Few places have shaped Eurasian history as much as the ancient Near East. Agriculture and some of the world’s first civilizations were born there, and the region was home to ancient Greeks, Troy, and large swaths of the Roman Empire. “It’s absolutely central, and a lot of us work on it for precisely that reason,” says German Archaeological Institute archaeologist Svend Hansen. “It’s always been a bridge of cultures and a key driver of innovation and change.”
But one of the most powerful tools for unraveling the past, ancient DNA, has had little to say about this crucible of history and culture, in part because DNA degrades quickly in hot climates.
Now, in three papers in this issue, researchers present DNA from more than 700 individuals who lived and died in the region over more than 10,000 years. Taken together, the studies survey the history of the Near East through a genetic lens, exploring the ancestry of the people who first domesticated plants and animals, settled down into villages, spread the precursors of modern languages, and peopled Homer’s epics.
The massive data set includes DNA from burials stretching from Croatia to modern-day Iran, in a region the authors call the Southern Arc. “The sample size is phenomenal, and fascinating,” says Wolfgang Haak, a geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology who was not part of the team. “The beauty of this is it’s bringing it all together in a bigger narrative.”
That narrative is no simple tale. The geneticists, led by David Reich and Iosif Lazaridis of Harvard University, worked with archaeologists and linguists, gathering thousands of skeletal samples and extracting and analyzing DNA, mostly from the dense petrous bone of the ear, over nearly 4 years. They applied better extraction methods and compared new samples with existing data, allowing them to identify even short bits of DNA.
Their genetic story starts with the early days of farming, a period known as the Neolithic. Farming began in Anatolia in what is present-day Turkey. But the DNA shows that the people who experimented with planting wheat and domesticating sheep and goats starting about 10,000 years ago weren’t simply descendants of earlier hunter-gatherers living in the area. Dozens of newly sequenced genomes suggest Anatolia absorbed at least two separate migrations from about 10,000 to 6500 years ago. One came from today’s Iraq and Syria and the other from the Eastern Mediterranean coast. In Anatolia they mixed with each other and with the descendants of earlier hunter-gatherers. By about 6500 years ago, the populations had coalesced into a distinct genetic signature. [Continue reading…]