Ancient DNA Unlocks Secrets of Europe's Genetic Past

First Posted: Apr 23, 2013 02:07 PM EDT

About 4,500 years ago, Europe experienced a genetic shift. Now, researchers can more closely examine that shift and the 7,500 years of genetic history of modern Europe. They've recovered ancient DNA from a series of skeletons in central Germany that have allowed them to reconstruct the past.

The findings, though, didn't come easily. The team had to develop new advances in molecular biology in order to sequence the entire mitochondrial genomes from the recovered ancient skeletons. Yet the effort was worth it. The findings reveal a dramatic series of events that occurred in Europe in the ancient past, including major migrations from both Western Europe and Eurasia.

"This is the first high-resolution genetic record of these lineages through time, and it is fascinating that we can directly observe both human DNA evolving in 'real-time', and the dramatic population changes that have taken place in Europe," said joint lead author, Wolfgang Haak, in a press release. "We can follow over 4000 years of prehistory, from the earliest farmers through the early Bronze Age to modern times."

So what did they find? Thousands of years ago, a maternally inherited genetic group, known to the researchers as "Haplogroup H", was made up of the first farmers in Central Europe. These farmers were actually the result of a wholesale cultural and genetic input from a mass migration that began in Turkey and the Near East, where farming originated. This migration arrived in Germany around 7,500 years ago, and then the group eventually travelled to Europe where the farming continued.

What is perhaps most interesting, though, is the fact that there was a mysterious genetic shift a few thousand years ago. Currently, the researchers aren't sure what might have caused it.

"What is intriguing is that the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced about 4,500 years ago, and we don't know why," said Alan Cooper, one of the researchers, in a press release. "Something major happened, and the hunt is now on to find out what that was."

After this shift, the genetic foundations for modern Europe were established. This diversity was then modified by a series of incoming and expanding cultures from Iberia and Eastern Europe. It's these migrations that helped establish the genetic populations that we know today.

The findings have helped researchers better understand how people were formed genetically, and what ancient migrations occur in the past. It not only allows them to understand ancient populations, but their history, as well.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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