The Southern Arc and its lively genetic history

In a trio of papers, published simultaneously in the journal Science, Ron Pinhasi from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Human Evolution and Archaeological Sciences (HEAS) at the University of Vienna and Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg from the University of Vienna and Harvard University, Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich at Harvard University — together with 202 co-authors — report a massive effort of genome-wide sequencing from 727 distinct ancient individuals with which it was possible to test longstanding archaeological, genetic and linguistic hypotheses. They present a systematic picture of the interlinked histories of peoples across the Southern Arc Region from the origins of agriculture, to late medieval times.

In the first paper the international team investigated the homeland and the spread of Anatolian and Indo-European languages. The genetic results suggest that the homeland of the Indo-Anatolian language family was in West Asia, with only secondary dispersals of non-Anatolian Indo-Europeans from the Eurasian steppe. At the first stage, around 7,000-5,000 years ago, people with ancestry from the Caucasus moved west into Anatolia and north into the steppe. Some of these people may have spoken ancestral forms of Anatolian and Indo-European Languages.

All spoken Indo-European languages (e.g., Greek, Armenian and Sanskrit) can be traced back to Yamnaya steppe herders, with Caucasus hunter-gatherer and Eastern hunter-gatherer ancestry, who ~5,000 years ago initiated a chain of migrations across Eurasia. Their southern expansions into the Balkans and Greece and east across the Caucasus into Armenia left a trace in the DNA of the Bronze Age people of the region.

As they expanded, descendants of the Yamnaya herders admixed differentially with the local populations. The emergence of Greek, Paleo-Balkan, and Albanian (Indo-European) languages in Southeastern Europe and the Armenian language in West Asia, formed out of Indo-European speaking migrants from the steppe interacting with local people, and can be traced by different forms of genetic evidence. In Southeastern Europe, the Yamnaya impact was profound and people of practically full Yamnaya ancestry came just after the beginning of the Yamnaya migrations.

Some of the most striking results are found in the core region of the Southern Arc, Anatolia, where the large-scale data paints a rich picture of change — and lack of change — over time. The results show that in contrast to the Balkans and the Caucasus, Anatolia was hardly impacted by the Yamnaya migrations. No link to the steppe can be established for the speakers of Anatolian languages (e.g. Hittite, Luwian) due to the absence of Eastern hunter-gatherer ancestry in Anatolia, contrasting with all other regions where Indo-European languages were spoken.

In contrast to Anatolia’s surprising impermeability to steppe migrations, the southern Caucasus was affected multiple times including prior to the Yamnaya migrations. “I did not expect to find out that the Areni 1 Chalcolithic individuals, who were recovered 15 years ago in the excavation I co-led, would derive ancestry from gene flow from the north to parts of the southern Caucasus more than 1,000 years prior to the expansion of the Yamnaya, and that this northern influence would disappear in the region before reappearing a couple of millennia later. This shows that there is a lot more to be discovered through new excavations and fieldwork in the eastern parts of Western Asia” says Ron Pinhasi.

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