National Geographic News
Young men in Breisgau, Germany, in the 1920s.

A group of men from the German-based Breisgau corps pose for a picture in the 1920s.

Photograph by Hans Hildenbrand, National Geographic

Ker Than

for National Geographic News

Published April 23, 2013

Europeans as a people are younger than we thought, a new study suggests.

DNA recovered from ancient skeletons reveals that the genetic makeup of modern Europe was established around 4,500 B.C. in the mid-Neolithic—or 6,500 years ago—and not by the first farmers who arrived in the area around 7,500 years ago or by earlier hunter-gatherer groups. (Read about Europe's oldest known town.)

"The genetics show that something around that point caused the genetic signatures of previous populations to disappear," said Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, where the research was performed.

"However, we don't know what happened or why, and [the mid-Neolithic] has not been previously identified as [a time] of major change," he said.

Furthermore, the origins of the mid-Neolithic populations that did form the basis of modern Europe are also unknown.

"This population moves in around 4,000 to 5,000 [B.C.], but where it came from remains a mystery, as we can't see anything like it in the areas surrounding Europe," Cooper said.

The surprising findings are part of a new study, published in this week's issue of the journal Nature Communications, that provides the first detailed genetic history of modern Europe.

The study shows that "relatively recent migrations seem to have had a significant genetic impact on the population of Central Europe," said study co-author Spencer Wells, who leads National Geographic's Genographic Project. (Read about Europe's "Wild Men" in National Geographic magazine.)

Genetic Signature

In the study, Cooper and his colleagues extracted mitochondrial DNA—which children inherit only from their mothers—from the teeth and bones of 39 skeletons found in central Germany. The skeletons ranged in age from about 7,500 to 2,500 years old.

The team focused on a group of closely related mitochondrial lineages—mutations in mitochondrial DNA that are similar to one another—known as haplogroup H, which is carried by up to 45 percent of modern Europeans.

Cooper and his colleagues focused on haplogroup H because previous studies have indicated the mutations might have been present in Europeans' genetic makeup for several thousand years.

It's unclear how this haplogroup became dominant in Europe. Some scientists have proposed that it spread across the continent following a population boom after the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago.

But the new data paint a different picture of the genetic foundation of modern Europe: Rather than a single or a few migration events, Europe was occupied several times, in waves, by different groups, from different directions and at different times.

The first modern humans to reach Europe arrived from Africa 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. By about 30,000 years ago, they were widespread throughout the area while their close cousins, the Neanderthals, disappeared. Hardly any of these early hunter-gatherers carried the H haplogroup in their DNA.

About 7,500 years ago during the early Neolithic period, another wave of humans expanded into Europe, this time from the Middle East. They carried in their genes a variant of the H haplogroup, and in their minds knowledge of how to grow and raise crops. (Related: "Egypt's Earliest Farming Village Found.")

Archeologists call these first Central European farmers the linear pottery culture (LBK)—so named because their pottery often had linear decorations.

The genetic evidence shows that the appearance of the LBK farmers and their unique H haplogroups coincided with a dramatic reduction of the U haplogroup—the dominant haplogroup among the hunter-gatherers living in Europe at that time.

Farmers Move In

The findings settle a longstanding debate among archaeologists, said Wells, who is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence.

Archaeology alone can't determine whether cultural movements—such as a new style of pottery or, in this case, farming—were accompanied by the movements of people, Wells said in an email.

"In this study we show that changes in the European archaeological record are accompanied by genetic changes, suggesting that cultural shifts were accompanied by the migration of people and their DNA."

The LBK group and its descendants were very successful and spread quickly across Europe. "They became the first pan-European culture, if you like," Cooper said.

Given their success, it would be natural to assume that members of the LBK culture were significant genetic ancestors of many modern Europeans.

But the team's genetic analysis revealed a surprise: About 6,500 years ago in the mid-Neolithic, the LBK culture was itself displaced. Their haplogroup H types suddenly became very rare, and they were subsequently replaced by populations bearing a different set of haplogroup H variations.

Mysterious Turnover

The details of this "genetic turnover" event are murky. Scientists don't know what prompted it, or even where the new colonizers came from.

"The extent or nature of this genetic turnover are not clear, and we don't know how widespread it is," Cooper said.

If this turnover were widespread, it could have been prompted by climate change or disease, he said.

"All we know is that the descendants of the LBK farmers disappeared from Central Europe about 4,500 [B.C.], clearing the way for the rise of populations from elsewhere, with their own unique H signatures."

Peter Bogucki, an archeologist at Princeton University who has studied early farming societies in Europe, called the finding "really interesting" and noted the timing of the genetic turnover is curious.

"At the end of the fifth millennium—[about] 4,000 B.C.—there are a lot of changes in the archeological record," said Bogucki, who was not involved in the study.

For example, the long houses that LBK farmers and their descendants favored became less common. Also, the settlement patterns of people living in Central Europe began changing, as did their stone tools.

"There are major transformations during this time that haven't really been all that well explained in interior Central Europe," Bogucki said.

"It looks like the whole system of agricultural settlement that got established with the LBK ran its course through the fifth millennium and something caused people to change."

Of Unknown Origins

Bogucki agrees that climate change might have been a trigger for the change in Europe's genetic makeup, but he thinks it was only a factor and not the sole cause.

One thing that is clear from the genetic data is that nearly half of modern Europeans can trace their origins back to this mysterious group.

"About [4,500 B.C.], you start seeing a diversity and composition of genetic signatures that are beginning to look like modern [Central] Europe," Cooper said. "This composition is then modified by subsequent cultures moving in, but it's the first point at which you see something like the modern European genetic makeup in place."

Whatever prompted the replacement of genetic signatures from the first pan-European culture, Cooper is clearly intrigued. "Something major happened," he said in a statement, "and the hunt is now on to find out what that was."

Correction: The original version of this article stated that the genetic makeup of modern Europeans emerged 4,500 years ago. The text has been updated to reflect the correct timing as 4,500 B.C., or 6,500 years ago.

Beto Sabio
Beto Sabio

The July 1985 National geographic  article  by Robert Laxalt about Vascones, the Basques : '' A few scholars, armed with archaeological evidence  of continuous occupation of the region, are convinced they have been in situ in the Pyrenees for  70,000 Years'' .

This completely refutes above article that Europeans emerged 6,500 years ago.   

Lauren R
Lauren R

The oldest Cro-Magnon remains so far tested, up to 30,000 years old, are Haplogroup H (or pre-H/V). This is the original European mtDNA type, closely associated with people of Northern European physical type.

It is a complete distortion of reality to claim Haplogroup H only entered Europe at some later date.

All the Haplogroup H populations involved in this Central European farming scenario are the descendants of Ice Age Europeans, who shifted south at the height of the Ice Age (including into the Middle East) and back north after it -- along with some non-Haplogroup H Middle Eastern populations and Siberians entering Europe.

And they then shifted back south to varying degrees as the Holocene Climatic Optimum (with a Mediterranean climate in southern Scandinavia) began to cool around 4000-2000 BC.

And at this time some farmers in Central Europe with one type of the European Haplogroup H, stopped farming in that area, and another group of Europeans with another type of European Haplogroup H moved into that area.

Today's leftist-dominated anthropology establishment has been trying to claim in the last few years that "Neolithic farmers from the Middle East" (actually European-populated Anatolia) completely replaced Ice Age Europeans. But this has failed as that Neolithic DNA is rare in modern Europeans, and Ice Age DNA is common.

So now the amazing Plan B is simply to claim that that Ice Age DNA never existed.

Metin Gunduz
Metin Gunduz

Final comment Part III As Etruscans and Germanic tribes of central Europe with Anatolian Hittite ancestry and their Anatolian Origins as proven by several biogeographic DNA studies so far without any reasonable doubt ) ... So , I am sure the linguists also in agreement with the historical as well as archeological scenario presented at the short paragraph above with minor deviations , as the recent m DNA study published in agreement with it ... It seems everything starts with “Anatolia “ with its excellent biodiversity of plants ,animals and natural migration roots of people throughout history , original homeland of wheat and barley , at the three continent’s crossroads and excellent climate to survive throughout ice ages .. Logic, common sense and pure science , no fairy tales ...

Metin Gunduz
Metin Gunduz

Comment Part II As the climate changed around 2000 BC (also well documented by current Paleoclimatology data ) longer and cold winters at Northern European territories , shortage of food , forced new migrations of people from Northern latitudes of Europe to the Southern latitudes of Europe ( all the way south Mediterranean Shores ) , this era 2000 BC ( 4000 BP ) almost 800 years later followed with Major conflicts ( wars) starting with legendary Trojan War around 1200 BC and Downfall of Hittites (same time) and followed with 400 years of so called Dark Ages and conflicts and massacres throughout Anatolia and people flee from Anatolia all the way to Central Europe as well as Southern Europe ( AGAIN) as they have done (BEFORE) ... please cont.Part III (final)

Metin Gunduz
Metin Gunduz

Comment -Part I Excellent study , based on real specimens from different Neolithic cultures from Museums ( all marked and origins of bones –where m DNA comes- well documented ) .. Important fact is historical and linguistic evolution also strongly support the findings . Geographically ; Çatalhöyük settlement of Çumra-Konya Anatolia going back to 7400 BC and others and 1600 years earlier Göbeklitepe- Şanlıurfa Anatolia settlements are the Origins of Mitochondrial H Haplotype from Anatolia and Fertile crescent in Neolithic period . These people from Anatolia / Turkey were the ancestors of H Haplotype so called Early Farmers of Europe ( No doubt or disagreement about this so far ) . please cont. Part II

David Shapiro
David Shapiro

I thought we kind of already knew some of these things. I mean, isn't this basically the same story told by the spread of Indo-European languages? You've got all these related languages, apparently spreading out from somewhere in the vicinity of the Black Sea, 6,000-10,000 years ago. Doesn't it make sense that it was migrations of people that brought these languages to Europe at that time? And that most of the people who were here before are now gone? Maybe they should study modern speakers of some of those island languages, like Basque, and Hungarian, and such, and see how their genes match up to other Europeans, and to those older Neolithic folks. Just a thought.

Raimo Kangasniemi
Raimo Kangasniemi

One has to point out that 55 percent of Europeans don't carry this haplogroup and that one should be careful of making theories based on just this one haplogroup.

That said, the Beaker Culture which seems to have replaced these first wave farmers possibly had cultural advantages and higher population numbers as a result. There's increasing evidence of contacts to the Middle East and overall to the Eastern Mediterranean in the Iberian peninsula between 3000-2000 BCE, including proto-urbanization, of significant fortified large villages whose biggest might be called towns if one is charitable. Beaker Culture seems to have emerged in Iberia.

Phil Blank
Phil Blank

Wait a minute.

I thought they said that after so many years (was it 500?) that they could no longer get DNA samples.

Bill Howard
Bill Howard

"What is intriguing is that the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4,500 years ago, and we don't know why.

yeah, thats when the annunaki showed up and enhanced our DNA with thiers

Yan Simkin
Yan Simkin

@David Shapiro Hungarian is Ugric language (Uralic family). Basque is language isolate. Two completely different things.

Raimo Kangasniemi
Raimo Kangasniemi

@Phil Blank Much depends on the context, but DNA has been derived from human remains that are much older, from Neanderthal and Denisovan remains. In perfect circumstances, DNA can survive at least 100 000 years and possibly much lonfer.

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

@Bill Howard Oh, Yes, I remember now that that god Satan gave to Mankind the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Thanks, Satan!! HAHA~

Joseph Bandana
Joseph Bandana

@Bill Howard Gods did it. YES, gods DID!! hehehe!! (butseriously...whatintheflockhavethegodseverdoneforus?seriously?)


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »