Copenhagen group: Germanic and Balto-Slavic from Bell Beaker; Indo-Anatolian homeland in the Caucasus

Article of general knowledge in Der Spiegel, Invasion from the Steppe, with comments from Willerslev and Kristiansen, appeared roughly at the same time as the Damgaard et al. Nature (2018) and Science (2018) papers were published.

NOTE. You can read the article (in German) from Kristiansen’s account.

Excerpts translated from German (emphasis mine):

On the Y-DNA data

Particularly striking is the genetic signature from the steppe on the Y chromosome. From this the researchers conclude that the majority of migrants were males. Kristian Kristiansen, chief archaeologist in the Willerslev team, also has an idea of ​​how this could be explained: “Maybe it’s a rite of initiation, as it was spread among the steppe peoples,” he says.

The younger sons of the Yamnaya herders, who were excluded from the succession, had to seek their fortune on their own. As part of a solemn ritual, they threw themselves to wolves’ skins and then swarmed in warlike gangs to buy their own herds by cattle-stealing.


An ally that they seem to have brought from their homeland may also have contributed to the genetic success of the steppe people: Yersinia pestis, the plague bacterium. Its genes were found by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Jena – and apparently it emerged exactly at the same time as the Yamnaya thrust began.

About the Hittites

(…) And yet now, where Asia and Europe meet geographically, there is no trace of the Yamnaya genes. The wander-loving people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe apparently found neither the way across the Balkans nor through the Caucasus mountains.

Now the researchers are puzzled: How can it be that a language goes on a walk, without the accompanying speakers coming along? Is it possible that the Indo-European seeped into Anatolia, much like the English language spread today without the need for Englishmen?

Archaeologist Kristiansen does not believe it. The researchers would find it hard to reconsider their theories, he says: “Especially the first chapter of the story has to be rewritten.”

He suspects that there was a predecessor of the Yamnaya culture, in which a kind of Proto-Proto-Indo-European was spoken. And he also has a suspicion, where this people could have drifted around: The Caucasus, says Kristiansen, was their homeland. But that remains unproven: “There’s another hole left,” he admits.

Spread of Indo-European languages

About the Botai

The study of [the Botai] genome revealed that it was genetically radically different from the members of the Yamnaya culture. The Botai, it seems, consistently avoided any contact with their neighbors – even though they must have crossed the territory of the Botai on their migratory waves.

Willerslev assumes that the art of keeping horses from the Yamnaya steppe nomads was adopted from these peoples, and then they developed it further. At some point, the Botai could then have itself become doomed by its groundbreaking innovation: While the descendants of the Yamnaya spread over half of Eurasia, the Botai disappeared without leaving a trace.

Even more interesting than the few words that set the Copenhagen group’s views for future papers (such as the expected Maykop samples with EHG ancestry) is the artistic sketch of the Indo-European migrations, probably advised by the group.

A simple map does not mean that all members of the Danish workgroup have changed their view completely, but I would say it is a great improvement over the previous “arrows of migration” (see here), and it is especially important that they show a more realistic picture of ancient migrations to general readers.

NOTE. Especially absurd is the identification of the ‘Celtic’ expansion with the first Bell Beakers in the British Isles (that idea is hold by few, such as Koch and Cunliffe in their “Celtic from the West” series). Also inexact, but not so worrying, are the identification of ‘Germanic’ in Germany/Únětice, or the spread of ‘Baltic’ and ‘Slavic’ directly to East Europe (i.e. I guess Mierzanowice/Nitra -> Trzciniec), which is probably driven by the need to assert a close connection with early Iranians and thus with their satemization trends.

Also, as we know now thanks to Narasimhan et al. (2018), there is no need to support that convoluted west arrow (representing CWC) from West Yamna to Central Europe, and then to East Yamna, since the Proto-Indo-Iranian community – represented by the Steppe MLBA cloud that later expanded Indo-Aryan and Iranian languages – has a more direct connection with the in situ admixture of Poltavka/Abashevo within the Volga-Ural region.

I think we can keep this from the article:

Their results, as well as those of the competition labs at Harvard University and Jena’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Humanity, leave no doubt: Yes, the legendary herdsmen in the Pontic-Caspian steppe really existed. They belonged to the so-called Yamnaya culture, and they spread, as linguists had predicted, in massive migrations towards Central Europe and India – a later triumph for linguists.

This can be added to a recent comment by de Barros Damgaard:

The project has been an extremely enriching and exciting process. We were able to direct many very different academic fields towards a single coherent approach. By asking the right questions, and keeping limitations of the data in mind, contextualizing, nuancing, and keeping dialogues open between scholars of radically different backgrounds and approaches, we have carved out a path for a new field of research. We have already seen too many papers come out in which models produced by geneticists working on their own have been accepted without vital input from other fields, and, at the other extreme, seen archaeologists opposing new studies built on archaeogenetic data, due to a lack of transparency between the fields.

Data on ancient DNA is astonishing for its ability to provide a fine-grained image of early human mobility, but it does stand on the shoulders of decades of work by scholars in other fields, from the time of excavation of human skeletons to interpreting the cultural, linguistic origins of the samples. This is how cold statistics are turned into history.