New studies of ancient DNA have upended an idea which many researchers believed – that immigration was a relatively rare event in human history.
It’s an idea which populist politicians also like to play on – the idea that present-day people are descended from a population which ‘always’ lived in the same area.
But it’s almost always wrong, according to analysis of ancient DNA.
Two new studies published in Nature this week bring the number of ancient humans whose DNA has been analysed to 1,334.
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The new information shows that people have been migrating throughout European history, says lead author David Reich, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Harvard Medical School
‘There was a view that migration is a very rare process in human evolution,’ says Reich
‘The orthodoxy – the assumption that present-day people are directly descended from the people who always lived in that same area — is wrong almost everywhere.’
John Novembre, a computational biologist at the University of Chicago says, ‘The view that’s emerging – for which David is an eloquent advocate – is that human populations are moving and mixing all the time.’
In one of the new papers, Reich and a cast of dozens of collaborators chart the spread of an ancient culture known by its stylized bell-shaped pots, the so-called Bell Beaker phenomenon.
This culture first spread between Iberia and central Europe beginning about 4,700 years ago. By analyzing DNA from several hundred samples of human bones, Reich’s team shows that only the ideas –not the people who originated them – made the move initially.
That’s because the genes of the Iberian population remain distinct from those of the central Europeans who adopted the characteristic pots and other artifacts.
But the story changes when the Bell Beaker culture expanded to Britain after 4,500 years ago.
Then, it was brought by migrants who almost completely supplanted the island’s existing inhabitants – the mysterious people who had built Stonehenge – within a few hundred years.
‘There was a sudden change in the population of Britain,’ says Reich. ‘It was an almost complete replacement.’