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Europeans Came from Three Ancient Populations

Modern Europeans can trace their ancestry to three ancient populations, according to research published in Nature that compared ancient European hunter-gatherers and early farmers with present-day populations.

“Recent genetic studies we did at the University of Adelaide on ancient hunter-gatherers and early farmer remains suggested a massive expansion of people into Europe coinciding with the spread of farming,” says Dr Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA. “However, the relative proportions and distributions of the genetic components contributing to modern Europeans remained unclear. This study has added significantly to our knowledge of the genetic make-up of our European ancestors.”

An international consortium analysed ancient human genomes from a 7000-year-old early farmer from Stuttgart in Southern Germany, an 8000-year-old hunter-gatherer from Luxembourg, and seven 8000-year-old hunter-gatherers from Motala in Sweden. They compared the ancient humans to present-day people, looking at the genetics of about 2400 individuals from almost 200 diverse worldwide contemporary populations.

The study found that the great majority of present-day Europeans derive from at least three highly differentiated populations: the indigenous hunter-gatherers, the Middle Eastern farmers that migrated to Europe around 7500 years ago, and a novel third population that spanned North Eurasia and genetically connects Europeans and Native Americans.

“It seems clear now that the third group linking Europeans and Native Americans arrived in Central Europe after the early farmers,” explains Prof Johannes Krause of The University of Tübingen. “We are, however, not sure yet when the Northern Eurasian component entered Central Europe.”

Using the large dataset of present-day and ancient human data, the researchers were able to calculate the proportion of the ancestral components in present-day Europeans. They found that nearly all Europeans have ancestry from all three ancestral groups, with any differences between them due to the relative proportions of ancestry.

Northern Europeans have more hunter-gatherer ancestry and Southern Europeans have more farmer ancestry. The Northern Eurasian ancestry is proportionally the smallest component everywhere in Europe, and never more than 20%.