In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World the archaeologist David Anthony outlines the thesis that migrations from the west Eurasian steppe during the Bronze Age reshaped the culture of Northern Europe. When Anthony published the book, which you should really read if you are interested in this topic, it was a somewhat heterodox position. Though his intellectual pedigree is of long standing, arguably going back centuries, and extending down the present with J. P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans, in the past few decades diffusion of different sort has been paramount. In particular, the thesis that Indo-Europeans arrived with the first agriculturalists was of late ascendant, with some support being received from phylogenetic modeling of language evolution.
Anthony’s thesis in a way was a halfway house between early modern migrationism from the Eurasian steppe the newer theories. He proposes that the influence from the steppe via the Kurgan people was due to elite dominance and cultural emulation. An analogy here might be that of Hungary, where a Ugric speaking elite eventually imparted to the people a language, but very few distinct genes.
Eventually Anthony collaborated with some geneticists, and provided samples for DNA analysis. The results ended up resulting in a resurrection of migrationism, Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. From what I have heard Anthony’s reaction was one of some shock as the magnitude of the genetic change.
That’s the high level view. But what about the details? Over the past few years I’ve highlighted work that indicates that many Y chromosomal lineages are star-shaped. That is, they underwent recent demographic expansion. Recent as in on the order of ~5,000 years ago in the past. But the Y chromosome is just one locus. I’ve always been curious about results from the X because the X also gives you good sex specific dynamics; 2/3 of the time it is spent in females, and 1/3 of the time in males.
Dramatic events in human prehistory, such as the spread of agriculture to Europe from Anatolia and the Late Neolithic/Bronze Age (LNBA) migration from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, can be investigated using patterns of genetic variation among the people that lived in those times. In particular, studies of differing female and male demographic histories on the basis of ancient genomes can provide information about complexities of social structures and cultural interactions in prehistoric populations. We use a mechanistic admixture model to compare the sex-specifically-inherited X chromosome to the autosomes in 20 early Neolithic and 16 LNBA human remains. Contrary to previous hypotheses suggested by the patrilocality of many agricultural populations, we find no evidence of sex-biased admixture during the migration that spread farming across Europe during the early Neolithic. For later migrations from the Pontic steppe during the LNBA, however, we estimate a dramatic male bias, with ~5-14 migrating males for every migrating female. We find evidence of ongoing, primarily male, migration from the steppe to central Europe over a period of multiple generations, with a level of sex bias that excludes a pulse migration during a single generation. The contrasting patterns of sex-specific migration during these two migrations suggest a view of differing cultural histories in which the Neolithic transition was driven by mass migration of both males and females in roughly equal numbers, perhaps whole families, whereas the later Bronze Age migration and cultural shift were instead driven by male migration, potentially connected to new technology and conquest.
The figure to the left shows the inferences made in regards to the quantitative contribution of farmer males and females, and steppe males and females, to Bronze Age European populations. In short, it looks like the population of Northern Europe derives from a fusion of males from the steppe, and native females, who themselves arose out of a group of peoples which synthesized the ancestry of European hunter-gatherers and West Asian farmers.
But one of the more interesting things about this preprint is that the admixture can’t be modeled by a single pulse event. It seems that there were repeated migrations out of the steppe over multiple generations. But, these men did not bring women, at least in large numbers. The preprint lays out the common sense reason: these were mobile groups, probably bands of men with weapons. If your game is predation on other humans, having a baggage train of women and children is not optimal.
There is a historical analog to what might have happened. Argentina is a nation where mitochondrial lineages show a lot of Amerindian heritage. But the whole genome far less. This is because of male biased migration from Europe. One generation of this would result in a mixed population, but many generations would slowly replace the whole genome.
We will never know in concrete terms what social-political organizations the Indo-Europeans set up once they conquered the plains of Northern Europe, because we don’t have writing. But it seems unlikely that we’re talking about only band or clan level scales of organization. Rather, it was likely that a ‘Indo-European commonwealth’ of some sort existed initially, predicated on domination and extraction of value from the natives. In such a fashion one can imagine Europe being a draw for enterprising males from the steppe. This could also explain likely ‘back migration’ over time, leading to ‘European’ ancestry among later steppe cultures.