The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the Western Mediterranean

IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology department, have collaborated in this research

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The Mediterranean Sea has been a major route for maritime migrations as well as frequent trade during prehistory, yet the genetic history of the Mediterranean islands is not well documented despite recent developments in the study of ancient DNA.

An international team led by Researchers from the University of Vienna, Harvard University and University of Florence, Italy, is filling in the gaps with the largest study to date of the genetic history of ancient populations of Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands, increasing the number of individuals with reported data from 5 to 66.

The results reveal a complex pattern of immigration from Africa, Asia and Europe which varied in direction and timing for each of these islands. IPHES researchers Beatriz Gamarra and Marina Lozano, from the Paleoanthropology unit, have collaborated in this research. Beatriz Gamarra, now postdoctoral fellow Beatriu de Pinós at IPHES, during her previous period at University College of Dublin (UCD, Ireland), prepared some of the bone samples that were later analyzed by the leading authors of this research in the ancient DNA laboratories of UCD, University of Vienna and Harvard University. Marina Lozano, IPHES researcher and Associate Professor at URV, analyzed the human remains of Cave 127 (Formentera) providing the samples of these individuals and the anthropological context of this site.

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Beatriz Gamarra (left) with Marina Lozano, IPHES researchers

Some of the paper’s most striking findings concern the island of Sardinia. Despite contacts and trade with other Mediterranean populations, ancient Sardinians retained a mostly local Neolithic ancestry profile until the end of the Bronze Age.

However, during the second half of the 3rd millennium BC, one of the studied individuals was of entirely of North African ancestry. Together with two Iberians reported in 2019, this new more than 1% of studied individuals from southern Europe from the Copper and Bronze Ages were part of immigrant families from North Africa.

“Our results show that maritime migrations from North Africa were widespread and important long before the era of the eastern Mediterranean seafaring civilizations and moreover were occurring in multiple parts of the Mediterranean”, says Ron Pinhasi, a co-senior author of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

During the Iron Age expansion and establishment of Greek and Phoenician colonies, the Sardinian individuals analyzed from that period had little, if any, ancestry from the previous long-established populations.

“Despite these population fluxes, modern Sardinians retained 56-62% of ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers that arrived in Europe around 8000 years ago”, says David Caramelli a co-senior author, and Director of Department of Biology at the University of Florence.

The team’s results on Sardinia are fully consistent with the findings of another paper on ancient Sardinian genetics published on the same day in the journal Nature Communication and led by John Novembre, Johannes Krause and colleagues.

The paper also goes beyond Sardinia to understand population changes in other central and western Mediterranean islands.

“One of the most striking findings concerns the arrival of ancestry that ultimately came from the Russian Steppe. While the ultimate origin of this ancestry was Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean islands much of it arrived from the west, and in fact we can pinpoint Iberia as its specific source”, says David Reich, a co-senior author at Harvard University, who is also an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. “This was likely also the case for the Balearic Islands, in which some early residents probably derived at least part of their ancestry from Iberia”, says first author Daniel Fernandes, of the department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna.

Sicily was also impacted from the east by a different movement. People with ancestry related to ancient Greek “Mycenaeans” reached Sicily at a time overlapping the period of Mycenaean trade connections to the island. An important direction for future ancient DNA work will be to determine whether it was Greek migrants, or people from further east in the Mediterranean, who carried this ancestry to Sicily.

Reference

Fernandes, D.M., and alter 2020. “The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the western Mediterranean”. Nature Ecology and Evolution.

El Mirador cave at Atapuerca provides new data on the beginning of the farming practices at the Meseta

Tarragona has held a scientific transdisciplinary meeting on prehistoric farmers

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IPHES (Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social evolution) has recently held a scientific workshop focused on the research on El Mirador cave (Atapuerca), organized by Ethel Allué (IPHES-URV), Patricia Martín (Universitat de Barcelona) and Josep Maria Vergès (IPHES -URV). The objective of this meeting was to encourage the discussion among assistants and stablish future collaborations to progress in the knowledge on the beginning of farming practices in the Meseta.

The scientific workshop had 13 oral communications in which 57 co-authors, coming from 14 national and international institutions, participated.  A wide range of problematics was approached based on 21 disciplines. It is noteworthy the presence of researchers from IPHES and URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona), such as Palmira Saladié (IPHES URV), Marina Lozano (IPHES URV), Isabel Expósito (IPHES) and Miquel Guardiola (IPHES). There were also contributions presented by doctoral researchers and Master students from the Erasmus Mundus in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolutionprogram, which is taught at URV thanks to the research, developed at IPHES. Some of the students developed their research on El Mirador cave.

Among the study scopes that have been analysed there were presentations on the paleoclimatic context and paleoenvironment provided by different interdisciplinary studies; agriculture and livestock practices, that were approached from archaeobotany, zooarchaeologyl, micromorphology, analytical chemistry and taphonomy on the formation of the fumier deposit (acumulation of burnt dung).

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It is noteworthy the presence of researchers from IPHES and URV (Universitat Rovira i Virgili de Tarragona) and Master students from the Erasmus Mundus in Quaternary Archaeology and Human Evolution program

In addition, there were presentations on the cave as a funerary deposit and on the human remains. A diversity of subjects were discussed such as diet, pathologies, and genetics or ritual practices such as cannibalism. With the obtained data we were able to advance in the knowledge of human groups that lived in the cave between approximately 7.000 and 3000 years. There were also presentation on material culture including technology and ceramics.

El Mirador cave has been excavated since 1999 and has provided a sequence with Pleistocene and Holocene layers and is an essential sequence to understand specially the beginning of the introduction of agriculture and livestock practices of the Meseta.  This cave was mainly used for sheep and goat stabling. These animals’s dung was systematically burnt in the cave to reduce volume and remove parasites. This process forms the so-called fumier deposits, being the one at El Mirador one of the best preserved. It is important to outline that during the Chalcolithic the cave was used as collective burial.

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The scientific meeting also included an exhibition of materials (“El Mirador: 20 years of research”) and two photographic series (“El Mirador: 20 years in 10 images” and “El Mirador: a look through the Microscope”).

The participants came from several institutions, part of the Atapuerca Project, such as Jaime Lira (UCM-ISCIII) and Ángel Carrancho (University of Burgos), as well as other collaborators such as Ana Polo (University of Sheffield), Iñigo Olalde (Pompeu Fabra University), Javier Iglesias (Complutense University). The well-known geneticist Carles Lalueza-Fox (Pompeu Fabra University), who gave a keynote presentation, attended the meeting. The scientific meeting also included an exhibition of materials (“El Mirador: 20 years of research”) and two photographic series (“El Mirador: 20 years in 10 images” and “El Mirador: a look through the Microscope”).