Published on November 8th, 20121
Who Are We? – Uncovering the Mystery of the Origin of Europeans
By Tor G. Jakobsen, NTNU
When asked about one’s own origins, many of us wittingly reply: “It was when the Angles met the Saxons”. You may have encountered this answer at a family gathering, or maybe used it yourself on occasion. However, the real story is somewhat more complicated.
Why do I have brown hair and blue eyes? Why am I of medium height? These and similar questions pertain to the great mystery: Who were our forefathers? Well, most Americans and Europeans share one thing in common: we all can trace our roots back to two sorts of Europeans: those who came in the Mesolithic period (10,000–5000 BC) and the later arriving Bronze Age immigrants (3600–600 BC).
The subject of who we are has historically been dominated by three academic disciplines: history, physical anthropology, and archeology. However, there have been caveats concerning all of them. The former can certainly give us important information concerning the great migrations and decisive battles, though when one goes far enough back in time the numbers and objectivity of sources are not optimal. Also, history has a tendency to overestimate the importance of events. For example, one can read about the great invasion of a people conquering another people, and be misled to think that one hails from the invading tribe. Yet, the lion´s share of the people who lived there might still very well continue living there, and the invaders are in fact only establishing themselves as the ruling elite.
Physical anthropology is the discipline that is most famous for being misused for the wrong purposes, and is still suffering for its association with different policies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In short, where mainstream (not the pseudo-scientific variants) physically anthropology has been wrong, is when it has placed too much weight on outer physical appearances. These are by all means hallmarks of one’s background; however these are also the part of our genes that are most prone to rapid change due to adaption.
Archeology has been, and still is, important, but has historically suffered from a lack of good analyzing techniques. However, this has changed due to rapid technological and scientific advances, especially in the field of genetics. By testing the bodies uncovered by archeologists, scientists can today group them according to different markers in their DNA.
Yet, the most important history book is yourself. Our own gene material can tell a lot of our distant past and by combining such DNA findings with historic accounts, the picture becomes a lot clearer. There are many parts of our gene material we can investigate, and some parts of it are easier to read than others. For simplicity we will concentrate on the two signposts that are passed on solely from one of our parents, without going through the usual intermixture that the rest of our genes do. They are the Y-chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA.
As most readers are familiar with, only men have the Y-chromosome as it is what defines men. This means that it is passed solely from father to son. So your Y-chromosome (if you are a man) should be the same as that of your father, father’s father, father’s father’s father, and so on. This is almost, but not quite the case. It does change whenever a mutation occurs.
So, what is a mutation? Well, first of all they are relatively rare, but they do occur from time to time. Imagine that you are photocopying a handout-page full of text for a lecture. You can copy it 10 times and get 10 exact copies of the text. You can copy one of the copies 1000 times, and get an additional 1000 copies that are exact copies of the original document, as well as the 10 copies you made the first time. However, the next time you copy 1000 copies, the photo copier had a problem reading an O, and it lost some ink, making it look like a U. If you use this copy to make any further copies, these will also carry the U instead of the O. In essence, this is a mutation. They occur in our DNA from time to time, and is carried on with the descendents of the individual of whom they occur.
Thus, by reading a man’s Y-chromosome one can determine which haplogroup he belongs to. A haplogroup is a group of people sharing a common ancestor. They can be identified by having the same mutation. Researchers can also look at older mutations, and see which larger haplogroups they belong to.
As such we can chart the mutations and name the haplogroups. The figure to the left shows a simplified chart (there are other mutations and subgroups to these as well), denoting the larger families most relevant for Europeans (Adam, in DNA-terms, starts with the letter A).
The European tribes
So, who are we? Well, if one goes through the evidence it becomes somewhat clearer. To simplify a little, we can say that Europe consists of mainly four haplogrups (each with its own sub-clans) that can be considered European. These are named I1, I2, R1a, and R1b. For good reasons, as well as for simplicity, we will categorize these into two different groups: I1 and I2 as the originals, and R1a and R2b as the immigrants.
The I group were the original settlers of Europe, and arrived there (before the I-mutation took place) from the Middle East around 35,000 years ago. These are the descendants of the Cro-Magnons. I later mutated further into the I1 and I2 groups. The I1 (pre-Nordic) group is common among today’s Scandinavians, Northern-Germany, and those places settled by Norse people (during the period of great migrations with the Goths, Franks, Burgunds etc., and later with the Vikings) such as Iceland and certain parts of Britain. The country with the highest percentage of the I1 group is Sweden (37 percent), followed by Norway (34 percent), Iceland (33 percent), and Denmark (30 percent). This group stands out as being isolated for a very long amount of time.
The I2 (Dinaric) group originated 17,000 years ago. There are fewer I2 persons today than I1, and this group has its strongest presence in the former Yugoslavia and in Sardinia. So to sum up, I1 and I2 were the original Europeans after the last ice age.
Let us then look at the other group, the newcomers carrying the R1a and R1b mutations. These two groups split apart around 25,000 years ago, and are very distantly related to the I group.
The Indo-European invasion
Many readers are probably familiar with the Indo-Europeans, yet their history and origins have until recently been somewhat of a mystery. The Indo-Europeans were the first people to tame the horse and to develop bronze weapons. They were fierce warriors who invaded and settled Europe, and gave us today’s Indo-European languages (which includes all major European languages except Basque, Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish, and Lapp).
Several different versions of their story have surfaced, maybe the most original one being that they hailed from the lost island of Atlantis. We now know better. The Indo-Europeans originated, as demonstrated by recent DNA-studies, on the Caspian steppe (the area north of Caucasus), that is, eastern Ukraine and south-west Russia. Both R1a and R1b are Indo-European groups. Let us first look at the former.
Though some areas contained both Indo-European groups, the R1a (pre-Slavic) people dominated the eastern parts of the steppes. These expanded further westward, where they encountered the original tribes of northern Europe (the I1). Together the new Indo-European arrivals and the old pre-Nordic people created the famous Battle Ax Culture (3200–1800 BC). As such, the R1a is today heavily represented in Eastern Europe and also in Scandinavia.
The R1b (pre-Latin-Celtic) people, on the other hand were in majority in northern Caucasus, south of the R1a group. Around 4000 BC these people invaded Europe through the Balkans. The Indo-Europeans with their bronze weapons were militarily superior. We can name these proto-Latin-Celtic people. Through their aggressive warfare they replaced almost all the old male lines in Western Europe, and also made their presence felt in Northern, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.
While the Indo-Europeans dominate the European male Y-DNA lines, the story is somewhat different with regard to with regard to the female mitochondrial-DNA. In short, mitochondria are reduced descendants of symbiotic bacteria that at one time entered our bodies. These mitochondrial-DNA molecules are passed on only by ones mother (but both girls and boys receive it). Thus, the same logic with regard to mutation as previously describes follows. This way one can also determine the ancestry through the pure maternal line: mother, mother’s mother, mother’s mother’s mother, etc.
There are mt-DNA haplogroups that can be regarded as parallel to the Y-DNA. The major differences with regard to distribution, is that the haplogroup associated with the original Europeans (the Cro-Magnon descendands) have a larger female than a male presence. There are several natural explanations for this. First, there were more men than women among the newcomers (the Indo-Europeans). Second, many of the original males got killed, as the Indo-Europeans were militarily superior to the Cro-Magnons. Third, the Indo-European men established themselves as a ruling elite, enabling them to have more offspring than their subjects.
In sum, DNA studies complete the historical picture. There were mainly four groups of Europeans. The first two were Mesolithic hunters, who covered most of Europe. One we can name pre-Nordic, the other one Dinaric. Then followed the Bronze Age immigrants: the Indo-Europeans. One group, the proto-Slavic took over most of Eastern Europe, and merged with the pre-Nordic to form the Battle Ax culture which came to be the start of the Germanic people. The other group, the pre-Latin-Celts, came to totally dominate Western Europe. The pre-Nordics made their stamp on the people of Northern Europe, while the Dinaric people still has a strong presence in the former Yugoslavia.
One can say that the Europeans received the best of two worlds: the physique and stature of their Mesolithic forefathers, and the technology and advanced culture of the Indo-Europeans.