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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ancient DNA vs Ex Oriente Lux


In recent years you may have read academic papers, books and press articles claiming that the Early Bronze Age Yamnaya culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppe was founded by migrants from the Caucasus, Mesopotamia or even Central Asia.

Of course, none of this is true.

The Yamnaya herders and closely related groups, such as the people associated with the Corded Ware culture, expanded from the steppe between the Black and Caspian seas, and, thanks to ancient DNA, it's now certain that they were overwhelmingly derived from a population that had existed in this region since at least the mid-5th millennium BCE (see here).

So rather than being culturally advanced colonists from some Near Eastern civilization, the ancestors of the Yamnaya herders were a relatively primitive local people who still largely relied on hunting and fishing for their subsistence. They also sometimes buried their dead with flint blades and adzes, but hardly ever with metal objects, despite living in the Eneolithic epoch or the Copper Age.

As far as I know, this group doesn't have a specific name. But in recent scientific literature it's referred to as Eneolithic steppe, so let's use that.

It's not yet clear how the Yamnaya people became pastoralists. Some scholars believe that they were basically an offshoot of the cattle herding Maykop culture of the North Caucasus. However, the obvious problem with this idea is that the Yamnaya and Maykop populations probably didn't share any recent ancestry. In fact, ancient DNA shows that the former wasn't derived from the latter in any important or even discernible way (see here).

On the other hand, Yamnaya samples do harbor a subtle signal of recent gene flow from the west that appears to be most closely associated with Middle to Late Neolithic European agropastoralists (see here). Therefore, it's possible that herding was adopted by the ancestors of the Yamnaya people as a result of their sporadic contacts with populations living on the western edge of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.

Eneolithic steppe is currently represented by just three samples in the ancient DNA record, and all of these individuals are from sites on the North Caucasus Piedmont steppe (two from Progress 2 and one from Vonyuchka 1).

As a result, it might be tempting to argue that cultural, if not genetic, impulses from the Caucasus did play an important role in the formation of the Yamnaya and related peoples. However, it's important to note that the North Caucasus Piedmont steppe was the southern periphery of Eneolithic steppe territory.

Below is a map of Eneolithic steppe burial sites featured in recent scientific literature. It's based on data from Gresky et al. 2016, a paper that focused on a specific and complex type of cranial surgery or trepanation often practiced by groups associated with this archeological culture (see here).


Incredibly, one of the skeletons from Vertoletnoe pole has been radiocarbon dated to the mid-6th millennium BCE. My suspicion, however, is that this result was blown out by the so called reservoir effect (see here). In any case, the academic consensus seems to be that the roots of Eneolithic steppe should be sought in the Lower Don region, rather than in the Caucasus foothills (see page 36 here).

Considering that nine Eneolithic steppe skulls from the Lower Don were analyzed by Gresky et al., I'd say it's only a matter of time before we see the publication of genome-wide data for at least of couple of these samples. Indeed, the paper's lead author is from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, which is currently involved in a major archaeogenetic project on the ancient Caucasus and surrounds. Unfortunately, the study is scheduled to be completed in about four years (see here).

But whatever happens, the story of Eneolithic steppe deserves to be investigated in as much detail as possible, because it obviously had a profound impact on Europe and its people.

In my estimation, at least a third of the ancestry of present-day Northern Europeans, all the way from Ireland to the Ural Mountains in Russia, is ultimately derived from Eneolithic steppe groups. It's also possible that R1a-M417 and R1b-L51, the two most frequent Y-chromosome haplogroups in European males today, derive from a couple of Eneolithic steppe founders. If so, that's a very impressive effort for such an obscure archeological culture from what is generally regarded as a peripheral part of Europe.

See also...


Monday, February 3, 2020

Did Caucasus hunter-gatherers ever live in what is now Iran?


Nope, they only lived in the Caucasus Mountains. See that's probably why they're called Caucasus hunter-gatherers, or CHG for short.

But what about the hunter-gatherers from the Belt and Hotu caves in northern Iran, you might ask? Well, what about them? They're not CHG, nor are they significantly more CHG-like than the early farmers of the Zagros Mountains.

To illustrate the point, below are a couple of TreeMix graphs. I'd say they're rather straightforward and self-explanatory.



However, please note that I combined the Belt and Hotu individuals into one sample to help keep the marker count at over 100K. Also keep in mind that CHG is represented by Kotias_HG.

See also...

A final note for the year

A note on Steppe Maykop

Did South Caspian hunter-fishers really migrate to Eastern Europe?

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The great and the good


Here's a quote from a new paper on the impact of genetics, and especially ancient DNA, on archeology and linguistics co-authored by archeologist James Mallory and geneticist Oleg Balanovsky:

Just as the genetic evidence for a steppe homeland appeared to weaken a popular theory (among archaeologists more than linguists) that the Indo-European languages spread from an Anatolian homeland with the spread of farming and the AF genetic signature, a new complication arose: the steppe signal that is found from Ireland to the Yenisei comprises an admixture of EHG and CHG. Such an admixture would appear to involve two deep sources that should have developed separately over the course of thousands of years; in short, there is no reason to believe that the two components spoke closely related languages or even belonged to the same language families. Such a model suggested that Proto-Indo-European may have originated out of the merger of two very different language families, a theory that had once had been suggested by several linguists but had never attained anything remotely resembling consensus [62]. If one does not accept an “admixture language” then the natural question remains: did Proto-Indo-European evolve out of language spoken by EHG or out of language spoken by CHG? So genetics has pushed the current homeland debate into several camps: those who seek the homeland either in the southern Caucasus or Iran (CHG) and those who locate it in the steppelands north of the Caucasus and Caspian Sea (EHG). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1134/S1022795419120081

Make no mistake, this is, in common parlance, total horsehit. That's because:

- if we go back far enough, every goddamn human population that ever existed is a mixture of genetically highly diverged earlier populations, but this obviously doesn't mean that all languages are creoles

- in fact, the so called CHG/EHG mixture that Balanovsky and Mallory are talking about was already present on the Pontic-Caspian steppe around 4,300 BCE, and probably much earlier, so it's likely that it first emerged there before the existence of anything even resembling an Indo-European language

- come to think of it, I'm not aware of any tradition in historical linguistics that requires language families to be directly traced back to specific Mesolithic hunter-gatherer populations. So, with all due respect to Mallory and Balanovsky, it looks like they pulled that theory out of their hats.

The impression that I've been getting for a while now is that the great and the good at various major academic institutions are having a rather difficult time interpreting the ancient DNA data relevant to the Indo-European homeland debate. Why? I don't have a clue. Someone should e-mail them and ask. Feel free to let me know what they say in the comments below.

See also...

A final note for the year

A note on Steppe Maykop

Did South Caspian hunter-fishers really migrate to Eastern Europe?

Monday, January 20, 2020

Graphing the truth


I haven't used TreeMix since qpGraph became freely available for Linux. Among other things, the latter offers greater control, reproducibility and transparency.

However, I'd say that in its current form qpGraph is not the most objective way to analyze data. That's because if you're really good with it, and you want a graph to work, then often you can make it work by tweaking whatever it is that needs to be tweaked.

It's not possible to do a lot of tweaking with TreeMix. Indeed, once the user picks the samples for the TreeMix run, the rest of the process can be totally unsupervised, and thus free from human interference. Obviously, that's not a guarantee of accuracy, but it can be useful.

I feel I need to run more unsupervised analyses, especially when exploring new data. So to that end, I've dusted off TreeMix and will be using it regularly again.

There's been some talk lately online about migrations from Central Asia giving rise to the Eneolithic populations of the North Caucasus Piedmont steppe. In my opinion, that sounds like nonsense. But let's see what TreeMix has to say on the matter. In the graphs below look for the samples labeled Progress_En and Vonyuchka_En, respectively.




As far as I can tell, both of these graphs essentially corroborate the results from my recent Principal Component Analyses (PCA) with many of the same ancients (see here). In other words, Progress_En and Vonyuchka_En can be described as mixtures of populations closely related to the hunter-gatherers of the Caucasus on one hand, and those of Eastern Europe on the other. How does Central Asia fit into this, you might ask? It doesn't, unless you really want it to.

See also...

Did South Caspian hunter-fishers really migrate to Eastern Europe?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Hungarian Conquerors were rich in Y-haplogroup N (Fóthi et al. 2020)


Open access at Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences at this LINK. Below is the paper abstract. Emphasis is mine:

According to historical sources, ancient Hungarians were made up of seven allied tribes and the fragmented tribes that split off from the Khazars, and they arrived from the Eastern European steppes to conquer the Carpathian Basin at the end of the ninth century AD. Differentiating between the tribes is not possible based on archaeology or history, because the Hungarian Conqueror artifacts show uniformity in attire, weaponry, and warcraft. We used Y-STR and SNP analyses on male Hungarian Conqueror remains to determine the genetic source, composition of tribes, and kin of ancient Hungarians. The 19 male individuals paternally belong to 16 independent haplotypes and 7 haplogroups (C2, G2a, I2, J1, N3a, R1a, and R1b). The presence of the N3a haplogroup is interesting because it rarely appears among modern Hungarians (unlike in other Finno-Ugric-speaking peoples) but was found in 37.5% of the Hungarian Conquerors. This suggests that a part of the ancient Hungarians was of Ugric descent and that a significant portion spoke Hungarian. We compared our results with public databases and discovered that the Hungarian Conquerors originated from three distant territories of the Eurasian steppes, where different ethnicities joined them: Lake Baikal-Altai Mountains (Huns/Turkic peoples), Western Siberia-Southern Urals (Finno-Ugric peoples), and the Black Sea-Northern Caucasus (Caucasian and Eastern European peoples). As such, the ancient Hungarians conquered their homeland as an alliance of tribes, and they were the genetic relatives of Asiatic Huns, Finno-Ugric peoples, Caucasian peoples, and Slavs from the Eastern European steppes.


Fóthi, E., Gonzalez, A., Fehér, T. et al., Genetic analysis of male Hungarian Conquerors: European and Asian paternal lineages of the conquering Hungarian tribes, Archaeol Anthropol Sci (2020) 12: 31. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-019-00996-0

See also...

On the association between Uralic expansions and Y-haplogroup N

More on the association between Uralic expansions and Y-haplogroup N

Big deal of 2019: ancient DNA confirms the link between Y-haplogroup N and Uralic expansions