Modern Europe Is Younger Than We Thought


Modern Europe’s Genetic History Starts in Stone Age
Europeans as a people are younger than we thought, a new study suggests.

DNA recovered from ancient skeletons reveals that the genetic makeup of modern Europe was established around 4,500 years ago—not by the first farmers who arrived in the area around 7,500 years ago, or by earlier hunter-gatherer groups.

(In this video, geneticist Spencer Wells explains how scientists use DNA to uncover genetic history.)

Discussion Ideas:

  • The scientists who produced this new study are geneticists, people who study genes and the way they mutate and vary over time. Geneticists studying ancient human migrations often compare and contrast their findings with the work of archaeologists and paleoanthropologists, who study physical artifacts left by ancient cultures. Watch this video of geneticist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells talking about “The Human Journey.” Skip to about 2:15, where Wells talks about the limitations of archaeology and paleoanthropology.
    • Why do students think archaeology and paleoanthropology are nicknamed “stones and bones” by Wells?
      • Archaeology is often associated with the study of ancient tools and pottery. Many of these artifacts are made of rock or clay—stones. Paleoanthropology is associated with fossils of ancient humans or human ancestors—bones.
    • Wells talks about the different scientific methods used by archaeologists and geneticists. Archaeologists, he says, work from ancient evidence to suggest possibilities about ancient cultures. Geneticists, he says “start in the present and work our way back into the past” to offer probabilities. Do students think this theory applies to the new study of European genetics?
      • Absolutely. The NG News article explains that archaeologists studying ancient Europe identified the LBK culture, dating from about 7,500 years ago, from pottery fragments left by the group. (LBK stands for Linearbandkeramik, or Linear Pottery culture.) The new genetics study, on the other hand, works from the present: the identification of haplogroup H, a genetic marker shared by about 45% of Europeans today. The geneticists worked their way “back into the past” by tracing the “family tree” of haplogroup H.
  • This new study indicates that modern European genetics is a result of many migrations—by different groups, at different times, from different places. The article identifies two early migrations: from Africa, about 35,000 to 40,000 years ago—Europe’s earliest inhabitants—and from the Middle East, about 7,500 years ago. Looking at our 1-Page Map of the world, can students guess some sources of other migration groups to ancient Europe?
    • The route summary from The Genographic Project will help. Keep an eye on haplogroup H, the genetic marker studied by the researchers in the article. In addition to Africa and the Middle East, haplogroup H also traces the migration of people to Europe from Central Asia.
    • Students may suggest other regions adjoining central Europe. People from these regions could easily have migrated to central Europe and influenced the DNA of the people there. Once such region is Scandinavia, in far Northern Europe. This would be an excellent guess, but current science shows that many Scandinavians have entirely different haplogroups—tracing their ancestry to Southeast Asia! (Wow!)
  • Have students look at the Route Summary. Based on the ancestry of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents, can students guess their own haplogroup?
  • Apply online to get an educator discount for the Genographic Project. Students can participate in an international scientific study and learn about their own ancient ancestry.

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