Ancient DNA reveals the history of civilization and language

The regions bordering the Black Sea have long attracted the attention of a range of researchers, from geneticists to linguists. The area of ​​land that includes the modern Balkans and travels eastward through Turkey and Armenia is a natural bridge linking distinct cultures from Europe and Asia. Many people can trace their origins and language to the region, which for thousands of years has been a hotspot of human activity. It is still the subject of research by historians looking for common threads linking European and Western Asian cultures.

Youssef Lazaridis is among the researchers interested in the area. Lazaridis works at Harvard University but grew up in Greece, a country best known for its role in shaping the history, culture, and language of Eurasia. Lazaridis has long wondered about the lineage and linguistic evolution of the first peoples who inhabited Greece and the surrounding areas. He wondered, how do the ancient cultures of these regions converge and influence each other to shape today’s modern culture and demography?

Experts have relied on antiquities such as pottery or writings to answer these questions. Despite the illumination, this material can be imprecise and difficult to interpret objectively.

Ancient DNA: a breakthrough in genetics

In some parts of the world, researchers have been able to rely on more than archaeology — they can extract ancient DNA from fossils. This allows them to study the genetic history of the place and understand how the breed evolved. This has always been more difficult in regions exposed to extreme heat, because DNA degrades very quickly in those conditions. A breakthrough occurred in 2015, when researchers discovered it DNA in the petrous bone of the inner ear can survive for thousands of yearseven in warm climates.

In a groundbreaking study, Lazaridis took advantage of this technological breakthrough to perform a massive genetic analysis of the ancient DNA of 777 individuals. The survey spanned an area the researchers call the Southern Arc. From Croatia in the west, this region extends to meet the Anatolian Peninsula (modern Turkey), and extends to modern Iran. Lazaridis, a geneticist by training, collaborated with local archaeologists, linguists, and historians in an international effort involving 206 co-authors from 30 countries. Their work resulted in three papers being published in the journal Sciences. Their work is a significant contribution to our understanding of human history in this pivotal region.

Yamnaya and the emergence of the Indo-European languages

In their first paper, the researchers Trace genetic data To understand the linguistic evolution of the Indo-European family of languages. Mapping genetic migrations can help researchers identify opportunities for intercourse and assimilation between languages.

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Today, nearly half of the world’s population speaks Indo-European as their first language. The roots of the language are believed to have appeared in the Eurasian steppes, the flat plains connecting Europe and China, during the Bronze Age about 3,000 years ago. In this analysis, Lazaridis et al. Take advantage of DNA Before and during the Bronze Age to visualize the cultural mixing that linguists assume spread the Indo-European languages.

The researchers found that steppe herders moved across the Eurasian steppes between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago. This was a people known as the Yamnaya. Named for characteristic burial pits – Yamnaya is Russian for “dig culture” – Yamnaya spoke a form of Indo-European primitiveness. (For more evidence, see The horse, the wheel and the language by David W. Anthony.) As the Yamnaya moved south, they influenced the diverse cultures from which the Greek, Balkan, and Albanian languages ​​arose.

The Yamnaya also found their way east, moving through the Caucasus Mountains to Armenia, where the Armenian language was born. In fact, some of the men living in Armenia today are direct paternal descendants of the Yamnaya.

However, the DNA of the Anatolian samples shows almost no trace of the origin of the Yamnaya. This surprised the authors because the ancient Anatolian languages, like the Old Hittite, are similar to the Indo-European languages. This linguistic connection indicates that Anatolians interacted with the Yamnaya when steppe herders moved across the southern arc. But genetic evidence strongly refutes this theory.

common root

Instead of showing the movement of the Yamnaya to Anatolia, Lazaridis used newly available genetic data et al. reveal Two separate migratory pulses to the area. First, researchers describe how farmers from the Levant — a region in the modern Middle East that abuts the eastern Mediterranean — inhabited the area 11,000 years ago. Then, 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, hunters and hunters with ancestry from the Caucasus moved to Anatolia. These people mingled with indigenous farmers from the Levant in a process that created what scholars call an exceptional homogeneity that seemed impervious to outside influence.

If there is no steppe ancestry in Anatolia, the Indo-European and Anatolian languages ​​probably share an older ancestor. Digging deeper into the region’s genetic cues, the researchers found that the Yamnaya share some ancestry from the South Caucasus, just like Anatolia. This common origin suggests that linguistic influence could have occurred as early as, in the highlands of Western Asia, long before the Yamnaya moved to other regions of the southern arc.

These ancestral data also reveal that the Anatolian languages ​​likely experienced an early split from the Indo-European family and remained genetically and linguistically isolated. The authors conclude this paper and suggest that we need to discover this early population, which prompted the transformations of the Eurasian and Anatolian steppes to connect the regions linguistically. They wrote that this “discovery of such a ‘missing link’… would end the centuries-old search for a binding common source through language and some ancestry of the many peoples of Asia and Europe.”

The authors also include an important caveat: “The importance of genetics in discussions of language origins is more direct because languages ​​can be replaced by little or no genetic change, and populations can migrate with little or no linguistic change. But the discovery of migration is important because it identifies a plausible vector. [for linguistic influence]. “

Besides remarkable insight into the movement of peoples across the southern arc during the Copper and Bronze Ages, the authors have expanded the scope of their research to include an analysis of genetic activity related to the Mycenaean period in Greece, the Roman Empire, and the Middle Ages. era.

For example, researchers have analyzed new genetic data from the Mycenaean period in Greece, which has been transformed into legend in the Book of Homer. Epic. Scholars previously believed that the Yamnaya greatly influenced the Mycenaean period, because many of the Yamnaya were buried in elaborate tombs in northern Greece. This seems to indicate a link between the origin of the steppe and social status. But the authors found no such association. In a similar analysis, the authors were surprised to discover that Anatolians contributed the majority of the DNA of the peoples of the Roman Empire and the city of Rome.

Storytelling using DNA is not immune to bias

An observer’s bias will always weigh in on history. in An article currently shared on SciencesAnd the Benjamin S. warns. Arbuckle and Zoe Schwandt argue that “DNA sequencing is often presented as revealing a ‘real’ history of mankind in contrast to historical and archaeological records which tend to be dishonest and inaccurate. Although base pairs do not lie or exaggerate (although they decompose), they also don’t tell stories, and the storytelling used to explain ancient genome analysis inevitably offers specific world views.”

The pair also write that the paper’s narrative framework amplifies a Eurocentric world view, a bias that is impossible for any Western scholar to avoid. Finally, they pointed out that Lazaridis et al. Y chromosome lineage analysis only. In other words, they used only male DNA. This analytical technique is popular because, unlike other genes, parents pass the Y chromosome to their offspring almost unchanged. Thus geneticists do not have to deal with recombination issues that can make accurate reconstructing of pedigrees and ancestry more difficult. However, this analysis completely avoids the maternal lineage of people, giving us only half of any individual’s family tree.

This focus on patriarchal heritage perpetuates gender stereotypes in the past and “creates a strong sense that the events of history are being pushed forward by ‘great men,'” the authors wrote. It is best for researchers to explore maternal signs and investigate maternal interactions.

Lazaridis et al. They admit their lack of neutrality and warn readers not to “confuse genetic and cultural similarities.” They also point out that common terms in this field can be misleading. For example, the authors look at several “migrations” across the text. However, they maintain that when they “use the term ‘migration’ we are not claiming to have detected … the planned movement of a large number of people over a long distance. Migration … may be intentional or unintentional; it may include a few individuals or a large number.” them, and it may be rapid or persist through many generations.”

Finally, although the sample size is the largest studied in ancient genome analysis, 777 samples across 10,000 years leave many gaps.

Using DNA to reconstruct the past is fraught with challenges in interpretation and communication. Regardless, the study represents a massive breakthrough for ancient genome research and solidifies ancient DNA as a fundamental and ground-breaking new technology that will dramatically change our understanding of early human history.

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