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5,000-Year-Old DNA from Skeletons Found in Serbia is Solving Genetic Mysteries

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Ancient Eastern European and Central Asian archaeology are characterized by a burial practice known as kurgan burials, wherein mounds of earth and stone are raised over a single or multiple graves. These traditional burials of the ancient steppe tribe nomads continue in southern Siberia and Central Asia.

As reported by Ancient Origins , over the past week, two large burial mounds were discovered on a plain in northern Serbia by Polish archaeologists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IAEPAN). Now, the Jerusalem Post reports that the same archaeology team is hopeful that genetic analysis will reveal the mystery of genetic changes that occurred across Europe over 5,000 years ago, and how they related to the steppe tribe nomads.

“This expansion of steppe tribes is an important event in European prehistory because there was a big demographical change provided by the people who came from the steppes,” explains Dr. Piotr Włodarczak, the head of IAEPAN, who led the excavations.

This man was likely a descendant of the steppe tribe nomads that pushed west from Siberia into Serbia, Hungary, and Poland. He was buried on the Great Hungarian Plain, which covers much of Hungary and also Serbia to the south. (Lukasz Pospieszny / ResearchGate)

This man was likely a descendant of the steppe tribe nomads that pushed west from Siberia into Serbia, Hungary, and Poland. He was buried on the Great Hungarian Plain, which covers much of Hungary and also Serbia to the south. (Lukasz Pospieszny / ResearchGate)

The Steppe Tribe Nomads and Their Genes Go West

Serbia, a hot-bed of ethno-nationalist conflict, has been under constant scrutiny by genetic scientists and researchers, with overwhelming evidence pointing to a close affinity with other neighboring southern Slavs , i.e., the geographical region of the Balkan Peninsula and the eastern Alps. With the exception of Bulgaria, they were briefly under one turbulent national order, which came into fruition and collapsed in the 20th century under the banner of Yugoslavia.

PAP reports that excavations took place between 2016-18, but extensive analysis conclusions were only reached recently, which revealed a number of important historical-cultural factors. The two barrow mounds found in Vojvodina in Serbia revealed that both men had been buried with red ochre dye. Ochre, unto itself, is a natural clay earth pigment, and when mixed with dehydrated iron oxide, it creates a pigment with a reddish tint. The dye may have been used in early attempts at mummification and preservation.

“The ritual use of ochre and the placement of individual burials in large mounds suggests that they are associated with communities inhabiting the Eastern European steppe areas”, Dr. Włodarczak said. He identified the ochre dye as a sacred color for important funerary rituals and noted that the barrow style kurgan burials lacked grave goods. “The graves we discovered were not spectacularly equipped, but we noticed the red colouring of some bones. This was due to the use of ochre on the bodies of the dead,” he added.

The skeletal remains indicate healthy heights of about 1.8 meters (5 feet 9 inches). The local population had an average height of 5’2 (1.57 meters) and were smaller in stature. This points to the men being outsiders and from another culture. This kind of burial and height structure suggest a migration from the land that correlates with modern-day southern Russia and eastern Ukraine, which are dry, grassy, steppe plains .

Further confirmation was received when samples were taken for isotopic analyses from the bone to determine diet. It was found that the diet, unsurprisingly, contained a lot of meat, as these communities were animal breeders after all, explained Dr. Włodarczak.

Yamnaya culture grave, Volgograd Oblast, Russia, which is roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) northeast of the Serbian kurgan graves. (XVodolazx / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Yamnaya culture grave, Volgograd Oblast, Russia, which is roughly 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) northeast of the Serbian kurgan graves. (XVodolazx / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Yamnaya Culture and the Emergence of a New Social Elite

The barrow burial mounds suggest affinity to the local Yamnaya people, themselves nomads. Their culture flourished from roughly the late Copper Age to the early Bronze period (3300-2600 BC), in the region between the Southern Bug, Dniester, and Ural rivers, which is congruent with the Pontic steppe . Etymologically, yamnaya is a Romanized Russian adjective that means “related to pits” or yama, and burials in tumuli or kurgans.

At the turn of the millennium in the 4th-3rd centuries BC, mainland Europe saw an influx of nomadic cultures from the southern steppes, who significantly altered the genetic pool and changed Europe’s cultural situation. These populations reached as far as the territory contiguous with contemporary Poland. Evidence for this comes from changes in funeral customs and methods for making ceramic vessels.

There was also an emergence of proto-state centers and a new elite with the flourishing of the Bronze Age cultures . Certain burials show elaborate weaponry, ornaments, and decorated dishes, who Dr. Włodarczak suggest were probably emerging community leaders. “The Bronze Age proto-state centres and elites began to emerge, as evidenced by huge mounds, under which individual people were buried,” he explains. Like the Tatars, they created a nouveau military social system.

“There were chiefdoms at the time and a new emergence of early elites in the society,” Włodarczak added. “In this western part of the steppes society, single graves under barrows are typical. But in the eastern steppes, you can find many graves under barrows where whole families are buried.”

Even though the skeletal remains were discovered earlier, genetic analysis is now being completed by Harvard University paleogeneticist David Reich. Moving forward, the analysis at Reich’s labs may help explain westward migration pattern of the steppe tribe nomads on their horses, and help us better understand the early agricultural people of Central Europe.

Top image: The steppe tribe nomads are leading to new genetic understandings and theories related to early Europeans. Source: Kazakh World

By Sahir Pandey

References

Harper, J. 2022. Archaeologists uncover bones of 5,000-year-old ‘large men’ dyed red . Available at: https://www.thefirstnews.com/article/archaeologists-uncover-bones-of-5000-year-old-large-men-dyed-red-28049

Sudilovsky, J. 2022. Analysis of 5,000-year-old DNA could help solve mystery of genetic changes in Europe . Available at: https://www.jpost.com/archaeology/article-698824

Zdziebłowski, S. 2022. Newcomers from Eastern Europe settled in today's Serbia almost 5,000 years ago . Available at: https://naukawpolsce.pl/en/news/news%2C91334%2Cnewcomers-eastern-europe-settled-todays-serbia-almost-5000-years-ago.html

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