Ancient DNA identifies ethnic Norwegian roots

Norwegians have a high incidence of Yamnaya genes

Photo: Extract of Fig. 3, Haak and Lazaridis et.al.  Modern DNA admixture proportions of Yamnaya ancestry; LBK_EN from site near Stuttgart, Loschbour from site in Luxembourg.

Photo: Extract of Fig. 3, Haak and Lazaridis et.al.
Modern DNA admixture proportions of Yamnaya ancestry; LBK_EN from site near Stuttgart, Loschbour from site in Luxembourg.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Until recently, the evolution of our species seemed straightforward. Some 45,000 years ago, Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from the Middle East and outcompeted the resident Neanderthals. Thereafter humans progressed in epochs marked by the skills and traits they developed. In the Bronze Age that came to Asia and Europe about 5,000 years ago, bronze metallurgy, proto-writing, and other attributes of urban civilization emerged. The rest is history.

Anthropologists have long suspected that details were missing from the story. It seemed unlikely that the Bronze Age was triggered merely by an idea imported from the Middle East. So there must have been another great prehistoric migration into Europe. Published in June this year, the results of two independent studies of ancient DNA from the Bronze Age have confirmed that. About 5,000 years ago, nomadic herders known as the Yamnaya, from the steppes of Russia and Ukraine came into Europe. The Yamnaya brought their culture and language. They founded other cultures, including the extensive Corded Ware Culture, named for its distinctive pottery. Undoubtedly they made a lasting imprint on European society as well as the genetic makeup of Europeans.

Photo: Dbachmann / Wikimedia Commons Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures of the Bronze Age.

Photo: Dbachmann / Wikimedia Commons
Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures of the Bronze Age.

The two DNA studies—one led by Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA and Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard Medical School, and the other led by Eske Willersev and Morten E. Allentoft of the Center for GeoGenitics, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (Further reading)—looked at the genetic makeup of modern European peoples and in 23 of them found evidence of a large Yamnaya migration into Europe sometime between 5,000 and 4,800 years ago.

Just as biologists and now ancient DNA researchers look at traits and genes to reconstruct the ancestries of peoples, linguists build historical trees of languages. One of the most intriguing trees is that of most modern European languages and some non-European ones that share a common ancestor, known as Proto-Indo-European. Now extinct, Proto-Indo-European most likely was spoken in central Eurasia and taken afar by migrating peoples, such as the Yamnaya. Don Ringe, an expert in historical and Indo-European linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, believes that the Yamnaya most likely did take their Proto-Indo-European into Europe, where it developed into Proto-Germanic (Further reading).

Modern Norwegian DNA admixtures have the highest proportion of Yamnaya genes of the European ethnic groups studied. Norwegian is a Germanic language. Modern Norwegians owe much to the nomadic herders who came to Europe some 50 centuries ago.

Further reading:
“The three ancestral tribes that founded Western civilisation,” by Colin Barras, New Scientist, issue 3028, July 4, 2015, pp. 28-33, also online at www.newscientist.com/article/mg22730282-900.

“Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe,” by Wolfgang Haak, Josif Lazaridis et.al, Nature, Vol. 522, June 11, 2015, pp 207-211, also online at www.doi.org, key in name 10.1038/nature14317.

“Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia,” by Eske Willertsev, Morten E. Allentoft et.al, Nature, Vol. 522, June 11, 2015, pp 167-172, also online at www.doi.org, key in name 10.1038/nature14507.

From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic, by Don A. Ringe, Oxford University Press 2006, ISBN 978-0199284139.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 11, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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