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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Human Journey


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.