OCT. 30, 2014
About 50,000 years ago, humans from Africa first set foot in Europe. They hunted woolly mammoths and other big game — sometimes to extinction. Eventually, they began grazing livestock and raising crops.
They chopped down forests and drained swamps, turning villages into towns, then cities and capitals of empires. But even as they altered the Continent, Europeans changed, too.
Their skin and hair grew lighter. They gained genetic traits particular to the regions in which they lived: Northern Europeans, for example, grew taller than Southern Europeans.
Up till now, scientists have learned about evolution on the Continent mostly by looking at living Europeans. But advances in biotechnology have made it possible to begin extracting entire DNA from the bones of ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. Their genomes are like time machines, allowing scientists to see bits of European history playing out over thousands of years.
Recently David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, and his colleagues analyzed the genomes of nine ancient Europeans. Eight belonged to hunter-gatherers who lived about 8,000 years ago, seven in what is now Sweden and one in Luxembourg. The ninth came from a farmer who lived 7,000 years ago in present-day Germany.
The scientists compared these genomes with those of living Europeans. As they reported last month in Nature, the study revealed something scientists never knew: Europeans today have genes from three very different populations.
The oldest of these populations were the first Europeans, who appear to have lived as hunter-gatherers. The second were farmers who expanded into Europe about 8,500 years ago from the Near East.
But most living Europeans also carry genes from a third population, which appears to have arrived more recently. Dr. Reich and his colleagues found the closest match in DNA taken from a 24,000-year-old individual in Siberia, suggesting that the third wave of immigrants hailed from north Eurasia. The ancient Europeans that the scientists studied did not share this North Eurasian DNA. They concluded that this third wave must have moved into Europe after 7,000 years ago.
Last week, another team of scientists based at University College Dublin reported data from an even bigger haul of ancient European genomes — 13, all told. While Dr. Reich and his colleagues studied ancient Europeans separated by hundreds of miles, the Dublin team focused on just one region in Central Europe called the Great Hungarian Plain.
The people whose genomes the scientists retrieved lived on the plain at various times between 7,700 years ago and 2,800 years ago.
“What’s really exciting here is to have a transect through time,” said Johannes Krause, a co-director of the Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena, Germany, who was not involved in the study. “It’s the first time that’s been done.”
Archaeological digs have revealed evidence of farming on the plain as long as 8,000 years ago. People there raised crops like barley, and raised cattle and other livestock. Shards of pottery show that they consumed milk.
The oldest genomes retrieved from human remains in the area — one from a man and one from a woman — date back to the dawn of agriculture on the plain. The woman’s DNA showed that she belonged to the ancient farming population documented by Dr. Reich and his colleagues.
The man, however, did not have the genes of a farmer. He belonged to the oldest population of hunter-gatherers.
“The archaeological information isn’t enough to say whether he was married to a local farmer,” said Ron Pinhasi, an archaeologist at University College Dublin and a co-author of the new study. It may even be that the man’s skull was a trophy of some sort, Dr. Pinhasi added.
Archaeologists have found that early farming culture didn’t change drastically for the next 3,700 years. But about 4,000 years ago, the Bronze Age arrived. People started using bronze tools, trading over longer networks and moving into fortified towns.
Dr. Pinhasi and his colleagues found that the era also brought a sudden shift in human DNA. A new population arrived on the Great Hungarian Plain, and Dr. Reich believes he knows who they were: the northern Eurasians.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “It documents that by this time in Central Europe, this Eastern influence had already arrived.”
At the start of the Bronze Age, life settled down on the plain for a thousand years. But then came the Iron Age, bringing another shift in culture — and genes.
People began traveling across the plain by horse-drawn chariots and wagons, and the genomes from 2,800 years ago show that the people of the Bronze Age had begun to be supplanted by a new Iron Age population. These are the people most closely related to living Hungarians.
In the new study, Dr. Pinhasi and his colleagues also surveyed individual genes known to have changed over the course of European history.
Today, for example, people in Hungary tend to have light skin and light brown hair, and half of them carry a mutation that lets them digest milk as adults. It took thousands of years for the genes for these traits to appear on the Great Hungarian Plain, the scientists found.
The hunter-gatherer that lived 7,700 years ago, for example, probably had black hair and dark skin, along with blue eyes. His genes suggest that he also probably couldn’t digest milk — not surprising, since he came from a population that didn’t raise livestock.
The ancient farmer woman, on the other hand, probably had dark brown hair and brown eyes. But like the hunter-gatherers, she lacked the genetic mutation for digesting milk.
A 7,700-year-old skeleton of a woman found in Hungary has yielded DNA. Scientists have found that she belonged to a wave of early farmers who moved into Europe from the Near East. Credit Ron Pinhasi
It is not until 6,400 years ago that the scientists find the first genetic evidence on the Great Hungarian Plain for light brown hair. And the milk mutation appeared even later, just 3,100 years ago.
It is possible that these new genes and others were brought to the plain by successive waves of immigrants. But natural selection probably played a role in making these genes pervasive.
Genetic mutations that enable people to drink milk as adults, for example, could have helped them survive famines. In cow-herding cultures, scientists have found, the milk-drinking mutation led to a 10 percent increase in the number of children.
If that’s true, then for 4,600 years people on the Great Hungarian Plain were milking cows but lacked the ability to digest milk. Dr. Pinhasi suggested that they only used milk at first to make cheese and yogurt, which would have been easier to digest.
Daniel G. Bradley, a geneticist at University College Dublin and co-author of the new study, predicted more unexpected results would emerge as scientists gather more ancient DNA in Europe.
“The past is going to be a different country,” he said, “and it’s going to surprise us.”
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