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by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

How much do we know about our prehistoric past, or how do we find out about it? There are no written records – or, to use the language of crime-solving; there is no confession, or no witness statement – so it’s had to be a procedure of ‘case-formation’, a reconstruction from the evidence that its inhabitants left behind; from the buildings and objects, for example, that they used in the course of their lives. Or from their own remains; from flecks of their bones or teeth, that can be dated or placed. These are the objects and results that (after comparison and examination) allow theories to be formed.

But it’s not always so straightforward. As you may have noticed, the same pieces of evidence can often support radically different positions – look at the range of theories about Stonehenge or Avebury, to give just one example. Advances from such stand-offs, or from each ‘truth of the time’, for that matter, have generally been slow and painstaking and dependent on the gathering of more evidence; moving, in other words, at the limited speed of trowel and entrenchment.

Occasionally, though, something jumps up and hits the situation like a donkey’s back leg between the eyes, or shouts out loud; that’s it! The ‘radiocarbon revolution’ was, obviously, one such event – I wonder if the study of genes (in effect the study of the evidence of our prehistory inside us; inside our DNA, or genetic code) is to be another? Two papers, in particular, have given radically fresh perspective, both to the long-running question of the ‘Indo-Europeans’ and to the accepted notion of European origins in post Ice-Age re-colonisation from Iberia.

From the abstract to “A Predominantly Neolithic Origin for European Paternal Lineages” ;

“The relative contributions to modern European populations of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers from the Near East have been intensely debated. Haplogroup R1b1b2 (R-M269) is the commonest European Y-chromosomal lineage, increasing in frequency from east to west, and carried by 110 million European men. Previous studies suggested a Paleolithic origin, but here we show that the geographical distribution of its microsatellite diversity is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic. Taken with evidence on the origins of other haplogroups, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes originate in the Neolithic expansion. This reinterpretation makes Europe a prime example of how technological and cultural change is linked with the expansion of a Y-chromosomal lineage, and the contrast of this pattern with that shown by maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA suggests a unique role for males in the transition.”

And from the abstract to “European Population Substructure: Clustering of Northern and Southern Populations” ;

“Using a genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) panel, we observed population structure in a diverse group of Europeans and European Americans. Under a variety of conditions and tests, there is a consistent and reproducible distinction between “northern” and “southern” European population groups: most individual participants with southern European ancestry (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek) have >85% membership in the “southern” population; and most northern, western, eastern, and central Europeans have >90% in the “northern” population group. Ashkenazi Jewish as well as Sephardic Jewish origin also showed >85% membership in the “southern” population, consistent with a later Mediterranean origin of these ethnic groups. Based on this work, we have developed a core set of informative SNP markers that can control for this partition in European population structure in a variety of clinical and genetic studies.”

Basically, what these studies have found is that most Europeans are descended, on their father’s side, not, as commonly assumed, from men that came north after the Ice Age from Spain (“people that have always been there”), but from men that had originally lived in south-west Asia and spread from there into Europe during the Neolithic period (as in the theory of the ‘Indo-Europeans’). And because maternal ancestry, on the other hand, tends to be Palaeolithic in origin, the implication is that there was a takeover (of sorts?) or, at least, a significant out-breeding of the ’native’ males, post-expansion. Furthermore, they have found that Northern Europeans (for example; Irish, English etc.) tend to group together, in terms of their DNA, and are consistently distinguishable from Southern Europeans (Iberians, for instance).  

Of course (from her side of the stand-off), Marija Gimbutas, underneath all the ‘Goddess’ ideas, was writing this years ago; “This transformation, however, was not a replacement of one culture by another but a gradual hybridization of two different symbolic systems. Because the andocentric ideology of the Indo-Europeans was that of the new ruling class, it has come down to us as the “official” belief system of ancient Europe. But the Old European sacred images and symbols were never totally uprooted; these most persistent features in human history were too deeply implanted in the psyche. they could have disappeared only with the total extermination of the female population.” 

(Explanations of some of the jargon can be found here)


November 2010

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