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Ancient DNA reveals impact of the “Beaker Phenomenon” on prehistoric Europeans

last modified Feb 21, 2018 06:00 PM
In the largest study of ancient DNA ever conducted, an international team of scientists have revealed the complex story behind one of the defining periods in European prehistory.

Double Beaker burial Trumpington hi res

Double “Beaker burial” excavated at Trumpington Meadows, Cambridge by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Laid head-to-toe, the grave is that of a 16–18 year-old female, and a 17–20 year-old male. The grave dates to between 2000 and 1950 BC and, characteristic of the period, each was accompanied by a fineware beaker. aDNA analyses of the pair are included in the study. Image credit: Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Between 4,700-4,400 years ago, a new, bell-shaped pottery style spread across western and central Europe. For over a century, archaeologists have tried to establish whether the spread of “Beaker” pottery represented a large-scale migration of people or was simply due to the spread of new ideas. “The pot versus people debate has been one of the most important and long-running questions in archaeology”, says co-senior author Ian Armit, an archaeologist from the University of Bradford in the UK.

In a study published this week in the journal Nature, ancient DNA data from 400 prehistoric skeletons, drawn from sites across Europe, show that both sides of the debate are right.

The paper shows that the Beaker phenomenon spread between Iberia and central Europe without significant movement of people. “DNA from skeletons associated with Beaker burials in Iberia was not close to that in central European skeletons”, says Iñigo Olalde, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA and first author of the study.

“This is the first clear example from ancient DNA that pots do not always go hand-in-hand with people” says geneticist David Reich, a co-senior author at Harvard Medical School. “The large sample sizes make it possible to paint subtler pictures of ancient human variation than we could before.”

But, the Beaker culture spread to other places carried by large-scale human migration. Says co-senior author Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, “In 2015, we and others showed that around 4,500 years ago there was a minimum 70% replacement of the population of north-central Europe by massive migrations of groups from the eastern European steppe. This new study reveals how the wave rolled west.”

Beaker from Trumpington burial

Close up image of one of the fineware beakers ( dated to between 2000 and 1950 BC) recovered from the double "Beaker burial" excavated at Trumpington Meadows. Image credit: Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit

The pattern is clearest in Britain, where the new study reports 155 samples ranging in age from between about 6,000 and 3,000 years ago, a period and place from which there are no published data. Geneticist Ian Barnes at London’s Natural History Museum, also a co-senior author of the study, explains, “We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after this time have a very different DNA profile to those who came before. At least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a group from the continent. Following the Beaker spread, there was a population in Britain that for the first time had ancestry and skin and eye pigmentation similar to the majority of Britons today.”

Aside from contributing a number of later, Bronze Age-individual samples, seven of the Beaker burials analysed from Britain were provided by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, University of Cambridge. The most immediate of these is from a double grave at Trumpington Meadows, near the riverside just south of the village. Laid head-to-toe, one individual was a 16–18 year-old female, with the other a 17–20 year-old male. The pair date between 2000 and 1950 BC and, characteristic of the period, each was accompanied by a fineware beaker. Although what caused the pair’s death is unknown, their genetic analysis shows – aside from their direct near-Continental links – that, sharing mitochondrial DNA, they were second or third degree relatives.

Christopher Evans, Executive Director of the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) and co-author of the study further commented, “From its beginnings to end this study has been a tremendous project to be involved with. The results are truly ground-breaking and suggest that, with the influx of Continental communities, Britain’s prehistoric story needs to be rewritten in a much more dynamic manner. Yes, it has to be recognised that, over the next decade or so, further analyses will greatly nuance this picture of population shifts. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt of how our long-established picture of Britain’s past is now changing.”

The CAU has already supplied many further samples for Harvard’s next study, involving upwards of a thousand British Iron Age individuals and, together with them, is hoping to examine Trumpington’s population through time. Future studies would be undertaken with the aim of exploring just how much continuity lies behind ’traditional’ village-locale communities: over time, did populations shift within set areas of landscape or was it a matter of much more distant comings and goings?  A volume concerned with the archaeology of Trumpington will be published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research later this year.

Geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox, a co-senior author at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona Spain, adds, “Beaker culture arrived in Britain just after the last big stones at Stonehenge went up. The fact that the Beaker expansion achieved a near-complete turnover of the population that built these great megalithic monuments dramatizes how disruptive these events must have been.”

The study was made possible by an unprecedented collaboration between most of the major ancient DNA laboratories in the world. Says co-senior author Kristian Kristiansen, an archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, “Different teams had different key samples, and we decided to put together our resources to make possible a study that was more definitive than any of us could have achieved alone.”

The successful analysis of so many samples was also made possible by two recently introduced methods that greatly reduce the cost per sample of ancient DNA analysis. One involves a chemical treatment that allows the researchers to focus their sequencing on the tiny part of the genome that is most useful for analysis. Says co-senior author Ron Pinhasi an anthropologist from the University of Vienna, “another major contributor is the realisation that DNA yields from petrous bones are much higher than in any other parts of the skeleton, making it possible to regularly get high quality data from most skeletons we analyse.”

Reich concludes, “For the first time we are dealing with sample sizes that are similar to those in genetic studies of present-day people. Such data fundamentally changes the questions we are able to ask about the past.”

This study was conducted by an international team of 144 archaeologists and geneticists from institutions in Europe and the United States. 


The original article "The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe" is published in Nature.   doi:10.1038/nature25738

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