Paleogenetics is a branch of science that relies on the analysis of ancient DNA to reconstruct the past. More often than not, well-preserved genetic material, of ancient organisms, is quite hard to come by. Often times, researchers have to look at other historical sources, like documents, artifacts, legends and buildings, to get a clearer picture of the past. Recent technological advancements, however, have allowed scientists to utilize another very valuable archive, our DNA.
Our genomes possess a fascinatingly-detailed record of the history of our ancestors: where they came from and more importantly, where they went. However, retrieving the genetic data was, until now, a difficult task. As part of a recent research, published on September 17 in the Current Biology journal, a team of Oxford University scientists has successfully examined a pool of DNA samples, acquired from living people, to shed more light on the migration patterns of ancient humans. Speaking about the significance of the project, George Busby, the study’s co-author, said:
History is often written by the winners and the elites – we often do not hear about the everyday life of people. By studying the DNA of populations and understanding how different groups are ancestrally related to each other, our analysis tells the story of all people.
In the research, titled “The Role of Recent Admixture in Forming the Contemporary West Eurasian Genomic Landscape”, the scientists analysed over a thousand DNA samples collected from 63 locations in the Middle East and Europe, and another one thousand from 83 locations elsewhere around the world. They inspected specific genetic markers, common to individuals from a particular location, to calculate the date and patterns of admixing or merging of two previously-unrelated groups.
Much of what the researchers found actually coincides with the information present in our history books. For instance, examination of the DNA samples, from north Europe, shows that maximum admixing took place during the late first millennium CE, a period marked by significant upheaval all across Europe. Similarly, genetic admixture of south European and north African populations occurred at the time of the Arabic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula.
However, there were quite a few unexpected discoveries as well. Chiefly, a previously-undocumented influx of Mongolians into the north-eastern part of Europe, long before the reign of Genghis Khan. Cristian Capelli, an Oxford University professor of zoology and the study’s lead author, believes that this technique of study will perfectly compliment ongoing paleogenetic research. He said:
Placing this work within the context of ancient DNA samples will further aid our understanding of European prehistory and disease.
Image Credits: University of Aberdeen