Analysis of ancient DNA from more than 700 individuals reveals a complete genomic history of the so-called “Southern Arc,” a region spanning southeastern Europe and western Asia long considered the “cradle of Western civilization.”
This comprehensive genomic historical account of the Southern Arc is presented in the journal Science in three new studies by Iosif Lazaridis, David Reich, and colleagues.
Among the numerous international team, including researchers from all Balkan and almost all European countries, as well as the USA, South Africa, China, Russia.
The analysis, which examines newly sequenced ancient DNA from more than 700 individuals in the region, reveals the complex history of the population from the earliest agricultural cultures to the late Middle Ages. Until relatively recently, much of the ancient history of the Southern Arc—the stories of its people and population—was told through archaeological data and millennia of historical records and texts from the region. But innovations in ancient DNA sequencing have provided a new source of historical information.
Using ancient DNA from the remains of 727 people, Lazaridis and co-authors in three separate studies constructed a detailed genomic history of the Southern Arc from the Neolithic (~10,000 BC) to the Ottoman period (~1700 AD). The findings provide insight into the complex migrations and interactions between populations that shaped the region over thousands of years. Studies show that earlier reliance on modern population history and ancient written and artistic works provided an inaccurate picture of early Indo-European cultures.
The Indo-Europeans and the Yamnai pastoralists
The first study – “The Genetic History of the Southern Arc: A Bridge Between West Asia and Europe” – presents the new data set. It also offers an analysis that focuses on the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age (roughly 5000 to 1000 BC). This analysis reveals major genetic exchanges between the Eurasian steppe and the Southern Arc and provides new insight into the formation of Yamna culture steppe pastoralists.
The Yam culture is an archaeological culture from the period 3600 – 2300 BC, in the area between the Dniester and Bug rivers and the Ural Mountains. Kurgans from the Yam culture can also be seen on the territory of Bulgaria in Dobruja near the border with Romania.
Yam culture was mostly nomadic and agriculture was practiced only in some riverine areas. Several mound fortifications have been discovered. The breeding of domestic animals – horses, large and small horned cattle – has been established. The plow and the cart were familiar.
The name of the culture (yamna – from pit) comes from the specific pit-shaped tombs (kurgans) with which it is characterized. In them, the dead were buried on their backs, with their knees bent.
According to some scholars, the Yam culture is related to the ancient Indo-Europeans.
In the first paper, the international team also investigated the homeland and distribution of the Anatolian and Indo-European languages. Genetic results indicate that the homeland of the Indo-Anatolian language family is in West Asia, with only a secondary dispersal of non-Anatolian Indo-Europeans from the Eurasian steppe. In the first stage, about 7000-5000 years ago, people originating 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. Bulgarian, Armenian and Sanskrit) can be traced back to the steppe herders of the Yamna culture, descended from Caucasian hunter-gatherers and eastern hunter-gatherers who initiated a chain of migrations across Eurasia about 5000 years ago. Their southern expansions into the Balkans and Greece and east through the Caucasus into Armenia left their mark on the DNA of the Bronze Age people of the region.
As they expanded, the descendants of the Yamnai herders mixed differently with the local population. The emergence of the Greek, Paleo-Balkan, and Albanian (Indo-European) languages in southeastern Europe, and of the Armenian language in western Asia, was shaped by the interaction of Indo-European-speaking migrants from the steppes with local populations and can be traced through various forms of genetic evidence. In South-Eastern Europe the influence of the Yamnai was profound, and people of practically full Yamnai ancestry appeared immediately after the beginning of the Yamnai migrations.
Some of the most striking results have been found in the central Southern Arc region, Anatolia, where large-scale data paint a rich picture of change—and lack of change—over time.
The results reveal that, unlike the Balkans and the Caucasus, Anatolia was hardly affected by Yamnai migrations. A steppe connection cannot be established for speakers of Anatolian languages (e.g. Hittite, Luwian) due to the absence of an eastern hunter-gatherer origin in Anatolia distinct from all other regions where Indo-European languages were spoken.
In contrast to Anatolia’s surprising imperviousness to steppe migrations, the South Caucasus has been affected many times, including before the Yamnai migrations.
“I did not expect to find that the Chalcolithic individuals from Areni 1, which were discovered 15 years ago in the excavations I co-authored, would derive a gene flow lineage from the north to parts of the South Caucasus more than 1,000 years before the Yamna expansion, and that this northern influence would disappear in the region before reappearing several millennia later. This shows that there is much more to be discovered through new excavations and field studies in the eastern parts of West Asia,” states Ron Pinhasi (Ron Pinhasi) from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and Human Evolution and Archaeological Sciences (HEAS) at the University of Vienna.
“Anatolia was home to diverse populations, originating from both local hunter-gatherers and eastern populations from the Caucasus, Mesopotamia and the Levant,” explains Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg. “People from the Sea of Marmara region and southeastern Anatolia, from the Black Sea and Aegean regions had varieties of the same ancestral species,” continued Alpaslan-Rodenberg of the University of Vienna and Harvard University.
The first agricultural societies and their interactions
“Ancient DNA from Mesopotamia suggests distinct Pre-Pottery and Ceramic Neolithic migrations into Anatolia” – the second study, presents the first ancient DNA from Mesopotamia from the epicenter of the Neolithic revolution in the region. The findings indicate that the transition between the Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic phases in Neolithic Anatolia was associated with two separate pulses of migration from the heart of the Fertile Crescent.
The second paper seeks to understand how the world’s earliest Neolithic populations formed around 12,000 years ago.
“The genetic results support the scenario of a network of regional-wide contacts between early agricultural communities. They also provide new evidence that the transition to the Neolithic was a complex process that did not occur only in one core region, but throughout Anatolia and the Middle East.” , says Ron Pinhasi.
It provides the first ancient DNA data for pre-Neolithic farmers from the Tigris region of northern Mesopotamia – both in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq – a major region of the emergence of agriculture. It also presents the first ancient DNA data from Pre-Pottery farmers from the island of Cyprus, which witnessed the earliest maritime expansion of farmers from the Eastern Mediterranean. It also presents new data on Early Neolithic farmers from the Northwestern Zagros, as well as the first data from Neolithic Armenia.
By filling in these gaps, the authors can explore the genetic history of these societies for which archaeological research documents complex economic and cultural interactions, but cannot trace marriage systems and interactions that leave no visible material traces.
The results reveal admixture from Pre-Neolithic sources associated with Anatolian, Caucasian and Levantine hunter-gatherers.
The study also shows that these early agricultural cultures form a continuum of origins reflecting the geography of West Asia. Furthermore, the results delineate at least two emigration streams from the heart of the Fertile Crescent to early farmers in Anatolia.
The historical period
The third study, “Genetic Probing in the Ancient and Medieval History of Southern Europe and Western Asia,” focuses on ancient DNA analysis in the period of recorded history in the Southern Arc. It also sheds light on the poorly understood demographic characteristics and geographic origins of groups such as the Mycenaeans, Urartians, and Romans.
The third paper shows how polises in the ancient Mediterranean world retain contrasts in their origins since the Bronze Age, but are linked by migration.
The results revealed that the ancestry of people living around Rome during the Imperial period was almost identical to that of Roman/Byzantine individuals from Anatolia in both mean and variation pattern, while pre-Imperial Italians had a completely different distribution.
This shows that the Roman Empire, both in its shorter-lived western part and in its longer-lived eastern part, centered in Anatolia, had a diverse but similar population.
“These results are really surprising because in the Science paper I co-authored in 2019 on the genetic ancestry of individuals from Ancient Rome, we found a cosmopolitan pattern that we thought was unique to Rome. Now we see that other regions of the Roman Empire were as cosmopolitan as Rome itself,” comments Ron Pinhasi.
Commenting on these studies, Benjamin Arbuckle and Zoe Schwandt write that “the studies of Lazaridis et al. represent an important milestone for ancient genomic research, providing a rich set of data and diverse observations that will form the basis of of subsequent interpretations of the human history of Western Eurasia”. According to Arbuckle and Schwandt Lazaridis et al. have produced “an astonishing body of data, unthinkable on its scale just ten years ago”, but highlight the challenges and limitations of interpretations, suggesting that many of the narratives explored in the three studies reflect a Eurocentric worldview.
1. “The genetic history of the Southern Arc: A bridge between West Asia and Europe” by Iosif Lazaridis, Songül Alpaslan-Roodenberg, Ayse Acar, Aysen Açikkol, Anagnostis Agelarakis, Levon Aghikyan, Ugur Akyüz, Desislava Andreeva, Gojko Andrijašević, Dragana Antonovic, Ian Armit, Alper Atmaca, Pavel Avetisyan, Ahmet Ihsan Aytek, Krum Bacvarov, Ruben Badalyan, Stefan Bakardzhiev, Jacqueline Balen, Lorenc Bejko, Rebecca Bernardos, Andreas Bertsatos, Hanifi Biber, Ahmet Bilir, Mario Bodružic, Michelle Bonogofsky, Clive Bonsall , Dušan Boric, Nikola Borovinic, Guillermo Bravo Morante, Katharina Buttinger, Kim Callan, Francesca Candilio, Mario Caric, Olivia Cheronet, Stefan Chohadzhiev, Maria-Eleni Chovalopoulou, Stella Chryssoulaki, Ion Ciobanu, Natalija Condic, Mihai Constantinescu, Emanuela Cristiani, Brendan J. Culleton, Elizabeth Curtis, Jack Davis, Tatiana I. Demcenco, Valentin Dergachev, Zafer Derin, Sylvia Deskaj, Seda Devejyan, Vojislav Djordjevic, Kellie Sara Duffett Carlson, Laurie R. Eccles, Nedko Elenski, Atilla Engin, Nihat Erdogan, Sabiha Erir-Pazarci, Daniel M. Fernandes, Matthew Ferry, Suzanne Freilich, Alin Frînculeasa, Michael L. Galaty, Beatriz Gamarra, Boris Gasparyan, Bisserka Gaydarska, Elif Genç, Timur Gültekin, Serkan Gündüz, Tamás Hajdu, Volker Heyd, Suren Hobosyan, Nelli Hovhannisyan, Iliya Iliev, Lora Iliev, Stanislav Iliev, Ilkay Ivgin, Ivor Jankovic, Lence Jovanova, Panagiotis Karkanas, Berna Kavaz-Kindigili, Esra Hilal Kaya, Denise Keating, Douglas J. Kennett, Seda Deniz Kesici, Anahit Khudaverdyan, Krisztián Kiss, Sinan Kiliç, Paul Klostermann, Sinem Kostak Boca Negra Valdes, Saša Kovacevic, Marta Krenz-Niedbala, Maja Krznaric Škrivanko, Rovena Kurti, Pasko Kuzman, Ann Marie Lawson, Catalin Lazar, Krassimir Leshtakov, Thomas E. Levy, Ioannis Liritzis, Kirsi O. Lorentz, Sylwia Lukasik, Matthew Mah, Swapan Mallick, Kirsten Mandl, Kristine Martirosyan-Olshansky, Roger Matthews, Wendy Matthews, Kathleen McSweeney, Varduhi Melikyan, Adam Micco, Me gan Michel, Lidija Milašinovic, Alissa Mittnik, Janet M. Monge, Georgi Nekhrizov, Rebecca Nicholls, Alexey G. Nikitin, Vassil Nikolov, Mario Novak, Iñigo Olalde, Jonas Oppenheimer, Anna Osterholtz, Celal Özdemir, Kadir Toykan Özdogan, Nurettin Öztürk, Nikos Papadimitriou, Niki Papakonstantinou, Anastasia Papathanasiou, Lujana Paraman, Evgeny G. Paskary, Nick Patterson, Ilian Petrakiev, Levon Petrosyan, Vanya Petrova, Anna Philippa-Touchais, Ashot Piliposyan, Nada Pocuca Kuzman, Hrvoje Potrebica, Bianca Preda-Balanica, Zrinka Premužic, T. Douglas Price, Lijun Qiu, Siniša Radovic, Kamal Raeuf Aziz, Petra Rajic Šikanjic, Kamal Rasheed Raheem, Sergei Razumov, Amy Richardson, Jacob Roodenberg, Rudenc Ruka, Victoria Russeva, Mustafa Sahin, Aysegül Sarbak, Emre Savas, Constanze Schattke, Lynne Schepartz, Tayfun Selçuk, Ayla Sevim-Erol, Michel Shamoon-Pour, Henry M. Shephard, Athanasios Sideris, Angela Simalcsik, Hakob Simonyan, Vitalij Sinika, Kendra Sirak, Ghenadie Sirbu, Mario Šlaus, Andrei Soficaru, Bilal Sögüt, Arkadiusz Soltysiak, Çilem Sönmez-Sözer, Maria Stathi, Martin Steskal, Kristin Stewardson, Sharon Stocker, Fadime Suata-Alpaslan, Alexander Suvorov, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, Tamás Szeniczey, Nikolai Telnov, Strahil Temov, Nadezhda Todorova, Ulsi Tota, Gilles Touchais, Sevi Triantaphyllou, Atila Türker, Marina Ugarkovic, Todor Valchev, Fanica Veljanovska, Zlatko Videvski, Cristian Virag, Anna Wagner, Sam Walsh, Piotr Wlo darczak, J. Noah Workman, Aram Yardumian, Evgenii Yarovoy, Alper Yener Yavuz, Hakan Yilmaz, Fatma Zalzala, Anna Zettl, Zhao Zhang, Rafet Çavusoglu, Nadin Rohland, Ron Pinhasi and David Reich, 26 August 2022, Science.
2. “A genetic probe into the ancient and medieval history of Southern Europe and West Asia” by David Reich, et al., 25 August 2022, Science.
3. “Ancient DNA from Mesopotamia suggests distinct Pre-Pottery and Pottery Neolithic migrations into Anatolia” by David Reich, et al., 25 August 2022, Science.
The Southern Arc: Vast Genetic Study Reveals Insights Into Migration Patterns and Language Development, University Of Vienna
Photo credit: Lazaridis et al.