Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic shared vocabulary from Pitted Ware seal hunters

corded-ware-pitted-ware

I said I would write a post about topo-hydronymy in Europe and Iberia based on the most recent research, but it seems we can still enjoy some more discussions about the famous Vasconic Beakers, by people longing for days of yore. I don’t want to spoil that fun with actual linguistic data (which I already summarized) so let’s review in the meantime one of the main Uralic-Indo-European interaction zones: Scandinavia.

Seal hunting

One of the many eye-catching interpretations – and one of the few interesting ones – that could be found in the relatively recent article Talking Neolithic: Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives on How Indo-European Was Implemented in Southern Scandinavia, by Iversen & Kroonen AJA (2017) was this:

The borrowing of lexical items from hunter-gatherers into Germanic refers to the potential adoption of Proto-Germanic *selhaz “seal” (Old Norse selr, Old English seolh, Old High German selah) as well as Early Proto-Balto-Finnic *šülkeš “seal” (Finnish hylje, Estonian hüljes) from the marine-oriented Sub-Neolithic Pitted Ware culture.

kroonen-iversen
Modified from Kristiansen et al. (2017), with red circle around the hypothesized interaction of Germanic with hunter-gatherers. “Schematic representation of how different Indo-European branches have absorbed words (circles) from a lost Neolithic language or language group (dark fill) in the reconstructed European linguistic setting of the third millennium BC, possibly involving one or more hunter gatherer languages (light fill) (after Kroonen & Iversen 2017)”.

This is what Kroonen thought about this word in his Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (2006):

Gmc. *selha– m. ‘seal’ – ON selr m. ‘id.’, Far. selur m. ‘id.’, OSw. siæl m. ‘id.’, Sw. själ c. ‘id.’, OE seolh m. ‘id.’, E seal, OS selah m. ‘id.’, EDu. seel, seel-hont m. ‘id.’, Du. zee-hond c. ‘id.’, OHG selah m. ‘id.’, MHG sele m. ‘id.’ (GM).

A Germanic word with no certain IE etymology. The link with Lith. selė́ti ‘to crawl’ (Torp 1909: 436) is erroneous, as this verb corresponds to PGm. *stelan- (q.v.). The *h may nevertheless correspond to the PIE animal suffix *-ko-, for which see *elha{n)- ‘elk’ and *baruga- ‘boar’.

Focusing on this substrate etymon, coupled with archaeology and ancient DNA, in the recent SAA 84th Annual Meeting (Abstracts in PDF):

Kroonen, Guus (Leiden University) and Rune Iversen

[196] The Linguistic Legacy of the Pitted Ware Culture

The Scandinavian hunter-, fisher- and gatherer-based Pitted Ware culture is chronologically situated in the Neolithic. However, it challenges our traditional view on cultural and social evolution by representing a return to an otherwise abandoned hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In general, the Pitted Ware culture must be seen as an offshoot of the “Sub-Neolithic” societies inhabiting wide parts of northern and northeastern Europe in the fourth and third millennium B.C.E.

Isotopic and aDNA studies have shown that people of the east Swedish Pitted Ware culture, both dietarily and genetically were distinct from the early farmers in this region, the Funnel Beaker culture. Isotopic data shows a marked predominance of seal in the diet, which has given the Pitted Ware people the nickname “Inuit of the Baltic”.

As regards language, it is to be expected that people practicing a Pitted Ware lifestyle spoke a non-Indo-European language. In fact, there is some linguistic evidence that can support this claim. It is conceivable that both the Germanic and Finnish word for “seal” were ultimately borrowed from a language spoken in a Pitted Ware context. Once more, the linguistic evidence turns out to offer important information complementary to that of archaeology and archaeo-genetics.

prehistoric-seal-hunters
Stone Age Seal Hunters, by Måns Sjöberg.

Apparently, the idea of non-IE substrate languages in contact with Germanic in Scandinavia is fashionable for the Copenhagen group, probably due to their particular interpretation of the recent genetic papers, hence the multiple Germanic-Fennic connections to be reviewed through this new prism. While the ulterior motive of this proposal may be to try and connect yet again Germanic with CWC Denmark, I would argue that the effect is actually the opposite.

An early borrowing via Uralic

The word has always been considered a more likely loan from one language to the other, and – because of the quite popular idea of Uralic native to Fennoscandia – it was often seen as a likely borrowing of Germanic from Balto-Finnic. In any possible case, the borrowing in either direction must be quite early, for obvious reasons:

  • If the borrowing had been via late Palaeo-Germanic, the ending in *-xa– would have been reflected in Balto-Finnic, hence an early Palaeo-Germanic to Pre-Balto-Finnic stage would be necessary.
  • If the borrowing had been via late Balto-Finnic, the initial sibilant would be already aspirated, being adopted as *-x– in Palaeo-Germanic, while the ending in *-k– would have remained as such if it was adopted after Grimm’s law ceased to be active.
  • Similarly, a borrowing from a common, non-Indo-European & non-Uralic source would require that it happened during the early stages of both proto-languages to have undergone their respective phonetic changes, and both borrowings chronologically close to each other, to assume a similar vocalism and consonantism of the ultimate source.
wiik-indo-european-uralic-substrate
The idea of seal-hunting Uralic substrate of Pitted Ware is not new. Image modified from The Uralic and Finno-Ugric Phonetic Substratum, by Kalevi Wiik, Linguistica Uralica (1997).

Furthermore, regarding the most likely way of expansion of this loanword, due to the different vowels and sibilants present in Uralic but not in Indo-European:

  • A direct loan from Pre-Germanic **selkos – which shows a regular thematic declension – to Pre-Balto-Finnic *šülkeš doesn’t seem to be a reasonable assumption.
  • NOTE. A Germanic borrowing from alternative Gmc. genitive *silxis could only work in a Pre-Germanic to Pre-Balto-Finnic model, hence only if the Gmc. form can be reconstructed for an earlier stage. Even then, for the same reason stated above, the opposite could be more reasonably argued, i.e. that this form is the original one adopted in Germanic: Pre-PBF *šülkeš > Pre-Gmc. *silkis, reinterpreted as an -o- stem in its declension.

  • If we reconstruct an older Pre-Finno-Samic (i.e. with Finno-Permic-like vocalism) **šëlkëš, a borrowing into Pre-Germanic **selkos would work. Even though no Saami derivative exists to confirm such a possibility, this would be supported by the known common evolution of Finno-Samic dialects in close contact with Pre-Germanic.
  • Admittedly, even accepting the existence of a Finno-Samic stem, a potential substrate word could not be discarded. In fact, while **šëlkë- could perfectly be a Uralic root, the ending in *-š can’t be easily interpreted. Therefore, a third, non-Indo-European & non-Uralic source is a plausible explanation.

NOTE. Arguably, Proto-Finno-Samic could have adopted Gmc. *kh or *x exceptionally as PFS *k. However, early Palaeo-Germanic borrowings in Finno-Samic show a consistent regular consonant change as described above. For more on this, see Finno-Samic borrowings.

This likely Uralic first nature of the loanword is important for the discussion below.

Pitted Ware culture

pitted-ware-pyheensilta-ware-culture
Middle Neolithic A period. Distribution of Pyheensilta Ware, Funnel Beaker Culture in Sweden, and Pitted Ware Culture in northern Europe during the Middle Neolithic A period, c. 3300–2800 cal BC. Find locations with numbers demarcate sites where cereal grains have been found and later AMS radiocarbon dated. Figure was created by SV using QGIS 3.4. (https://www.qgis.org/) and Natural Earth data (https://www.naturalearthdata.com/). Image from Vanhanen et al. (2019).

About the Pitted Ware culture, this is what the recent paper by Vanhanen et al. (2019), from the University of Finland (including Volker Heyd) had to say:

The origins of the PWC are controversial. In one likely scenario, Comb Ceramic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers first interacted with FBC during the last centuries of the EN and became specialized maritime hunter-gatherers. The PWC pushed south and westwards during the Middle Neolithic (MN), c. 3300–2300 BC, along the northern Baltic shoreline and adjacent islands, eventually reaching as far west as Denmark and southern Norway. Around 2800 BC, after the FBC ceased to exist, the Corded Ware Culture (CWC) migrated into the PWC area. The end date for the PWC and CWC is approximately 2300 BC, when the material culture was replaced by the Late Neolithic (LN) culture<. Spanning nearly a millennium virtually unchanged, the PWC maintained a coherent society and a successful economic model. PWC people lived in marine-oriented settlements, commonly dwelled in huts and produced relatively large amounts of ceramic vessels. This speaks to the partly sedentary nature of their habitation, at least for their base camps. These specialist hunter-gatherers obtained the great majority of their subsistence from maritime sources, such as seal, fish, and sea birds. Considering the amount of bones, sealing was of paramount importance, causing these peoples to be labelled ‘hard-core sealers’ or even the ‘Inuit of the Baltic’.

The Middle Neolithic Pitted Ware culture is dated ca. 3500–2300 BC, so we would be seeing here Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic peoples arriving near the Pitted Ware culture. That would leave us with one of both languages expanding with Corded Ware peoples, and the other with Bell Beakers. Since Battle Axe-derived cultures around the Gulf of Finland are associated with Balto-Finnic groups, and Bell Beakers arriving ca. 2400 started the Dagger Period, commonly associated with the Pre-Germanic community, I think the connection of each group with their language is self-evident.

pitted-ware-cored-ware-culture
Middle Neolithic B period. Distribution of Corded Ware Culture and Pitted Ware Culture in northern Europe during the Middle Neolithic B period, c. 2800–2300 cal BC. Find locations with numbers demarcate sites where cereal grains have been found and later AMS radiocarbon dated. Figure was created by SV using QGIS 3.4. (https://www.qgis.org/) and Natural Earth data (https://www.naturalearthdata.com/). Modified from Vanhanen et al. (2019).

NOTE. You can read some interesting information about prehistoric and recent seal hunting in the Baltic in the blog post “Själen” – Seal Hunting in the Northern Baltic Sea.

Germanic-Fennic phonetic evolution

The common Germanic – Balto-Finnic phonetic evolution, especially Verner’s law in Palaeo-Germanic and qualitative gradation in Proto-Balto-Finnic, has been variably interpreted as:

  • Uralic in Scandinavia influenced by Germanic (Verner’s law source of the gradation), by Koivulehto and Vennemann (1996).
  • Germanic over a Uralic substratum in Scandinavia, by Wiik (1997).
  • Both Germanic and Balto-Finnic influenced by a third language, an “extinct non-Uralic source” spoken in Fennoscandia before the arrival of Uralic and Indo-European, by Kallio (2001); maybe the same substrate proposed to have influenced the accent shift in Germanic similar to Uralic.
  • Balto-Finnic speakers adopting Pre-Germanic in Scandinavia, in contact with Balto-Finnic speakers retaining their language, by Schrijver in Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)– although first suggested by him in the 1990s.

NOTE. There are other (some much older) proposals of a Uralic substrate in Scandinavia, but I think those above summarize the most common positions tenable today.

If you add all linguistic, archaeological, and now genetic connections, it is really strange to keep arguing for so many surprisingly fitting common substrates and/or contact languages for both. Especially because the Pre-Germanic community – if originally from southern Scandinavia and not further south (see e.g. Kortlandt’s theory) – was marked by the Dagger Period, as accepted by most archaeologists (including Kristiansen), and we know that Bell Beakers – who triggered the Dagger period – might have arrived a little late to the Pitted Ware disintegration in most seal-hunting areas of southern Scandinavia.

bell-beaker-density
Density analysis based (Bell Beaker per km2) on the distribution of Bell Beaker per region (ca. 2700-2200 BC). Combination of different levels of b-spline interpolation. Exaltation of the values through square root usage. Modified from Michael Bilger (2018).

In other words, how many common substrate languages can we propose for Germanic (and Balto-Finnic)? Just from Kroonen we have already the Semitic-like TRB, and the seal-hunting Pitted Ware culture. Apparently, the culprit of the common phonetic evolution must be some (other?) culture that both Pre-Germanic and Pre-Balto-Finnic assimilated (or with which both were in contact) in Fennoscandia.

NOTE. I believe no data supports the attribution of those Germanic borrowings to the TRB culture, especially if one assumes they belong to an Afroasiatic branch, as did Kroonen. His initial assumption about an expansion of R1b-M269 associated with the Neolithic from Anatolia, and thus with Afroasiatic, must today be rejected. Much more likely is the incorporation of most of these loanwords during the expansion of North-West Indo-Europeans from Yamna Hungary.

How many “common” substrates from different regions and cultures is too much? Arguably, it’s not a question of quantity (because the overall probability remains the same), but a question of quality of arguments.

In my opinion, both a) the marked seal-hunting subsistence economy of the Pitted Ware culture and b) the difficult reconstruction of a fitting ‘natural’ PIE or PU stem warrant this proposal of a third source, just like the European agricultural substrate of North-West Indo-European and Palaeo-Balkan languages, as well as the Asian agricultural substrate of Indo-Iranian are the most logical interpretation of words not found in other IE dialects. The only problem in this case is the lack of other Scandinavian substrate words to compare its typology against.

scandinavia-neolithic-flint-daggers
Close contacts in Fennoscandia. The distribution of Scandinavian flint daggers (A) in the east and south Baltic region and possible trends of “down the line” trade (B). Good size and quality flint zone in the south-west Baltic region is hatched (C). According to: Wojciechowski 1976; Olausson 1983, fig. 1; Madsen 1993, 126; Libera 2001; Kriiska & Tvauri 2002, 86. Image modified from Piličiauskas (2010).

Common Scandinavian substratum

The theory of a Pitted Ware borrowing is therefore quite convincing from a cultural point of view, at the same time as it fits the linguistic data. However, one reason why I dislike the interpretation of a dual origin is that our knowledge of Uralic languages is fairly limited, whereas that of Indo-European branches and hence Proto-Indo-European is huge. To put it otherwise: if a common word appears in both, and it is most likely (culturally and linguistically) not Indo-European, it certainly means that it was borrowed in Germanic. What are the a priori chances of it coming directly from a third substrate language for both dialects, instead of coming directly from Pre-Balto-Finnic?

From Schrijver (2014):

What did happen, apparently, is that Finnic speakers had enough access to the way in which Germanic speakers pronounced Balto-Finnic in order to model their own pronunciation of Balto-Finnic on it. In other words, Balto-Finns conversed with bilingual speakers of Germanic and Balto-Finnic whose pronunciation of both was essentially Germanic. But access to the Germanic language itself was not sufficient to allow Balto-Finns to become bilingual themselves, either because social segregation prevented this or because contact with Germanic was severed before widespread bilingualism set in. This limited access to Germanic would allow us to understand why Balto-Finnic did not go the way of the vernacular languages that came in contact with Latin in the Roman Empire, where access to Latin was open to almost everybody and massive language shift in favour of Latin ensued.

NOTE. For a more detailed discussion, you can read the whole chapter dedicated to this question. I summarized it in Pre-Germanic born out of a Proto-Finnic substrate in Scandinavia.

On the other hand, about the ad hoc interpretation by Kallio (2001) of hypothetic third languages strongly influencing in the same way both the Palaeo-Germanic- and Balto-Finnic-speaking communities, Schrijver (2014) comments:

The idea that perhaps both languages moved towards a lost third language, whose speakers may have been assimilated to both Balto-Finnic and Germanic, provides a fuller explanation but suffers from the drawback that it shifts the full burden of the explanation to a mysterious ‘language X’ that is called upon only in order to explain the developments in Proto-Germanic and Balto-Finnic. That comes dangerously close to circular reasoning.

early-bronze-age-nordic-dagger-period
Early Bronze Age cultures of Northern Europe (roughly ca. 2200-1750). Dagger period representing the expansion of BBC-derived groups from southern Scandinavia.

NOTE. The proposal of some kind of “SHG/EHG-based Fennoscandian substrate” seems funny to me, for two reasons: firstly, there is usually no talk about which culture spread that common language, how it survived, how it was in contact with both groups and until when, etc. (see below for possibilities); secondly, apparently the evident survival of West European EEF communities driven by at least two cultural groups – El Argar and the poorly known groups from the Atlantic façade north of the Pyrenees – is, for the same people proposing this simplistic SHG/EHG idea, somehow not fitting for the prehistory of Proto-Iberian and Proto-Aquitanian, respectively…

The same argument that one could use against the direct borrowing of both dialects from Pitted Ware, but much more strongly, can be thus wielded against a common, centuries-long phonetic evolution of both Balto-Finnic and Germanic caused by close interactions with (and/or substrate influence of) some third language. Which unitary culture and when exactly could that have happened around the Baltic Sea?

  • Was it Pitted Ware the mysterious substrate language? Seems rather unlikely, due to the early demise of the Pitted Ware culture in contrast to the long-lasting common influence seen in both dialects.
  • Was it Pitted Ware in southern Scandinavia, but Comb Ware in the Gulf of Finland? Is there a direct genetic connection between both cultures? And how likely is a common phonology of an ancestral Comb Ware-like substrate language surviving separately in Finland and Sweden? Even accepting these assumptions, we would be stuck again in the Indo-European Beakers vs. Uralic Battle Axe model.
  • Was it a succession of cultures, from some Scandinavian culture that was replaced by some incoming ethnolinguistic group, then influencing the other? This non-IE, non-Uralic substrate would then need to be proposed, given the chronological and archaeological constraints, as an effect of Pitted Ware over Pre-Finno-Baltic spoken by Battle Axe peoples in Scandinavia, then replaced by Pre-Germanic peoples arriving later with Bell Beakers. A reverse direction and later chronology (say, Germanic replaced by Balto-Finnic from Netted Ware arriving from the Volga) wouldn’t work as well.
  • Was it Asbestos Ware as a late Comb Ware group influencing both? How likely is such a continued influence in Southern Scandinavia and the Gulf of Finland? Even if we accepted this influence that miraculously didn’t affect Samic (most likely located between the Balto-Finnic-speaking Gulf of Finland and northern Fennoscandian Asbestos Ware groups), it would necessarily mean that Germanic and Balto-Finnic were spoken neighbouring exactly the same Asbestos Ware groups in Scandinavia. That is, essentially, that the BBC-derived Dagger Period represented Pre-Germanic, while Battle Axe-derived groups around the Gulf of Finland were Balto-Finnic.

Mixing linguistics with archaeology (now complemented with genetics) also risks circular reasoning. But, how else can someone propose a third substrate language for a phonetic change, necessarily represented by Fennoscandian groups potentially separated by thousands of years? In this age of population genomics we can’t simply talk about theoretical models anymore: we must refer to Fennoscandian cultures and populations in a very specific time frame, as Kronen & Iversen do in their proposal. Not only is such a third unknown language usually a weak explanation for a common development of two unrelated languages; in this case it finds no support whatsoever.

Seals and the Arctic

Another interesting aspect about this Fennic-Germanic comparandum is its relevance to the Uralic homeland problem.

uralic-languages-modern
Current distribution of Uralic languages. Nenets and Saami are among the best positioned to retain the ‘original’ Uralic seal-hunting vocabulary.

Since the publication of Mittnik et al. (2018), Lamnidis et al. (2018), and Sikora et al. (2018), the new normal is apparently to consider Corded Ware Finland as Germanic-speaking, the Gulf of Finland as Balto-Slavic-speaking, while the Kola peninsula and whichever Palaeo-Arctic peoples preceded Nganasans and Nenets as ancient Uralians. Uh-huh, OK.

But, if prehistoric Arctic peoples practiced specialized seal-hunting economies, and Uralians were one among such populations – supposedly one widespread from the Barents Sea to the Lapteve Sea…how come no common Uralic word for ‘seal’ exists? In other words, why would these True™ Uralic peoples expanding from the Arctic need to borrow a word for ‘seal’ from neighbouring populations in every single seal-hunting region they are attested?

grey-seal-distribution
Historical distribution of grey seals, an important part of the diet around the Baltic Sea. Image modified from Wikimedia to include Skagerrak and Kattegat regions.

About Saami, which some have recklessly proposed to be derived from Bronze Age N1c-L392 samples from the Kola Peninsula (against the good judgment of the authors of the paper), this is what we know from their word for ‘seal’, from Grünthal (2004):

Ter Saami vīrre ‘seal; wolf’ displays two meanings that refer to clearly different animals. Neither of them is borrowed from the source language because the word descends from Russian zver’ ‘animal’ (T.I.Itkonen 1958: 756). Another word, Skolt Saami näúdd ‘seal, wolf’, has been similarly used in the two meanings. The evidence of North Saami návdi ‘wolf; creature, fur animal; beast’ (Sammallahti 1989: 305; Lagercrantz (1939: 518) presents the alternative meanings in the opposite order; E. Itkonen (1969: 148) lists the meanings ‘wildes Tier; Raubtier (bes. Wolf); Pelztier’) suggesting that ‘wolf’ is the primary sense and ‘seal’ is a metaphorical extension of it. More precisely, it is an example of a mythic metaphor (cf. Siikala 1992). According to the old folk belief, seal was a wolf and the Skolt Saamis preferred not to eat its meat (T.I.Itkonen 1958: 906). Before that the metonymic meaning ‘wolf’ rose from the less specified meanings, and originally návdi is a Scandinavian or Finnic loan word in Saamic, cf. Old Norse naut ‘vieh, rind’, Icelandic and Norwegian naut, Swedish nöt < Germanic *nauta ‘property’ (Hellquist 1980: 721, T.I.Itkonen 1958: 275, Lagercrantz 1939: 518, de Vries 1961: 406; E. Itkonen (1969: 148) considers Finnic, cf. Finnish nauta ‘bovine’ (< Germanic) as a possible alternative source for the Saamic word).

NOTE. Possibly comparable, for the mythic metaphor proper of Scandinavian folk belief, are Germanic derivatives built as ‘seal-hound’ and/or ‘sea-hound’.

sea-distribution-arctic
Seals formed a great part of the diet for Palaeo-Arctic populations. Boundaries of regions used to predict sea ice, superimposed over the distributions of the five ringed seal subspecies. Image modified from Kelly et al. (2010).

About Nenets (quite close to the Naganasans of pure “Siberian ancestry”), here is what Edward Vajda, an expert in Palaeo-Siberian languages, has to say:

Nenets techniques for hunting the animals of the Arctic Ocean seem to have been borrowed from the first Arctic aborigines. Thus, the Nenets word for seal is nyak, the Eskimo word is nesak. Also, the Nenets word for a one-piece Arctic clothing is lu; the Korak word on the Kamchatka peninsula for clothing is l’ku. All of these groups may have borrowed the words from some original circumpolar aborigines. More probably, the first settlers of Arctic Europe were cousins of the present-day Eskimo, Chukchi and other residents of the far northeast region of Asia. Nenets folklore also speaks of the aborigines living in ice dugouts (igloos).

On the other hand, Proto-Uralic shows a Chalcolithic steppe-like culture, with common words for metal and metalworking, for agriculture, and for domesticated animals, most likely including cattle. They were close to Indo-Europeans since at least before the Tocharian split, and probably earlier than that (even if one does not accept the Indo-Uralic phylum). And there were clearly strong contacts of Finno-Ugric with Indo-Iranian, and especially of Finno-Samic with Germanic.

uralic-cline
Uralic clines from Corded Ware groups to the east. A clear reason for the lack of common seal-hunting vocabulary. Modified from Tambets et al. (2018). Principal component analysis (PCA) and genetic distances of Uralic-speaking populations. a PCA (PC1 vs PC2) of the Uralic-speaking populations. You can see another PCA including ancient samples.

Some among my readers may now be thinking about these totally believable proposals of prehistoric cultures around Lake Baikal representing the True™ Uralic homeland; because haplogroup N1c, and because some 0.5% more “Devil’s Gate Cave ancestry” in Estonians than in Lithuanians; despite the fact that 1) the so-called “Siberian ancestry” formed an ancestral cline with EHG in North Eurasia, that 2) N1c-L392 lineages seem to appear among many Asian peoples of different languages, and that 3) recent prehistoric N1c-L392 lines expanded clearly with Micro-Altaic languages.

Like, who would have hunted seals in Lake Baikal, right? The problem is, seals represented one of their main game, essential for their subsistence economy. From Novokonova et al. (2015):

One of the key reasons for the density of human settlement in the Baikal region compared to adjacent areas of Siberia is that the lake and its nearby rivers offer an abundance of aquatic food resources, including several endemic species, with perhaps the most well known being the Baikal seal. This freshwater seal is only found in Lake Baikal and portions of its tributaries. It shares lifecycle and behavioral patterns with other small northern ice-adapted seals, and is genetically and morphologically most closely related to the ringed seal (Pusa hispida). The nerpa can grow up to 1.8 m long and weigh as much as 130 kg, with the males tending to be slightly larger than the females.

Zooarchaeological analyses of the 16,000 Baikal seal remains from this well-dated site clearly show that sealing began here at least 9000 calendar years ago. The use of these animals at Sagan-Zaba appears to have peaked in the Middle Holocene, when foragers used the site as a spring hunting and processing location for yearling and juvenile seals taken on the lake ice. After 4800 years ago, seal use declined at the site, while the relative importance of ungulate hunting and fishing increased. Pastoralists began occupying Sagan-Zaba at some point during the Late Holocene, and these groups too utilized the lake’s seals. Domesticated animals are increasingly common after about 2000 years ago, a pattern seen elsewhere in the region, but spring and some summer hunting of seals was still occurring. This use of seals by prehistoric herders mirrors patterns of seal use among the region’s historic and modern groups.

Bronze Age movements in Fennoscandia

Regarding the shrinkage and expansion of different farming economic strategies in Scandinavia since the Neolithic, with potential relevance for population movements and thus ethnolinguistic change – either from Balto-Finnic peoples migrating back from eastern Sweden, or Germanic peoples moving to eastern Finland – from Vanhanen et al. (2019):

Cultivated plants at CWC sites in Finland were not discovered in the current investigation (Supplementary Results) or earlier studies. In Finland, the keeping of domestic animals is indicated by the evidence of dairy lipids and mineralized goat hairs. Charred remains and impressions of cultivated plants have been discovered at CWC sites in Estonia and east-central Sweden (Fig. 3: 12). In the eastern Baltic region, the earliest bones of domestic animals and a shift in subsistence occurred with the CWC. Whether CWC produced the cereals and other agricultural products found at PWC sites is difficult to estimate because only small amounts of plant remains have ever been discovered at CWC sites. The CWC seemingly reached east-central Sweden from regions further to the east, where there is evidence of animal husbandry, but only very few signs of plant cultivation.

For the Late Neolithic (LN), cereal grains have been found north of Mälaren and along the Norrland coast. In mainland Finland, the first cereal grains occur during the LN or Bronze Age, c. 1900–1250 cal BC. The earliest bones of sheep/goat from mainland Finland are earlier, dating back to 2200–1950 cal BC. Finds of Scandinavian bronze artefacts indicate an influx from east-central Sweden, which might well be a source area for these agricultural innovations. A similar development is found in the eastern Baltic region, where the earliest directly radiocarbon-dated cereals originate from the Bronze Age, 1392–1123 cal BC (2 sigma). Thus, agriculture was evident during the Bronze Age in the eastern Baltic, but at least animal keeping and probably crop cultivation were present earlier during the CWC phase.

It has been known for a while already that the only options left for the expansion of Finno-Saami into Fennoscandia are either Battle Axe (continued in Textile Ceramics) or Netted Ware (as proposed e.g. by Parpola), based, among other data, on language contacts, language estimates, cultural evolution, and population genomics. Data like this one on seal-hunting vocabulary also support the most likely option, which entails the identification of Corded Ware as the vector of expansion of Uralic languages.

NOTE. Also interesting in this regard is the lack of Slavic words for ‘seal’ – borrowed, in Russian from Samic, and in other Slavic dialects from Russian, Latin, or other languages -, and the coinage of a new term in East Baltic. Rather odd for an “autochthonous” Proto-Baltic (supposedly in contact with Pitted Ware, Germanic, and Balto-Finnic, then), and for a Proto-Slavic stemming from the Baltic. Quite appropriate, though, for a Proto-East Baltic arriving in the Baltic with Trzciniec and for a Proto-Slavic community evolving further south.

So, what new episode in this renewed 2000s R1b/R1a/N1c soap opera is it going to be, when eastern Fennoscandia shows Corded Ware-derived peoples of “steppe ancestry” (and mainly R1a-Z645 lineages) continue during the Bronze Age? Will the resurge and/or infiltration of I2 – maybe even N1c – lineages among Corded Ware-derived cultures of north-eastern Europe support or challenge this model, and why? Make your bet below.

Related

How the genocidal Yamnaya men loved to switch cultures

yamnaya-expansion-bell-beaker

After some really interesting fantasy full of arrows, it seems Kristiansen & friends are coming back to their most original idea from 2015, now in New Scientist’s recent clickbait Story of most murderous people of all time revealed in ancient DNA (2019):

Teams led by David Reich at Harvard Medical School and Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark announced, independently, that occupants of Corded Ware graves in Germany could trace about three-quarters of their genetic ancestry to the Yamnaya. It seemed that Corded Ware people weren’t simply copying the Yamnaya; to a large degree they actually were Yamnayan in origin.

If you think you have seen that movie, it’s because you have. They are at it again, Corded Ware from Yamna, and more “steppe ancestry” = “more Indo-European. It seems we haven’t learnt anything about “Steppe ancestry” since 2015. But there’s more:

Genocidal peoples who “switch cultures”

Burial practices shifted dramatically, a warrior class appeared, and there seems to have been a sharp upsurge in lethal violence. “I’ve become increasingly convinced there must have been a kind of genocide,” says Kristian Kristiansen at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

The collaboration revealed that the origin and initial spread of Bell Beaker culture had little to do – at least genetically – with the expansion of the Yamnaya or Corded Ware people into central Europe. “It started in It is in that region that the earliest Bell Beaker objects – including arrowheads, copper daggers and distinctive Bell-shaped pots – have been found, in archaeological sites carbon-dated to 4700 years ago. Then, Bell Beaker culture began to spread east, although the people more or less stayed put. By about 4600 years ago, it reached the most westerly Corded Ware people around where the Netherlands now lies. For reasons still unclear, the Corded Ware people fully embraced it. “They simply take on part of the Bell Beaker package and become Beaker people,” says Kristiansen.

The fact that the genetic analysis showed the Britons then all-but disappeared within a couple of generations might be significant. It suggests the capacity for violence that emerged when the Yamnaya lived on the Eurasia steppe remained even as these people moved into Europe, switched identity from Yamnaya to Corded Ware, and then switched again from Corded Ware to Bell Beaker.

Notice what Kristiansen did there? Yamnaya men “switched identities” into Corded Ware, then “switched identities” into Bell Beakers…So, the most aggresive peoples who have ever existed, exterminating all other Europeans, were actually not so violent when embracing wholly different cultures whose main connection is that they built kurgans (yes, Gimbutas lives on).

NOTE. By the way, just so we are clear, only Indo-Europeans are “genocidal”. Not like Neolithic farmers, or Palaeolithic or Mesolithic populations, or more recent Bronze Age or Iron Age peoples, who also replaced Y-DNA from many regions…

yamnaya-corded-ware-bell-beaker

In fact, there is much stronger evidence that these Yamnaya Beakers were ruthless. By about 4500 years ago, they had pushed westwards into the Iberian Peninsula, where the Bell Beaker culture originated a few centuries earlier. Within a few generations, about 40 per cent of the DNA of people in the region could be traced back to the incoming Yamnaya Beakers, according to research by a large team including Reich that was published this month. More strikingly, the ancient DNA analysis reveals that essentially all the men have Y chromosomes characteristic of the Yamnaya, suggesting only Yamnaya men had children.

“The collision of these two populations was not a friendly one, not an equal one, but one where the males from outside were displacing local males and did so almost completely,” Reich told New Scientist Live in September. This supports Kristiansen’s view of the Yamnaya and their descendants as an almost unimaginably violent people. Indeed, he is about to publish a paper in which he argues that they were responsible for the genocide of Neolithic Europe’s men. “It’s the only way to explain that no male Neolithic lines survived,” he says.

So these unimaginably violent Yamnaya men had children exclusively with their Y chromosomes…but not Dutch Single Grave peoples. These great great steppe-like northerners switched culture, cephalic index…and Y-chromosome from R1a (and others) to R1b-L151 to expand Italo-Celtic From The West™.

It’s hilarious how (exactly like their latest funny episode of PIE from south of the Caucasus) this new visionary idea copied by Copenhagen from amateur friends (or was it the other way around?) had been already rejected before this article came out, in Olalde et al. (2019), and that “Corded Ware=Indo-European” fans have become a parody of themselves.

What’s not to love about 2019 with all this back-and-forth hopping between old and new pet theories?

NOTE. I would complain (again) that the obsessive idea of the Danes is that Denmark CWC is (surprise!) the Pre-Germanic community, so it has nothing to do with “steppe ancestry = Indo-European” (or even with “Corded Ware = Indo-European”, for that matter), but then again you have Koch still arguing for Celtic from the West, Kortlandt still arguing for Balto-Slavic from the east, and – no doubt worst of all – “R1a=IE / R1b=Vasconic / N1c=Uralic” ethnonationalists arguing for whatever is necessary right now, in spite of genetic research.

So prepare for the next episode in the nativist and haplogroup fetishist comedy, now with western and eastern Europeans hand in hand: Samara -> Khvalynsk -> Yamnaya -> Bell Beaker spoke Vasconic-Tyrsenian, because R1b. Wait for it…

Vanguard Yamnaya groups

On a serious note, interesting comment by Heyd in the article:

A striking example of this distinction is a discovery made near the town of Valencina de la Concepción in southern Spain. Archaeologists working there found a Yamnaya-like kurgan, below which was the body of a man buried with a dagger and Yamnaya-like sandals, and decorated with red pigment just as Yamnaya dead were. But the burial is 4875 years old and genetic information suggests Yamnaya-related people didn’t reach that far west until perhaps 4500 years ago. “Genetically, I’m pretty sure this burial has nothing to do with the Yamnaya or the Corded Ware,” says Heyd. “But culturally – identity-wise – there is an aspect that can be clearly linked with them.” It would appear that the ideology, lifestyle and death rituals of the Yamnaya could sometimes run far ahead of the migrants.

NOTE. I have been trying to find which kurgan is this, reviewing this text on the archaeological site, but didn’t find anything beyond occasional ochre and votive sandals, which are usual. Does some reader know which one is it?

yamna-expansion-bell-beakers
Yamna expansion and succeeding East Bell Beaker expansion, without color on Bell Beaker territories. Notice vanguard Yamna groups in blue where East Bell Beakers later emerge. See original image with Bell Beaker territories.

Notice how, if you add all those vanguard Yamna findings of Central and Western Europe, including this one from southern Spain, you begin to get a good idea of the territories occupied by East Bell Beakers expanding later. More or less like vanguard Abashevo and Sintashta finds in the Zeravshan valley heralded the steppe-related Srubna-Andronovo expansions in Turan…

It doesn’t seem like Proto-Beaker and Yamna just “crossed paths” at some precise time around the Lower Danube, and Yamna men “switched cultures”. It seems that many Yamna vanguard groups, probably still in long-distance contact with Yamna settlers from the Carpathian Basin, were already settled in different European regions in the first half of the 3rd millennium BC, before the explosive expansion of East Bell Beakers ca. 2500 BC. As Heyd says, there are potentially many Yamna settlements along the Middle and Lower Danube and tributaries not yet found, connecting the Carpathian Basin to Western and Northern Europe.

These vanguard groups would have more easily transformed their weakened eastern Yamna connections with the fashionable Proto-Beaker package expanding from the west (and surrounding all of these loosely connected settlements), just like the Yamna materials from Seville probably represent a close cultural contact of Chalcolithic Iberia with a Yamna settlement (the closest known site with Yamna traits is near Alsace, where high Yamna ancestry is probably going to be found in a Bell Beaker R1b-L151 individual).

This does not mean that there wasn’t a secondary full-scale migration from the Carpathian Basin and nearby settlements, just like Corded Ware shows a secondary (A-horizon?) migration to the east with R1a-Z645. It just means that there was a complex picture of contacts between Yamna and European Chalcolithic groups before the expansion of Bell Beakers. Doesn’t seem genocidal enough for a popular movie, tho.

Related

Phylogeny of leprosy, relevant for prehistoric Eurasian contacts

leprosy-medieval-europe

Some interesting studies were published at roughly the same time as Damgaard et al. (Nature 2018 and Science 2018), and that’s probably why they got little attention (at least by me).

Monica H. Green (also in Academia.edu), specialized in History of Medicine, summed up their relevance in Twitter quite well (her text is edited here for clarity):

I’ve been disappointed that three recent exceptional studies of one of the world’s most historically important diseases, leprosy, have gotten so little notice from the science communication. It will take me a few hours to lay out their significance. But I think it’s important to do so.

So, here are the new studies on historical distribution and evolutionary development of Mycobacterium leprae, one of two organisms that causes leprosy (fourth study dropped yesterday!).

  1. Phylogenomics and antimicrobial resistance of the leprosy bacillus Mycobacterium leprae, by Benjak et al., Nature Communications (2018) 9:352.
  2. Abstract:

    Leprosy is a chronic human disease caused by the yet-uncultured pathogen Mycobacterium leprae. Although readily curable with multidrug therapy (MDT), over 200,000 new cases are still reported annually. Here, we obtain M. leprae genome sequences from DNA extracted directly from patients’ skin biopsies using a customized protocol. Comparative and phylogenetic analysis of 154 genomes from 25 countries provides insight into evolution and antimicrobial resistance, uncovering lineages and phylogeographic trends, with the most ancestral strains linked to the Far East. In addition to known MDT-resistance mutations, we detect other mutations associated with antibiotic resistance, and retrace a potential stepwise emergence of extensive drug resistance in the pre-MDT era. Some of the previously undescribed mutations occur in genes that are apparently subject to positive selection, and two of these (ribD, fadD9) are restricted to drug-resistant strains. Finally, nonsense mutations in the nth excision repair gene are associated with greater sequence diversity and drug resistance.

  3. Ancient DNA study reveals HLA susceptibility locus for leprosy in medieval Europeans, by Krause-Kyora et al., Nature Communications (2018) 9:1569
  4. NOTE. I referred to this study in this blog.

  5. Ancient genomes reveal a high diversity of Mycobacterium leprae in medieval Europe, by Schuenemann et al., PLOS Pathogens (2018)
  6. Abstract:

    Studying ancient DNA allows us to retrace the evolutionary history of human pathogens, such as Mycobacterium leprae, the main causative agent of leprosy. Leprosy is one of the oldest recorded and most stigmatizing diseases in human history. The disease was prevalent in Europe until the 16th century and is still endemic in many countries with over 200,000 new cases reported annually. Previous worldwide studies on modern and European medieval M. leprae genomes revealed that they cluster into several distinct branches of which two were present in medieval Northwestern Europe. In this study, we analyzed 10 new medieval M. leprae genomes including the so far oldest M. leprae genome from one of the earliest known cases of leprosy in the United Kingdom—a skeleton from the Great Chesterford cemetery with a calibrated age of 415–545 C.E. This dataset provides a genetic time transect of M. leprae diversity in Europe over the past 1500 years. We find M. leprae strains from four distinct branches to be present in the Early Medieval Period, and strains from three different branches were detected within a single cemetery from the High Medieval Period. Altogether these findings suggest a higher genetic diversity of M. leprae strains in medieval Europe at various time points than previously assumed. The resulting more complex picture of the past phylogeography of leprosy in Europe impacts current phylogeographical models of M. leprae dissemination. It suggests alternative models for the past spread of leprosy such as a wide spread prevalence of strains from different branches in Eurasia already in Antiquity or maybe even an origin in Western Eurasia. Furthermore, these results highlight how studying ancient M. leprae strains improves understanding the history of leprosy worldwide.

  7. The genome sequence of a SNP type 3K strain of Mycobacterium leprae isolated from a seventh‐century Hungarian case of lepromatous leprosy, by Mendum et al., International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (2018).
  8. Abstract:

    We report on a Mycobacterium leprae genome isolated from the remains of an individual with lepromatous leprosy that were excavated from a seventh‐century Hungarian cemetery. We determined that the genome was from a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) type 3K0 M. leprae strain, a lineage that diverged early from other M. leprae lineages. This is one of the earliest 3K0 M. leprae genomes to be sequenced to date. A number of novel SNPs as well as SNPs characteristic of the 3K0 lineage were confirmed by conventional polymerase chain reaction and Sanger sequencing. Recovery of accompanying human DNA from the burial was poor, particularly when compared with that of the pathogen. Modern 3K0 M. leprae strains have only been isolated from East Asia and the Pacific, and so these findings require new scenarios to describe the origins and routes of dissemination of leprosy during antiquity that have resulted in the modern phylogeographical distribution of M. leprae.

A fifth study can be added to the list, which, though not as extensive, is significant because it validates findings of others: Mycobacterium leprae genomes from naturally infected nonhuman primates, by Honap et al. PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases (2018).

Abstract:

Leprosy is caused by the bacterial pathogens Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. Apart from humans, animals such as nine-banded armadillos in the Americas and red squirrels in the British Isles are naturally infected with M. leprae. Natural leprosy has also been reported in certain nonhuman primates, but it is not known whether these occurrences are due to incidental infections by human M. leprae strains or by M. leprae strains specific to nonhuman primates. In this study, complete M. leprae genomes from three naturally infected nonhuman primates (a chimpanzee from Sierra Leone, a sooty mangabey from West Africa, and a cynomolgus macaque from The Philippines) were sequenced. Phylogenetic analyses showed that the cynomolgus macaque M. leprae strain is most closely related to a human M. leprae strain from New Caledonia, whereas the chimpanzee and sooty mangabey M. leprae strains belong to a human M. leprae lineage commonly found in West Africa. Additionally, samples from ring-tailed lemurs from the Bezà Mahafaly Special Reserve, Madagascar, and chimpanzees from Ngogo, Kibale National Park, Uganda, were screened using quantitative PCR assays, to assess the prevalence of M. leprae in wild nonhuman primates. However, these samples did not show evidence of M. leprae infection. Overall, this study adds genomic data for nonhuman primate M. leprae strains to the existing M. leprae literature and finds that this pathogen can be transmitted from humans to nonhuman primates as well as between nonhuman primate species. While the prevalence of natural leprosy in nonhuman primates is likely low, nevertheless, future studies should continue to explore the prevalence of leprosy-causing pathogens in the wild.

These five studies are doing whole-genome sequencing on either modern isolates of M. leprae, or genomic fragments retrieved from buried remains (aDNA). The main objective of all the studies is to understand the diversity of M. leprae, both in terms of its history and in terms of its present-day distribution. (Benjak et al. 2018 are especially concerned to study possible reasons for variance in multiple drug resistance).

The following comments are concerned only to discuss leprosy’s history.

So, let’s start with a common claim of the science communication pieces on Schuenemann et al. 2018, which was published last week. A common formula: “New Study Suggests Leprosy Began To Spread From Europe To The World“. Is it plausible that Europe was where leprosy originated as human disease?

The answer, actually, is no. There’s two reasons for this, one having to do with chronology, the other with geography.

For chronology, these studies cumulatively suggest we are looking at a bottleneck. The current Time to Most Recent Common Ancestor (TMRCA) suggested for the divergence of M. leprae from its closest known “cousin,” M. lepromatosis (which also causes leprosy in humans) is estimated to be ca. 13.9 million years. There were no humans around 13.9M ya. So we cannot have been M. leprae‘s original host. All studies being discussed here agree on a consensus phylogeny, which puts the origin of all known strains of M. leprae at about 4-5K ya. So when we talk about the “origin” of M. leprae, we only talking about those lineages formed after this bottleneck.

Next we have to look at geography. Let’s start with this statement from the most recent study, Mendum et al. 2018, which is discussing a genome sequenced from an individual in Hungary from the 7th c. CE: “Modern 3K0 M. leprae strains have only been isolated from East Asia and the Pacific and so these findings require new scenarios to describe the origins and routes of dissemination of leprosy during antiquity that have resulted in the modern phylogeographical distribution of M. leprae.”

Okay, so stop and consider the implications of this. We have someone from 7th c. Hungary with leprosy. The strain of M. leprae that he has is not most closely related to strains sequenced earlier in Denmark or Sweden or England (see Schuenemann et al. 2018, refs. 9, 20, & 21). Rather, the strain he has (3K0) is most closely related to modern strains currently documented on the Pacific Rim, a very, very long way from Hungary. Here are the summary reflections of Mendum et al. 2018:

The global distribution of 3K0 and 3K1 strains is today restricted to regions of the Western Pacific such as Japan (except Okinawa), Korea, China, The Philippines, New Caledonia and Indonesia amongst others (Kai et al, 2013; Avanzi et al, 2015; Monot el al, 2009; Weng et al, 2013; Honap et al, 2018). This could indicate that the 3K lineage originated in Northern or Eastern Asia. The presence of two type 3K cases (KD271 and 222) in early medieval Hungary would then suggest a route of dissemination from Asia to central Europe, perhaps via trade links or migrations. This would be consistent with what is known of the origins of the Pannonian Avars, who are believed to have reached the Hungarian plain from the Eurasian steppe in the late 6th to early 9th centuries (Curta, 2006). The other possibility is that Europe was a centre of dissemination of the ancestral 3K0 and related strains, some of which later became less common or even absent from Europe but persisted in East Asia and the Pacific. Determining the likelihood of each of these scenarios will require more sampling and characterisation of both ancient and modern strains.

Two things bear stressing:

  1. The lineage in which the Hungarian sample has been placed, Lineage 0, has now been documented in historical remains from Denmark, too. (Schuenemann et al. 2018) So whatever transmission routes are postulated to connect the Pacific Rim to Hungary, we will also need to postulate routes to connect the Pacific Rim to Denmark.
  2. Schuenemann et al. 2018 document four of the five known M. leprae lineages in medieval western Europe. (Mendum et al. 2018 now declare the existence of 6 lineages; see tree.)
leprosy-phylogenetic-tree
Phylogenetic relationships between selected modern (regular text) and ancient (bold text) M. leprae strains. The phylogeny was inferred by the Maximum Likelihood method of MEGA7 (Kumar et al, 2016) and the Tamura-3-Parameter model. The tree with the highest log likelihood value is shown. Bootstrap percentages from 1000 replicates are shown next to the branches. The scale indicates the number of substitutions per site. All positions with less than 90% site coverage were eliminated. M. lepromatosis was used as an outgroup (not shown). CM1 and Br15-1 are derived from a cynomolgus macaque and a red squirrel respectively.

Now, remember that we also need to keep chronology in mind: Lineage 0 is thought to have diverged from the common ancestor of Lineages 1-4 at least 3.5K ya. (Here’s the phylogenetic tree from Benjak et al. 2018, which I have marked with time divisions for emphasis.)

phylogeny-mleprae
Modified image by Monica H. Green. Phylogeny of M. leprae. Bayesian phylogenetic tree of 146 genomes of M. leprae calculated with BEAST 2.4.4. Hypermutated samples with mutations in the nth gene were excluded from the analysis. The tree is drawn to scale, with branch lengths representing years of age. Samples were binned according to geographic origin as given in the legend. Posterior probabilities for each node are shown in gray. Location probabilities of nodes were inferred by the Discrete Phylogeny model

So what we need to explain is how a strain (Lineage 0, or 3K0 as Mendum et al. 2018 call it) can be found all the way from Denmark to New Caledonia. An “Out of Europe” narrative isn’t really helpful, any more than the earlier “Out of Africa” narrative worked.

Given the extreme amount of suffering leprosy has caused, and continues to cause around the world, and given the extraordinary investigative power that paleogenetics has now developed, it’s really time that we did a better job pulling these global narratives together.

If you have Twitter, be sure to retweet this thread!

NOTE. Another (probably also interesting) article was published recently, Digging up the plague: A diachronic comparison of aDNA confirmed plague burials and associated burial customs in Germany, by Gutsmiedl-Schümann, Praehistorische Zeitschrift (2018) 92:2, but sadly my university does not have access to it.

Abstract:

Plague outbreaks in the past are mainly known from written sources; in particular, the Justinianic Plague of the Early Middle Ages and the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages have been described in vivid detail. Yet prior to the introduction of aDNA analysis, it was often quite difficult to associate burials with plague beyond doubt – especially in areas where written evidence of the plague is scarce. As analysis of ancient DNA now allows the detection of plague victims in the archaeological record, new ways are being developed for combining archaeological, historical and ancient DNA research. In this paper we would like to present and compare known examples of plague graves from the Early Middle Ages, the Late Middle Ages and the Thirty Years’ War in Germany that have also been confirmed by ancient DNA analyses. We would like to argue for a differentiated view of the burial customs, especially when more than one plague victim shared a grave, and would like to show possible conclusions, drawn from the aDNA-confirmed plague burials, that can indicate the different strategies adopted by ancient societies to deal with catastrophic events like a pandemic disease.

Related:

Ancient DNA study reveals HLA susceptibility locus for leprosy in medieval Europeans

danemark-medieval

Open access Ancient DNA study reveals HLA susceptibility locus for leprosy in medieval Europeans, by Krause-Kyora et al., Nature Communications (2018)

Abstract:

Leprosy, a chronic infectious disease caused by Mycobacterium leprae (M. leprae), was very common in Europe till the 16th century. Here, we perform an ancient DNA study on medieval skeletons from Denmark that show lesions specific for lepromatous leprosy (LL). First, we test the remains for M. leprae DNA to confirm the infection status of the individuals and to assess the bacterial diversity. We assemble 10 complete M. leprae genomes that all differ from each other. Second, we evaluate whether the human leukocyte antigen allele DRB1*15:01, a strong LL susceptibility factor in modern populations, also predisposed medieval Europeans to the disease. The comparison of genotype data from 69 M. leprae DNA-positive LL cases with those from contemporary and medieval controls reveals a statistically significant association in both instances. In addition, we observe that DRB1*15:01 co-occurs with DQB1*06:02 on a haplotype that is a strong risk factor for inflammatory diseases today.

danes-leprosy-positive
Relationship of 53 medieval leprosy-positive Danes to contemporary Europeans. Principal component analysis plot for 53 medieval St. Jørgen individuals in relation to European population samples from the 1000 Genomes project. (CEU, Northern Europeans from Utah; GBR, British in England and Scotland; IBS, Iberian population in Spain; TSI, Tuscans in Italy; FIN, Finnish in Finland)

The study shows mtDNA haplogroups comparable to those of northern Europeans today, and findings in general indicate no major genome-wide changes in the Danish population structure in the past 1000 years.

The paper may be of interest for earlier migrations:

rs3135388-t-allele-frequency-leprosy

Discovered via Iain Mathieson:

Related: