A research team led by Trinity scientists have published a study outlining their findings on hunter-gatherer populations in the Baltic states. While it was previously assumed that the Baltic hunter-gather population of the Neolithic period interbred with and was subsequently overtaken by a farming population from the Levant, as was the case in western and central Europe, the research reveals that Baltic hunter-gatherers were never overwhelmed and instead acquired their own knowledge of farming practices through cultural mixing and the subsequent sharing of ideas.
The research team, which also included scientists from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin (UCD), extracted ancient DNA from several archaeological remains uncovered in Latvia and Ukraine, which were between 5000 and 8000 years old. Unlike Neolithic populations from elsewhere in Europe, the DNA evidence showed no genetic trace of farmers from the Levant or Anatolia. This contradicts a previously held theory that it was farmers from these regions who interbred with local hunter-gatherers and introduced their agricultural practices to the Baltic region during this period.
It appears that the Baltic hunter-gatherers genome remained largely untouched until large scale migration from the east occurred during the Bronze Age. Instead, it was trade and communication that lead to development in the region.
However, one of the Latvian samples did reveal some genetic influence from a different external source. This genetic influence is believed to be from the migration from the Pontic Steppe, an area extending from eastern Romania into Russia.
This migration from the Pontic Steppe region would not have brought farming methods to the region, however it may indicate the origin of the Slavic language in the Baltic area. Lead researcher and PhD student Eppie Jones from Trinity commented: ”There are two major theories on the spread of Indo-European languages, the most widely spoken language family in the world. One is that they came from the Anatolia with the agriculturalists; another that they developed in the Steppes and spread at the start of the Bronze Age.”
“That we see no farmer-related genetic input, yet we do find this Steppe-related component, suggests that at least the Balto-Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family originated in the Steppe grasslands of the East, which would bring later migrations of Bronze Age horse riders.”
The researchers also noted that the time scales seen in Baltic archaeology are very distinct from the rest of Europe. Neolithic technologies, such as domesticated livestock and ceramics, were taken up over a much more drawn-out period of time and in a piecemeal fashion compared to the swift change in practices that occurred in western and central Europe when migrants from the east arrived.
Co-senior author, Professor Ron Pinhasi from UCD, noted the difficulty in forming a single theory for the entire region, commenting: ‘’there is no simple single scenario with which we can explain the observed diversity and complexity.’’
Speaking to Trinity News, Dan Bradley, Professor of Population Genetics at Trinity College, stated that Trinity’s research team’s ‘’next big project is focusing on ancient Ireland’’. The research team plans on not only examining the Irish genome, but ‘’drilling down to the details of things’’ to learn more about the development of people in ancient Ireland.