Human Journey

Europe’s Early Settlers Uncovered

A woman of Germany’s ancient Corded Ware culture was buried together with hundreds of shell sequins. Credit: Juraj Lipták

Europe’s Stone Age settlers migrated in waves that replaced older hunter-gatherer cultures, suggests a study that looks at European DNA, both ancient and modern. The results reported in the journal, Science, answer questions about the peopling of modern-day Europe.

Some of our ancestors hunted wild animals and gathered plants to survive, while others were discovering agriculture, and yet others drew cave paintings. Throughout the world all of these things were being carried out by our ancient “grandmas” and “grandpas” some five to ten thousand years ago. But aside from that, we know almost nothing about these people, or do we? With the results of the new Genographic Project ancient DNA study from Central Europe (see official press release), we now know much more about who these people were, where they came from and when. And there’s no need to clone them, they were us.

Project scientists, in collaboration with archeologists from Germany, have successfully sequenced and analyzed DNA from 364 individuals that lived in Central Europe between 5,500 and 1,500 BC. They extracted genetic material from teeth and bones and analyzed the maternally-inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). We all carry mtDNA which is nearly identical to that of a female ancestor that lived 500, 1,000 or even 5,000 years ago. And aside from occasional mutations, our mtDNA is static across time. Except, what the team discovered was that Central European prehistory was anything but static.

Genographic scientist, and one of the lead researchers on this study, Wolfgang Haak explains that “focusing on this small, but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in ‘real-time’ from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age.”

What they found was that the shift in the frequency of DNA lineages closely matched the changes and appearances of new Central European cultures across time. In other words, the people who lived in Central Europe 7,000 years ago had different DNA lineages than those that lived there 5,000 years ago, and again different to those that lived 3,500 years ago. Central Europe was dynamic place during the Bronze age, and the genetic composition of the people that lived there demonstrates that there was nothing static about European prehistory.

Genographic Project Director and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, Spencer Wells expounds: “spanning a period from the dawn of farming during the Neolithic period through to the Bronze Age, the [genetic] data from the archaeological remains reveals successive waves of migration and population replacement- genetic ‘revolutions’ that combined to create the genetic patterns we see today.”

What we see in Europeans today is a kind of mixture of what was present there at different times in our past. So, just like parts of Europe today are melting pots from different living cultures across the world, Europe is also a melting pot of genetic lineages from different prehistoric cultures that lived there at different periods of time.

By Miguel Vilar, Scientific Manager, Genographic Project 

Learn more:

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Dr. Miguel Vilar is the Science Manager for National Geographic's Genographic Project. Miguel is also a molecular anthropologist and a science writer. His fieldwork has taken him to remote places throughout the South Pacific, East Africa, Mesoamerica, and the Caribbean. In the laboratory he researches the modern genetic diversity of human populations from Melanesia, Micronesia, North and Central America, and the Caribbean. Miguel has published in several anthropology and genetics journals, as well as popular science magazines.
  • Kathleen Schilling

    “reveals successive waves of migration and population replacement.” That confirms what we learned in History class in high school. Tribes migrated wholly or partially for various reasons. I’d love to know the mtDNA results! Will they be published?

  • bob

    that is really freaky but so cool

  • Dora Smith

    I really hate to break it to you all, but Corded Ware was an advanced Neolithic to copper age culture. Of COURSE they could make seashell necklaces. Honest to God!

    7000 years ago central Europe was fully Neolithic.

    The only newcomers after that were steppe peoples, and they came in successive waves.

    However disease changed the genetic makeup of Europe between Neolithic times and the present. This is already known.

    I would of course like to actually see this mitochondrial DNA.

  • micheal

    would like to get the magazine of education

  • Adelina A. Ibanez

    I’m so interested of knowing about where my people Chamorro as well as myself originally came from. It’s so hard to explain to my kids and grandchildren where Chamorro originate from. This was posted on Facebook and I was reading and so interested. History written in Chamorro DNA: National Geographic project seeks to trace migration.

  • Cheri Epstein

    This “article” is a tease. So much more could have been written to describe this research and its results and to inform us what it means. I hope more will be forthcoming.
    I have traced my roots back to fifteenth century England, but to be able to go farther — to the Bronze Age much less the Neolithic — would be fascinating.

  • Joe

    I wish they would show the real mtDNA results and in the real article they only used old results not any from the new 364 mtDNA results. And I think they made big claims with to little mtDNA. There are only 66 samples from LBK culture(around 5,000BC), 18 from Corded ware culture(2,600-2,800bc), 18 from bell Beaker culture(about 2,600BC), and 21 from Unetice culture(about 2,000bc). And their making huge claims on what mtDNA haplogroups these cultures spread. In the original article they claimed Corded ware culture increased or brought mtDNA U2 even though Bollongino et al found an 11,210 year old U2e(just about all European U2 is U2e) sample in central European hunter gather. That Bell Beaker brought extra mtDNA H based on 18 samples even though not counting LBK 17 out of 35 mtDNA samples in Neolithic Germany have H that’s almost 50% one had subclade H1e7 same with one of the Bell Beaker H’s very good evidence that lineage was already in central Europe.

    I do think there is some truth in what they are saying though. But we need 100’s of samples from one area with multiple sites dating around the same time and from the same culture before making any major claims about what their mtDNA gene pool was. There is a obvious difference in European farmers and European hunter gathers mtDNA. The hunter gathers were about 100% U5, U4, and U2e while the farmers were in H,K,T,J,U(almost all hunter gather subclades),X,I,W, V and HV. And modern European mtDNA gene pool matches very well with the farmers even right down to the deep subclades. Overall it seems modern Europeans even Finnish and Russians maternal lineages are by far mainly from farmers.

    But coming out of the Near east doesn’t make the most sense because there is not that great of evidence that H1,H3, and V originated in the near east. And European mtDNA J is almost all under J1 and after that J1c same with Neloithic European mtDNA dating to 7,000ybp looking at age estimates of the different subclades like J1c, T1a, H1, H3 spreading to Europe from the near east starting 9,000ybp and already having deep subclades like today 7,000ybp doesn’t make sense.

    Since Mesolithic and Neolithic European hunter gathers maternal lineages have been proven through Palaeolithic European mtDNA to mainly go back to people who migrated to Europe form the near east 30,000-50,000ybp and that their lineages became almost extinct with the spread of farming. That modern Europeans mainly descend from Near eastern farmers but Austosomal DNA tells a different story. Austosomal DNA doesn’t just tell a direct maternal or paternal line it has genes from all sides. Autosomal DNA of hunter gathers from Pitted ware culture and 7,000ybp in northern Spain(mtDNA U5b2c1). Show that they had vast majority North European and Atlantic Baltic component. In globe13 all had over 70%. Austosomal DNA of Gok4 around 5,000 year old farmer from Sweden(mtDNA H) and Otzie 5,300 year old copper age farmer in alps Italy(Y DNA G2a2a2 L91, mtDNA K1f). Had nearly identical results each with over 59% Meditreaen, over 15% North European, and for otzie 6% west Asian. They are almost a perfect match to modern Sardinian people Sardinia is a island west of Italy. All the hunter gathers had some Med mainly La Brana’s and that can probably be explain as farmer inter marriage and North Euro in the farmers in hunter gather inter marriage.

    The Mesolithic probably also Palaeolithic European group North Euro is still very popular in Europe and is the only group unique to Europe. In globe13 it’s 75-80% in Finland, Sami(northern Scandnavia), and northeast Balt’s, around 70% in Russians and Belorussians, 65-70% in Norwiegan, Swedish, Polish, and near by Slavs, 60-65% in Ukriane, 55-60% in central Europem British isles, and Hungary, 45%+ in France, 40-45% in Romania and former Yugoslavia, 35-40% in Iberia and Bulgaria, 30-35% in northern Italy, 20-25% in most of Italy and Greece, 15-20% in Sicily and Sardinia.

    What it shows is even though the maternal line of the hunter gathers went was killed off pretty badly modern Europeans still have a huge junk of blood from them most have mainly hunter gather blood. Since the North Euro in globe13 and other aust groups originating in European hunter gathers in other tests. I have seen shows pretty close correlation to more pale features in Europe like fair hair and eyes and paler skin which probably means that’s where modern Europeans get their palness.

    I don’t think the farmers Austosomal DNA Is strong evidence they were Near easter. No one in the Near east ever gets above 30% Med in globe13 and yes the farmers did show over 10% southwest Asian and west Asian, But in Antolia it takes up over 50%. And it is mainly west asia in Antolia but I guess not Levnant which is where the farming began. But obviously there is something very non Near eastern about their Meditreaen I think its possibly that is from hunter gathers in far southeast Europe which is where farming first spread.

    It’s crazy the European farmers and hunter gathers where two distinct people DNA has proven this. They stayed almost totally separate of inter marriage and mixing culturally. I am sure the hunter gathers wanted to keep their culture and way of life similar to Native Americans. I think it may have been a very similar situation as European colonist and Native Americans. Native American tribes in California knew that Europeans had taken land of different Indians across America and unified with other Indian tribes no matter how different. The farmers rapidly spread across Europe and so far with ancient DNA stayed pretty pure from hunter gather inter marriage. Pretty much it seems like they conquered Europe. The hunter gathers could trace their ancestry in Europe to 30,000-50,000 years before they where Native similar to Native Americans. Their cultures traced back to Palaeolithic European cultures.

    But then why are so many modern Europeans a muts of hunter gathers and farmers similar to how Hispanics are muts of Iberian and native American. Was it new migrations in the bronze age of indo Europeans from eastern Europe with mainly hunter gather ancestry who conquered and mixed with the Native Neolithic and copper age people. Maybe the new austosomal DNA results will be different and the farmers and hunter gathers did mix. I think though that copper and bronze age mainly spread of Indo Europeans is what completed what you find in different regions of Europe today. For Y DNA, mtDNA, autosomal DNA it was the last piece of the puzzle. spear and Lascaux cave art, farming tools, and bronze tools and weapons kind of represent the cultural things that created Genetic makeup of western Europeans.

  • Herminio Flores, PhD

    I’m not going to bother you by asking more questions, except: Will the questions posted above be answered?

  • AHansen

    Now maybe it will be possible to trace the origins of the early settlers of the Canary Islands. We were told they were tall, blond, blue-eyed which would suggest Vikings or Celts but they lost the knowledge of boat building and fished with nets from the shore. So how did they get there and from where ?

  • Hello!

    lol he’s covered in chereos!

  • Dr. Barbara Johnston

    I am curious as to how Marjia Gimbutas’ work fits with the DNA findings. She advanced the theory of three successive waves of Kurgans, or peoples from the Russian steppes into Neolithic Old Europe at similar times. She used archaeology, mythology, and linguistics in her work and it appears to me that her work is being proven by the DNA. You are right this article is a tease. not enough information released.

  • Patricia R. Thompson

    How do we relate this to our personal Genome results?

  • César DE Lucas Ivorra

    It ´s a honour to know the topics related to people who lived in Europe 5000 years ago.It ´s necessary to treat this human material with a great technology to know the age of the bones, how people lived in that epoch and what problems were the most important.

  • Norman Ballantyne

    Having sent in my DNA sample, and recieved the results, I would like to know my more recent lineage, as my father was adopted from the Winnipeg, Manatoba, Canada, orphanage around 19112. He appears to be of Native American lineage, but we have no knowledge of his heritage and how he was placed in the orphanage. We have suspected that he may have been a part of the “Assimulation Program” of the early 1900s to blend Native Americans with the white population. Any information concerning this situation could be helpful if more current information on DNA were put to use.

  • Lynne Burt-Jenkins

    When will you geno-map Wales, particularly the mountainous areas? Thanks.

  • Madeleine Watt

    What about K1? C1? Come on are we step children? There are no references to us at all?

  • Evert Nygren

    My father was born in Sweden and my mother’s parents were from Norway and Sweden. I know my father’s family was in Sweden for over 400 years and my mother’s ancestors were in the north for a long time. Yet, my DNA study reveals that I am 36% Southern European. How could that be true?

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