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 following story appeared in the August 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. From the opening two paragraphs:
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.
Technical advances in DNA sequencing has now allowed the tests to be conducted for around $500. And, as the article says: “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.”
It now appears that three major waves of migration have shaped the genomic and archeologic history of Europe. The first wave were hunter-gathers that migrated out of Africa 45,000 years ago in the Middle Pleistocene period. The next wave were Neolithic farmers (ca 9500-4000 B.C.) from the Anatolian plains who brought wheat, sheep, cattle—and their own DNA—to most of Europe by 4000 B.C. The last wave were the Yamnaya (ca 3300-2200 B.C.) from the Russian steppes who brought mastery of horses and wagons and introduced a new mobile lifestyle to Europe.
It has been known now for over 30 years that, based on the DNA evidence, all people outside Africa are descended from ancestors who left that continent more than 60,000 years ago. About 45,000 years ago, those first modern humans ventured into Europe, having made their way up through the Middle East. The DNA of those people suggests they had dark skin and perhaps light eyes. These first Europeans lived as hunters and gatherers in small, nomadic bands. They followed the rivers, edging along the Danube from its mouth on the Black Sea deep into western and central Europe. Their DNA indicates they mixed with the Neanderthals—who, within 5,000 years, were gone. Today about 2 percent of a typical European’s genome consists of Neanderthal DNA. A typical African has none.
The Neolithic, the final division of the Stone Age, began about 12,000 years ago when the first developments of farming appeared in the Near East. By about 9,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution, as it’s called, spread north through Anatolia (the fertile plains of modern Turkey) and into southeastern Europe. By about 6,000 years ago, there were farmers and herders all across Europe. According to the article, “…those Neolithic farmers mostly had light skin and dark eyes—the opposite of many of the hunter-gatherers with whom they now lived side by side. ‘They looked different, spoke different languages … had different diets,’ says Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony. ‘For the most part, they stayed separate.’”
About 5,400 years ago, thriving Neolithic settlements shrank or disappeared altogether. Archaeologists are still puzzled as to why, there were no signs of major warfare. After a 500-year gap, the population seemed to grow again, but something was very different. In southeastern Europe, the villages and egalitarian cemeteries of the Neolithic were replaced by imposing grave mounds covering lone adult men. Farther north, from Russia to the Rhine, a new culture sprang up, called Corded Ware after its pottery, which was decorated by pressing string into wet clay.
When researchers first analyzed the DNA from some of these graves, they expected the Corded Ware folk would be closely related to Neolithic farmers. Instead, their DNA contained distinctive genes that were new to Europe at the time—but are detectable now in just about every modern European population. Many Corded Ware people turned out to be more closely related to Native Americans than to Neolithic European farmers.
On what are now the steppes of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, a group of nomads called the Yamnaya, some of the first people in the world to ride horses, had mastered the wheel and were building wagons and following herds of cattle across the grasslands. They built few permanent settlements. By 2800 B.C, archaeological excavations show, the Yamnaya had begun moving west, probably looking for greener pastures. The genetic evidence shows that many Corded Ware people were, to a large extent, their descendants. Like those Corded Ware skeletons, the Yamnaya shared distant kinship with Native Americans—whose ancestors hailed from farther east, in Siberia. Within a few centuries, other people with a significant amount of Yamnaya DNA had spread as far as the British Isles. DNA evidence also showed the Yamnaya carried a form of Yersinia pestis—the plague microbe that killed roughly half of all Europeans in the 14th century. Unlike that flea-borne Black Death, this early variant had to be passed from person to person. Some scientists now think that Plague epidemics cleared the way for the Yamnaya expansion.
A theory, proposed a century ago by a German scholar named Gustaf Kossinna, held that the proto-Indo-Europeans were an ancient race of north Germans—the people who made Corded Ware pots and axes. Kossinna thought that the ethnicity of people in the past—their biological identity, in effect—could be deduced from the stuff they left behind. The north German tribe of proto-Indo-Europeans, Kossinna argued, had moved outward and dominated an area that stretched most of the way to Moscow. Nazi propagandists later used that as an intellectual justification for the modern Aryan “master race” to invade Eastern Europe.
Partly as a result, for decades after World War II the whole idea that ancient cultural shifts might be explained by migrations fell into ill repute in some archaeological circles. Even today it makes some archaeologists uncomfortable when geneticists draw bold arrows across maps of Europe. The article concludes:
Yet ancient DNA, which provides direct information about the biology of ancient humans, has become a strong argument against Kossinna’s theory. First, in documenting the spread of the Yamnaya and their descendants deeper and deeper into Europe at just the right time, the DNA evidence supports the favored theory among linguists: that proto-Indo-Europeans migrated into Europe from the Russian steppe, not the other way around. Second, together with archaeology it amounts to a rejection of Kossinna’s claim that some kind of pure race exists in Europe, one that can be identified from its cultural artifacts.
All Europeans today are a mix. The genetic recipe for a typical European would be roughly equal parts Yamnaya and Anatolian farmer, with a much smaller dollop of African hunter-gatherer. But the average conceals large regional variations: more “eastern cowboy” genes in Scandinavia, more farmer ones in Spain and Italy, and significant chunks of hunter-gatherer DNA in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
“To me, the new results from DNA are undermining the nationalist paradigm that we have always lived here and not mixed with other people,” Gothenburg’s Kristiansen says. “There’s no such thing as a Dane or a Swede or a German.” Instead, “we’re all Russians, all Africans.”
Well, one thing is for sure – we are all migrants. Groups of people migrating from somewhere to somewhere else has characterized humans since the very earliest times, essentially from the beginning. That is not to say that migration is good or bad. It depends on the perspective of the group. To Native Americans (who themselves migrated from Siberia) the perspective of migration from the European countries was decidedly mostly bad. The other thing this article highlights is how deeply embedded tribalism is in our human history. Those moral impulses that Chaplain Mike posted about last Wednesday are also deeply embedded in our DNA.
As CM asked last week, what do we, as committed Christ-followers, do about such impulses? The DNA evidence continues to mount; there is one race – the human race. In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked the question, “Who is my neighbor”, and answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The answer to “Who is my neighbor” includes the “other”, Jesus said, i.e. even our enemies. Matthew 5:43-45 says
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
Consider this quote from Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence:
Love of enemies has, for our time, become the litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Commitment to justice, liberation, or the overthrow of oppression is not enough, for all too often the means used have brought in their wake new injustices and oppressions. Love of enemies is the recognition that the enemy, too, is a child of God. The enemy too believes [they are] in the right, and fears us because we represent a threat against [their] values, lifestyle, or affluence. When we demonize our enemies, calling them names and identifying them with absolute evil, we deny that they have that of God within them that makes transformation possible. Instead, we play God. We write them out of the Book of Life. We conclude that our enemy has drifted beyond the redemptive hand of God. . . .
It is our very inability to love our enemies that throws us into the arms of grace.