As part of a 202-member international group, researchers from the Institute of Archaeogenomics of the ELKH Research Centre for the Humanities (BTK) and the Institute of Biology of ELTE Faculty of Natural Sciences investigated the cultural and genetic relationships of the prehistoric, ancient and medieval populations living in the area forming a bridge between Europe and Asia ‒ the so-called Southern Arc. Genome-level data of 727 individuals were analyzed in order to explore the population history relationships of Southeast Europe and Southwest Asia. This gave the researchers the opportunity to test long-standing archeological, genetic, and linguistic hypotheses. A series of studies presenting the results from this large-scale research project was published in the prestigious scientific journal Science.
Some of the earliest agricultural civilizations and ancient cultures appeared and flourished in the so-called Southern Arc, a geographical region extending from the Caucasus and the Levant through Anatolia and the Aegean Sea to the Balkans. The populations living in this area forming a bridge between Europe and Asia and the cultures they created ‒ regardless whether they have vanished over the course of history or survived to the present day ‒ have had a significant impact on human civilization as a whole, in addition to being part of the region's heritage.
Despite their importance, until now not much was known about the former inhabitants of this region, their biological relationships and migrations, or what language each group spoke. Archaeogenetic research can shed new light on the life paths of members of past societies, the spread and development of their languages, and the separation of different language branches. Answering questions related to the past with archaeogenetic tools, however, requires large-scale, systematic international research and it allows to fill in the geographical and temporal gaps in what was known previously.
The mapping of the genetic history of the populations living in the area of the Southern Arc was made possible through the significant scientific cooperation of several genetic research groups. Three archaeogenetic studies presenting the results were published in the scientific journal Science on August 26. In the publications the researchers reported genome-wide data on a total of 727 individuals, more than doubling the amount of ancient DNA data from this region and filling significant gaps in the field of archaeological genetics. The research work also gave the scientists the opportunity to check their archaeological, genetic and linguistic hypotheses using genetic tools.
Leading the project were Ron Pinhasi (Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, Human Evolution and Archaeological Sciences Research Network [HEAS], University of Vienna), Songül Alpaslan‑ Roodenberg (University of Vienna, Harvard University), and Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich (Harvard Medical University). The collaborative efforts of the 202 researchers participating in the international project made it possible to publish a monumental series of results that provides a much more accurate picture than before of the genetic history of the populations living in the area of the Southern Arc in the period from the emergence of agriculture to the Middle Ages.
On the Hungarian side, Anna Szécsényi-Nagy, senior scientific associate with BTK's Institute of Archaeogenomics has contributed to the research by interpreting the results of the genetic examination of the prehistoric people living in the Carpathian Basin. Tamás Hajdu, Tamás Szeniczey and Krisztián Kiss, anthropologists with the Department of Anthropology at the ELTE TTK Institute of Biology, together with Cristian Virag, an archaeologist with the Satu Mare County Museum (Muzeul Județean Satu Mare, Satu Mare, Romania), took part in the project with their complex bioarchaeological analysis of a large number of Copper Age graves (Urziceni/Csanálos and Bodrogkeresztúr cultures).
The main findings of the three studies:
The genetic history of the Southern Arc: a bridge between Western Asia and Europe
The first study deals with the Copper and Bronze Age populations from the period lasting from 5000 BC to 1000 BC. Studies describing the westward migration of the steppe peoples belonging to the Yamnaya culture at the end of the Copper Age were published in 2015. The article just published has added to the existing knowledge with a more precise definition of the origin of the Yamnaya population and the determination of new population movements.
With the help of genetic analyses, it was possible to show the movements of people from the Caucasus to the north and Anatolia, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, from the steppe across the Balkans to the south and across the Caucasus to the territory of today's Armenia, about 4,000 years ago. It is interesting that the paternal lineage of the population of the Yamnaya culture that spread north of the Black and Caspian seas can still be identified genetically in the Y-chromosome lines of the Armenian people. Although the migration of the Yamnaya populations significantly reshaped Europe from a population genetic point of view in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC, their legacy left no traces detectable by means of genetic testing within the area of Anatolia.
The results of the study confirm the linguistic theory that the Anatolian (Indo-Anatolian) language family may have developed in Western Asia. From a genetic point of view, all ethnic groups speaking Indo-European languages can be traced back to the pastoralist Yamnaya groups, which descended from what was essentially an Eastern European and Caucasian hunter-gatherer genetic heritage.
Many farewells, many encounters: how did migration and mixing lead to the spread of early languages? (Source: the original study published in Science)
Ancient DNA from Mesopotamia – distinct migrations of pre-ceramic and ceramic-using Neolithic populations into Anatolia
In the second study, the researchers analyzed the populations living in the "Fertile Crescent" region, the cradle of European prehistoric agriculture and advanced civilizations located in present-day Iraq, Syria, eastern Turkey, Israel and Jordan. The first part of the study series deals with the early period of farming in the Middle East, the Neolithic age. The human genomes from Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent date from a time when clay vessels were still unknown, but the people there were starting to grow plants and keep animals. This period began about 12,000 years ago and ended about 8,000 years ago, depending on the exact part of the region.
The results of the genetic research show that the populations of the region during this period were formed from the mixing of Anatolian, Caucasian and Levantine groups and formed a genetic transition between the geographical regions.
The ethnic groups arriving in Anatolia in several waves from the Fertile Crescent brought with them their knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry. Some of them continued onward to Europe, and so ‒ as previous genetic research has already shown ‒ the first agriculturalists to arrive in the Carpathian Basin around 6000 BC also came from this genetic source.
A genetic probe into ancient and medieval history in Southern Europe and Western Asia
The most important finding of the third study investigating the ancient population of the Southern Arc is that the Mycenaeans came from the population of the Minoan civilization, with nearly 10 percent of the genetic material from the steppe population mixed in. At the same time, the results indicate that this population originating from the steppes was perfectly integrated into Mycenaean society, and that their different origin did not result in distinct social status. The researchers also established that the population of the city of Rome during the imperial period was clearly distinguished from the population of Italy in the pre-imperial period and can be genetically traced back to the population of the Eastern Mediterranean.