Ancient DNA reveals impact of the “Beaker Phenomenon” on prehistoric Europeans

In the largest study of ancient human DNA ever conducted, an international team of scientists has revealed the complex story behind one of the defining periods in European prehistory. The study is published this week in the journal Nature.

Between 4,700-4,400 years ago, a new bell-shaped pottery style spread across western and central Europe. For over a century, archaeologists have tried to establish whether the spread of “Beaker” pottery – and the culture associated with it – represented a large-scale migration of people, or was simply due to the exchange of new ideas.

Now, a study that includes ancient-DNA data from 400 prehistoric skeletons, drawn from sites across Europe, has concluded both theories are true.

The scientists found that the culture of producing beakers spread between Iberia and central Europe without significant movement of people. “DNA from skeletons associated with Beaker burials in Iberia was not close to that of central European skeletons”, says Iñigo Olalde, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston USA, an author of the study.

However, the evidence in Britain reveals a different story. The Natural History Museum’s Professor Ian Barnes, a co-senior author of the study, explains, “We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after the first beaker pottery appears have a very different DNA profile to those who came before. Over several hundred years, at least 90% of the ancestry of ancient British populations was replaced by a group from the continent. Following the Beaker spread, there was a population in Britain that for the first time had ancestry and skin and eye pigmentation similar to the majority of Britons today.”

This revelation suggests the Beaker people almost entirely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, Britain’s Neolithic farmers who were responsible for huge stone monuments, including Stonehenge.

Ian Armit, senior co-author and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bradford, said:

“The analysis shows pretty conclusively that migration of the Beaker people into Britain was more intense and on a larger scale than anyone had previously thought. Britain essentially has a whole new population after that period. We still don’t know for sure what caused such a rapid genetic turnover – the available evidence doesn’t necessarily suggest a violent invasion. There might have been environmental problems which caused a population decline among the indigenous population, or the Beaker migrants could have brought new diseases with them.”

Dr Selina Brace who led the ancient-DNA lab work at the Natural History Museum, said, “It’s been a fantastic experience to work with colleagues from teams across Europe and the US, using the state-of-the-art ancient-DNA analyses we have developed for our museum specimens.”

Tom Booth, Natural History Museum archaeologist, added, “The question of whether new things spread by the movement of people or ideas has been one of the most important and long-running questions in archaeology, and it’s fascinating to discover that both are the case for the Beaker culture.”

Mike Parker Pearson, professor of British Later Prehistory at UCL said “This is a great example of how geneticists and archaeologists are collaborating to rewrite the prehistory of both Britain and Europe”.

Mark Thomas, professor of evolutionary genetics at UCL and co-author on the study said: “The sheer scale of population replacement in Britain is going to surprise many, even though the more we learn from ancient DNA studies, the more we see large-scale migration as the norm in prehistory.”

This study was conducted by an international team of 144 archaeologists and geneticists from institutions in Europe and the United States. The Natural History Museum’s contribution to the project was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

Photo: © National Museums Scotland