Heyd, Mallory, and Prescott were right about Bell Beakers

Sometimes it is fun to read certain “old” papers. I have recently re-read some important papers that predicted what we are seeing now in aDNA analysis with surprising accuracy:

Harrison & Heyd (2007): “We predict that future stable isotope and ancientDNA analyses of Beaker skeletal material will support our view that immigration played an important role in the Europe-wide Bell Beaker phenomenon”. – Duh, obvious, right? Wrong. Read the whole paper. It was already becoming a classic in the study of the Bell Beaker culture before the latest research on Bell Beaker aDNA, and it will be still more important from now on. There are different models for the Bell Beaker origin and expansion, and this was only one of them: we had the Dutch model, the radiocarbon date-based attempts to locate Bell Beakers in Iberia or North Africa,… I tried to highlight the best sentences from Heyd’s article to include them in my article, and I just couldn’t stop highlighting almost everything. It is surprising that 10 years ago Volker Heyd was predicting so much from such a limited amount of material, and with conflicting reports coming from everywhere, from palaeogenetics to radiocarbon dating. Not that today their chronology of Le Petit – Chasseur is accepted by all, but their general Bell Beaker and Yamna model has been clearly established as the most likely one with support from aDNA.

– Mallory in Celtic from the West 2 (2013), as the last of many to propose Bell Beaker as the vector of spread of Late Indo-European languages, but the first to relate it to North-West Indo-European: “The spread of Indo-European languages from Alpine Europe may have begun with the Beaker culture, presuming here a non-Iberian Beaker homeland (Rhineland, Central European) for that part of the Beaker phenomenon that was associated with an Indo-European language. While it is possible that IE language(s) spread with the Beaker phenomenon, it is questionable that this was associated with Proto-Celtic rather than earlier forms of Late Indo-European, at least part of which might be subsumed under the heading NW Indo-European. This is because the time depth of the dispersal of the Beakers is so great and the earliest attested Celtic languages are so similar (…)”. You might think that it is related to the Atlantic Indo-European theory favoured by Cunnliffe and Koch in the book… Wrong, he specifically dismisses a Neolithic spread of Indo-European, and a Calcholithic spread of Celtic languages as too early. You might also think that to publish that in 2013 has no merit, given the data. Wrong again. Just look at the trend among renown archaeologists – like Anthony (with Haak) and Kristiansen (with Allentoft) – trying to hop on the bandwagon of Corded Ware-driven Indo-European dispersal based on the “steppe admixture” proportion of recent genetic papers, and you realize he is going against the grain here.

Prescott and Walderhaug 1995 (as referred to in Prescott 2012): “The Bell Beaker period is the most, perhaps the only, reasonable candidate for the spread and final entrenchment of a common Indo-European language throughout Scandinavia (and not just Corded Ware core areas of southern and eastern Scandinavia), and particularly Norway”. Duh again? Not so fast. While Bell Beaker had been proposed before as a vector of Indo-European languages in Europe, the association with Germanic was far more controversial. Only the unifying Dagger Period was more clearly established as of Pre-Germanic nature, but it could be interpreted as of Corded Ware, Úněticean, or even early Neolithic origin, or a mix of them. Bell Beaker groups were never good candidates, if only because of the desire by some researchers to offer a romanticized (either more unifying or ancient) picture of a Germanic Northern Scandinavian homeland, explained as a culturally and genetically homogeneous group.

Their papers seem to state the obvious now that the latest aDNA samples are proving them correct, but it was far from clear years ago: remember the native European Basque-R1b – Uralic-N1c harmony disrupted by invasive Eurasian Indo-European-speaking warriors carrying R1a lineages from Yamna to Corded Ware? Well that is still a thing for some. And even today the most popular interpretation of the spread of Indo-European-speakers in Europe is based on the defined “steppe ancestry” proportion found in Corded Ware individuals, and a supposedly Yamna community formed by R1b-R1a lineages, which is obviously reminiscent of the identification of R1a lineages with Proto-Indo-Europeans based on the initial analysis of haplogroups in modern populations.

It is sad to imagine how much we would have improved in our knowledge, had we read their work with interest when it was necessary, and not now that we have most of the aDNA clues. Still sadder is to see people rely on genetic studies alone to derive today what are likely the wrong conclusions. Again.

I will end with a mea culpa. I hadn’t read those works; but even if I had, I would have stayed with the simpler, R1a-Corded Ware model of Indo-European dispersion. That oversimplification will remain in the different editions of our Grammar of Modern Indo-European as a permanent reminder. Simpler seems always better, and Cavalli-Sforza had famously asserted that ancient population movements could be solved with the study of the structure of modern populations. I think he was right, that we can in fact ascertain ancient population movements by studying modern populations if we include anthropological disciplines, but it is such a complex task – and geneticists have not shown a good grasp in (or interest for) Anthropology -, that it is nowadays clearly wrong to rely on modern population samples to derive conclusions about ancient populations, and we are better off studying ancient DNA samples in their context.

We were Back-to-the-Future-wrong, overestimating our potential in some aspects – like the results of researching modern DNA -, and underestimating it in others – like the potential changes that ancient DNA investigation could bring for anthropological disciplines. Just as we are wrong today in trusting the potential of admixture analysis to be self-explanatory, without a need for wide anthropological investigation (or even able to revolutionize archaeological and linguistic theories).

I hope to keep a more critical view of publications – especially the most popular ones – from now on.

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