Research highlight

Genomics: How the Bell Beaker spread across Europe


February 22, 2018

Insights into the lives of Neolithic and Bronze Age Europeans can be gleaned from a pair of Nature papers, which trace the spread of distinctive cultural artefacts and agriculture via genomic techniques.

The cultures of ancient peoples are often defined by the artifacts they left behind. The Bell Beaker Complex, for example, refers to a group of objects, including stylized bell-shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and distinctive perforated buttons found in graves towards the end of the Neolithic period. This culture originated around 2750 BC and spread throughout western and central Europe, but archaeologists are uncertain whether this spread was caused by the movement of people, culture or a combination of both.

In the first paper, David Reich and colleagues analyse genome-wide data from 400 Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age Europeans from 136 archaeological sites, including 226 individuals found buried with Beaker-style objects. Beaker-associated individuals are genetically diverse, the authors report, which supports a model in which cultural transmission and human migration both had important roles, with the relative balance of these two processes varying by region.

In a second paper, also by David Reich and colleagues, the authors analysed the genomes of 225 Europeans who lived between 12000 and 500 BC to chart the spread of another cultural innovation, agriculture, across southern Europe. Farming was introduced to Europe through Anatolian migrants, who settled in the southeast of the region in mid-seventh millennium BC.

In this study, the authors investigate the genetic dynamics associated with the spread of farming throughout Europe and find that southeastern Europe acted as a contact point for people from the east and the west both before and after the advent of farming. They document highly variable levels of interaction between indigenes and migrants, with some early farmers passing through southeastern Europe to the north and west with only limited genetic interaction with hunter-gatherers, and other groups mixing extensively with local southeastern European populations.

doi: 10.1038/nature25778

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