Italian DNA shows Bronze Age migrations

A new study revealed that Bronze Age Italians interacted with people from Eastern Europe[1]. Many ancient humans around Eurasia migrated and mixed with people from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, a steppe-land located between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, but until recently, the genetic component of ancient Italian Steppe-related ancestry was unexplored.

The team analysed the DNA of individuals from archaeological sites from Northeastern and Central Italy dated to the Chalcolithic, Early Bronze Age, and Bronze Age.
The study showed that the two populations began sharing genes around 3,600 years ago in Central Italy. This genetic admixture also happened at a similar time when burial practises and kinship structures changed, suggesting the populations shared culture as well as genes.

“We were able to generate the first genome-wide shotgun data of ancient Italians dated to the Bronze Age period and study the arrival of the Steppe-related ancestry component in the Italian Peninsula,” says lead-author Tina Saupe.

The team found that the genetics of ancient individuals from the Italian Peninsula were more like Early Neolithic farmers in Eastern Europe than to farmers from Western Europe, despite the geographic divide.

“Because of the geographical distribution of the archaeological sites of published and newly generated genomes, we were able to date the arrival of the Steppe-related ancestry component to at least ~4,000 years ago in Northern Italy and ~3,600 years ago in Central Italy,” says co-author Luca Pagani, “We did not find the component in individuals dated to the Neolithic and Chalcolithic, but in individuals dated to the Early Bronze Age and increasing through time in the individuals dated to the Bronze Age.”

The end of the Bronze Age in the Mediterranean was a period of great upheavals. After Troy had fallen, Odysseus needed ten years to get home to his beloved Itaka. History tells us that Minoan and Mycenaen palatial centres were destroyed and abandoned.

This study also shows that even people from the Pontic-Caspian Steppe were displaced during the Dark Age of Greece by (probably) climate change, droughts, crop failure, wars and migrations.

[1] Saupe et al: Ancient genomes reveal structural shifts after the arrival of Steppe-related ancestry in the Italian Peninsula in Current Biology – 2021. See here.

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