The Rise of the First Cities through Genetic Research

Juan Siliezar at The Harvard Gazette writes about new genetic research into the movement and interactions of inhabitants of different areas of Western Asia and the Levant in the Bronze and Iron Ages. According to the evidence, people traveled and interacted with their neighbors before the rise of cities (and not the other way around as previously thought).

MHAAM Genetic Gradient 6500 BCE

Quoting Siliezar’s article:

“The evidence reveals that a high level of mobility led to the spread of ideas and material culture as well as intermingling of peoples in the period before the rise of cities, not the other way around, as previously thought. The findings add to our understanding of exactly how the shift to urbanism took place.

“The researchers, made up of an international team of scientists including Harvard Professor Christina Warinner, looked at DNA data from 110 skeletal remains in West Asia from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age, 3,000 to 7,500 years ago. The remains came from archaeological sites in the Anatolia (present-day Turkey); the Northern Levant, which includes countries on the Mediterranean coast such as Israel and Jordan; and countries in the Southern Caucasus, which include present-day Armenia and Azerbaijan.

“Based on their analysis, the scientists describe two events, one around 8,500 years ago and the other 4,000 years ago, that point to long-term genetic mixing and gradual population movements in the region.

“’Within this geographic scope, you have a number of distinct populations, distinct ideological groups that are interacting quite a lot, and it hasn’t really been clear to what degree people are actually moving or if this is simply just a high-contact area from trade,’ said Warinner, assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Sally Starling Seaver Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. ‘Rather than this period being characterized by dramatic migrations or conquest, what we see is the slow mixing of different populations, the slow mixing of ideas, and it’s percolating out of this melting pot that we see the rise of urbanism — the rise of cities.’ […]

“Historically, Western Asia, which includes today’s Middle East, is one of civilization’s most important geographical locations. Not only did it create some of humanity’s earliest cities, but its early trade routes laid the foundation for what would become the Silk Road, a route that commercially linked Asia, Africa, and Europe. […]

“The paper outlines how populations across Anatolia and the Southern Caucasus began mixing approximately 8,500 years ago. That resulted in a gradual change in genetic profile that over a millennium slowly spread across both areas and entered into what is now Northern Iraq. […]

“’What’s really interesting is that we see these populations are mixing genetically long before we see clear material culture evidence of this — so long before we see direct evidence in pottery or tools or any of these more conventional archaeological evidence artifacts,’ Warinner said. ‘That’s important because sometimes we’re limited in how we see the past. We see the past through artifacts, through the evidence people leave behind. But sometimes events are happening that don’t leave traces in conventional ways, so by using genetics, we were able to access this much earlier mixing of populations that wasn’t apparent before.’”

Interesting, especially the fact that genetic mixing predates evidence seen in artifacts. Sounds like there’s much to research in the future!

Read more at The Harvard Gazette or see the original article by Lily Agranat-Tamir et al. at Cell.

Found via File 770.

Image: The Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM) via

Syltholm Woman: A Late Mesolithic Individual with Brown Skin and Blue Eyes

Britain’s Cheddar Man has gotten company: a DNA analysis of remnants left in a wad of chewed birch pitch from 5,700 years ago in Denmark showed that the chewer was a woman and likely had dark skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.

BBC Syltholm Individual Artists Reconstruction

The pitch was found at Syltholm, a Late Mesolithic / Early Neolithic site, on the southern coast of Lolland island, Denmark. Apart from the human DNA, it contained also microbial DNA (from the chewer’s oral microbiome) as well as plant and animal DNA potentially from a recent meal.

Nature Jensen et al Syltholm Birch Pitch Map
Denmark’s coastline 6,000 years ago and the findsite of the chewed birch pitch at Syltholm on Lolland

Like the Cheddar Man, the Syltholm individual was genetically more closely related to western hunter-gatherers from mainland Europe than hunter-gatherers from central Scandinavia. It’s even possible that some hunter-gatherer groups genetically distinct from Neolithic farming communities survived for much longer than previously assumed, says the study.

The results of the DNA sequencing by Theis Jensen et al. was published in Nature Communications.

It’s very exciting to be able to compare data from DNA analyses with archaeology; maybe one day we can also combine linguistic research to try to tease out even more details about our ancient ancestry.

My only complaint is that the process is so slow—think of how much more we could do in an entirely peaceful world, say, with no military budgets to hog the funding for humanities. (Oh, hey—there might be a bit more of a Star Trek fan in me than I previously thought.) It’s a good time to be an early history geek anyway. 🙂

Found via BBC.

Images: Artist’s reconstruction by Tom Björklund via BBC. Map of Denmark with birch pitch findsite by Jensen et al. via Nature Communications.

New Find: Most Uralic Speakers Share Siberian Ancestry

(This post is mostly a Note to Self—I don’t want to forget about the study below—but if other people are interested, that’s great.)

The majority of languages spoken in North Eurasia belong to three language families—Turkic, Indo-European, and Uralic. My native language Finnish is a part of the Uralic languages; the main branches of the family are the Finno-Ugric and the Samoyed.

While there’s rough agreement over where and how Uralic languages developed and spread, and over what types of material cultures were found in the corresponding areas, no-one’s done comprehensive studies on the genetic history of Uralic-speaking peoples before.

This interdisciplinary study, lead by Kristiina Tambets from the University of Tartu, Estonia, compared genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia.

From the abstract:

“The genetic origins of Uralic speakers from across a vast territory in the temperate zone of North Eurasia have remained elusive. Previous studies have shown contrasting proportions of Eastern and Western Eurasian ancestry in their mitochondrial and Y chromosomal gene pools. While the maternal lineages reflect by and large the geographic background of a given Uralic- speaking population, the frequency of Y chromosomes of Eastern Eurasian origin is distinctively high among European Uralic speakers. The autosomal variation of Uralic speakers, however, has not yet been studied comprehensively. […]

“Here, we present a genome-wide analysis of 15 Uralic-speaking populations which cover all main groups of the linguistic family. We show that contemporary Uralic speakers are genetically very similar to their local geographical neighbours. However, when studying relationships among geographically distant populations, we find that most of the Uralic speakers and some of their neighbours share a genetic component of possibly Siberian origin. Additionally, we show that most Uralic speakers share significantly more genomic segments identity-by-descent with each other than with geographically equidistant speakers of other languages. We find that correlated genome-wide genetic and lexical distances among Uralic speakers suggest co- dispersion of genes and languages. Yet, we do not find long-range genetic ties between Estonians and Hungarians with their linguistic sisters that would distinguish them from their non-Uralic-speaking neighbours.”

Tambets et al Geo Distribution Uralic Populations w Lang Tree

And the conclusion:

“Here, we present for the first time the comparison of genome-wide genetic variation of nearly all extant Uralic-speaking populations from Europe and Siberia. We show that (1) the Uralic speakers are genetically most similar to their geographical neighbours; (2) nevertheless, most Uralic speakers along with some of their geographic neighbours share a distinct ancestry component of likely Siberian origin. Furthermore, (3) most geographically distant Uralic speaking populations share more genomic IBD segments with each other than with equidistant populations speaking other languages and (4) there is a positive correlation between linguistic and genetic data of the Uralic speakers. This suggests that the spread of the Uralic languages was at least to some degree associated with movement of people. Moreover, the discovery of the Siberian component shows that the three known major components of genetic diversity in Europe (European hunter-gatherers, early Neolithic farmers and the Early Bronze Age steppe people) are not enough to explain the extant genetic diversity in (northeast) Europe.”

I find the question of which material cultures may have spread together with which languages absolutely fascinating. Having my own small language / culture be a part of a larger study like this makes it even more special.

I was also surprised to learn that only three Uralic languages—Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian—are not listed as endangered in the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. (I did know that several of the tiniest ones like Mari or the Permic languages have been endangered for decades, but I had thought that some of the Samoyed or Ugric languages had more speakers than that.)

While I doubt these three will go extinct very soon, there’s pressure at least in Finland to adopt more and more loanwords from English. Then again, we three may end up being rather rare, all in all, and I’m not quite sure whether to be alarmed over our potential disappearance or proud of our preciousness—or both.

Found via Helsingin Sanomat (NB. Finnish only). (Related article on the Siberian genes of Finns and the Sami in English via University of Helsinki.)

Tambets, Kristiina et al. 2018. “Genes reveal traces of common recent demographic history for most of the Uralic-speaking populations”. Genome Biology 19:139. DOI: The article is openly accessible (CC BY 4.0).

Image screencapped from Kristiina Tambets et al.

On, of, and about languages.

Stockholm University: Research Reveals Half of Viking Age Sigtuna Residents Were Immigrants

I’ve been meaning to share this for a while now, but something or other was always supposedly more important or interesting. No more! 🙂

The Viking Age Sigtuna, Sweden, was formally founded around 980 AD, and it was a much more cosmopolitan city than thought before. According to new DNA analysis, approximately half of city’s population were immigrants.

Flickr Guillen Perez Sigtuna Viking Rune Stone

The study looked at the remnants of 38 individuals who lived and died in Sigtuna between the 900s and 1100s CE, and included other scientific approaches as well (like analysing the strontium isotope contents of the residents’ teeth).

Roughly half of the population grew up in the near-by region Mälardalen (the Mälaren Valley, or Stockholm-Mälaren Region). The other half arrived either from southern Scandinavia (including Norway and Denmark) or further away. The long-distance immigrants came from the British Isles, Ukraine, Lithuania, northern Germany, and other parts of central Europe, and were more likely to be women than men (approx. 70 percent of women vs. 44 percent of the men).

Read more on the Stockholm University research news page: article in Swedish / article in English.

I guess I’m by far not the first woman to fall in love with a Viking and to move far away with him. 🙂

Found via Yle uutiset.

Image: section of a Viking rune stone from Sigtuna by Guillén Pérez on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Cheddar Man: A European Mesolithic Male with Blue Eyes and Brown Skin

I saw these headers go by earlier this spring, but didn’t really have time to really dive into it until now. Well, better late than never, as they wisely say. 🙂

Despite the name, the Cheddar Man isn’t some silly cheese ad bloke. Instead, he has opened doors to very intriguing discoveries about European population during the later Stone Age.

The remains of an anatomically modern human male from about 10,000 years ago were found near Bristol in Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, England in 1903. Recent DNA analysis of the skeleton—Britain’s oldest (almost) complete one—suggests that he had blue eyes, dark curly or wavy hair, and dark brown to black skin.

Natural History Museum Tom Barnes Cheddar Man Bust Closeup

They also found that the Cheddar Man belonged to the same population as Mesolithic individuals whose bones were recovered from Spain, Luxembourg, and Hungary, usually referred to as western European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers or European early modern humans.

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian writes most aptly:

“The discovery shows that the genes for lighter skin became widespread in European populations far later than originally thought – and that skin colour was not always a proxy for geographic origin in the way it is often seen to be today.

“Tom Booth, an archaeologist at the Natural History Museum who worked on the project, said: ‘It really shows up that these imaginary racial categories that we have are really very modern constructions, or very recent constructions, that really are not applicable to the past at all.’”

A new bust model of Cheddar Man was made by Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions. (See a photo of the previous model made by a team at the University of Manchester here.) They took measurements of the skeleton, scanned the skull, and 3D printed a base for their model. Then they applied certain conventions to shape the face.

I fully confess I’m having a hard time keeping track of the exact timespans and geographical limits of the various Stone Age eras in Eurasia and Africa—what’s paleolithic, mesolithic, or neolithic and where and at what time. But it is so fascinating (and delightful!) that we continue to develop new methods of finding more about our past, and that so many different disciplines seek to understand where we came from and what makes us tick.

Image: closeup of the model of Cheddar Man by Tom Barnes / Channel 4 via Natural History Museum, London

35 Isn’t Old and Everyone’s a Royal

150703FamilyI suppose that title’s a little more interesting than “Pre-modern Demography.”

You’ve probably heard the statistic that the average lifespan in the European middle ages was 35. I remember learning that when I was young. Most of my students have heard it, too, and just like I used to, they imagine that it means that when medieval people got to thirty-two or thirty-three it was time to start looking around for a cemetery plot and a good gravedigger, and that anyone who made it to forty must have been a revered elder, if not a terrifying freak on nature. The truth is much more interesting.

Data about births and deaths is hard to come by for periods before the rise of modern bureaucracies. In a few localities there are church records going back into the late middle ages. Legal documents like wills, deeds, and contracts occasionally offer information about peoples’ births, ages, and deaths, but such documents come from only a very restricted class of people and they may be unreliable because people misrepresented the truth when it suited their political and economic purposes. Archaeological studies of burials can be very useful, although determining age from skeletal remains is imprecise, and we are at the mercy of biases in burial customs and survival of remains. All of these sources of information are partial and biased, but pulling them together gives us a rough sense of how people lived and died in earlier ages.

There are broad patterns that can be discerned from the evidence, but as with most such broad patterns we should always be alert to local variations. Another caution: I’m working from the evidence that I happen to be familiar with, which is mostly European and Mediterranean. Many of the same forces that were at work in that region of the world are relevant to others as well, but we must be alert to regional differences.

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