Researchers use ancient DNA to map 11,700 years of human history

26 Aug 2022

High aerial view of the Karashamb Necropolis, Armenia. Image: Pavel Avetisyan/Varduhi Melikyan

By examining newly sequenced ancient DNA from across the Southern Arc, researchers revealed a complex population history from the earliest farming cultures to post-medieval times.

Researchers have used ancient DNA to create a detailed genomic history of the “cradle of Western civilisation”.

They focused on the area known as the ‘Southern Arc’, which spans across south-eastern Europe and western Asia.

The researchers said the ancient history of this region has been told through archaeological data, along with thousands of years of historical accounts and text. But innovations in sequencing ancient DNA have provided a new source of historical information.

In three separate studies, published in Science, researchers used the ancient DNA from the remains of 777 humans to build a detailed genomic history of the Southern Arc from the Neolithic (around 10,000 BCE) to the Ottoman period (roughly 1,700 CE) – or a span of about 11,700 years.

The findings suggest that the earlier reliance on modern population history, ancient writings and art has provided an inaccurate picture of early Indo-European cultures.

The first study looked at the Chalcolithic and Bronze Ages, roughly 5,000 to 1,000 BCE. The researchers said there were large “genetic exchanges” during this period between the Eurasian Steppe and the Southern Arc, which provides new insights into the formation of the Yamnaya steppe pastoralists and the origin of Indo-European language.

The second study looked at ancient DNA from pre-pottery Neolithic Mesopotamia and the epicentre of the region’s ‘Neolithic revolution’, when humans began cultivating plants and breeding animals.

The findings suggest that the transition between pre-pottery and pottery phases of Neolithic Anatolia was associated with two distinct pulses of migration from the Fertile Crescent heartland.

The third study looked into the ancient and medieval history of southern Europe and west Asia, to explain the demographics and geographic origins of groups like the Mycenaeans, Urartians and Romans.

In a perspective piece, Benjamin Arbuckle and Zoe Schwandt from the University of North Carolina’s Department of Anthropology said the studies represent “an important milestone for ancient genomic research”. They provide “a rich dataset and diverse observations” that could drive further interpretations of the human history of west Eurasia.

Arbuckle and Schwandt added that it is an “astounding dataset” but highlighted the limitations of the interpretations, suggesting that many of the narratives in the studies reflect a Eurocentric worldview.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic