Olalde et al. and Mathieson et al. (Nature 2018): R1b-L23 dominates Bell Beaker and Yamna, R1a-M417 resurges in East-Central Europe during the Bronze Age

The official papers Olalde et al. (Nature 2018) and Mathieson et al. (Nature 2018) have appeared. They are based on the 2017 preprints at BioRxiv The Beaker Phenomenon And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe and The Genomic History Of Southeastern Europe respectively, but with a sizeable number of new samples.

Papers are behind a paywall, but here are the authors’ shareable links to read the papers and supplementary materials: Olalde et al. (2018), Mathieson et al. (2018).

NOTE: The corresponding datasets have been added to the Reich Lab website. Remember you can use my drafts on DIY Human Ancestry analysis (viz. Plink/Eigensoft, PCA, or ADMIXTURE) to investigate the data further in your own computer.

Image modified by me, from Olalde et al (2018). PCA of 999 Eurasian individuals. Marked is the late CWC outlier sample from Esperstedt, showing how early East Bell Beaker samples are the closest to Yamna samples.

I don’t have time to analyze the samples in detail right now, but in short they seem to convey the same information as before: in Olalde et al. (2018) the pattern of Y-DNA haplogroup and steppe ancestry distribution is overwhelming, with an all-R1b-L23 Bell Beaker people accompanying steppe ancestry into western Europe.

EDIT: In Mathieson et al. (2018), a sample classified as of Ukraine_Eneolithic from Dereivka ca. 2890-2696 BC is of R1b1a1a2a2-Z2103 subclade, so Western Yamna during the migrations also of R1b-L23 subclades, in contrast with the previous R1a lineages in Ukraine. In Olalde et al. (2018), it is clearly stated that of the four BB individuals with higher steppe ancestry, the two with higher coverage could be classified as of R1b-S116/P312 subclades.

This is compatible with the expansion of Indo-European-speaking Yamna migrants (also mainly of R1b-L23 subclades) into the East Bell Beaker group, as described with detail in Archaeology (and with the population movement we are seeing having been predicted) first by Volker Heyd in 2007.

Yamna – East Bell Beaker migration 3000-2300 BC. Adapted from Harrison and Heyd (2007), Heyd (2007)

Also, the resurge of R1a-Z645 subclades in Czech and Polish lands (from previous Corded Ware migrants) accompanying other lineages indigenous to the region – seems to have happened only after the Bell Beaker expansion into these territories, during the Bronze Age, probably leading to the formation of the Balto-Slavic community, as I predicted based on previous papers. The fact that a sample of R1b-U106 subclade pops up in this territory is interesting from the point of view of a shared substrate with Germanic, as is the earlier BB sample of R1b-Z2103 for its connection with Graeco-Aryan dialects.

All this suggests that a North-West Indo-European dialect – ancestor of Italo-Celtic, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic -, supported in Linguistics by most modern Indo-European schools of thought, expanded roughly along the Danube, and later to northern, eastern, and western Europe with the Bell Beaker expansion, as supported in Anthropology by Mallory (in Celtic from the West 2, 2013), and by Prescott for the development of a Nordic or Pre-Germanic language in Scandinavia since 1995.

Diachronic map of Late Copper Age migrations including Classical Bell Beaker (east group) expansion from central Europe ca. 2600-2250 BC

Maybe more importantly, the fact that only Indo-Iranian-speaking Sintashta-Petrovka (and later Andronovo) cultures were clearly associated with R1a-Z645 subclades, and rather late – after mixing with early Chalcolithic North Caspian steppe groups (mainly East Yamna and Poltavka herders of R1b-L23 subclades) – gives support to the theory that Corded Ware (and probably the earlier Sredni Stog) groups did not speak or spread Indo-European languages with their migration, but most likely Uralic – as seen in recent papers on the much later arrival of haplogroup N1c – (compatible with the Corded Ware substrate hypothesis), adopting Indo-Iranian by way of cultural diffusion or founder effect events.

As Sheldon Cooper would say,

Under normal circumstances I’d say I told you so. But, as I have told you so with such vehemence and frequency already the phrase has lost all meaning. Therefore, I will be replacing it with the phrase, I informed you thusly

I informed you thusly:

“How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures”

I recently wrote about a good informal summary of genomic research in 2017 for geneticists.

I found a more professional review article, How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures, by Bruce Bower, appeared in Science News (25th Nov. 2017).

NOTE: I know, I know, the Pontic-Caspian steppe is in East Europe, not Asia, but what can you do about people’s misconceptions regarding European geography? After all, the division is a conventional one, there are not many landmarks to divide Eurasia…

It refers to Kristiansen’s model, which we already know supports the expansion of IE languages with the Corded Ware culture, and a later Corded Ware -> Bell Beaker migration. This is followed by many geneticists today as “The steppe model”.

Corded Ware culture emerged as a hybrid way of life that included crop cultivation, breeding of farm animals and some hunting and gathering, Kristiansen argues. Communal living structures and group graves of earlier European farmers were replaced by smaller structures suitable for families and single graves covered by earthen mounds. Yamnaya families had lived out of their wagons even before trekking to Europe. A shared emphasis on family life and burying the dead individually indicates that members of the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures kept possessions among close relatives, in Kristiansen’s view.

“The Yamnaya and the Corded Ware culture were unified by a new idea of transmitting property between related individuals and families,” Kristiansen says.

Yamnaya migrants must have spoken a fledgling version of Indo-European languages that later spread across Europe and parts of Asia, Kristiansen’s group contends. Anthony, a longtime Kristiansen collaborator, agrees. Reconstructed vocabularies for people of the Corded Ware culture include words related to wagons, wheels and horse breeding that could have come only from the Yamnaya, Anthony says.

As Indo-European languages spread, the Yamnaya’s genetic impact in Europe remained substantial, even after the disappearance of Corded Ware culture around 4,400 years ago, Reich’s team reported online May 9 at bioRxiv.org. About 50 percent of the ancestry of individuals from a later Bronze Age culture, dubbed the Bell Beaker culture for its pottery vessels shaped like an inverted bell, derived from Yamnaya stock. Such pottery spread across much of Europe starting nearly 4,770 years ago and disappeared by 3,800 years ago. Migrations of either people or ideas may have accounted for that dispersal.

NOTE. Anthony, as we know, has already changed his mind with the most recent data.

The author juxtaposes other opinions, to somehow balance the article:

Like many of his colleagues, archaeologist Volker Heyd of the University of Bristol in England was jolted by the 2015 reports of a close genetic link between Asian herders and a Bronze Age culture considered native to Europe. But, Heyd says, the story of ancient Yamnaya migrations is more complex than the rapid-change scenario sketched out by Kristiansen and Anthony.

No evidence exists that Yamnaya people rapidly developed practices typical of the Corded Ware culture in one part of Europe, Heyd argues in the April Antiquity. Cultural shifts in Europe around 5,000 years ago must have emerged from an extended series of small-scale dealings with Yamnaya and other pastoralists, which was then capped off by a large influx of steppe wagon travelers, he says.

For instance, individual graves and other signs of contact with the Yamnaya people and even earlier Asian pastoralists appear in Europe 1,000 to 2,000 years before DNA-transforming migrations occurred. Consider that the Yamnaya account for 5 percent of the ancestry of Ötzi the Iceman, who lived in southeastern Europe roughly 300 years before the Yamnaya’s big move (SN: 5/27/17, p. 13). Little is known about those earlier encounters.

Efforts to decipher ties between Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture are complicated by the fact that DNA is available from just a few people from each group, says Heyd, who is currently excavating Yamnaya graves in Hungary. Ancient DNA samples analyzed in the 2015 papers come from only a handful of Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture sites in a few parts of Europe and Russia.

Heyd suspects that Yamnaya travelers had even earlier contacts, perhaps by 5,400 years ago, with central and eastern Europeans known for making globe-shaped pots with small handles. Individuals from that culture, excavated at two sites in Poland and Ukraine, possess no Yamnaya genes, a team affiliated with Reich’s lab reported online May 9 at bioRxiv.org. But Heyd thinks mating between members of that European culture and Yamnaya migrants may have occurred a bit farther east, where cross-cultural contacts probably occurred at the boundary of European forests and Asian grasslands.

Other genetic clues point to a long history of Asian pastoralists crossing into parts of Europe. Small amounts of DNA from steppe herders, possibly the Yamnaya, appeared in three hunter-gatherer skeletons from southeastern Europe dating to as early as around 6,500 years ago.

It is always interesting to see how reports gradually evolve, including more and more doubts about the ‘Yamnaya component’, and how it may be correctly interpreted. Slow but steady wins the race.

Check out the full article.

Featured image: from the article, based on the 2015 papers and Kristiansen’s model.

See also:

Marija Gimbutas and the expansion of the “Kurgan people” based on tumulus-building cultures

An interesting article that I keep stumbling upon, The tumulus in European prehistory: covering the body, housing the soul, by Anthony Harding (2011):

Finally, in Kurgan IV she saw “continuous waves of expansion or raids[that] touched all of northern Europe, the Aegean area, and the east Mediterranean areas possibly as far south as Egypt”. This was the period of the Catacomb Graves, but also the Early Bronze Age rock-cut tombs of the Mediterranean, Vučedol, Bell Beakers in Hungary, the Single Grave culture of the Nordic region. The Kurgan Culture reached Ireland, she remarked in a paper of 1978 “as early as 3500 B.C.” – by which she presumably referred to megalithic mounds covering passage tombs.


According to Gimbutas, the “Kurgan people” are evidenced by single graves in deep shafts, often in wooden chests (coffins) or stone cists marked by low earth or stone barrows; the dead lay on their backs with legs contracted; they were buried with flint points or arrowheads, figurines depicting horses’ heads, boars tusk ornaments and animal tooth pendants. Human sacrifice was allegedly performed during the funeral ceremonies,and sometimes ritual graves of cattle and other animals were added. This is said to contrast with what Gimbutas called the culture of Old Europe (i.e. the earlier Neolithic of the Balkans), who “betray a concern for the deification of the dead and the construction of monumental works of architecture visible in mortuary houses,grave markings, tumuli, stone rings or stone stelae, and in the large quantity of weapons found in the graves”.


The varying burial traditions of the Early Bronze Age in Central and Eastern Europe (Häusler 1977, fig. 1). Circles: tumuli with the “mound edge principle”. Semicircles: tumuli. Stippling: cremation; other symbols represent inhumation graves, divided according to orientation and sex

Can we really associate the practice of mound-building with a specific people, and assume that the spread of the practice indicates the spread of the people? That is one of the “big questions” of European archaeology, and one which a number of papers in the volume address. My own position is that the practice of tumulus building seems so widespread in time and space that it seems hard to associate it with one particular ethnic group – though I can understand how, in the melting pot that was Early Europe, people could believe this to be the case. There are, however, major arguments against the idea, on archaeological grounds alone – which Häusler’s map indicates very clearly. Burial mode and grave form in Copper and Bronze Age Europe was far too variable for any such simplistic correlation. In any case, what are we to make of the appearance of tumuli in such far-flung places as Japan or North America, where tumuli are very common? It was always unlikely that the megalithic tombs of western Europe were to be associated with movements from the steppe 1000 or 2000 years earlier, and nothing that has happened since Gimbutas was writing has changed that situation

Research has corrected Gimbutas’ opinion on the time of spread of Indo-Europeans, on the role of the horse (see e.g. Anthony 2007) in their expansion, and the unrelatedness of the two main central European Chalcolithic archaeological packages: the Corded Ware package that expanded from the Balkans into north-eastern Europe, and the Yamna package (together with the proto-Beaker package) that evolved into the East Bell Beaker culture.

Extent of migration of the “Yamna package“, from Heyd 2007

However, the shadow of the “Kurgan people” remains in the outdated body of innumerable writings. It was revived with the first attempts at disentangling Europe’s genetic past (based on the role of R1a in expanding Proto-Indo-European).

Particularly strong in that sense is the model set forth by Kristiansen, who was nevertheless aware since his first proposal of the differences between the ‘Kurgan people’ of the steppe and those of the Corded Ware culture, selecting thus an alternative framework of long-lasting human and economic interactions between the “Kurgan people”, the Globular Amphora and Baden cultures with an origin of the culture in the natural region formed between the Upper Dnieper and Vistula rivers.

This idea is continued today, and has been recently linked with the Agricultural Substrate Hypothesis. Originally proposed by Kroonen and linked to the spread of Middle Eastern “R1b1b2” with agriculture, it is now (in Kristiansen et al. 2017 and more recently in Iversen and Kroonen 2017) linked with the expansion of the Corded Ware culture, thus proposing that Pre-Germanic is a branch separated some 6,000 years ago from other branches…

Kristiansen’s (1989) schematic presentation of basic principles of burial positions in the Late Neolithic / EBA cultures in northern Eurasia, following to some extent Häusler (1983)

The linguistic proposal is obviously compatible with mainstream archaeological models – which suggest the introduction of Pre-Germanic in Scandinavia with Bell Beaker peoples -, but since the linguistic proposal alone would probably not make such a fuss without the accompanying genetics, I guess this is the right way to publicise it. I doubt linguists really care about genetics, and I really doubt amateur geneticists will read the linguistic proposal, but who cares.

Kristiansen’s traditional model is obviously in contrast with contemporaneous anthropological writings by Anthony, Heyd, or (Gimbutas’ pupil) Mallory, but is nevertheless becoming a resilient tradition in the interpretation of results in studies of human ancestry in Europe.

I doubt that Gimbutas, who was not very fond of tradition, would be proud of this kind of legacy, though…

Featured image: “European dialect” expansion of Proto-Indo-European according to The Indo-Europeans: Archeological Problems, Gimbutas (1963). Observe the similarities of the western European expansion to the recently proposed expansion of R1b lineages with western Yamna and Bell Beaker.