Ancient genomes from North Africa evidence Neolithic migrations to the Maghreb

BioRxiv preprint now published (behind paywall) Ancient genomes from North Africa evidence prehistoric migrations to the Maghreb from both the Levant and Europe, by Fregel et al., PNAS (2018).

NOTE. I think one of the important changes in this version compared to the preprint is the addition of the recent Iberomaurusian samples.

Abstract (emphasis mine):

The extent to which prehistoric migrations of farmers influenced the genetic pool of western North Africans remains unclear. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithization process may have happened through the adoption of innovations by local Epipaleolithic communities or by demic diffusion from the Eastern Mediterranean shores or Iberia. Here, we present an analysis of individuals’ genome sequences from Early and Late Neolithic sites in Morocco and from Early Neolithic individuals from southern Iberia. We show that Early Neolithic Moroccans (∼5,000 BCE) are similar to Later Stone Age individuals from the same region and possess an endemic element retained in present-day Maghrebi populations, confirming a long-term genetic continuity in the region. This scenario is consistent with Early Neolithic traditions in North Africa deriving from Epipaleolithic communities that adopted certain agricultural techniques from neighboring populations. Among Eurasian ancient populations, Early Neolithic Moroccans are distantly related to Levantine Natufian hunter-gatherers (∼9,000 BCE) and Pre-Pottery Neolithic farmers (∼6,500 BCE). Late Neolithic (∼3,000 BCE) Moroccans, in contrast, share an Iberian component, supporting theories of trans-Gibraltar gene flow and indicating that Neolithization of North Africa involved both the movement of ideas and people. Lastly, the southern Iberian Early Neolithic samples share the same genetic composition as the Cardial Mediterranean Neolithic culture that reached Iberia ∼5,500 BCE. The cultural and genetic similarities between Iberian and North African Neolithic traditions further reinforce the model of an Iberian migration into the Maghreb.

Ancestry inference in ancient samples from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. PCA analysis using the Human Origins panel (European, Middle Eastern, and North African populations) and LASER projection of aDNA samples.

Relevant excerpts:

FST and outgroup-f3 distances indicate a high similarity between IAM and Taforalt. As observed for IAM, most Taforalt sample ancestry derives from Epipaleolithic populations from the Levant. However, van de Loosdrecht et al. (17) also reported that one third of Taforalt ancestry was of sub-Saharan African origin. To confirm whether IAM individuals show a sub-Saharan African component, we calculated f4(chimpanzee, African population; Natufian, IAM) in such a way that a positive result for f4 would indicate that IAM is composed both of Levantine and African ancestries. Consistent with the results observed for Taforalt, f4 values are significantly positive for West African populations, with the highest value observed for Gambian and Mandenka (Fig. 3 and SI Appendix, Supplementary Note 10). Together, these results indicate the presence of the same ancestral components in ∼15,000-y old and ∼7,000-y-old populations from Morocco, strongly suggesting a temporal continuity between Later Stone Age and Early Neolithic populations in the Maghreb. However, it is important to take into account that the number of ancient genomes available for comparison is still low and future sampling can provide further refinement in the evolutionary history of North Africa.

Genetic analyses have revealed that the population history of modern North Africans is quite complex (11). Based on our aDNA analysis, we identify an Early Neolithic Moroccan component that is (i) restricted to North Africa in present-day populations (11); (ii) the sole ancestry in IAM samples; and (iii) similar to the one observed in Later Stone Age samples from Morocco (17). We conclude that this component, distantly related to that of Epipaleolithic communities from the Levant, represents the autochthonous Maghrebi ancestry associated with Berber populations. Our data suggests that human populations were isolated in the Maghreb since Upper Paleolithic times. Our hypothesis is in agreement with archaeological research pointing to the first stage of the Neolithic expansion in Morocco as the result of a local population that adopted some technological innovations, such as pottery production or farming, from neighboring areas.

By 3,000 BCE, a continuity in the Neolithic spread brought Mediterranean-like ancestry to the Maghreb, most likely from Iberia. Other archaeological remains, such as African elephant ivory and ostrich eggs found in Iberian sites, confirm the existence of contacts and exchange networks through both sides of the Gibraltar strait at this time. Our analyses strongly support that at least some of the European ancestry observed today in North Africa is related to prehistoric migrations, and local Berber populations were already admixed with Europeans before the Roman conquest. Furthermore, additional European/ Iberian ancestry could have reached the Maghreb after KEB people; this scenario is supported by the presence of Iberian-like Bell-Beaker pottery in more recent stratigraphic layers of IAM and KEB caves. Future paleogenomic efforts in North Africa will further disentangle the complex history of migrations that forged the ancestry of the admixed populations we observe today.

Ancestry inference in ancient samples from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. (B) ADMIXTURE analysis using the Human Origins dataset (European, Middle Eastern, and North African populations) for modern and ancient samples (K = 8). (D) Detail of ADMIXTURE analysis using the Human Origins dataset (European, Middle Eastern, North African, and sub-Saharan African populations) for modern and ancient samples, including Taforalt.

Also, from the main author’s Twitter account:

I just realized that the paragraph with information on data availability is missing! Sequence data in the European Nucleotide Archive (PRJEB22699). Consensus mtDNA sequences are available at the National Center of Biotechnology Information (Accession Numbers MF991431-MF991448).

I find it hard to believe that this genetic continuity from Upper Palaeolithic to Late Neolithic could be representative of an autochthonous development of Afroasiatic. An important population movement – likely more than one – must be found in ancient DNA influencing North-Central and North-East Africa, probably during the time of the Green Sahara corridor.

See here:

Expansion of peoples associated with spread of haplogroups: Mongols and C3*-F3918, Arabs and E-M183 (M81)


The expansion of peoples is known to be associated with the spread of a certain admixture component, joint with the expansion and reduction in variability of a haplogroup. In other words, few male lineages are usually more successful during the expansion.

Known examples include:

Two recent interesting papers add prehistoric cases of potential expansion of cultures associated with haplogroups:

1. Whole Y-chromosome sequences reveal an extremely recent origin of the most common North African paternal lineage E-M183 (M81), by Solé-Morata et al., Scientific Reports (2017).


E-M183 (E-M81) is the most frequent paternal lineage in North Africa and thus it must be considered to explore past historical and demographical processes. Here, by using whole Y chromosome sequences from 32 North African individuals, we have identified five new branches within E-M183. The validation of these variants in more than 200 North African samples, from which we also have information of 13 Y-STRs, has revealed a strong resemblance among E-M183 Y-STR haplotypes that pointed to a rapid expansion of this haplogroup. Moreover, for the first time, by using both SNP and STR data, we have provided updated estimates of the times-to-the-most-recent-common-ancestor (TMRCA) for E-M183, which evidenced an extremely recent origin of this haplogroup (2,000–3,000 ya). Our results also showed a lack of population structure within the E-M183 branch, which could be explained by the recent and rapid expansion of this haplogroup. In spite of a reduction in STR heterozygosity towards the West, which would point to an origin in the Near East, ancient DNA evidence together with our TMRCA estimates point to a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa.

Distribution of E-M183 subclades among North Africa, the Near East and the Iberian Peninsula. Pie chart sectors areas are proportional to haplogroup frequency and are coloured according to haplogroup in the schematic tree to the right. n: sample size. Map was generated using R software.

An interesting excerpt, from the discussion:

Regarding the geographical origin of E-M183, a previous study suggested that an expansion from the Near East could explain the observed east-west cline of genetic variation that extends into the Near East. Indeed, our results also showed a reduction in STR heterozygosity towards the West, which may be taken to support the hypothesis of an expansion from the Near East. In addition, previous studies based on genome-wide SNPs reported that a North African autochthonous component increase towards the West whereas the Near Eastern decreases towards the same direction, which again support an expansion from the Near East. However, our correlations should be taken carefully because our analysis includes only six locations on the longitudinal axis, none from the Near East. As a result, we do not have sufficient statistical power to confirm a Near Eastern origin. In addition, rather than showing a west-to-east cline of genetic diversity, the overall picture shown by this correlation analysis evidences just low genetic diversity in Western Sahara, which indeed could be also caused by the small sample size (n = 26) in this region. Alternatively, given the high frequency of E-M183 in the Maghreb, a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa could be envisaged, which would fit the clear pattern of longitudinal isolation by distance reported in genome-wide studies. Moreover, the presence of autochthonous North African E-M81 lineages in the indigenous population of the Canary Islands, strongly points to North Africa as the most probable origin of the Guanche ancestors. This, together with the fact that the oldest indigenous inviduals have been dated 2210 ± 60 ya, supports a local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa. Within this scenario, it is also worth to mention that the paternal lineage of an early Neolithic Moroccan individual appeared to be distantly related to the typically North African E-M81 haplogroup30, suggesting again a NW African origin of E-M183. A local origin of E-M183 in NW Africa > 2200 ya is supported by our TMRCA estimates, which can be taken as 2,000–3,000, depending on the data, methods, and mutation rates used.

The TMRCA estimates of a certain haplogroup and its subbranches provide some constraints on the times of their origin and spread. Although our time estimates for E-M78 are slightly different depending on the mutation rate used, their confidence intervals overlap and the dates obtained are in agreement with those obtained by Trombetta et al Regarding E-M183, as mentioned above, we cannot discard an expansion from the Near East and, if so, according to our time estimates, it could have been brought by the Islamic expansion on the 7th century, but definitely not with the Neolithic expansion, which appeared in NW Africa ~7400 BP and may have featured a strong Epipaleolithic persistence. Moreover, such a recent appearance of E-M183 in NW Africa would fit with the patterns observed in the rest of the genome, where an extensive, male-biased Near Eastern admixture event is registered ~1300 ya, coincidental with the Arab expansion. An alternative hypothesis would involve that E-M183 was originated somewhere in Northwest Africa and then spread through all the region. Our time estimates for the origin of this haplogroup overlap with the end of the third Punic War (146 BCE), when Carthage (in current Tunisia) was defeated and destroyed, which marked the beginning of Roman hegemony of the Mediterranean Sea. About 2,000 ya North Africa was one of the wealthiest Roman provinces and E-M183 may have experienced the resulting population growth.

2. The Y-chromosome haplogroup C3*-F3918, likely attributed to the Mongol Empire, can be traced to a 2500-year-old nomadic group, by Zhang et al., Journal of Human Genetics (2017)


The Mongol Empire had a significant role in shaping the landscape of modern populations. Many populations living in Eurasia may have been the product of population mixture between ancient Mongolians and natives following the expansion of Mongol Empire. Geneticists have found that most of these populations carried the Y-haplogroup C3* (C-M217). To trace the history of haplogroup (Hg) C3* and to further understand the origin and development of Mongolians, ancient human remains from the Jinggouzi, Chenwugou and Gangga archaeological sites, which belonged to the Donghu, Xianbei and Shiwei, respectively, were analysed. Our results show that nine of the eleven males of the Gangga site, two of the eight males of Chengwugou site and all of the twelve males of Jinggouzi site were found to have mutations at M130 (Hg C), M217 (Hg C3), L1373 (C2b, ISOGG2015), with the absence of mutations at M93 (Hg C3a), P39 (Hg C3b), M48 (Hg C3c), M407 (Hg C3d) and P62 (Hg C3f). These samples were attributed to the Y-chromosome Hg C3* (Hg C2b, ISOGG2015), and most of them were further typed as Hg C2b1a based on the mutation at F3918. Finally, we inferred that the Y-chromosome Hg C3*-F3918 can trace its origins to the Donghu ancient nomadic group.

The development of Mongolia and the frequencies of haplogroup C3* in modern Eurasians. a The development of Mongolia. b The frequencies of haplogroup C3 in modern Eurasians. The dotted line represents the approximate boundary between the Xiongnu and the Donghu. The black and grey arrows denote the migration of the Donghu and Mongolians, respectively

Featured image: Diachronic map of Iron Age migrations ca. 750-250 BC.