By Carl Zimmer
Carl Zimmer has reported on studies of ancient DNA from Neanderthals, mammoths and many other vanished forms of life.
In the 1800s, archaeologists began reconstructing the deep history of Europe from the bones of ancient hunter-gatherers and the iconic art they left behind, like cave paintings, fertility figurines and “lion-man” statues.
Over the past decade, geneticists have added a new dimension to that history by extracting DNA from teeth and bones.
And now, in a pair of studies published on Wednesday, researchers have produced the most robust analysis yet of the genetic record of prehistoric Europe.
Looking at DNA gleaned from the remains of 357 ancient Europeans, researchers discovered that several waves of hunter-gatherers migrated into Europe. The studies identified at least eight populations, some more genetically distinct from each other than modern-day Europeans and Asians. They coexisted in Europe for thousands of years, apparently trading tools and sharing cultures. Some groups survived the Ice Age, while others vanished, perhaps wiped out by other groups.
“We are finally understanding the dynamics of European hunter-gatherers,” said Vanessa Villalba-Mouco, a paleogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and an author of both studies.
The new genetic analysis suggests that when farmers arrived in Europe about 8,000 years ago, they encountered the descendants of this long history, with light-skinned, dark-eyed people to the east, and possibly dark-skinned and blue-eyed people to the west.
Dr. Villalba-Mouco and her colleagues have given these peoples a list of new names that can be as hard to memorize as the kingdoms of Westeros: the Fournol, the Vestonice, the GoyetQ2, the Villabruna, the Oberkassel and the Sidelkino, among others.
But the scientists are only just beginning to understand how so many different groups emerged 45,000 to 5,000 years ago.
“I didn’t expect these amounts of replacements and changes in ancestry,” said Carles Lalueza-Fox, the director of the Natural Sciences Museum in Barcelona and an author of one of the new papers. “We lack still an understanding of why these movements were triggered. What happened here, why it happened — it’s strange.”