Bronze Age genomes shed light on cultural revolutions
The movement of ideas and people across Asia and Europe during the Bronze Age have long been debated by archaeologists, with evidence often based on material finds to trace specific cultural populations. New research has proved that this movement can be traced through the genomic record, analysing the genomes extracted from the teeth of individuals from those populations.
The paper, published in Nature last week, details the findings based on 101 genomes of individuals from across Central Europe, through Eurasia, and into Western Asia, and dating between 3400 BC and 600 AD. It was found that the movement of cultures, such as the Yamnaya culture, can be followed through these genomes proving that cultural and language changes were driven by the movement of people, as opposed to of ideas. It also highlighted where some populations didn’t change, despite the sweep of movement around them, for example, the Remedello population in Italy.
Many of the conclusions drawn from the study back up previously described theories about the movement of cultures across Europe. However, it was discovered that lactose tolerance was still all but absent across Europe, meaning that the ability to consume dairy products without negative consequences was still largely rare. This flies in the face of the theory that the trait was being expressed as early as the Neolithic in response to farming, and subsequent dairying practices. Where and when the lactose tolerance gene originates from is as yet still not understood, as its modern day frequency is quite high among Europeans.
Despite this, Bronze Age Europeans were already light-skinned and the prevalence of blue eyes was high. It appears that light-skin became common in Europe somewhere between the Mesolithic and Neolithic.
The Bronze Age was clearly a period of massive population migrations, causing the sweeping changes of cultures seen in the archaeological record. The continuing efforts to help tie the archaeological and genomic data will continue to provide a better understanding of just how the Bronze Age shaped the modern world.
Allentoft, M.E. et al. (2015) Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia, Nature, 522, doi:10.1038/nature14507
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