Arrival of Beaker folk changed Britain for ever, ancient DNA study shows”, ran a Guardian headline in February, concerning the people whose ancestry lay in central Europe and further east to the steppes. Now comes the author of that study, Harvard geneticist David Reich, with his book that gives us, at last, the first draft of a true history of the last 5,000 years.
Genetics first started to complement the work of archaeologists and linguists in the 1990s in the work of Reich’s mentor, the Italian-born population geneticist Luca Cavalli-Sforza. But genetics was the poor relation at the time because its data was so thin. Not any more. The genome is a palimpsest that retains strong traces of the past, so current populations can reveal something of previous population movements. What has changed everything has been the ability, beginning as recently as 2010, to sequence DNA directly from ancient human remains, sometimes as old as 40,000 years.
Reich revisits recent breakthroughs in charting the early history of humans, but his most dramatic discoveries have been made in the more recent past. Most significant developments in human history have happened in the last 10,000 years since the retreat of the great ice sheet, and for Europe the past 5,000 years are crucial. Although studies in ancient DNA have now leapfrogged archaeology and linguistics to become the best source of knowledge on prehistoric human populations and migrations, they dovetail with those disciplines in a three-way corroborative process.
Reich’s work can finally answer the tantalising question first posed by an British civil servant, Sir William Jones. In 1786, he discovered the kinship of Sanskrit and ancient Greek. This led to the recognition of the vast Indo-European language family – which includes the Germanic, Celtic, Italic, near eastern (Iranian) and north Indian languages (Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, etc) – but not to any consensus on how this might have occurred. Reich has now shown that the Indo-European languages and the largest single component of the genetic makeup of Europe and north India today stem from migrations around 5,000 years ago from the vast Steppe, the grass plains bordering the Black and Caspian seas.
These people were pastoral nomads who drove wheeled vehicles, rode domesticated horses and began to use dairy products – a package that was to guarantee their dominance wherever they went. Their migrations were the engine that powered the bronze age. Homer described a society in which warlords gained prestige and wealth through plunder and rape. It is not pretty, but is highly congruent with what we now know of the Yamnaya (the Beaker people represented the far western wave of Yamnaya migrations). Of theirs and other such male-dominant migrations, Reich drily comments: “Males from populations with more power tend to pair with females from populations with less.”