search this blog

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hundreds of prehistoric North European genomes coming soon

Update 10/08/2015: 101 ancient Eurasian genomes (Allentoft et al. 2015)


It looks like we'll soon be inundated with ancient DNA from across Northern Europe thanks to a project called The Rise, focusing on the formation of Bronze Age societies in Southern Scandinavia. The exciting news for me is that prehistoric skeletons from Poland are also being studied as part of the effort. Below are a few quotes about the part of the project dealing with ancient DNA, called "Human Mobility".

The study will be based on burials with preserved skeletal material from southern Scandinavia, from the late middle Neolithic, late Neolithic and early Bronze Age periods. This is a material which is essential for many of the questions discussed, but that so far has received little systematic treatment. Comparisons will also be made with reference material from earlier periods and other regions, such as Germany and Poland. A systematic comparison of bio-archaeological data with variations in burial practices and artifact compositions will provide us with new insights on socially effective ways of classifying people during these periods, and contribute to our understanding of how gender, ethnicities and elites were constructed.


The key focus of the ancient DNA study will be to exploit recent technological and computational developments, in order to reconstruct the genetic history, and origins, of the Nordic and north European populations of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. When compared with pre-existing European Neolithic ancient DNA datasets, and modern DNA datasets, the new data will supplement and add historical depth to the strontium isotope analyses, as well as resolve kinship between the ancient samples. Three strategies will be employed:

1. Several hundred south Scandinavian and central European (German and Polish) skeletons from the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC will be pre-screened for appropriate DNA survival and quality, in order to generate a test dataset. Based on previous result, combined with new techniques that significantly enhance success rates, we anticipate subsequently genotyping between 100 and 150 samples for both mitochondrial (complete mtDNA genomes), Y chromosome and autosomal DNA (15,000 informative SNPs). This data will be compared against both published and unpublished ancient datasets and with modern datasets, in order to establish the geographical location and possible origin of primarily the new Corded Ware (CW), Single Grave (SG) and Battle Axe (BA) culture groups of the early 3rd millennium BC, but also of later Bronze Age groups of the same regions. The CW, SG and BA cultures are candidates for some major migrations that introduced a completely new social organization, and possibly Indo-European languages, that persisted into the Bronze Age. Did they have a steppe origin, a Nordic origin, a Polish/central European or a mixed origin? Did the later Bronze Age people of Scandinavia share genetic relations with these groups? The ancient DNA data will contribute to resolving this.

2. Using the data generated above, we will be able to investigate the kinship of skeletons within barrows and burials, in order to document whether they were family barrows, and whether some individuals were foreigners.

3. The complete nuclear genome sequence will be generated from hair sampled from one of the most well preserved skeletons – in particular that of an oak coffin burial of Jutland from 1400 BC. Recent technical developments published out of the Copenhagen group have demonstrated that not only is this feasible, but that such data can provide fine scale details about ancient humans – including resolving sample genetic origins to unprecedented detail, but also incidentally offer insights into functionally important genetic traits of the ancient people.

But that's not all. Recently we saw the announcement of a cutting-edge project called The Genomic History of Denmark. Its aim is to sequence 100 ancient Danish genomes from the Neolithic (including 7,000-year-old hunter-gatherers), metal ages, Viking Age, and the early Industrial Age. These samples will be compared to the genomes of 1000 modern Danes.

The project will likely add new views to Danish and European debates on heritage and national affiliations by re-addressing when and from where our ancestors came. At the same time results will allow Denmark as the first country to understand its genetic disease risk and drug suitability (personal genomics) from historical/evolutionary perspectives.

Thus, the data should allow us understanding when and possibly why current highly frequent genetic diseases, like haemochromatosis and cystic fibrosis, and increased HIV resistance became abundant in Denmark.

There are several other ancient DNA projects underway in Europe which I haven't got around to blogging about yet. I'll do that as soon as they produce some results. But I should probably mention that one of the most promising efforts, called BEAN (aka. Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic), recently launched a new website.

See also...

Coming soon: genome-wide data from more than forty 3-9K year-old humans from the ancient Russian steppe