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.)
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.
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.