Celebrating my Steppe and Beaker Ancestors

Ecoregion PA0814

The Pontic Steppes, by Terpsichores [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I've previously dealt with my Ice Age hunter-gatherer ancestry, as indicated by DNA test result calculators, and with my Neolithic Farmer ancestry.  That leaves the third major late prehistoric contributor to the Western European Genome.  The most recent, and perhaps the most character defining - the Chalcolithic Steppe pastoralists or Yamnaya element.

My Yamnaya ancestors

Y-DNA haplogroup enthusiasts of European descent absolutely LOVE this one.  This is because the majority of men of Europe have a Y haplogroup that arrived here from the Eurasian Steppes with this immigration wave.  All of those R1a's and R1b's.  My personal Y haplogroup didn't!  But I'm a nonconformist with a nonconforming Y-DNA haplogroup. Populations such as the modern Irish men, on the western edge of Europe, can trace most of their R1b haplogroups to the Steppes!  That some of of the earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic DNA here earlier still survives in most of us, suggests that this long migration consisted mainly of men.  My mtDNA haplogroup though, as usual, is atypical - because H6a1 is one of the few maternal lineages in Europe that DOES also trace back in ancient DNA samples to the Yamnaya pastoralists.  So, I DO have a Steppe haplogroup, only through my motherline.

The Eurasian Steppes have been a super highway of people, goods, culture, and genes, for thousands of years - linking Asia to Europe.  A long, sometimes narrow corridor of natural grasslands.  The wild ancestors of the domestic horse lived there.  They had adapted to life in harsh environments such as this.

The Yamnaya themselves appear to have been admixed between different earlier Ice Age populations, including Caucasus Hunter-Foragers, East European Hunter-Gatherers, and the enigmatic Ancient North Eurasian Siberian ghost population, that were also among the ancestors of Native Americans.

One of the successes of the Steppe pastoralists, was that they embraced the horse.  They rode their horses, enabling them to control larger herds of sheep, goats, horses, and cattle.  That was one element of success.  They also utilised the wheel, and built the first wagons and carts to be pulled by those horses and ox.  This gave them a greater mobility, to move their livestock seasonally to further pastures.  Biologically they were also adapting to a dairy based diet with lactose tolerance.  Finally, they embraced the new metallurgy of copper, and then bronze working.  The raw materials of this new technology shifted along the Steppes, and through their contact with many peoples, including with the new towns and kingdoms south of the Caucasus.

Another factor that needs to be considered, is that according to some scholars, they brought the Indo-European group of languages to Europe, which are ancestral to most European languages today.

Recent evidence has been produced that suggests that some of the pastoralists carried a plague virus, transmitted from a Central Asian origin.  A new hypothesis is that they may have unintentionally passed this plague onto the Neolithic Europeans, weakening their populations and societies.

Whether this hypothesis ever substantiates or not, the archaeological and genetic evidence is that the Second Millennium BC saw many of these Steppe men (and my mtDNA ancestor) spill westwards into Copper Age Europe.  After 2,900 BC, their arrival, and fusion with local populations and traditions may have inspired the Corded Ware Culture of Central and Eastern Europe.  My mtDNA haplogroup H6a1a suddenly appears in Central Europe, associated with this culture.

These horsemen of bronze, or their descendants didn't stop the Westward advance.  Within a few hundred years, they also dominated Western Europe.  There, their arrival may have spawned another fusion culture - the Bell Beaker.

Above image, bell beaker burial exhibited in the British Museum.

My Bell Beaker Ancestors

The Maritime Bell Beaker Culture may have originated when these horsemen arrived in Iberia.  When I was a keen amateur archaeologist and field walker, I'd feel a lot of contact with them.  Many, if not the majority of the struck flints that I recorded in Thetford Forest were considered "bronze age".  I would also survey the surviving round barrows in the forest, and look for unrecorded examples.  I also spent a week with Suffolk archaeology, studying new aerial reconnaissance photographs, and helping to chart the soil and crop marks of long ploughed out barrows.  I had no idea then, that this barrow burial tradition had actually been brought from the Steppes of Eurasia.  Archaeology at the time didn't see the Bell Beaker as the arrival of people.  They saw it as a cultural transference from Iberia.  Genetics is now telling us differently.

A barbed and tanged flint arrowhead from one of my surveys.  A classic Bell Beaker artifact.

The Maritime Bell Beaker Culture of the Early Bronze Age appears to have gradually evolved by the beginning of the Iron Age, into what we traditionally call the Atlantic Seaboard Celtic Culture, so strong in places such as Ireland and Scotland.  Yet, most Irishmen carry the Y haplogroup R1b SNPs such as L21. A recent Irish DNA Study revealed that they found the modern Irish not only a fairly homogeneous population, but that it had its roots, particularly on male haplogroups, firmly in the Pontic and Caspian Steppes of what is now Ukraine and Southern Russia.  They also studied the DNA from remains of Bronze Age, and the earlier Neolithic people that lived in Ireland, and pronounced them to have had different origins.  The earlier, Neolithic Irish largely descended from population that originated in SW Asia.


Here in Britain also, the majority of men carry R1b Y-DNA.  I have a Steppe mtDNA haplogroup from my mother.  Additionally autosomal DNA calculators suggest that maybe circa 30% of my Copper Age ancestors were Steppe.  However, where did my Steppe ancestry come in?  The obvious would be from British Celts - but that is an unsafe assumption.  My recorded ancestry is totally SE English, and strongly East Anglian.  My autosomal DNA "flavour" though is atypical for a Brit, and is unusually Continental, with a tertiary pull from Southern Europe, that I can't explain.  If many of my ancestors two thousand years ago actually lived outside of the British Isles, most likely on the Continent, then they could have inherited much of this Steppe there.

Image above. A local round barrow burial mound hidden in Thetford Forest.

Ultimately of course, I know where maybe a third of my ancestors lived 4,000 years ago.  They were pastoralists on the windy Pontic Steppes, looking to the west, and wandering, what opportunities lay there?

My Ancient DNA Calculators

David Wesolowski's K7 Basal-rich test

Ancient North Eurasian

Another Ice Age hunter-gatherer "Ghost" population, but this one has been associated with human remains and an Upper Palaeolithic culture (Mal'ta-Buret') at Lake Baikal, Siberia.  We know that it significantly contributes to modern West Eurasians, through earlier admixture on the Eurasian Steppes.  Copper Age pastoralists then carried it westwards into Europe with their later expansion.

David gives the English average as 16.6%.  My result is 14.0%

Global 10 Test

The recent Global 10 test, run by my friend Helgenes50 of the Anthrogenica board, resulted in:

  • 38% Yamna_Samara (Eurasian Steppe Pastoralist)

FT-DNA My Ancient Origins

  • 9% Metal Age Invader

My MDLP K16 Modern Admixture

  • 22% Steppe (sourced from ancient genome of European Bronze Age pastoralists)
  • 22% Caucasian (derived from genomes of mesolithic Caucasian Hunter-gatherers)

My MDLP Modern K11 Oracle:

Closest Genetic Distances:

Using 1 population approximation:
1 British_Celtic @ 6.948432
2 Bell_Beaker_Germany @ 8.143357
3 Alberstedt_LN @ 8.426399
4 British_IronAge @ 9.027687
5 Halberstadt_LBA @ 10.273615
6 Bell_Beaker_Czech @ 12.190828
7 Hungary_BA @ 12.297826
8 Nordic_MN_B @ 12.959966
9 British_AngloSaxon @ 12.993559
10 Nordic_BA @ 13.170285

Celebrating my Neolithic Ancestors

Image above, last year, holding an artifact from the Neolithic Tomb of the Sea Eagles in Orkney.

Today in this post, I am celebrating my Neolithic heritage.  Another ancestral genetics enthusiast pointed out that rather than Anglo-Saxon, for a Brit and North West European, I actually had indications of enhanced Neolithic Farmer ancestry on most ancient DNA calculators (more on that below).  I was actually quite pleased to have that pointed out, and this post explains why I love the idea of being a modern Neolithic Man.

I remember being fascinated by the past as quite a young child.  On holidays across the British isles, I craved nothing more than visits to castles.  At home in Norwich, I'd haunt the local museums.  However, a love of the Neolithic took hold during my twenties. First, a fishing and drinking tour of Ireland with my brother, took me to the Newgrange Passage Grave site in the Boyne Valley.  Awesome impact.  Then several years later, I picked up the broken butt end of a Neolithic polished flint axe head on farmland behind my cottage.

The above photo is an image of another broken Neolithic flint axe head that I recorded during a surface collection survey many years later in Thetford Forest.

This eventually pulled me into a phase of looking for more prehistoric flint, which I later formalised into the Thetford Forest Survey.  During that period, in collaboration with the Forestry Commission, Norfolk Archaeology, and Suffolk Archaeology, I recorded thousands of struck flint and ceramic artifacts - many from the Neolithic.

Above image taken at the Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria in 2006.

Any chance that I got, I'd also visit Neolithic sites across the British Isles - and continue to do so, hence last year I had a cycling tour of many late prehistoric sites in Orkney.  Absolutely love the Neolithic.  Even though an atheist, I have to confess that some of these sites give me a special vibe.  I have half-seriously told neo-pagan friends, that If I had to choose some gods, Then maybe they would be those of the Neolithic.  Something about the remote sites.

Above image - sorry for looking so bloody miserable and awful.  Swinside Stone Circle, Cumbria.

Our New Understanding of the Neolithic of Europe

What I really want to write about here though, is how recent population genetics, over the past ten years, is transforming how we see the Western Eurasian Neolithic.  Archaeologists had long pondered, our relationship to the British Neolithic people, and going further back and in turn - their relationship to the earlier Mesolithic hunter-foragers of the British Isles.

What recent research of both ancient and modern DNA has so far revealed is that after the last Ice Age, hunter-foragers moved up to Britain from Southern Europe.  Meanwhile, new cultures and economies were developing in the Middle East of SW Asia.  Across the Fertile Crescent, that ran up the Levant, East Anatolia, eastwards, then down the fertile valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys - people started to settle, domesticate wheat, barley, goats, sheep, cattle and pigs.  They started to farm for the very first time.  This was the Neolithic Revolution.  The first fired ceramics - pottery was added to the recipe, along with polished stone tools.  Eventually these populations also absorbed the very first metallurgy, literacy, and town building - falling into the southern half of those river valleys in Mesopotamia.

Image above - Standing Stone at Stillaig, Argyll, Scotland.

From the Levant and Anatolia, both along the Mediterranean, and direct across the Balkans by land, Neolithic culture and farming technology spread westwards and northwards across Europe.  Population genetics now tells us that this WAS carried by people.  It was not just a transfer of culture and artifacts.  DNA from South-West Asia was strongly carried across Europe.  The Neolithic farmers were a people, with roots in the Near East.

What happened to the old European hunter-foragers?  It seems a mixture of displacement and admixture.  As the Neolithic Revolution rolled across Europe, it did pick up some hunter-gatherer DNA.  However, few of the male haplogroups.  By the time that the First Farmers reached the British Isles, they would have had an ancestry mixed between Near East Asian and European hunters.  Without a doubt, brides and perhaps slaves were taken along that long route from Anatolia to Britain.  This pattern perhaps continued when they reached the Irish and British Isles, and confronted some of the last hunter-gatherer populations of North West Europe.

Image above.  Ring of Brodgar, Orkney.

All of this was fine.  The British Isles were settled by Neolithic peoples around 4,100 BC.  I've seen many of their monuments, studied excavation reports of their archaeological sites, and held many of their flint artifacts.  It was a dominant culture here for two thousand years.  Religious systems may have come and go.  They erected so many monuments here that still survive.  Causewayed enclosures, long barrows, cursuses, henges, monoliths, cairns, standing stone circles, timber circles, mounds, Silsbury Hill - and of course, the internationally renown Stone Henge.  However, we now realise that they carried much DNA from South West Asia!

They must have thought that they, their beliefs, and their social systems would last until the end of time.  We currently think that their populations and farming declined towards the end of their period.  There is a little evidence that they may have been subject to plague from Asia.  This might have weakened them for the next invasion and displacement.

Image above of Skara Brae, Orkney Neolithic settlement.

Image above of Mottistone Longstone, Isle of Wight.

The arrival of the Sons of the Steppes - the Beaker

I'll write more about these guys in a later post.  Around 2,100 BC, a new people and culture turned up in the British Isles.  Whereas the Neolithic peoples had largely originated in SW Asia, south of the Caucasus (with some European hunter-gatherer DNA picked up on the way), these new arrivals largely originated to the NORTH of the Caucasus, on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes.  Their Steppe ancestors perfected the domestication of the horse, bronze metallurgy, and wheeled wagons. The founder Steppe population has been identified by archaeologists as the Yamnaya.  They rolled into Eastern and Central Europe, where their arrival appears to have spawned the Corded Ware Culture.  Their descendants in turn appear to have spawned the Bell Beaker Culture in Western Europe.  In turn, the Bell Beaker appears to have developed into the Atlantic Seaboard Celtic Culture of fame and fashion.

The Eurasian Steppe male haplogroups absolutely dominate present day Europe.  However, again, they appear to have absorbed some women with Neolithic and even earlier Hunter-Gatherer populations into their genome.

The Three Way across Europe

Across modern Europe, we are a mixture of three distinct late prehistoric populations or genetic out-layers - from most recent to oldest:

  1. Yamnaya or Steppe
  2. Neolithic Farmer
  3. Western Eurasian Hunter-Gatherer

The above image is from CARTA lecture. 2016. Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute.  All Rights Reserved.

As can be seen above, some Neolithic DNA has survived in present day Europe.  It is strongest in Southern Europe.  Yamnaya ancestry is more of an influence in Northern Europe, although, old Hunter-Gatherer survives strong in the Baltic Republics.  The modern population closest to our Neolithic ancestors are the Sardinians.  So close, that when Ötzi, a frozen preserved Neolithic body was discovered in the Alps, his DNA was seen as so similar to present day Sardinians, that some incorrectly suggested that he had travelled to the Alps from Sardinia!

A Sardinian family while reading LUnione Sarda 

A Sardinian family.  With a mandolin.  Therefore perfect for here! By Roburq (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

My Neolithic Admixture

David Wesolowski's K7 Basal-rich test


The Basal Eurasians are a hypothetical "ghost" population derived from DNA studies.  It is suggested that they splintered from other modern humans 45,000 years ago, presumably outside of Africa, somewhere around the Middle East.  They significantly contributed DNA to the Early Neolithic Farmers of the Fertile Crescent and Anatolia, and consequently, on to all of us modern West Eurasians.  

 David gives the English average as 26.5%.  My result is 28.8%

Global 10 Test

The recent Global 10 test, run by my friend Helgenes50 of the Anthrogenica board, resulted in:

  • 55% Baalberge_MN (European Middle Neolithic)

FT-DNA My Ancient Origins

  • 47% Farmer (Neolithic)

My Eurasia K9 ASI Oracle:

  • 27% Early Neolithic Farmer

My Gedrosia K15 Oracle:

  • 25% Early European Farmer

My MDLP K16 Modern Admixture

  • 31% Neolithic (modeled on genomes of first neolithic farmers of Anatolia)

My MDLP Modern K11 Oracle:

Admix Results (sorted):

# Population Percent
1 Neolithic 37.33

Image above.  Grimes Graves Late Neolithic flint mine complex, Norfolk

My Neolithic ancestry appears to be strong, for a Brit.  However - my Neolithic ancestors may not have all - or even at all, have lived in the British Isles.  My Neolithic ancestry may have been picked up along the way, across Europe, by ancestors as they travelled across Western Eurasia.

I am a Western Eurasian

The Caucasus.  By NASA/MODIS - Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view_rec.php?id=1939) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in the age where archaeology was the main driver behind our understanding of the distant past.  It still plays an important role in helping us to understand our human past before writing, and to sometimes correct our understanding of our past ever since the advent of writing.

During the past 24 months however, there has been a silent revolution.  It has been read by what is inside of us, the story of human DNA, and a foray into exploring and mapping ancient human DNA.  It is rewriting the prehistory of Western Eurasia.

First of all, we have to stop retaining ideas that somehow, Western Europeans are an isolate population.  We are the result of admixture after admixture, across Eurasia.  The DNA of humans from Ireland to Iran is strikingly similar.  We are a combination of different admixtures from different populations that lived 1) North of the Caucasus, 2) South of the Caucasus, and 3) Europe.  The Caucasus, as in the photo above, has been the great division between peoples, that allowed local Western Asian populations to divide, that then to admixed in both Western Asia, and in Europe.

This revelation is not yet widely known.  Even many professional archaeologists remain unaware, or skeptical about this new tool.  New migrations and admixture events are being discovered, into Europe, and across Eurasia that contradict previous consensus.

The Founder Populations


The latest evidence suggests that the earlier humans and their cultures of Ice Age Europe, did not survive all of the fluctuations in climate.  A new genome arrived and established 14,000 to 7,000 years ago, as represented by the Villabruna Cluster of human remains.  These last hunter-gatherers appear to have less Neanderthal DNA, and a closer relationship to Near East populations than did earlier Europeans.  They may have migrated into Europe when much of the Aegean Sea dried towards the end of the Ice Age.  These late hunter-gatherers may have contributed DNA to modern Western Eurasians both inside Europe, and in West Asia. When Early Neolithic Farmers arrived in NW Europe, it was probably the descendants of the Villabruna Type that they encountered.  They may have admixed with them.  A genetic legacy from these populations appears to be blue eyes.

South of the Caucasus

The Fertile Crescent spawned the Neolithic Revolution of Agriculture.  A distinctive genetic "ghost" population that has been named the Basal Eurasians significantly contributed to their DNA, along with other hunter-gatherer populations within the area.  Their descendants, the Early Neolithic Farmers, took agriculture, wheat, barley, sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs - along with pottery production, and polished flint axe heads across the Levant, to North Africa, Anatolia, and then on to Europe.  Along the way, they may have admixed with the hunter-gatherer populations that they displaced.  Today, their surviving DNA signal in Europe, is strongest in Sardinia, followed by the remainder of Southern Europe.

North of the Caucasus

Arable agriculture made only a temporary appearance on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes, but was soon replaced by pastoralism and a very different way of life.  The horse was well adapted to life on the Steppes, and humans there domesticated it.  Mounted on horses, they could control larger flocks and herds of livestock.  They also introduced wheeled carts, enabling them to easily mobilise to the best pastures depending on season and climate change.  They also encountered and mastered the new copper then bronze working technologies.  Steppe pastoralists could range long distances across the Steppe Corridor across Eurasia. They were also adapting by natural selection to a dairy based diet, with a rising percentage of lactose tolerance into adulthood.  A significant contribution to their DNA came from a group of Siberian hunter-gatherers known to population geneticists as the Ancient North Eurasian.  The copper age archaeological culture associated with this genetic group is the Yamna or Yamnaya.

Yamna Culture Tomb.  By XVodolazx (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

What happened in Europe?

Villabruna types entered Europe around 15,000 years ago, perhaps from the Near East.  They may have replaced earlier groups of European hunter-gatherers.

Early Neolithic Farmers from south of the Caucasus, then spread into Europe around 7,000 years ago, both across the Balkans into Central Europe, and also along the Mediterranean coast, bringing agriculture and pottery.  They may have at times admixed with hunter-gatherers within Europe.  However, their much better abilities at food production created a wave of displacement that must have been hard to resist.  They could rear so many more children.  By 5,000 years ago, their descendants dominated Europe.

Eurasian Steppe Pastoralists from north of the Caucasus, then spread into Eastern Europe around 4,100 years ago.  Why wasn't there a resistance from the Early Neolithic Farmers living there?  Latest research suggests that the Steppe Pastoralists had contracted a plague strain known as Yersinia pestis from Central Asia.  The current favoured hypothesis is that they may have accidentally spread this disease to less resistant Neolithic Farmer populations in Europe.  Some plots in Neolithic activity do indeed suggest a crisis at this time.  Therefore, the Steppe Warriors could easily dominate the depleted and weakened social structures of the Neolithic Europeans.  They brought with them, an Indo-European language, that appears to be the ancestor of most present day European languages.

In Europe, the fusion had a clear sex bias, with many Neolithic mitochondrial DNA haplogroups surviving, while Steppe Y haplogroups such as R1A still dominate today.  The fusion also seemed to give rise to a new archaeological culture known as the Corded Ware.

We know that the Yamnaya expansion didn't stop at all in Eastern Europe, it continued into Western Europe.  A fusion culture may be the Bell Beaker of the Early Bronze Age.  Again, a sex bias, with some mtDNA haplogroups surviving, but a strong dominance of Steppe Y haplogroups including the many clades of R1b.  Indeed, some of this domination is strongest on the Western edge of Eurasia, in places such as Iberia, Ireland, and Scotland, where later admixture events failed to reach - but the Steppe Pastoralists had dominated, particularly in male haplogroups.

How does this relate to this East Anglian?

According to the latest K7 Basal-rich test by David Wesolowski of the Eurogenes Blog, my ancestral breakdown of my autosomal DNA, around 14,000 years ago would be:

  • 57% Villabruna-type (Europe and the Near East)
  • 29% Basal-rich (Middle East)
  • 14% Ancient North Eurasian (Siberia)

My Y haplogroup (L-SK1414) ancestor would have most likely been an ibex hunter in the area of present-day Iran and Iraq, possibly in the valleys of Mesopotamia, and or the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

My mtDNA ancestor would have been Eurasian - by 4,400 years ago, a woman of the Yamnaya, on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes, in a pastoralist tribe.

So, you get where this is taking me.  Step back into prehistory, and what DNA is revealing to me is that my ancestors were NOT all in Britain, or even all in Europe.  They were scattered across Siberia, the Steppes, the Caucasus, the Zagros, the Middle East, the Levant, and go further back, to Africa.

Alternatively, the equally recent Global 10 test, run by my friend Helgenes50 of the Anthrogenica board, resulted in:

  • 55% Baalberge_MN (European Middle Neolithic)
  • 38% Yamna_Samara (Eurasian Steppe Pastoralist)
  • 7% Loschbour:Loschbour (Late Eurasian hunter-gatherer)

These two tests may not actually conflict, as they are essentially tests referring to the Eurasian populations of two different time periods, with different admixtures.  The K7 Basal-rich test refers to my proposed ancestral populations towards the end of the last Ice Age.  The Global 10 test refers to more recent admixture leading up to the Bronze Age. 

I am a Western Eurasian.

FT-DNA My Ancient Origins

Family Tree DNA (FTDNA) have released a new, unexpected feature to their autosomal DNA Family Finder package.  It is clearly aimed at their customers (both new and existing), of mainly European heritage.  It uses ancient DNA references to plot our ancient ancestry.  It breaks European's ancient Eurasian ancestry down into four groups:

  • Hunter-Gatherer (Western Hunter-Gatherer)
  • Farmer (Early Neolithic Farmer)
  • Metal Age Invader (Yamnaya / Bronze Age Steppe immigration)
  • Non European (Other)

First of all, I welcome this new analysis.  Combined with the latest cutting edge research into the origin of the Eurasians, and with other open source calculators of ancient origin available via GedMatch - I feel that it can help us get personal with our ancient Eurasian roots.

However... unfortunately it has faults, as the online community quickly picked up.  In particular, with the Metal Age Invader component.  FT-DNA suggests that it represents the Yamnaya admixture event - where Copper or Early Bronze Age pasturalists, mounted on their horses, expanded from the Pontic and Caspian Steppes of Eurasia, into Europe around 5,000 years ago.  But 1) it doesn't include any ANE (Ancient North Eurasian) component from the Mal'ta-Buret reference, and 2) it of course cannot distinguish it's Western Hunter-Gatherer reference from that inherited directly within Europe or elsewhere.

All that the FT-DNA Metal Age Invader reference appears to represent, is the population known as Caucasus Hunter-Gatherer.  A minority component of Yamnaya DNA as we currently see it.

For the record, as the screendump above shows, my FT-DNA Ancient Origins are:

9% Metal Age Invader

47% Farmer

44% Hunter-Gatherer

0% Non European

Now that I've got that covered, I can move onto my next blog post, which I find more interesting - how I use My Ancient Origins to try to reconstruct my ancestry from 11,000 to 4,000 years ago.