The genetic and cultural barrier of the Pontic-Caspian steppe – forest-steppe ecotone


We know that the Caucasus Mountains formed a persistent prehistoric barrier to cultural and population movements. Nevertheless, an even more persistent frontier to population movements in Europe, especially since the Neolithic, is the Pontic-Caspian steppe – forest-steppe ecotone.

Like the Caucasus, this barrier could certainly be crossed, and peoples and cultures could permeate in both directions, but there have been no massive migrations through it. The main connection between both regions (steppe vs. forest-steppe/forest zone) was probably through its eastern part, through the Samara region in the Middle Volga.

The chances of population expansions crossing this natural barrier anywhere else seem quite limited, with a much less porous crossing region in the west, through the Dnieper-Dniester corridor.

A Persistent ecological and cultural frontier

It is very difficult to think about any culture that transgressed this persistent ecological and cultural frontier: many prehistoric and historical steppe pastoralists did appear eventually in the neighbouring forest-steppe areas during their expansions (e.g. Yamna, Scythians, or Turks), as did forest groups who permeated to the south (e.g. Comb Ware, GAC, or Abashevo), but their respective hold in foreign biomes was mostly temporary, because their cultures had to adapt to the new ecological environment. Most if not all groups originally from a different ecological niche eventually disappeared, subjected to renewed demographic pressure from neighbouring steppe or forest populations…

The Samara region in the Middle Volga may be pointed out as the true prehistoric link between forests and steppes (see David Anthony’s remarks), something reflected in its nature as a prehistoric sink in genetics. This strong forest – forest-steppe – steppe connection was seen in the Eurasian technocomplex, during the expansion of hunter-gatherer pottery, in the expansion of Abashevo peoples to the steppes (in one of the most striking cases of population admixture in the area), with Scythians (visible in the intense contacts with Ananyino), and with Turks (Volga Turks).

Simplified map of the distribution of steppes and forest-steppes (Pontic and Pannonian) and xeric grasslands in Eastern Central Europe (with adjoining East European ranges) with their regionalisation as used in the review (Northern—Pannonic—Pontic). Modified from Kajtoch et al. (2016).

Before the emergence of pastoralism, the cultural contacts of the Pontic region (i.e. forest-steppes) with the Baltic were intense. In fact, the connection of the north Pontic area with the Baltic through the Dnieper-Dniester corridor and the Podolian-Volhynian region is essential to understand the spread of peoples of post-Maglemosian and post-Swiderian cultures (to the south), hunter-gatherer pottery (to the north), TRB (to the south), Late Trypillian groups (north), GAC (south), or Comb Ware (south) (see here for Eneolithic movements), and finally steppe ancestry and R1a-Z645 with Corded Ware (north). After the complex interaction of TRB, Trypillia, GAC, and CWC during the expansion of late Repin, this traditional long-range connection is lost and only emerges sporadically, such as with the expansion of East Germanic tribes.

A barrier to steppe migrations into northern Europe

One may think that this barrier was more permeable, then, in the past. However, the frontier is between steppe and forest-steppe ecological niches, and this barrier evolved during prehistory due to climate changes. The problem is, before the drought that began ca. 4000 BC and increased until the Yamna expansion, the steppe territory in the north Pontic region was much smaller, merely a strip of coastal land, compared to its greater size ca. 3300 BC and later.

This – apart from the cultural and technological changes associated with nomadic pastoralism – justifies the traditional connection of the north Pontic forest-steppes to the north, broken precisely after the expansion of Khvalynsk, as the north Pontic area became gradually a steppe region. The strips of north Pontic and Azov steppes and Crimea seem to have had stronger connections to the Northern Caucasus and Northern Caspian steppes than with the neighbouring forest-steppe areas during the Upper Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic.

NOTE. We still don’t know the genetic nature of Mikhailovka or Ezero, steppe-related groups possibly derived from Novodanilovka and Suvorovo close to the Black Sea (which possibly include groups from the Pannonian plains), and how they compare to neighbouring typically forest-steppe cultures of the so-called late Sredni Stog groups, like Dereivka or partly Kvityana.

Typical migration routes through European steppes and forest-steppes. Red line represents the persistent cultural and genetic barrier, with the latest evolution in steppe region represented by the shift from dashed line to the north. Arrows show the most common population movements. Modified from Kajtoch et al. (2016).

Despite the Pontic-Caspian steppes and forest-steppes neighbouring each other for ca. 2,000 km, peoples from forested and steppe areas had an obvious advantage in their own regions, most likely due to the specialization of their subsistence economy. While this is visible already in Palaeolithic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, the arrival of the Neolithic package in the Pontic-Caspian region incremented the difference between groups, by spreading specialized animal domestication. The appearance of nomadic pastoralism adapted to the steppe, eventually including the use of horses and carts, made the cultural barrier based on the economic know-how even stronger.

Even though groups could still adapt and permeate a different territory (from steppe to forest-steppe/forest and vice-versa), this required an important cultural change, to the extent that it is eventually complicated to distinguish these groups from neighbouring ones (like north-west Pontic Mesolithic or Neolithic groups and their interaction with the steppes, Trypillia-Usatovo, Scythians-Thracians, etc.). In fact, this steppe – forest-steppe barrier is also seen to the east of the Urals, with the distinct expansion of Andronovo and Seima-Turbino/Andronovo-like horizons, which seem to represent completely different ethnolinguistic groups.

As a result of this cultural and genetic barrier, like that formed by the Northern Caucasus:

1) No steppe pastoralist culture (which after the emergence of Khvalynsk means almost invariably horse-riding, chariot-using nomadic herders who could easily pasture their cows in the huge grasslands without direct access to water) has ever been successful in spreading to the north or north-west into northern Europe, until the Mongols. No forest culture has ever been successful in expanding to the steppes, either (except for the infiltration of Abashevo into Sintashta-Potapovka).

2) Corded Ware was not an exception: like hunter-gatherer pottery before it (and like previous population movements of TRB, late Trypillia, GAC, Comb Ware or Lublin-Volhynia settlers) their movements between the north Pontic area and central Europe happened through forest-steppe ecological niches due to their adaptation to them. There is no reason to support a direct connection of CWC with true steppe cultures.

3) The so-called “Steppe ancestry” permeated the steppe – forest-steppe ecotone for hundreds of years during the 5th and early 4th millennium BC, due to the complex interaction of different groups, and probably to the aridization trend that expanded steppe (and probably forest-steppe) to the north. Language, culture, and paternal lineages did not cross that frontier, though.

EDIT (4 FEB 2019): Wang et al. is out in Nature Communications. They deleted the Yamna Hungary samples and related analyses, but it’s interesting to see where exactly they think the trajectory of admixture of Yamna with European MN cultures fits best. This path could also be inferred long ago from the steppe connections shown by the Yamna Hungary -> Bell Beaker evolution and by early Balkan samples:

Prehistoric individuals projected onto a PCA of 84 modern-day West Eurasian populations (open symbols). Dashed arrows indicate trajectories of admixture: EHG—CHG (petrol), Yamnaya—Central European MN (pink), Steppe—Caucasus (green), and Iran Neolithic—Anatolian Neolithic (brown). Modified from the original, a red circle has been added to the Yamna-Central European MN admixture.


Inca and Spanish Empires had a profound impact on Peruvian demography


Open access Evolutionary genomic dynamics of Peruvians before, during, and after the Inca Empire by Harris et al., PNAS (2018) 201720798 (published ahead of print).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Native Americans from the Amazon, Andes, and coastal geographic regions of South America have a rich cultural heritage but are genetically understudied, therefore leading to gaps in our knowledge of their genomic architecture and demographic history. In this study, we sequence 150 genomes to high coverage combined with an additional 130 genotype array samples from Native American and mestizo populations in Peru. The majority of our samples possess greater than 90% Native American ancestry, which makes this the most extensive Native American sequencing project to date. Demographic modeling reveals that the peopling of Peru began ∼12,000 y ago, consistent with the hypothesis of the rapid peopling of the Americas and Peruvian archeological data. We find that the Native American populations possess distinct ancestral divisions, whereas the mestizo groups were admixtures of multiple Native American communities that occurred before and during the Inca Empire and Spanish rule. In addition, the mestizo communities also show Spanish introgression largely following Peruvian Independence, nearly 300 y after Spain conquered Peru. Further, we estimate migration events between Peruvian populations from all three geographic regions with the majority of between-region migration moving from the high Andes to the low-altitude Amazon and coast. As such, we present a detailed model of the evolutionary dynamics which impacted the genomes of modern-day Peruvians and a Native American ancestry dataset that will serve as a beneficial resource to addressing the underrepresentation of Native American ancestry in sequencing studies.

Admixture among Peruvian populations. (A) Colors represent contributions from donor populations into the genomes of Peruvian mestizo groups, as estimated by CHROMOPAINTER and GLOBETROTTER. The label within parentheses for each Peruvian Native American source population corresponds to their geographic region where Ama, And, and Coa represent Amazon, Andes, and coast, respectively. (B) Admixture time and proportion for the best fit three-way ancestry (AP, Trujillo and Lima) and two-way ancestry (Iquitos, Cusco, and Puno) TRACT models [European, African, and Native American (NatAm) ancestries] for six mestizo populations. (C) Network of individuals from Peruvian Native American and mestizo groups according to their shared IBD length. Each node is an individual and the length of an edge equals to (1/total shared IBD). IBD segments with different lengths are summed according to different thresholds representing different times in the past (52), with 7.8 cM, 9.3 cM, and 21.8 cM roughly representing the start of the Inca Empire, the Spanish conquest and occupation, and Peruvian independence. IBD networks are generated by Cytoscape (98) and only the major clusters in the network are shown for different cutoffs of segment length. AP, Central Am, and Matsig are short for Afroperuvians, Central American, and Matsiguenka, respectively. The header of each IBD network specifies the length of IBD segments used in each network.

Interesting excerpts

The high frequency of Native American mitochondrial haplotypes suggests that European males were the primary source of European admixture with Native Americans, as previously found (23, 24, 41, 42). The only Peruvian populations that have a proportion of the Central American component are in the Amazon (Fig. 2A). This is supported by Homburger et al. (4), who also found Central American admixture in other Amazonian populations and could represent ancient shared ancestry or a recent migration between Central America and the Amazon.

Following the peopling of Peru, we find a complex history of admixture between Native American populations from multiple geographic regions (Figs. 2B and 3 A and C). This likely began before the Inca Empire due to Native American and mestizo groups sharing IBD segments that correspond to the time before the Inca Empire. However, the Inca Empire likely influenced this pattern due to their policy of forced migrations, known as “mitma” (mitmay in Quechua) (28, 31, 37), which moved large numbers of individuals to incorporate them into the Inca Empire. We can clearly see the influence of the Inca through IBD sharing where the center of dominance in Peru is in the Andes during the Inca Empire (Fig. 3C).

ASPCA of combined Peruvian Genome Project with the HGDP genotyped on the Human Origins Array. A.) European ancestry. B.) African ancestry. Samples are filtered by their corresponding ancestral proportion: European ≥ 30% (panel A) and African ≥ 10% (panel B). The two plots in each panel are identical except for the color scheme: reference populations are colored on the left and Peruvian populations are colored on the right. Each point is one haplotype. In the African ASPCA we note three outliers among our samples, two from Trujillo and one from Iquitos, that cluster closer to the Luhya and Luo populations, though not directly. It is likely that these individuals share ancestry with other regions of Africa in addition to western Africa, but we cannot test this hypothesis explicitly as we have too few samples.

A similar policy of large-scale consolidation of multiple Native American populations was continued during Spanish rule through their program of reducciones, or reductions (31, 32), which is consistent with the hypothesis that the Inca and Spanish had a profound impact on Peruvian demography (25). The result of these movements of people created early New World cosmopolitan communities with genetic diversity from the Andes, Amazon, and coast regions as is evidenced by mestizo populations’ ancestry proportions (Fig. 3A). Following Peruvian independence, these cosmopolitan populations were those same ones that predominantly admixed with the Spanish (Fig. 3B). Therefore, this supports our model that the Inca Empire and Spanish colonial rule created these diverse populations as a result of admixture between multiple Native American ancestries, which would then go on to become the modern mestizo populations by admixing with the Spanish after Peruvian independence.

Further, it is interesting that this admixture began before the urbanization of Peru (26) because others suspected the urbanization process would greatly impact the ancestry patterns in these urban centers (25). (…)


Distribution of Southern Iberian haplogroup H indicates exchanges in the western Mediterranean

Recent open access paper The distribution of mitochondrial DNA haplogroup H in southern Iberia indicates ancient human genetic exchanges along the western edge of the Mediterranean, by Hernández, Dugoujon, Novelletto, Rodríguez, Cuesta and Calderón, BMC Genetics (2017).

Abstract (emphasis mine):

The structure of haplogroup H reveals significant differences between the western and eastern edges of the Mediterranean, as well as between the northern and southern regions. Human populations along the westernmost Mediterranean coasts, which were settled by individuals from two continents separated by a relatively narrow body of water, show the highest frequencies of mitochondrial haplogroup H. These characteristics permit the analysis of ancient migrations between both shores, which may have occurred via primitive sea crafts and early seafaring. We collected a sample of 750 autochthonous people from the southern Iberian Peninsula (Andalusians from Huelva and Granada provinces). We performed a high-resolution analysis of haplogroup H by control region sequencing and coding SNP screening of the 337 individuals harboring this maternal marker. Our results were compared with those of a wide panel of populations, including individuals from Iberia, the Maghreb, and other regions around the Mediterranean, collected from the literature.

Both Andalusian subpopulations showed a typical western European profile for the internal composition of clade H, but eastern Andalusians from Granada also revealed interesting traces from the eastern Mediterranean. The basal nodes of the most frequent H sub-haplogroups, H1 and H3, harbored many individuals of Iberian and Maghrebian origins. Derived haplotypes were found in both regions; haplotypes were shared far more frequently between Andalusia and Morocco than between Andalusia and the rest of the Maghreb. These and previous results indicate intense, ancient and sustained contact among populations on both sides of the Mediterranean.

Our genetic data on mtDNA diversity, combined with corresponding archaeological similarities, provide support for arguments favoring prehistoric bonds with a genetic legacy traceable in extant populations. Furthermore, the results presented here indicate that the Strait of Gibraltar and the adjacent Alboran Sea, which have often been assumed to be an insurmountable geographic barrier in prehistory, served as a frequently traveled route between continents.

a, b, c. Interpolated frequency surfaces of clade H and its main sub-clades (H1 and H3). Frequencies (%) are showed in a colour scale. See information about the populations used in Additional files 4 and 5. Map templates were taken from Natural Earth free map repository (

I usually find mtDNA data, especially studies like this one based on modern populations, very difficult to interpret for anthropological purposes. It is well-known that there are important differences in the pattern of Y-DNA and mtDNA expansion and distribution.

A paragraph in this respect caught my attention:

The patterns of variation in the Y-chromosome between western and eastern Andalusians, based on 416 males, have also been investigated for a set of Y-Short Tandem Repeats (Y-STRs) and Y-SNPs [53, 54, 55], Calderón et al., unpublished data] in combination to mtDNA analyses ([18, 19] and present study). In general, for both uniparental makers, Andalusians exhibit a typical western European genetic background, with peak frequencies of mtDNA Hg H and Y-chromosome Hg R1b1b2-M269 (45% and 60%, respectively). Interestingly, our results have further revealed that the influence of African female input is far more significant when compared to male influence in contemporary Andalusians. The lack of correspondence between the maternal and paternal genetic profiles of human populations reflects intrinsic differences in migratory behavior related to sex-biased processes and admixture, as well as differences in male and female effective population sizes related to the variance in reproductive success affected, for example, by polygyny [56, 57].

I think that the greater reduction in patrilineal lineages compared to maternal lineages we usually see during and after prehistoric or historic migrations have more to do with the renown Uí Néill family case and with war-related casualties (since combatants were usually men) than with other more popular explanations, such as enslavement of women or polygyny.

The most successful paternal lines (anywhere in the world) were probably those who remained in power for a long time (be it a patriarchal society based on families, clans, or more complex organizational units), who were richer and thus more capable of having healthy offspring, who in turn were able to survive longer and have more children who inherited power, etc.

In case of recent migrations or population movements that disrupt the previously established organization, after a certain number of generations, successful patrilocal families (usually from incoming lineages) might slowly dominate over a whole region, with poorer families (usually of ‘indigenous’ lineages) suffering a greater – especially perinatal and child – mortality, without any obvious (pre)historic event associated to these gradual changes.

This gradual replacement of paternal lineages is compatible with the adoption of the native language by newcomers. If the number of migrants is greater that the native population, and especially if their technology is more advanced, then a more radical change including ethnolinguistic identification is more likely.

I don’t deny the (pre)historic existence of radical replacement of male populations with continuity of female lineages due to massacres of men, female slavery, or polygyny, but they are probably not the main explanation for most regional differences seen in paternal lineages, and should thus be used with caution.

Gradual replacement and founder effects are also the most logical explanation for why autochthonous continuity myths (that the modern regional prevalence of few successful lineages tended to create in the 2000s) haven’t been corroborated by ancient DNA; e.g. R1b-DF27 in Basques, N1c-M178 in Finnic populations, R1a-Z283 in Slavs, etc. There is nothing different in those areas from other recent founder effects and internal migratory flows seen everywhere in Europe in the past millennia.

Paper discovered via a link by Alberto Gonzalez on Facebook group Iberia ADN


Reconstructing the genetic history of late Neanderthals


New paper (behind paywall) Reconstructing the genetic history of late Neanderthals, by Mateja Hajdinjak, Qiaomei Fu, Alexander Hübner, et al. Nature (2018).

Abstract (edited):

Although it has previously been shown that Neanderthals contributed DNA to modern humans, not much is known about the genetic diversity of Neanderthals or the relationship between late Neanderthal populations at the time at which their last interactions with early modern humans occurred and before they eventually disappeared. Our ability to retrieve DNA from a larger number of Neanderthal individuals has been limited by poor preservation of endogenous DNA and contamination of Neanderthal skeletal remains by large amounts of microbial and present-day human DNA. Here we use hypochlorite treatment6 of as little as 9 mg of bone or tooth powder to generate between 1- and 2.7-fold genomic coverage of five Neanderthals who lived around 39,000 to 47,000 years ago (that is, late Neanderthals), thereby doubling the number of Neanderthals for which genome sequences are available. Genetic similarity among late Neanderthals is well predicted by their geographical location, and comparison to the genome of an older Neanderthal from the Caucasus indicates that a population turnover is likely to have occurred, either in the Caucasus or throughout Europe, towards the end of Neanderthal history. We find that the bulk of Neanderthal gene flow into early modern humans originated from one or more source populations that diverged from the Neanderthals that were studied here at least 70,000 years ago, but after they split from a previously sequenced Neanderthal from Siberia around 150,000 years ago. Although four of the Neanderthals studied here post-date the putative arrival of early modern humans into Europe, we do not detect any recent gene flow from early modern humans in their ancestry.

Phylogenetic relationships of late Neanderthals. a, Bayesian phylogenetic tree of mitochondrial genomes of 23 Neanderthals, 3 Denisovans, 64 modern humans and a hominin from Sima de los Huesos. The posterior probabilities for the branches are shown. b, Neighbour-joining tree of Y chromosome sequences of Mezmaiskaya 2, Spy 94a, 175 present-day humans21 and two present-day humans carrying the A00 haplogroup30. The number of substitutions is shown above the branches. c, Neighbour-joining tree of nuclear genomes based on autosomal transversions among late Neanderthals, Vindija 33.19, Mezmaiskaya 1, Altai Neanderthal, Denisovan and 12 present-day humans. Bootstrap support values after 1,000 replications are shown.

Interesting excerpts (edited):

(…) Mezmaiskaya 2 shared more derived alleles with the other late Neanderthals than with Mezmaiskaya 1 (− 2.13 ≤ Z ≤ − 9.56; Supplementary Information 9), suggesting that there was a population turnover towards the end of Neanderthal history. This turnover may have been the result of a population related to western Neanderthals replacing earlier Neanderthals in the Caucasus, or the replacement of Neanderthals in western Europe by a population related to Mezmaiskaya 2. The timing of this turnover coincides with pronounced climatic fluctuations during Marine Isotope Stage 3 between 60 and 24 ka, when extreme cold periods in northern Europe may have triggered the local extinction of Neanderthal populations and subsequent re-colonization from refugia in southern Europe or western Asia.

(…) the majority of gene flow into early modern humans appears to have originated from one or more Neanderthal populations that diverged from other late Neanderthals after their split from the Altai Neanderthal about 150 ka, but before the split from Mezmaiskaya 1 at least 90 ka. Owing to the scarcity of overlapping genetic data from Oase 1, whose genome revealed an unusually high percentage of Neanderthal ancestry11, we were unable to resolve whether one of these late Neanderthals was significantly closer than others to the introgressing Neanderthal in Oase 1.

Interbreeding between Neanderthals and early modern humans is likely to have occurred intermittently, presumably resulting in gene flow in both directions. However, when we applied an approach that uses the extended length of haplotypes expected from recent introgression into the analysed late Neanderthals, we did not find any indications of recent gene flow from early modern humans to the late Neanderthals. We caution that given the small number of analysed Neanderthals we cannot exclude that such gene flow occurred. However, it is striking that Oase 1, one of two early modern humans that overlapped in time with late Neanderthals, showed evidence for recent additional Neanderthal introgression whereas none of the late Neanderthals analysed here do. This may indicate that gene flow affected the ancestry of modern human populations more than it did Neanderthals


The demographic history and mutational load of African hunter-gatherers and farmers


Interesting new article (behind paywall), The demographic history and mutational load of African hunter-gatherers and farmers, Nat Ecol Evol (2018)

Abstract (emphasis mine):

Understanding how deleterious genetic variation is distributed across human populations is of key importance in evolutionary biology and medical genetics. However, the impact of population size changes and gene flow on the corresponding mutational load remains a controversial topic. Here, we report high-coverage exomes from 300 rainforest hunter-gatherers and farmers of central Africa, whose distinct subsistence strategies are expected to have impacted their demographic pasts. Detailed demographic inference indicates that hunter-gatherers and farmers recently experienced population collapses and expansions, respectively, accompanied by increased gene flow. We show that the distribution of deleterious alleles across these populations is compatible with a similar efficacy of selection to remove deleterious variants with additive effects, and predict with simulations that their present-day additive mutation load is almost identical. For recessive mutations, although an increased load is predicted for hunter-gatherers, this increase has probably been partially counteracted by strong gene flow from expanding farmers. Collectively, our predicted and empirical observations suggest that the impact of the recent population decline of African hunter-gatherers on their mutation load has been modest and more restrained than would be expected under a fully recessive model of dominance.

“Inferred demographic models of the studied populations. a, EUR-first branching model, in which ancestors of EUR (aEUR) diverged from African populations before the divergence of the ancestors of RHG (aRHG) and AGR (aAGR). b, RHG-first branching model, in which aRHG were the first to diverge from the other groups. c, AGR-first branching model, in which aAGR were the first to diverge from the other groups. We assumed an ancient change in the size of the ancestral population of all humans (ANC). We assumed that each subsequent divergence of populations was followed by an instantaneous change in the effective population size (Ne). We also assumed that there were two epochs of migration between the following population pairs: wAGR/aAGR and wRHG/aRHG, eAGR/aAGR and eRHG/aRHG, and EUR and eAGR/aAGR. The figure labels correspond to the parameters of the model estimated by maximum likelihood and the 95% confidence intervals assessed by bootstrapping by site 100 times (Supplementary Table 4). Vertical arrow corresponds to the direction of time, from past to present, with divergence times given on the left and expressed in thousand years ago(ka). Effective population sizes (N) are given within the diagram and expressed in thousands of individuals. Bold horizontal arrows indicate an estimated parameter for the effective strength of migration 2Nm > 1, while thin horizontal arrows indicate 2Nm ≤ 1.”

See also: