A key aspect of historic human prosperity was “mingling.” In a groundbreaking discovery, a new gene study sheds light on the fascinating interactions between Copper Age civilizations in Europe, revealing a history of early mingling, shared ideas, and technological exchanges that occurred over a thousand years earlier than previously believed.
The research, published in Nature, analyzed the genetic data of 135 ancient farmers and pastoralists from southeastern Europe, spanning from 5400 BC to 2400 BC, encompassing the late European Neolithic and the entirety of the Copper Age. These findings challenge existing notions of prehistoric human interactions, painting a more intricate picture of how early societies interconnected and contributed to historic human prosperity.
Gene Tracking Ancient European Migrants
Dr. Wolfgang Haak, an archaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and a co-author of the new study, told Gizmodo that his team of researchers “scrutinized genetic data from 135 individuals who lived between 5400 BC and 2400 BC,” representing the late European Neolithic and the entirety of the Copper Age .
In studying the genes of people who lived at the dawn of farming, the team found “genetically mixed signatures were already homogenized in the region around Odessa in the 4th millennium BC.” In case you don’t know, genetic homogenization refers to the underlying molecular processes involved in ‘biotic homogenization,’ or hybridization with non-native species, leading to decreased variation in the gene pool. In other words, multiple generations had occurred since the intermingling started.
Cooper Age tell settlement site Măgura Gorgana near Pietrele in today’s Romania. (© Konstantin Scheele/ MPG)
In context, what this all means, is that contact and genetic exchange occurred across Europe much earlier than currently believed. Haak said this new discovery “may clarify when technology and cultural exchanges occurred between groups in the North Caucasus and the northwestern edge of the Black Sea”.
Copper Ax from the Middle Copper Age of Hungary c 3500-2799, the “Baden Culture”. Implement at the Budapest History Museum. (Bjoertvedt/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Unravelling A Genetic Birds Nest
Dr. Haak explained that around 3300 BC, steppe pastoralists , holding a genetic mixture of hunter-gatherer groups from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, ventured outwards from the Eurasian steppe. An earlier study in which Haak was involved had identified the Northern Caucasus as the regions where farmers and pastoral grazing populations would have interacted.
The new research builds upon these previous findings, effectively pushing back the dates at which early farmers and pastoralists mingled, swapping ideas and, “evidently, genetics,” according to the new paper.
But this study is not the only recent exploration into Copper Age European genetics. The Nature press release says that only last year three papers were published examining aspects of cultural exchange in the Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent.
What All This Means for Anthropology and Archaeology
Gene studies into the Copper Age in Europe are providing new insights into the ancient demographic history and migrations of early human populations. By analyzing ancient human DNA various teams of researchers are illustrating the complicated interactions and movements of ancient European peoples, revealing a diverse array of ancestral lineages.
The new studies are also showing evidence of interactions between early European farmers and hunter-gatherer groups during the Copper Age, and that there were substantial genetic exchanges between these two populations, leading to the integration of different lifestyles and technologies. Furthermore, these gene studies are revealing the genetic continuity between Copper Age populations and their ancestors and descendants.
Major Genetic Steps Over the Last Decade
The wave of new gene studies looking at the ‘mingling’ that occurred in the Copper Age in Europe are revealing the cultural complexities of ancient farming populations, and their movements, enhancing the scientific understanding of how human societies interacted and exchanged ideas and technologies. Therefore, it is becoming clearer how individual farming and pastoral populations avoided their demise, through the exhaustion of resources, by migrating and coming together to form new, more robust and sustainable, agricultural systems.
Dr Haak concluded that “the real advance” in the scientific understanding of the Copper Age will be made by “the integration of gene data in archaeological and anthropological contexts.” This, according to the lead author of the new study, “will produce a much more nuanced view of human prehistory than the broad-brush strokes we started out with 10 years ago.”
Top image: Grave goods from the Copper Age cemetery of Varna on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. The copper and gold objects are considered the oldest in the world. Source: © Kalin Dimitrov/ Max Planck Institute
By Ashley Cowie