Researchers from the Institute of Archaeogenomics of the Research Centre for the Humanities (IAG RCH), Eötvös Loránd Research Network (ELKH) and the Institute of Biology of the Faculty of Science, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE TTK) as part of an international research team of more than two hundred members, have investigated the cultural and genetic interactions of prehistoric, ancient and medieval populations living in the area that forms a bridge between Europe and Asia - the so-called Southern Arc.

Genome-wide data from 727 individuals were analysed to explore the population historical links between South-East Europe and South-West Asia, allowing the researchers to test long-standing archaeological, genetic and linguistic hypotheses. A series of papers presenting the results of this large-scale research has been published in the prestigious scientific journal Science.
Some of the earliest agricultural civilizations, ancient cultures, emerged and flourished in the geographical region from the Caucasus and Levant through Anatolia and the Aegean Sea to the Balkans, in the so-called Southern Arc. The peoples and cultures that lived in the area that formed the bridge between Europe and Asia, whether they disappeared in the course of history or have survived to the present day, have not only been part of the region's heritage but have also made a profound impact on human civilisation as a whole.

Despite its importance, until now little was known about the former inhabitants of the area, their biological relationships and migrations, or the languages spoken by each group. Archaeogenetic research can cast new light on the lifeways of the people of past societies, the spread and diversification of their languages, and the separation of different linguistic branches. However, answering questions about the past using archaeogenetic tools requires large-scale, systematic international research, which fills many of the current geographic and temporal gaps with which we can piece the puzzle.

In a trio of papers published simultaneously in the journal Science which report genome-wide data from 727 ancient individuals—more than doubling the amount of ancient DNA data from this region and filling in major gaps in the archaeogenetic record—a team of researchers led by Ron Pinhasi at the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Human Evolution and Archaeological Sciences (HEAS) at the University of Vienna, Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg at the University of Vienna and Harvard University, and Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich at Harvard University—together with 202 co-authors—leverage their data to test longstanding archaeological, genetic and linguistic hypotheses. They present a systematic picture of the interlinked histories of peoples across this region from the origins of agriculture, to late medieval times.

On the Hungarian side, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, director and senior research fellow of our institute, helped interpret the results of genetic tests on prehistoric people living in the Carpathian Basin. Tamás Hajdu, Tamás Szeniczey and Krisztián Kiss, anthropologists from the Department of Anthropology of the Institute of Biology, ELTE TTK, together with Cristian Virag, archaeologist at the Satu Mare County Museum (Muzeul Județean Satu Mare, Satu Mare, Romania), participated in the project with a complex bioarchaeological analysis of a large number of graves from the Copper Age series (Urziceni/Csanálos, Bodrogkeresztur culture).

The main findings of the three studies:

The homeland and the spread of Anatolian and Indo-European languages
The first study „The genetic history of the Southern Arc: a bridge between West Asia and Europe” deals with the Copper and Bronze Age populations from the period between 5000 to 1000 BC. Earlier studies on the migration westward of the Steppe peoples of the Yamnaya culture at the end of the Copper Age were published in 2015. The current paper has added to the existing knowledge by better defining the origins of the Yamnaya population and by exploring recent population movements.

Genetic analyses have revealed population movements from the Caucasus northwards and westwards (towards Anatolia), and from the steppe southwards through the Balkans and the Caucasus to present-day Armenia, dating back c. 4000 years. Interestingly, the paternal gene pool of the Yamnaya culture, which spread north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, can still be identified in the Y-chromosome lines of Armenians. Although the migration of the Yamnaya populations significantly reshaped Europe in terms of population genetics in the first half of the third millennium BC, their legacy has not left any genetically detectable traces in Anatolia.

The results of the study confirm the linguistic theory that the Anatolian (Indo-Anatolian) language family may have evolved in Western Asia. On the other hand, all ancient Indo-European speakers can be traced back to Yamnaya steppe herders, through Caucasus hunter-gatherer and Eastern hunter-gatherer ancestries.

img 7931Many partings, many meetings: How migration and admixture drove early
language spread. (Source: original study)

First farming societies and their interactions
The second paper — “Ancient DNA from Mesopotamia suggests distinct Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic migrations into Anatolia” — seeks to understand how the world’s earliest Neolithic populations formed. It presents the first ancient DNA data for Pre-Pottery Neolithic farmers from the Tigris River side of northern Mesopotamia—both in eastern Turkey and in northern Iraq—a prime region of the origins of agriculture. It also presents the first ancient DNA from Pre-Pottery farmers from the island of Cyprus, which witnessed the earliest maritime expansion of farmers from the eastern Mediterranean. It furthermore provides new data on early Neolithic farmers from the Northwest Zagros, along with the first data from Neolithic Armenia. By filling these gaps, the authors could study the genetic history of these societies for which archaeological research documented complex economic and cultural interactions, but could not trace mating systems and interactions which do not leave visible material traces. Results reveal admixture of pre-Neolithic sources related to Anatolian, Caucasus, and Levantine hunter-gatherers, and shows that these early farming cultures formed a continuum of ancestry mirroring the geography of West Asia.

The results also demonstrate at least two pulses of migrations from the Fertile Crescent heartland to the early farmers of Anatolia. Some of them emigrated to Europe, so the first farmers to arrive in the Carpathian Basin around 6000 BC were also descended from this genetic source, as previous genetic research has shown.

The Historic Period
The third paper — “A genetic probe into the ancient and medieval history of Southern Europe and West Asia” — reveals how polities of the ancient Mediterranean world preserved contrasts of genetic ancestry since the Bronze Age but were linked by migration.

The analyses support the theory that the ancient “Mycenaeans” of Greece can be modelled as a mixture in an approximately 1:10 ratio of a Yamnaya-like steppe-derived population and a “Minoan”/Early Bronze Age Aegean population, on average, but with previously unknown variation clarifying social aspects of the blending process: this group of Steppe origin was perfectly integrated into Mycenaean society and the different origin did not imply a different social status.

The results also show that the ancestry of people who lived around Rome in the Imperial period was almost identical to that of Roman/Byzantine individuals from Anatolia in both their mean and pattern of genetic variation, while Italians prior to the Imperial period had a very different distribution. This suggests that the Roman Empire in both its shorter-lived western part and the longer-lasting eastern part centred on Anatolia had a diverse but similar population plausibly drawn to a substantial extent from Anatolian pre-Imperial sources.

Further informations:

Anna Szécsényi-Nagy

Tamás Hajdu