AncientPages.com – Scientists once could reconstruct humanity’s distant past only from the mute testimony of ancient settlements, bones, and artifacts.
Today there is a new powerful approach in form of genetic analysis that enables scientists to read the actual genetic code of our ancient ancestors. It gives insight into the movement of people and cultures across the ancient world.
“There was a view that migration is a very rare process in human evolution,” lead author David Reich, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Harvard Medical School explains.
“Not so, says the ancient DNA. Actually, Reich says, “the orthodoxy – the assumption that present-day people are directly descended from the people who always lived in that same area – is wrong almost everywhere.”
Stonehenge’s Builders Largely Vanish
In one of the new papers, Reich and a cast of dozens of collaborators chart the spread of an ancient culture known by its stylized bell-shaped pots, the so-called Bell Beaker phenomenon. This culture first spread between Iberia and central Europe beginning about 4,700 years ago. By analyzing DNA from several hundred samples of human bones, Reich’s team shows that only the ideas – not the people who originated them – made the move initially. That’s because the genes of the Iberian population remain distinct from those of the central Europeans who adopted the characteristic pots and other artifacts.
But the story changes when the Bell Beaker culture expanded to Britain after 4,500 years ago. Then, it was brought by migrants who almost completely supplanted the island’s existing inhabitants – the mysterious people who had built Stonehenge – within a few hundred years. “There was a sudden change in the population of Britain,” says Reich. “It was an almost complete replacement.”
For archeologists, these and other findings from the study of ancient DNA are “absolutely sort of mind-blowing,” says study coauthor Barry Cunliffe, an archaeologist and professor emeritus at the University of Oxford. “They are going to upset people, but that is part of the excitement of it.”