Preprint paper: Estimating genetic kin relationships in prehistoric populations, by Monroy Kuhn, Jakobsson, and Günther

erperstedt-corded-ware

A new preprint paper appeared some days ago in BioRxiv, Estimating genetic kin relationships in prehistoric populations, by researchers of the Uppsala University Jose Manuel Monroy Kuhn, Mattias Jakobsson, and Torsten Günther. Jakobsson and Günther. You might remember the last two from their work Ancient X chromosomes reveal contrasting sex bias in Neolithic and Bronze Age Eurasian migrations, whose results were said not to be replicable by Lazaridis and Reich (PNAS), something they denied pointing to the limitations of the current aDNA data (PNAS).

They propose a new, more conservative method to infer close relationships (in contrast with available methods, suitable for modern samples). They have implemented the method as a software program, called READ, which should work better with degraded samples (typical of ancient DNA) by reducing false positives – and having therefore more false negatives. Abstract:

Archaeogenomic research has proven to be a valuable tool to trace migrations of historic and prehistoric individuals and groups, whereas relationships within a group or burial site have not been investigated to a large extent. Knowing the genetic kinship of historic and prehistoric individuals would give important insights into social structures of ancient and historic cultures. Most archaeogenetic research concerning kinship has been restricted to uniparental markers, while studies using genome-wide information were mainly focused on comparisons between populations. Applications which infer the degree of relationship based on modern-day DNA information typically require diploid genotype data. Low concentration of endogenous DNA, fragmentation and other post-mortem damage to ancient DNA (aDNA) makes the application of such tools unfeasible for most archaeological samples. To infer family relationships for degraded samples, we developed the software READ (Relationship Estimation from Ancient DNA). We show that our heuristic approach can successfully infer up to second degree relationships with as little as 0.1x shotgun coverage per genome for pairs of individuals. We uncover previously unknown relationships among prehistoric individuals by applying READ to published aDNA data from several human remains excavated from different cultural contexts. In particular, we find a group of five closely related males from the same Corded Ware culture site in modern-day Germany, suggesting patrilocality, which highlights the possibility to uncover social structures of ancient populations by applying READ to genome-wide aDNA data.

The software READ applied to the 230 ancient European DNA data from Mathieson et al. (2015) was studied, with certain interesting results. For starters, this paper already supports the idea that the five German Corded Ware samples from Esperstedt were all related, thus further supporting to a certain extent the culture’s patrilocality and female exogamy practices:

Of particular interest was a group of five males from Esperstedt in Germany who were associated with the Corded Ware culture {a culture that arose after large scale migrations of males from the east. Around 50 Corded Ware burials, six of them stone cists, were excavated near Esperstedt in the context of road constructions in 2005. Characteristic Corded Ware pottery was found in the graves and all male individuals had been buried on their right hand site. Interestingly, the central individual of the group of related individuals (I1541) was buried in a stone cist approximately 700 meters from the graves of the other four individuals which were all close to each other. The close relationship of this group of only male individuals from the same location suggest patrilocality and female exogamy, a pattern which has also been found from Strontium isotopes at another Corded Ware site just 30 kilometers from Esperstedt and suggested for the Corded Ware culture in general. This represents just one example of how the genetic analysis of relationships can be used to uncover and understand social structures in ancient populations.

It is to be expected that improvement in such methods can help more accurately define certain samples, by inferring their precise subclades. For example, in the case of those relatives from Esperstedt – classified variously as R(xR1b), R1a, or R1a1 – one would be able to classify those related patrilineally to the most precise subclade: in this case, that of the sample I0104 (ca.2473-2348 BC), of subclade R1a1a1-M417.

However, errors are dependent on the quality of the ancient DNA recovered:

READ does not explicitly model aDNA damage and it only considers one allele at heterozygous sites. This implies that a careful curation of the data is required to avoid errors due to low coverage, short sequence fragments, deamination damage, sequencing errors and potential contamination. We recommend a number of well established filtering steps when working with low coverage aDNA data

The Aryan migration debate, the Out of India models, and the modern “indigenous Indo-Aryan” sectarianism

haplogroup-R1a

The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat

Not long ago, the Proto-Indo-European language Urheimat problem used to be cyclic in nature: linguistic and archaeological publications appeared supporting a Copper Age migration from the steppe proposed by Marija Gimbutas, or a Neolithic expansion from Anatolia (or Armenia) proposed by Colin Renfrew, and back again.

I have always supported the simpler, more recent Chalcolithic migration of Late Indo-Europeans from the Pontic-Caspian steppe over an older Neolithic expansion from Anatolia with agriculture. The latter model implied a complex cultural diffusion over a greater span of time than is warranted by linguistic guesstimates, understood as the general grasp that anyone can have on how much a language changes in time, comparing the different stages of different Indo-European languages. Whether they like to talk about it or not, or whether they would describe them as such (or else as terminus ante or post quem), most known linguists and archaeologists involved in Indo-European studies have published at some point their own guesstimates.

To have an idea about how guesstimates work, you only have to learn some Indo-European languages from different branches, the ancient languages from which they are derived, how they have evolved from them through time, and their proto-languages, to see how unlikely it is that the differences from Late Indo-European to Proto-Greek, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Italic need a leap of ca. 3000 years almost without change, as required by the Anatolian hypothesis. Some have strong reactions against guesstimates arguing you cannot compare historic or proto-historic changes to prehistoric ones, to support a different linguistic change rate from Proto-Indo-European to proto-languages. I find this to be a sound criticism, but often used justify a worse, ad-hoc estimate that supports other theory.

Glottochronology – in case you are looking for mathematics or statistics to solve the problem – is as useless today as it always was. Not everything – in fact few things in anthropology – can be solved with algorithms and statistics. I do love algorithms and statistics, because their results – if based on sound assumptions – are hard to be contested, but not a single good one has been proposed for comparative grammar, as far as I know.

Algorithms solve everything

Steppe hypothesis

The steppe hypothesis was always the simpler connection with modern Indo-European languages, from a linguistic and archaeological point of view, and archaeogenetics (since the advent of haplogroup investigation, and the finding of modern R1a distribution) did also support it. However, it implied a conquest by warring patrilocal peoples, that substituted the ‘original’ Neolithic European and Asian population and languages, and invasions have not been a fashionable antrhopological subject for a long time.

One of the consequences of the genocidal racism and xenophobia seen during World War II was the strong reaction to its ideological foundations, and there was a common will to end with Kosinna’s trend of historic ethnolinguistic identification of modern peoples. Linguistics and archaeology did then search for more complex models of human relations and exchange, mostly to avoid what appeared as simplistic concepts of migration or invasion. Marija Gimbutas’ simplistic kurganist, male-driven invasion of territories inhabited by matrilocal Old Europeans, albeit reasonable, did not fit well with these post-war times. One could accept historic and proto-historic atrocities and genocide by any people against others, and even tribal conflicts between prehistoric hunter-gatherers that ended in the destruction of one of them, but a violent, massive spread of ‘Aryans’ was considered a dangerous idea to be avoided.

Thanks to the effort of David Anthony (among others) in supporting migration models in Archaeology, the steppe model did have a strong revival even before archaeogenetics began to be a thing in anthropological research.

Anatolian hypothesis

The Anatolian hypothesis, on the other hand, seemed like a fine, long evolution of a language accompanying the peaceful spread of a technological innovation, farming and cattle herding. Originally believed to be mostly a cultural diffusion (now it has been demonstrated to be a mixed diffusion event, with strong demic diffusion in its early phase), it was thus in line with a more politically correct view of prehistoric events.

This cultural diffusion gave in turn way to more peaceful and innovative solutions to language spread, like waves of expansion, or a constellation of languages influencing each other for long periods, so that even the potential reconstruction of a single Proto-Indo-European language or people was doubted. Prehistoric friendly neighbours would have adopted farming and exchanged goods and languages for thousands of years, and only with proto-historic events did people have ethnolinguistic identification that caused conflicts…

While recently there have been some doubts expressed by Mathieson et al. (2017) on the of the steppe hypothesis regarding Proto-Anatolian, it is likely that the lack of enough ancient DNA of the Balkans and Anatolia is the key factor here.

An interesting linguistic proposal, the glottalic theory, while sound in its assumptions and results – much less likely in my opinion than the more common two-dorsal theory, and this much more likely than the prevalent three-dorsal one – gave some theoretical support to the Anatolian (or Armenian) hypothesis, since some proponents felt that a glottalic Proto-Indo-European should have an origin near to the Armenian homeland – because glottalic Proto-Armenian would have retained a phonetic state nearer to the “original” Proto-Indo-European.

That simplistic regional continuity explanation is akin to the trend of Basque researchers to discover links of Proto-Basque with the Pyrenees in Mesolithic and Palaeolithic times, when there is no data to warrant such identifications – and it seems in fact that Proto-Basque, Proto-Iberian, and Palaeo-Sardinian might have accompanied the expansion of farming in the Neolithic. Probably most proponents left of the Glottalic theory today (like Frederik Kortlandt and Alan Bomhard) would accept a steppe migration unrelated to an Armenian or Anatolian origin.

Marginal proposals

There were indeed other marginal proposals, with people supporting origins of Proto-Indo-European in both ends of the current distribution of Indo-European languages, from the “Indo-” in Out of India theories, to the “-European” in Eurocentric proposals. Most Eurocentric proposals – based on certain archaeological cultures and their evolution in- and outside Europe – have been dismissed with archaeological and genetic research, and the remaining ones usually favour the more fashionable peaceful spread of languages.

Palaeolithic Continuity Theory

A small group in support of the more recent Palaeolithic Continuity Theory remains. It seems to me as deeply flawed from a linguistic point of view (with a much larger time span needed than for a Neolithic expansion), but their arguments are led by research on genetics and archaeology, and not much is left for European romanticism, so it has always appeared to me as a professionally acceptable – although futile – attempt by eccentric researchers to disentangle prehistoric events.

Similar to what happens with proponents of the Anatolian hypothesis, new linguistic, archaeological, and genetic research is used to remake PCT models – instead of just dismissing it -, so it is likely that we will have many different proposals of stepped population movements that will make both models eventually converge with the steppe migration theory, to the point where only the steppe migration theory remains, with some added details on its most ancient origin. I guess sometimes it is difficult to let (part of) your life’s research just go away without fighting for some recognition… You desperately look for a tap on the back by some colleagues, even out of pity, who will tell you ‘it seems you might have been right in some details, after all!’…

Out of India

The Out of India theory is the name given to a group of (mostly) independent models that usually propose a Proto-Indo-European homeland based on or around India. Contrary to the PCT, an Out of India theory set during the Mesolithic or Neolithic would be feasible from a linguistic point of view: you could somehow connect some archaeological migrations to support the spread of Early-Proto-Indo-European-speaking R1a lineage happen east-to-west (and north), and genetically it had support in some papers on modern distribution of R1a subclades, for example in Underhill et al. (2014). Underhill himself has since questioned his conclusion in view of recent papers publishing ancient DNA analysis.

Out of India theories, overall, could thus be as strong (or as weak) as the theories concerning an Anatolian origin, in their potential for explanation of the ancient origin of the Proto-Indo-European language spoken in the steppe during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic. However feasible they might a priori be, I have yet to encounter a decent modern paper with that kind of proposal, based on recent genetic papers. Most modern articles are just Indian nationalist crap, and the only good papers on the subject are becoming quite old. Maybe that’s because I don’t have enough time to look for the hidden good anthropological papers among so much dirt. After all, it is not a very likely theory, and one has a limited amount of time.

In recent papers, if you get rid of simplistic reactionary and revisionist views, conservative Indo-Aryan Hindu nationalist or religious bigotry, fantastic connections with the Indus Valley civilization, and simplistic identifications of Proto-Indo-European as ‘nearer’ to Vedic Sanskrit – with absurdly old and odd references to Schleicher’s reconstruction and dialectal Indo-Slavonic or Satem references -, you are left at best with some basic criticisms of Eurocentrism and the known shortcomings of anthropological disciplines in investigating Proto-Indo-European Urheimat, but no data to support any connection with India whatsoever.

If there is a reason for a generalised inferiority complex in India, I would find it in the shameless publication and popularity of such worthless research papers, a trend that is also seen in scientific fields, with Indian researchers having a increasingly tougher time passing editorial and peer reviews, and resorting thus to national journals. In the case of Indo-European studies, instead of trying to fit data with what we know, the only aim in Indian research seems to be to connect the Indus Valley with Proto-Indo-European, and Proto-Indo-European with a “pure” (i.e. Vedic) Indo-Aryan, to support a mythological Indo-Aryan Hinduist India. And that is mostly what you will find in any Out of India article today, whether based on linguistic, archaeological, or – what is prevalent today – genetic investigation.

This has been The Out of India Controversy Week: it began last week with the publication of a quite decent article in The Hindu by Tony Joseph summing up the current situation of anthropological research. It was followed by reactions in conservative Indian news, and this in turn was contested by Davidsky and Razib Khan. The original article by Tony Joseph has been echoed by Victor Mair in Language Log, and I agree with his description of Joseph’s paper as “informed, sensitive, balanced, and nuanced. This is responsible science journalism”, even if I disagree with some of his statements (in a different way than Mr. Mair). However, this propaganda disguised as scientific criticism is what you get from Indian nationalists.

EDIT (25/6/2017): Razib Khan has published a thorough post on Indian evolutionary genetics as follow-up to this week’s controversy. I think there is too much effort being invested during these controversies precisely by the people who need not explain themselves. Anyway, good summaries of anthropological matters are always welcome.

Interestingly, any time new research comes to shake certain Indian nationalist foundations, a stronger backfire effect happens, and more criticism is done on the shortcomings of such anthropological research. Because, indeed, if the anthropological theory is flawed, mythical Indo-Aryans spread from the Indus Valley, right…? One can only expect this kind of controversies to escalate in conservative Indian blogs and fora alike, and then deescalate until the next paper is published. A dialectic cycle whose only evident result is the increased opposition that conservative Indian researchers – or researchers that depend on funding by such groups – will have in publishing anything related to a potential Aryan invasion, and the addition of a stronger bias in Indian research.

Western European history

It might well be because I am western European, and western Europeans tend to accept quite well multiple invasions from the East. After all, they have happened so many times in proto-historical and historical times, that it is part of our ethnolinguistic nation-building lore. French people trace their history to the expansion of Celts, Romans, and Franks; Spaniards and Portuguese trace it to the spread of Celts, Ibero-Basques, Romans, and Westgoths; Italians to the expansion of Etruscans, Celts and Italics, Romans, Ostrogoths and Langobards; the English to the expansion of Celts, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, and Normans…

It often seems to me that western Europeans will romanticise their origins no matter what appears in historic and genetic investigation: if Neanderthals are unrelated to Europeans, they are ‘cavemen’; if they intermixed with our ancestors, then they suddenly become quite human in their behaviour, and it is great to have more Neanderthal admixture. If Indo-European-speaking R1a lineages invaded central Europe from the east, and transferred their languages, great, because “we” are heirs of original western European hunter-gatherers of Palaeolithic R1b lineages; if R1b lineages represent an invasion of eastern peoples speaking Late Indo-European, great too, because it means that our paternal forefathers were the ‘original’ Indo-European speakers…

This reaction, our history is great no matter what, seems to be a good one for research, since it allows for any change in our romantic views of the past. This, however, does not seem to be the case for some nations, and this inability to change their views is likely related to the inferiority complex that some nations have developed, in turn probably caused by western European colonialism, so one is left to wonder how responsible we are of modern chauvinist trends.

The sad future

Seeing how so many people of eastern European ancestry are convinced of an origin of R1a-M417 in Indo-European migrations from Yamna – when there is (yet?) not a single proof of it – may be just as troubling as the Indian case, or maybe more, since it affects an important part of Europe. I cannot believe that even today only western Europeans are capable of romanticising their own past no matter what, while the rest of the world lives in a quest to appropriate whatever they view as some great ancient culture, people, or language for their own ancestors.

I have already received complaints and have seen people (of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a) complain online that their forefathers cannot have been Uralic speakers, and some Uralic speakers (of haplogroup N) that original Uralic speakers cannot have been of R1a lineages. Firstly, if I were eastern European – be it Germanic, Balto-Slavic, or Uralic speaker, or a speaker of Indo-Aryan languages, of R1a or N lineage, whatever my country of origin, I like to think I would prefer to know where my forefathers actually came from, and what languages they did in fact speak thousands of years ago, even if that disrupts everything I or my fellow countrymen (wrongly) assumed for a long time. Secondly, we – as western Europeans speaking Romance or Germanic languages – have the right to know exactly how our peoples and languages really came to be, even if that means disrupting others’ dreams. Our paternal ancestors probably changed languages 3 or 4 times during their multiple migrations from the east, and were not peaceful hunter-gatherers living since the Palaeolithic in the same region we do now, as traditionally held; if we can get over this, eastern Europeans and Indians can get over it, too.

I think everyone deserves to know the truth, and they will eventually like it and fantasise with it. But many individuals want to disrupt any possible change to keep their current ethnic and nationalist agendas untouched, and that can affect us all. Nationalistic and romantic trends are understandable: Romans needed Virgil at the peak of their conquests to tell them that they had a glorious past in Troy, connecting them to the immortal Greek epics. The most important lesson one can learn from that example is that Italian researchers are still (2000 years later!) influenced by that myth, and they keep trying to look for Anatolian remains in Latin studies, and in the archaeology and evolutionary genetics of Italy. I guess you could therefore say these mythification trends are naturally human…but losing so much time in absurd quests for mythological identities seems absurd, and can only damage research.

It is sad to think about future generations of Indians looking for any sign to support an autochthonous Indo-Aryan homeland, while the rest of the world keeps moving in the right direction…

(Note: featured image is licensed CC-by-sa 4.0 from crates at Wikipedia)

On the origin of R1a and R1b subclades in Greece

greece-subclades

An article published in PLoS ONE, Y-chromosomal analysis of Greek Cypriots reveals a primarily common pre-Ottoman paternal ancestry with Turkish Cypriots, by Alexandros Heraclides and colleagues, insists on the potential origin of R1b and R1a lineages in Greece from Indo-European migrations, albeit with strong regional (and thus most likely temporal) differences. From the article’s discussion:

Although the exact origins and migratory patterns of R1a and R1b are still under rigorous investigation, it seems that they are linked to Bronze Age migrations from the Western Eurasian Steppe and Eastern Europe into Southern (including Greece) and Western Europe[61]. Apparently, such migrations (especially as regards R1a) into Cyprus were limited.

Additionally, the Greek population has received considerable migrations during the Byzantine era and the Middle Ages from other Balkanic populations, such as Slavs[62,63], Aromanians (Vlachs)[64], and Albanians (Arvanites)[65,66]. The former, is very likely to have increased R1a frequencies among Greeks. In fact, Fig 3 (also S7 Table) indicate that R1a increases gradually with increasing latitude in Greece. There is no historical evidence for such migrations into Cyprus during the same period.

The only Greek sub-population showing close genetic proximity to Cypriots (in terms of Y-haplogroup composition) is Cretan Greeks (Figs 3 and 4). It could be speculated that Cypriots and Cretans experienced very similar migratory events over the centuries, which were characterized by high influx from populations rich in haplogroups J2a and G2, and moderate in R1b, while very limited influx from populations rich in haplogroups R1a and I (Eastern and Northern/ Central Europe), as well as from populations rich in J1 (Middle East) and E-M81 (North Africa).

If R1b-M269 lineages are linked – as I have proposed – to Yamna migrations, and especially R1b-Z2103 to Palaeo-Balkan migrations, whereas R1a-M417 is to be linked to Corded Ware migrations, the reason for this latitude-dependent (and also longitude-dependent) presence of R1a-M417 subclades in Greece and is probably linked to the expansion of Slavic R1a-Z282 lineages to the north and west of Greece (and from there through intermarriages and migrations within Greece into other regions), and Iranian R1a-Z93 lineages to the east traditional Greek territory, into Asia Minor. The expansion of Balkan peoples (including Slavs, Albanian, and Aromanian peoples) might have brought with them R1b-M269*, I2, or R1a-Z282 subclades.

News of the article via Eurogenes.

Wiik’s theory about the spread of Uralic into east and central Europe, and the Uralic substrate in Germanic and Balto-Slavic

vasconic-uralic

I recently wrote about how Wiik’s model was wrong in supporting a Mesolithic European Vasconic-Uralic harmony – genetically based on the modern distribution of R1b vs. N1c haplogroups -, and thus also the disruption of this harmony by Indo-Europeans (supposedly a population of R1a-lineages invading central Europe from a Balkan homeland).

Romanticism does this quite frequently: it makes us believe in some esoteric fantasy, like the ethnic continuity of our ancestors in the region we live (and a far, far greater original territory that has been unfairly diminished by invaders), providing us with strong links to support our artificial borders and their potential expansion.

Even though my article on the demic diffusion of Indo-European languages does only slightly comment on the origins (and potential language) of N1c-lineages and of Proto-Basque and Proto-Uralic languages, I have already received some angry emails by Basque and Finnish genetic amateurs. I don’t get the point of fantasizing on one’s own ethnicity and prehistoric territory, and then getting through the five stages of grief when one is confronted with different (usually sounder) theories, time and time again. It seems like a lot of time lost by generations in wholly stupid quests and self-negotiation.

However wrong Wiik’s basic theses are, though, if you have read my paper you have seen that Corded Ware groups spread from north-western Ukraine might have spoken Uralic languages. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that Pre-Germanic, Pre-Balto-Slavic and Pre-Indo-Iranian might have been adopted by peoples who spoke Uralic languages, probably related with each other, possibly belonging to early Finno-Ugric dialects. In that sense, Wiik’s work has a renewed linguistic interest, regarding the potential substrate words he investigated.

This is not a picture that certain Basque, Finnish, Russian, or Indian romantics would have hoped (or even hope today) for, in terms of ethnic, linguistic, and territorial identification, but that is not a real problem, anyway, just another building of imaginary origins that will fall as many others before them. In the same sense, Germanic ethnogenesis has become more complicated than what some would have wanted, with at least three main paternal lineages with completely different ethnolinguistic origins developing together since ca. 2500 BC to form a more homogeneous community only during the Bronze Age. Therefore, no homogeneous exclusive ethnic ‘original’ European regional community can be fantastically invented anymore.

This seems to me a real coup de grâce to genetic-based nationalism in Europe, and it is encouraging for the European Union that Germany, as the central European country, is not only a central territory, but also a central cultural and genetic bridge between west and east Europe, in terms of history, of North-West Indo-European languages, and paternal lineages and admixture analyses.

References

EDIT: You can read interesting recent posts on genetics of Finnic peoples in Razib Khan’s blog: The origin of the Finnic peoples, and The Finnic Peoples Emerged In Baltic After The Bronze Age, the latter discussing results on a recent paper by Saag et al. (2017).

Heyd, Mallory, and Prescott were right about Bell Beakers

yamna-migration

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.

Academic journals can’t be trusted to tell the scientific truth

Dutch researcher Julian Kirchherr has published an interesting article in The Guardian about the reliability of academic journals, and the consequences for the academic world that orbits around them.

Science (and more specifically the scientific publication market) is in a major crisis, and journals are publishing a large amount of articles with fake results – which cannot be replicated in other experiments -, and even false data fabricated by researchers.

The interesting aspect of Mr. Kirchherr’s opinion is that, unlike many others who criticize the shortcomings of the publishing industry, he stresses the value of performance indicators – such as the number of papers published in high-impact journals – for academic institutions.

However, not only novel and surprising results (many of them made by chance) should be taken into account, but also good (and dull) research that doesn’t produce great discoveries, as well as the teaching prowess of a researcher.

The solution cannot be to revolutionize or get rid of the publishing industry: what we need is a proper evolution of a system in crisis, including a general, healthy distrust of methods, materials, results and discussion of any article published in any journal, and not only major scandals.