In the genes of Europeans found an unusual trace of migrants from the Pontic steppes

Thousands of athletically built and technologically advanced men left their women at home, somewhere in the steppes between the Black and Caspian seas, and themselves went to conquer Europe and its female population. And, I must say, subdued – and so successfully that after 5000 years the traces of this life history were revealed in the genome of Europeans.

Let’s start from afar, because without the context, scientific and historical, the recent discovery of scientists looks a little anecdotal. It is just a small detail of a large puzzle called “The Origin of Europeans”, but this detail probably explains a lot.

The history of ancient inhabitants of Europe is studied for a long time and the main stages are well known. Modern “indigenous” Europeans are the result of at least three large prehistoric migrations. The first were hunter-gatherers who settled Europe about 37,000 years ago. They still caught the early hosts of the continent, the Neanderthals.

Years passed. 9000 years ago, farmers from Anatolia (the region in modern Turkey) were drawn to Europe. But these migrants arrived with their families, so at first they did not interact with the descendants of hunter-gatherers of the first wave.

Finally, 4800-5000 years ago, a third wave of migrants from the Black Sea-Caspian steppe flooded Europe. These people changed everything.

The motivations of scientists interested in a turning point in the history of ancient Europe were summarized by archaeologist Christian Christiansen from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden): “We are guided by the desire to understand the causes of the profound economic and social changes that took place in the third millennium BC in a vast area from the Urals to Scandinavia. The old agricultural cultures of the Neolithic Age were replaced by a completely new concept of personality, family and property. I and many other archaeologists are sure that the reason for these changes was a large-scale influx of migrants with a different culture to Europe. ”

Who were they? Archaeologists have discovered this for a long time, and the discoverer, Vasily Alekseevich Gorodtsov (1860-1945), gave them a common name as early as the beginning of the 20th century: pits, representatives of the so-called pit cultural-historical community or, for brevity, pit culture. Perhaps not the most euphonious name for people who have made a revolution in the history of Europe, but scientific, given the most obvious sign of burials: the pit mines buried their dead in simple rectangular pits, in a pose on their backs or on their sides.

The burial of the pit culture (about 3000 BC) near Kirovograd (now the city of Kropiwnicki, Ukraine). Photo: Alla Nikolova

According to the “classification of ancient trades”, the pits were nomadic cattle breeders with a specialization in horse breeding. The primary habitat is the boundless Black Sea-Caspian (in the scientific-Pontic-Caspian) steppe, stretching from the Dniester in the west to the Urals in the east, from the Black Sea and the Caucasus in the south to the Middle Volga in the north. Ideal space for maneuver in any direction.

And for maneuvering, the pitchers had everything they needed: horses and wheeled vehicles. Who was the first domesticated horse – the question is still controversial, but it is likely that it happened somewhere in the territory of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, shortly before the appearance of the pit culture, and the pits became the first or one of the first to see in the horses not only valuable meat , But also an advanced vehicle. Who was the first to invent the wheel is also difficult to say, but the ancestors of the pit mines or genetically related prehistoric mechanical masters could do it. Which of the pitchers came up with the idea of ​​using horses as draft power is unknown, but they did so, ensuring unrivaled mobility.

Reconstruction of the wheeled vehicle, presumably related to the late pit culture (about 2000 BC). Photo: Rostov Regional Museum of Local Lore

5000 years ago for European farmers who were in a slow stone age, the mass migration of people from the east, riding in wheeled vehicles or rushing on horseback, looked like an invasion by aliens.

In the hands of the “aliens” was an unprecedented metal weapon – copper and bronze hammers, axes, clubs, even swords. In this issue, everything is clear: the pit mines brought the era of copper and bronze to Neolithic Europe – their skills in working with metals originated and developed in the Caucasus.

Horses, wheeled vehicles, metal – knowledge and technology, which determined the development of European civilization for millennia ahead. But, as if this is not enough, the pit pits gave Europe a language. They were the bearers of the Proto-Indo-European language, so that the invasion of horsemen from the eastern steppes 5000 years ago could become that common root from which the four hundred modern languages ​​of the Indo-European group grew.

The foregoing is only a brief retelling of what is already known to archaeologists and specialists in prehistoric Europe. But in recent years, the study of ancient migrations can not do without archaeogenetics: the most comprehensive studies are always interdisciplinary.

Archeogenetics is a very young science, but has already accumulated a large amount of data. These data confirm that about 5000 years ago there was a serious “update” of the genetic map of Europe. From the steppes in the south of present-day Russia and Ukraine, representatives of the pit culture migrated mainly to Northern and Central Europe, to a lesser extent – in the opposite direction, to western Siberia. In Northern Europe, the Yamnites mingled with the “indigenous” Neolithic population of the region, giving rise to the so-called culture of battle axes (otherwise known as corded ceramics). It is with this hybrid culture that the modern Europeans living north of the Alps are genetically related. For example, the descendants of the pits are to some extent ¾ modern Germans.

Illustration of the “steppe hypothesis” about the invasion of the pit into Europe 5000-6000 years ago and the subsequent formation of a culture of cord ceramics. : Wolfgang Haak

Another genetic study added an unexpected detail to the overall picture. “The victorious march of thousands of men” – so the discovery of geneticists has already been dubbed by journalists. The head of the new study is the famous Swede, the world-famous scientist Mattias Jakobsson, the owner of the “personal” laboratory of the Jakobsson Lab at Uppsala University and the head of the large-scale international project “1000 ancient genomes”, about which we told last year.

The international team of scientists from Uppsala and Stanford Universities was looking for an answer to the question of how and why the migration of pits has had such a serious, almost revolutionary effect on Europeans of the Neolithic period. To do this, they chose the demographic aspect: modern research methods are able to “extract” from ancient DNA information on which one can judge the ratio of the number of men and women in prehistoric communities, the complexity of the social structure and the depth of intercultural relationships.

The study involved 36 residents of prehistoric Europe – in the form of mortal remains. According to archaeological data, 20 of them lived in the period after the migration of farmers from Anatolia (from 6000 to 4,500 years ago), the remaining 16 – in the period after the invasion of the pit, 3000-1000 years ago.

As you know, an ordinary person – that prehistoric, that modern – has a set of 23 pairs of chromosomes. 22 of them are autosomes (paired chromosomes, “identical” in men, that in women), whereas the 23rd pair of chromosomes determines the sex of the person: XY in men and XX in women.

Scientists analyzed the difference in the proportion of DNA inherited from the X chromosome, compared with 22 autosomes that do not define sex. Since women carry two X-chromosomes, and men – one, then this method of research allows you to retrospectively calculate the ratio of the number of men and women in the ancient population. The statistical method for the new study was developed by Amy Goldberg, a doctoral student and employee of the Population Genetics Laboratory at Stanford University.

It turned out that the Europeans who lived in the period between the migration of farmers from Anatolia and the invasion of the pit, inherited an equal number of “agricultural” DNA on autosomes and the X chromosome. This means that approximately the same number of men and women migrated to Europe from Anatolia 9000 years ago (from here scientists concluded that prehistoric farmers moved to Europe with their families), and their mixing with the earlier population occurred naturally and gradually.

However, those who were born after the migration of the pit in Europe, the genetic picture is completely different: “We found a huge predominance of men among migrants from the Pontine steppe. Judging by the too small number of “pitched” X chromosomes, the ratio of men and women among migrants was 10: 1, “says the study’s head Professor Matthias Jacobsson.

10: 1 – averaged indicator, the study refers to a wider range – from 5 to 14 men per woman. According to Amy Goldberg, the ratio is extreme: this was not observed even among the Spanish conquistadors who arrived on the American continent in the 16th century, and among the Spanish conquerors, men evidently predominated.

Such unusual data have alarmed the scientific community: several independent researchers noted that the calculation of the ratio of men and women in ancient populations is rather complicated and may be inaccurate. However, others have already begun to write the opening in a well-known historical context.

“The migration of pits could be primarily aggressive, and the rapid spread to them provided technological advantages,” said the population geneticist Rasmus Nielsen of the University of Berkeley, who got acquainted with the results of the study. Technological advantages are the strategic use by the pits of the recent achievements of mankind: the taming of a horse and the invention of a wheel.

A similar conclusion was made by the head of the study, Professor Matthias Jacobsson: “It seems that these men on horses and wagons were warriors who migrated for the sake of conquest.”

This is a male point of view, and in this case, the opinion of a woman is very interesting – in the end, it was the soldiers-pits that made an indelible impression on them. “It seems to me that men of Yam culture were more attractive than the farmers of Neolithic Europe. In addition, they had horses and new technologies, they had weapons like copper hammers, all this provided them with an advantage, “says Amy Goldberg. In other words, the union of steppe men and European women could well be amicable: appearance, muscles and gadgets still have a magical effect on women.

But what caused the pits to leave their native steppes and go to unknown lands in the west and east? Geneticians have found that migration has occurred over several generations – a fact with

But what caused the pits to leave their native steppes and go to unknown lands in the west and east? Geneticists have found out that migration has occurred for several generations – a fact that archaeologists and anthropologists now have to deal with. Such a long and large-scale migration can speak not only of the sudden urge to conquer the pits, but also of possible problems at home.

“This behavior presupposes the existence of a serious and prolonged negative factor driving people through the steppes. It could be, for example, chronic illness or an epidemic, “says archaeologist David Anthony, anthropology professor at Hartwick College, a specialist in steppe Bronze Age migration, who took part in research in southern Russia in conjunction with our scientists See the monograph A Bronze Age in the Russian Steppes: The Samara Valley Project)

David Anthony put forward another interesting suggestion: among the pits, an effective practice of developing territories could have arisen-the expulsion of combat-capable groups of men with the aim of establishing new, politically allied colonies in remote lands. This is what the Romans and Vikings did in the future.

The results of the work of geneticists are set forth in the scientific edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (a summary of the article is published on the website

Let’s note that for acquaintance with the culture of the pit, which has been intriguing scientists of the whole world for more than a century, our readers do not even need to study scientific works: it is enough to visit local history museums in the cities of the south of Russia.

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