Three waves of immigrants settled prehistoric Europe. The last, some 5,000 years ago, were the Yamnaya, horse-riding cattle herders from Russia who built imposing grave mounds like this one near Žabalj, Serbia.
DANUBIAN ROUTE OF YAMNAYA CULTURE PROJECT, NATIONAL SCIENCE CENTER, POLAND
Genetic tests of ancient settlers’ remains show that Europe is a melting pot of bloodlines from Africa, the Middle East, and today’s Russia.
The idea that there were once “pure” populations of ancestral Europeans, there since the days of woolly mammoths, has inspired ideologues since well before the Nazis. It has long nourished white racism, and in recent years it has stoked fears about the impact of immigrants: fears that have threatened to rip apart the European Union and roiled politics in the United States.
Now scientists are delivering new answers to the question of who Europeans really are and where they came from. Their findings suggest that the continent has been a melting pot since the Ice Age. Europeans living today, in whatever country, are a varying mix of ancient bloodlines hailing from Africa, the Middle East, and the Russian steppe.
The evidence comes from archaeological artifacts, from the analysis of ancient teeth and bones, and from linguistics. But above all it comes from the new field of paleogenetics. During the past decade it has become possible to sequence the entire genome of humans who lived tens of millennia ago. Technical advances in just the past few years have made it cheap and efficient to do so; a well-preserved bit of skeleton can now be sequenced for around $500.
The result has been an explosion of new information that is transforming archaeology. In 2018 alone, the genomes of more than a thousand prehistoric humans were determined, mostly from bones dug up years ago and preserved in museums and archaeological labs. In the process any notion of European genetic purity has been swept away on a tide of powdered bone.
Analysis of ancient genomes provides the equivalent of the personal DNA testing kits available today, but for people who died long before humans invented writing, the wheel, or pottery. The genetic information is startlingly complete: Everything from hair and eye color to the inability to digest milk can be determined from a thousandth of an ounce of bone or tooth. And like personal DNA tests, the results reveal clues to the identities and origins of ancient humans’ ancestors—and thus to ancient migrations.[…]