The first Europeans weren’t who you might think

The first Europeans weren’t who you might think:

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.

Neolithic farmers

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.


37 thoughts on “The first Europeans weren’t who you might think

  1. So I had a friend at the gym I go to relay this story he heard from a missionary who was evangelizing in a country that was predominantly Hindu and it opened my eyes a bit with my new neighbors. This missionary had gotten to know a group of people while living in a foreign country and one day had them over to his house. At some point during the get-together one of the visitors went into his bedroom, put on the missionary’s clothes and at the end of the night went home with the clothes on. Not wanting to offend some custom he was not familiar with he waited a few days and then asked this person the next time he saw him why he did what he did. The response (as best as I can remember the story) was that he had become a pants friend, meaning he had been accepted into their ‘we’ culture. A ‘we’ culture means what’s yours is mine, we all share. I am making sure I do not have a ‘we’ relationship with my neighbor. He has a knack for borrowing everything from people including grass cutting machines (lawn mowers), hedge clippers, walking into houses if no one answers the door, and wanting to park his visitors in my parking lot (driveway). I just reply with a kindly ‘no’.


  2. Just looked on line at pictures of the Creation Museum and apparently Adam and Eve were absolutely stereotypical white Northern Europeans: who’d have thought it?

    Could have been worse.
    If the Creation Museum/Ark Experience had been built in the Fifties, Adam would have worn a crewcut/buzzcut and Eve would have had her hair permed.

    “We have the Vatican Observatory and Pontifical Academy of Sciences; they have the Kentucky Creation Museum and Ark Experience Theme Park.”


  3. How many portraits of Jesus in evangelical/fundamentalist churches in America depict Him as white? (Until recently, ALL of them.)


  4. One customer just gave me 30 percent less when the job was done because he and his wife had agreed that that was a fair price.

    That’s the way our president did business with his contractors for decades!


  5. Spoiler alert: Just looked on line at pictures of the Creation Museum and apparently Adam and Eve were absolutely stereotypical white Northern Europeans: who’d have thought it?
    These people are so crazy racist they have even carefully not even made them even slightly tanned (naked, in a tropical ****king jungle for heaven’s sake?!) just in case, I am presuming, someone might think they were, you know, one of those *brown* people.


  6. Busy now but will check that later. Thanks, as always, for your thoughts. I wasn’t sure if my post was out of line. Kind of touchy pointing out a particular culture and all.


  7. “” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The Incarnate Lord makes His followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3.4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all one earth that bear the name of human.
    The form of Christ incarnate makes the Church into the body of Christ.”

    (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on the Incarnation)


  8. ‘good fences make good neighbors’ (Robert Frost)

    VERY American thought, to have good boundaries, yes

    difference cultures, different comprehension of proper boundaries, yes

    one of the major goals in family counseling is to examine boundaries to see if they are healthy . . . the work in this area solves many a problem


  9. Ha! I’m half English & half Irish.

    I think that’s called “The Troubles in one body”.


  10. I feel no compulsion to accommodate a different culture if it entails being taken advantage of in a way that is inappropriate to our culture and is considered by most to be selfish. If I were to go to another land to live I would expect to have to learn their norms and ways of behavior. In this regard I think it is fair to expect that someone coming here must learn what we consider to be generous and/or what we consider to be self-serving.


  11. Sadly, your English and Irish halves both may soon find it difficult to go from one country to the other.


  12. And as far as genetic drift analysis can tell, the Khoi-San are the closest to the original first Homo Sapiens, if not the originals.

    (Does this mean the Creaton Museum dioramas should show Adam & Eve as short, wiry, brown-skinned, with highly-Africanized features?)


  13. Do not confuse the $500 dollar test with the typically less than $100 tests such as 23 and me marketed to individuals. The more expensive test is not an affluent frivolity, it is expensive because of the need to properly extract DNA from prehistoric remains. Also the results show broad generic findings, not the finely granulated recent ancestry touted by the mass marketed cheaper tests.


  14. This is fascinating stuff. I myself carry not only your typical Western European mix, but also African Hunter gatherer (ie, Khoi and San), as well as Southern Asiatic (India) genes. The fun thing was to have been able to trace back some of those individuals, specifically referring to the non-European ancestry. The Dutch settlers were good at keeping records. Several slaves from “The Bengal” as they now call it are noted. As well as some of the indigenous Khoi, notably one Krotoa – (see ). Her life underlines the tragedy of the settler- vs. indigenous people conflict, repeated so often.


  15. Genetic tests of ancient settlers’ remains show that Europe is a melting pot of bloodlines from Africa, the Middle East, and today’s Russia.

    So much for “The Original Englishman”, first to evolve, Piltdown Man…


  16. And the lure of the exotic. The dark-skinned, light-eyed Neolithic survivors would look exotic to the light-skinned, dark-eyed Yamyana.


  17. 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.

    What if modern Russia uses the Yamnaya (as in Proto-Russian race) as similar justification to take over all Europe?


  18. At the risk of sounding racist, that reminds me of the large Indian population here in Dallas. In my business they are sometimes unbearable as the commercial culture is built on sort of a flea market mentality. Everything is up for negotiation. Cheap is never cheap enough and it’s exasperating. If I can agree on a price they will sometimes try to get my guys to do extra work seemingly just to win the battle with me and feel as though they have come out on top. Something or another always has to come across as free. One customer just gave me 30 percent less when the job was done because he and his wife had agreed that that was a fair price. I verbally fought him on the thing but I wasn’t going to court over $300.00. He called a couple months later to get more work done thinking I was ok with that result. Shocking. Be careful about equating helpfulness with love. I have become brutally resistant to being taken advantage of. Dinner or a ballgame? Let’s go! Doing favors? Borrowing my ladder? Business? Fogetaboutit. Reciprocation may not be forthcoming. Again, this may sound racist but it is a big cultural difference and in this case, in my best radical right imitation, I largely expect adaptation to my culture and not the other way around. Welcome to America. Land of the free and home of the Retail operation.


  19. “The answer to “Who is my neighbor” includes the “other”, Jesus said,”

    This is, I think, a central part of Jesus’s teaching. It is the expansion of “Who counts as fully human, with all the rights and obligations this implies?” To the narcissist, only he himself counts as fully human. This extreme a view is unusual, but expand it to include one’s immediate family and it is not uncommon, including among persons who self-identify as Christian. The next level out is the clan, theoretically family based, often descended from a semi-mythical ancestor. From there we go to nationalism, which is enthusiastically embraced by much of American Protestantism.

    What did Jesus say on the subject? He rejected all those smaller schemes out of hand. Yes, even Samaritans count as fully human. Then, just in case we didn’t get the point, Acts and the letters of Paul extend this to Romans and Greeks.

    This is why I, in my old age, respond poorly to any attempt to “other” someone, whether along national or ethnic lines. Eventually I came to accept, believing the testimony of those best positioned to know, that one’s sexual orientation is who one is, not a choice picked from the menu. At that point, othering someone based on orientation is no longer acceptable.


  20. Migrations were a constant all through early European History. It was a factor in the fall of the western portion of the Roman Empire, and tested the Byzantine empire as well until it finally fell.

    In my town of Pittsburgh we were once a huge meting pot, but then in the last 50 years we went through a more homogeneous phase where we did not see the influx of Hispanic migrants, or Indian and Arabic groups that others around the nation were experiencing. Recently this has begun to change, especially since, through Catholic Charities, we’ve had a huge influx of Nepali refugees since about 2000. These refugees are now moving into housing in the suburbs and have been highly successful at being successful. The community though is having to adjust to change.

    Change can be hard. I have new Nepali neighbors living next door and it has been an adjustment. No one likes to move out of their comfort zone. I love to learn about new cultures, but what also comes with that is an adjustment working with a ‘we’ community when all my life I have been part of an individualist community. What this translates to is my being friendly leads to my neighbor wanting to borrow all kinds of things from me (whats yours is also mine) or as they see I am a fixer and a doer, wanting me to fix or do at their house as well….. it is a lesson in boundaries. Working on this and learning.


  21. I suppose like a lot of cynical moderns (but who can blame us after the 20th century?) I had envisioned ancient wars of extermination when Homo-Sap first encountered Neanderthals. But it turns out our ancestor’s first thought was in fact, “hmmmm…I wonder how good they are in bed?” This restores my faith in human nature.!

    Love conquers all.


  22. Just after the Bosnian war, I worked with the UN as a peacekeeper. You can’t tell by looking at them, but there are Orrthodox Serbs, Croat Catholics, and Bosnian Muslims. Once, after a day of meetings with Serb government officials, we adjourned to dinner. I asked the government minister seated next to me what he thought about Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor. “I do love my neighbors -I got rid of the ones I didn’t.”


  23. Three of four of my grandparents came from Ireland. It is well known that the English and the Irish have some disagreements now and again. My brother got on only to find out that my mom’s dad had English and German ancestry just two generations back. Birth records, the whole bit. Aw jeez, now we have to love the English. Dang it! My enemy is me.


  24. > But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

    This is a high bar. It is really tough. Sometimes it is hard to figure out, practically, what that means.

    Yet, my non-scandanavia neighbors are not my enemies, nor are they persecuting me. My life presents a much lower bar to step-over.

    I worry that the Christian go-to of “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” subtly underwrites persecution narratives: someone is either my ally or my enemy/persecutor. Is the subtext of this Christian framing itself tribal and divisive?


  25. Some of my forefathers adopted a notion they were descended from plucky asians who crossed from the east over the mountains into the highlands of Finland; making them distinct, and superior of course, from the water loving european low landers.

    No prehistoric population of a viable size ever crossed those mountains, from that far, no way. My ancestors arrived from the south.

    It seems everyone has one of these stories in their closet.


  26. > our own individual genetic heritage lineage for $500 may be

    Aside: these genetic lineage tests should be treated with skepticism. Their databases suffer – seriously – from sample bias. Mostly affluent populations are up to paying for such frivolities, and their data goes into the database, to be matched with the next customer. In most of these databases people of Anglo or Scandinavian affiliation are grossly over represented, and where do the algorithms end up thinking more people are descended from? 😦


  27. Back in 1978 I took an elective biology course in the origins of race at Michigan State University to fulfill my general undergrad requirements. I can’t remember the name of the professor, or the exact name of the course, but I do remember that what this blog post is saying about race is what he was teaching us. This is not new, not really, though the ability to have our own individual genetic heritage lineage for $500 may be. But the tendency to think in terms of race is a strong one, based on the psycho-social dynamic of tribalism mentioned in the post rather than any actual biological differences between people groups, because we all want a tribe to protect us, and define for us who we are. It’s a hard predisposition to work against; may the grace of God help us all.


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