A DNA study has not only clarified the picture of how different groups intermingled during the European Stone Age, but also how certain groups of people were actually isolated. Scientists at Uppsala University working with an international team of researchers carried out the study “Genetic continuity, isolation, and gene flow in Stone Age Central and Eastern Europe,” which appears in Communications Biology.

“The genomic landscape of Stone Age Europe was shaped by multiple migratory waves and population replacements, but different regions do not all show similar patterns. To refine our understanding of the population dynamics before and after the dawn of the Neolithic, we generated and analyzed genomic sequence data from human remains of 56 individuals from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, and Eneolithic across Central and Eastern Europe,” write the investigators.

“We found that Mesolithic European populations formed a geographically widespread isolation-by-distance zone ranging from Central Europe to Siberia, which was already established 10,000 years ago. We found contrasting patterns of population continuity during the Neolithic transition: people around the lower Dnipro Valley region, Ukraine, showed continuity over 4,000 years, from the Mesolithic to the end of the Neolithic, in contrast to almost all other parts of Europe where population turnover drove this cultural change, including vast areas of Central Europe and around the Danube River.”

“Conducting studies like this one requires a broad interdisciplinary discussion. In this study, this discussion has been exceptionally fruitful,” says Tiina Mattila, PhD, population geneticist at Uppsala University and the study’s lead author.

Piecing together a picture of the European Stone Age

Over the past 15 years, previous DNA research has pieced together a picture of the history of the European Stone Age. Before agriculture spread to Europe, there were different groups of hunter-gatherers in different parts of Eurasia, who also intermingled with each other. This study shows that the intermingling of these hunter-gatherer genetic lines was strongly linked to geography.

Several previous DNA studies of Europe’s pre-history have also shown that the spread of agriculture was strongly linked to the gene flow from Anatolia. That group was different, both genetically and culturally, from the European hunter-gatherers. But agriculture spread in different ways in different geographical areas, and this led to ethnic groups intermingling in different ways in different parts of Europe.

“These differences in the intermingling of genetic lines and cultures can tell us about the power relations between different groups,” notes Mattila.

The new study also looked at close relatives, explains Helena Malmström, PhD, archaeogeneticist at Uppsala University. “Common graves are often assumed to be family graves, but in our study this was not always the case. This shows that even during the Stone Age other social factors also played a role in burial practices.”

A more comprehensive picture of the genetic history of Stone Age Europeans has emerged in recent years. And this new study adds further detail to this puzzle.

“We can show that some parts of Europe, such as the area around the Dnipro River delta, were inhabited by isolated groups of hunter-gatherers for many thousands of years, even though many other parts of Europe changed their way of life when new groups arrived who produced food by tilling the soil,” adds Mattias Jakobsson, PhD, professor of genetics at Uppsala University.

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