,000 and 47,000 years ago (Hajdinjak et al. "Reconstructing the genetic history of late Neanderthals"), which gave us insights into the structure of their genetic diversity. We also learned that as a result of interbreeding with each other, modern humans and Neanderthals conferred genes implicated in resistance to each other ‘s viruses (Enard et al. "Evidence that RNA viruses drove adaptive introgression between Neanderthals and modern humans", see my summary here). But perhaps one of the most exciting discoveries this year was the publication in August of the genome of a 90,000 year old girl from Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Her genome revealed that she was a first-generation descendant of a mating between a Neanderthal woman and a Denisovan man (Slon et al. “The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father”). Her mother’s lineage was most closely related to a population of Neanderthals from Europe rather than other Neanderthals from the same cave, hinting at a long distance migration of Neanderthals. Finding her suggests that such encounters may have been more common than previously suspected, and not just confined to Neanderthal-human pairings we also learned this year that there were likely at least two interbreeding events between Denisovans and modern humans (Browning et al. "Analysis of human sequence data reveals two pulses of Archaic Denisovan Admixture"). These findings helped contribute to a major theme of human evolutionary studies this year: an emphasis on understanding the biological consequences of genetic variants that we inherited from our Neanderthal and Denisovan ancestors. In a special issue of Current Opinion in Genetics and Development focusing on the genetics of human origins, Dannemann and Racimo reviewed recent research pertaining to the adaptive benefits (and drawbacks) from archaic hominin DNA in our genomes ("Something old, something borrowed: admixture and adaptation in human evolution”). And in another paper (“Outstanding questions in the study of archaic hominin admixture”), Wolf and Akey reviewed the state of our knowledge about modern human-archaic hominin admixture more generally, focusing on questions that we still don’t have the answers to.

  1. New insights into the genetic history of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas

I can’t remember another year in which we learned so many new things about the history of Indigenous American populations from ancient DNA. Early in January, a genome from one of three children buried at the Upward Sun River site in Alaska 11,000 years ago revealed the presence of a population previously only hypothesized: the Ancient Beringians. They shared the same ancestry as Native peoples from North and South America but separated from them about 20,000 years ago. (Moreno-Mayar et al. “Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan genome reveals first founding population of Native Americans”, see my summary here.) Another member of this group was identified genetically later this year (Moreno-Mayar et al. “Early human dispersals within the Americas"), from the Trail Creek Cave site in Alaska. This individual dated to about 9,000 years ago the wide geographic separation of these two individuals suggests that this population was widespread. Additional complexity (including two more hypothesized ancestral populations) was added to our models of the initial peopling of North and South America by this paper, another by Scheib et al. (“Ancient human parallel lineages within North America contributed to a coastal expansion"), and a third by Posth et al. (“Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America"). You can read my summaries of the Moreno-Mayar paper and the Posth paper here.

On a related note, I started working on my book about the genetic history of the Americas this year so all recent studies (including many not mentioned here) will be summarized in a single place for interested readers in the not-too-distant future.

Two major ancient DNA studies were published this year that, together with analyses of genomes from contemporary peoples, gave insights into the history of populations in Vanuatu (Posth et al. "Language continuity despite population replacement in Remote Oceania”, and Lipson et al. “Population Turnover in Remote Oceania Shortly after Initial Settlement”). Together they show that the earliest inhabitants of Vanuatu were from the Lapita culture with East Asian genetic ancestry. But beginning around 2,500 years ago Papuans from the Bismark Archipelago began to migrate into the region their genetic contributions continued up until the present day and have almost completely supplanted the East Asian signal of ancestry. However, many of the languages of contemporary peoples of Vanuatu descend from the Lapita. This finding highlights how genetic heritage cannot necessarily be inferred from cultural/linguistic identity and vice versa: a lesson which ancient DNA has taught us many times in recent years.

This year two groups of researchers associated with the Reich lab published the largest ancient DNA study to date in two papers, comprising genomic data from over 600 individuals living in Europe between the Neolithic through the Bronze Age. (Mathieson et al. “The genomic history of southeastern Europe” and Olalde et al. “The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe”). These genomes gave us a better understanding of the incredibly complex population events characterizing the history of Europe. Researchers discovered that the spread of the Beaker culture was due to cultural diffusion in some regions of Europe, but migration in others, including in Britain where approximately 90% of the gene pool was replaced by steppe-related ancestry around 4,400 years ago. Southeastern European genomes between 12000 and 500 BC revealed that the region was genetically dynamic, with early contacts between individuals living there and the steppe populations that would later expand across northern Europe. Here is a summary of their findings.

  1. Ancient DNA from Southeast Asia revealed at least three major waves of human migration over the last 50,000 years.

The first large studies of ancient genetic diversity from Southeast Asia was published this year by Lipson et al. (“Ancient genomes document multiple waves of migration in Southeast Asian prehistory”) and McColl et al. (“The prehistoric peopling of Southeast Asia”). Together these studies show that farming populations migrated from China throughout Southeast Asia approximately 5000-4000 years ago, mixing with mainland Hòabìnhians (but not completely replacing them). Genetic variation related different East Asian populations in genomes dating to later periods suggests that there were additional gene flow events. This complex history of migrations helps to settle a long-term debate among archaeologists, linguists, and biological anthropologists.

These are just some of the fascinating things that ancient DNA research revealed about history this year. In the interests of space, I can't include many others, such as the finding of the hepatitis B virus in 7,000-year-old human remains, or the reconstruction of Cheddar Man’s appearance from his genome, or the evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas. Please feel free to tweet me anything you think I should have added to the list.

But while we celebrate the accomplishments of these researchers, I think it’s also important to recognize that the fields of paleogenomics and archaeology still have a long way to go in order to be fully collaborative. This article by Ewen Callaway gives a good summary of issues underlying the “uneasy relationship” between archaeology and paleogenomics. I would add that Indigenous communities across the world need to be explicitly included in these research endeavors, as they have historically experienced and continue to experience ongoing harm from researchers who do not recognize how their work affects them. Ancient DNA research is not regulated in the same way that genetics research with contemporary peoples are, and this year has seen an ongoing conversation about how the increasing pace and “industrialization” of ancient DNA research may be exacerbating existing carelessness about ethical concerns of descendent communities and other stakeholders--something that is all-too-common in this discipline. For example, a team of researchers and ethicists (that included Forbes contributor Kristina Killgrove) sharply critiqued the skeletal and genomic analysis of the remains of a partially mummified human fetus from Chile as inaccurate, unnecessary and unethical (Halcrow et al. “On engagement with anthropology: A critical evaluation of skeletal and developmental abnormalities in the Atacama preterm baby and issues of forensic and bioarchaeological research ethics”).

Engagement with descendent communities prior to the start of a project is one way of ensuring ethical paleogenomics research. But what does engaged research actually look like? The SING (Summer Internship for Indigenous Peoples in Genomics) Consortium, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous geneticists and bioethicists addressed this question in an article published in Science this year (Bardill et al. "Advancing the ethics of paleogenomics” I am a co-author on this paper). The article not only highlighted the problems that can occur when descendent communities are not consulted as part of the research process, but it also proposed a series of specific guiding questions to aid geneticists in the process of community engagement. My hope for 2019 is that we’ll see an increase in true partnership between researchers of all disciplines and descendent communities, which will strengthen our scientific inferences and make our research more ethical.


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Goats, bookworms, a monk’s kiss: Biologists reveal the hidden history of ancient gospels

One of those sources is the Bible’s Old Testament, which suggests a grisly end for many Canaanites: After the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, God ordered them to destroy Canaan and its people (though other passages suggest that some Canaanites may have survived). But did that really happen? Archaeological data suggests that Canaanite cities were never destroyed or abandoned. Now, ancient DNA recovered from five Canaanite skeletons suggests that these people survived to contribute their genes to millions of people living today.

The new samples come from Sidon, a coastal city in Lebanon. Marc Haber, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K., extracted enough DNA from the ancient skeletons to sequence the whole genomes of five Canaanite individuals, all around 3700 years old.

Haber’s first mission was to figure out who the Canaanites were, genetically speaking. Ancient Greek sources suggested they had migrated to the Levant from the East. To test that, Haber and colleagues compared the Canaanite genomes to those of other ancient populations in Eurasia. It turned out the Greeks were half right: About 50% of the Canaanites’ genes came from local farmers who settled the Levant about 10,000 years ago. But the other half was linked to an earlier population identified from skeletons found in Iran, the team reports today in The American Journal of Human Genetics. The researchers estimate these Eastern migrants arrived in the Levant and started mixing with locals around 5000 years ago.

Archaeologists have been excavating the Canaanite city of Sidon since 1998.

This finding fits with other recent studies of the Levant. Iosif Lazaridis, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, saw the same mixture of eastern and local ancestry in the genomes of ancient skeletons from Jordan. “It’s nice to see that what we observed wasn’t a fluke of our particular site, but was part of this broader Canaanite population,” Lazaridis says.

Now that Haber had confirmed who the Canaanites were, he set out to find out what happened to them. He compared their genomes to those of 99 living Lebanese people and hundreds of others in genetic databases. Haber found that the present-day Lebanese population is largely descended from the ancient Canaanites, inheriting more than 90% of their genes from this ancient source. The other 7% may have come from migrants from Central Europe who moved to the Levant around 3000 years ago.

So does the new study show that there was no war between the Israelites and the Canaanites? Not necessarily, says Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith, who worked with Haber. Genes don’t always track conflict. “You can have genetically similar or indistinguishable populations that are culturally very different and don’t get on with one another at all,” Tyler-Smith says. This might have been the case with the Israelites and the Canaanites—similar genes, but sworn enemies.

“If those populations conquer each other, it probably wouldn’t leave traces that we could easily pick up [with ancient DNA],” agrees Johannes Krause, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, who wasn’t involved in the current work. Perhaps there was a Biblical war that ancient DNA simply cannot see.



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