David Reich

31 Jul 2015

David Reich, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, pops up again in an article in Current World Archaeology 72 (Aug, 2015) (see www.world-archaeology.com). He is involved in archaeo-genetics and the application of that is called 'next generation sequencing' of DNA. He is able to extract virtually complete genome sequences of nuclear DNA from bone that has small amounts of DNA preserved. The nuclear genome is the most interesting and informative part of the human genetic story as it dwarfs mitochondrial DNA in terms of size. It also possesses features from the father as well as the mother.

David Reich did an analysis on 69 human genomes from Europe dating within 8000 to 3000 yeara ago (Nature, June 2015) which showed evidence of a major movement of people from the Russian steppes into central Europe around 5000 years ago (3000BC). The movement was primarily from western Russia and what is now the Ukraine. The DNA of the people of the Neolithic Corded Ware culture (found over large areas of central and northern Europe) is around 80 per cent identical to the Yamnaya culture of the steppes. The evidence indicates the steep movement mostly affect northern Europe and is less influential in the southern regions. Sardinia, for example, was found to be 90 er cent identical to the early Neolithic farmers who migrated westwards from Anatolia and the Near East after 6000BC. Reich suggests, tentatively rather than loudly, that the Indo European language may have been introduced into Europe around 3000BC - with the invaders from the steppe zone. On the other hand, this does not of itself dispute a connection of the Indo European language with the first farmers as these people did not only spread out of the Balkans into central and eastern Europe - they also moved via Bulgaria into the steppe zone (which was farmed up until around 4000BC when due to unknown reasons the farmers became mobile pastoralists). The early farmers of the steppes therefore contributed to the make up of the steppe nomads.

This gets even more interesting as Reich has now got hold of some genetic material of the people of the Maikop culture of the northern Transcausus region. This Early Bronze age people had a well developed metal working industry and buried their dead in kurgans. These have been compared, in time and style with the Royal Tombs of Ur (thought to have been made by steppe nomads from Russia), a brief period of steppe influence on Sumeria (the so called Jemdat Nasr period) that included the introduction of the horse. As horses were not native to Sumeria or the Middle East they quickly disappeared again - replaced by the onager. They were introduced again after the 2300BC event - a fresh influx from the steppes (known to posterity as the Guti, a tribe of the umman manda - or barbarians in general). Maikop also has connection perhaps with the Bronze Age in China, and with the southern transcaucasus zone. Reich will publish his findings in due course - but it is important from an archaeological perspective as the origin of the Maikop wealth and prominence may in fact be southwards. At the same time we should not dismiss out of hand the possibility they inherited the traditions of metal work from the Balkans (fourth millenium BC) which again opens a hornets nest of conflicting ideas.