Since the European refugee crisis began in 2015, debate and discussion on the topic of immigration has enveloped the continent — but people have been traveling from Central Asia to Europe for a long time, and an international team of researchers recently shed some light on a much earlier mass migration.
More than 115 archaeologists, anthropologists and geneticists analyzed the DNA of ancient human skeletons once belonging to 225 individuals living before and after a period of migration starting about 8,500 years ago.
The researchers sought to document the interaction and mixing of two genetically distinct groups of people, as farmers from Anatolia — roughly modern-day Turkey — moved into southeastern Europe, which was then occupied by hunter-gatherers.
Two adjunct instructors for the University of Wyoming’s Department of Anthropology — Croatian-based researchers Ivor Jankovi and Ivor Karavani — were among the scientists involved in the study, which was published by Nature in February.
“Southeastern Europe was a major transition and contact zone where various populations mixed and exchanged ideas,” Jankovi writes via email from Croatia. “This is evident since prehistoric times.
Genetic data, in combination with archaeological and anthropological remains, give us much more detailed insight into these complex issues.”
DNA analysis revealed that while there was intermixing immediately in some places, the Anatolia-hailing farmers and the native European hunter-gatherers remained isolated in most places, for at least the first few hundred years.
The genetic evidence at the heart of the study gives new insight into a region long known to facilitate a mixing of cultures, Jankovi says.
“Genetic data confirmed that the new ideas and lifestyles, such as farming, came with movement of people that brought these novelties,” he writes.
The study actually turned up evidence regarding two major migrations, the first starting more than 8,000 years ago and spreading agriculture to Europe for the first time.
“The second, about 4,500-5,000 years ago, is connected to the people from the Eurasian steppes that actually had a major impact on later genetic makeup of Europeans, as they replaced much of the earlier inhabitants, at least genetically,” Jankovi writes.
Building a more comprehensive view of these ancient migrations was the highly collaborative study’s goal, he adds.
“Studying human migration is very important, especially new studies, such as this one, that are multi- and interdisciplinary in their approach,” Jankovi writes. “Only through a holistic approach where we discuss genetic, archaeological and anthropological data, and through collaboration of scientists of traditionally different disciplines … can (we) get a much better and more detailed insight into various issues.”
The study — the second largest ancient DNA study ever, according to a Nature news release — adds to the researchers’ understanding of a critical time in the history of early humanity and turns up facts about human interaction only discoverable through DNA analysis.
As University of Pennsylvania geneticist Iain Mathieson states in the release, there was a long period of time during which the two groups remained separate — a revelation that might make it easier for a modern person to put themselves in the mind of an ancient human.
“These hunter-gatherers had been living there for thousands of years, and it must have been quite a shock to have these new people show up — with a completely different lifestyle and appearance.”