Bell-shaped vessels and DNA close a centennial archaeological debate

Bell-shaped vessels and DNA close a centennial archaeological debate

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Between 4,750 and 4,500 years ago, a type of highly decorated pottery known as bell-shaped vessels for its inverted bell shape, spread across western and central Europe, marking a key period in the prehistory of the continent. For a century, scientists have intensively debated whether its spread was due to a large-scale migratory process, the expansion of social practices or a combination of both factors.

Now, the largest ancient DNA study conducted to date reveals that both cultural transmission and human migration played an important role in the spread of the bell-shaped phenomenon in Europe, although with different weight depending on the region. To reach this conclusion, the remains of 400 prehistoric skeletons from numerous European sites (11 in the Iberian Peninsula) have been analyzed, of which 226 were buried together with bell-shaped objects.

The study has been published in Nature and it has had the participation of researchers from the Autonomous Universities of Barcelona, ​​Valladolid, Complutense and Autonomous of Madrid, Alcalá, Murcia, Santiago de Compostela and the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-UPF), among other national institutions.

[Tweet "The expansion of the bell-shaped phenomenon from Iberia to central Europe was due to cultural exchanges and not due to migratory movements"]

According to the results, the expansion of the bell-shaped phenomenon from Iberia - where the oldest record of this ceramic style has been obtained - to central Europe It was due to cultural exchanges and not due to a migratory population movement. Iñigo Olalde, geneticist at Harvard Medical School in Boston (USA), first author of the article, points out that the DNA of the skeletons of the Iberian bell-shaped tombs did not have a proximity relationship with those of the center of the continent.

For his part, the co-author David Reich, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, highlights: “This is the first clear example, based on ancient DNA, that ceramics were not always the same. hand of the population ”, that is, they could be spread through trade and cultural imitation, not just through migration.

Genetic isolation between Iberia and central Europe

"It is very interesting to observe how Iberia, on the one hand, and central Europe, on the other, maintained a genetic isolation at the end of the Neolithic, about 5,000 years ago, despite the numerous archaeological evidence of interactions and contacts between both regions," he underlines Roberto Risch, professor in the Department of Prehistory of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and co-author of the work.

[Tweet «The bell-shaped glass went from being a collective object to a symbol of power: from the popular classes to the elites," as happened with jazz, "explains Risch"]

“The study shows that the introduction of the bell-shaped vase in central Europe 4,500 years ago had nothing to do with the arrival of populations from the Iberian Peninsula, as had been advocated for a long time. The rapid adoption of tableware, which had to be linked to very specific consumption practices (such as hosting drinks or food in rituals or festivals), expresses the development of new forms of communication between the south-west and central Europe ”, he adds Risch.

Surprisingly, the bell-shaped vase was adopted in central Europe by populations that had just arrived from the east. “In 2015 we carried out another large international study which showed that around 4,500 years ago at least 70% of the population of central and northern Europe was replaced by a massive migration of eastern groups from the steppe. And this new work reveals how this movement continued to advance westward ”, points out Wolfgang Haak, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History (Germany), another of the authors.

Bell-shaped movement to the west

“But, in this westward movement, the bell-shaped vase is no longer an expression of collective consumption practices, as it was in the Iberian Peninsula, but is incorporated into individual graves, in which men usually appear with distinctive weapons. and distinguished, like copper daggers, bows and arrows, ”says Risch.

The professor clarifies to Sinc: “The social meaning of the bell-shaped vase changed on that journey from the Peninsula to central Europe, and from there to the British Isles. From a collective object it became a symbol of powerful individuals. It is a clear case of manipulating the meaning of things based on the interests of power groups, something that has continued to occur to this day. A paradigmatic example is jazz, which went from being a marginal music that broke with the classical tradition, to being, especially in Europe, a music of the elites ”.

In the United Kingdom and Ireland, 155 samples dated between 6,000 and 3,000 years ago have been studied. According to geneticist Ian Barnes, from the Natural History Museum in London, “these British ancestors had a different genetic profile from those who lived shortly after them and at least 90% was replaced by the arrival of the Bell Beaker from the continent. After the arrival of this new population, inhabitants of the British island began to exist with ancestors who had characteristics, skin color and eyes similar to the majority of current Britons ”.

The bell-shaped ‘kit’ appears in the Peninsula

Barnes adds that, curiously, Around 4,500 years ago, the Iberian Peninsula also began to introduce individual funeral rituals among the local people., with its trousseau of bell-shaped glasses, metal daggers and ornaments such as buttons and bracers, an authentic bell-shaped ‘kit’.

"Here, contrary to what happened in the British Isles, a genetic change is not appreciated", comments Professor Ignacio Soriano from the UAB. "This time the changes came from the north and caused an important social rupture whose consequences will be seen in the Bronze Age, about 4,200 years ago." In the case of the Iberian Peninsula, a direct genetic continuity has been observed between the earlier Neolithic populations and the later ones of the Copper Age and campaniformes.

Also co-author Manuel Rojo Guerra, from the University of Valladolid, agrees: «From a genetic point of view, the inhabitants of the Peninsula at that time are the descendants of chalcolithic populations. That is to say, they are people who were already here and who at a certain moment adopt the bell-shaped kit ”, which appears in different regions of Europe almost simultaneously.

In Central Europe a similar situation occurs. The bell-shaped phenomenon also appears in previously established populations that had been installed in the European lot coming from the Eurasian steppes.

The mysterious arrival from the European steppes

“In peninsular prehistory, the first communities that manufactured metal weapons (such as those that appear in the kits) continued to have a very different genetic configuration from the current societies of the Iberian Peninsula,” says Risch, “and our next challenge is to determine how and when did the population movements that introduce the steppe component in the Peninsula and that we see today occurred ”.

The successful analysis of so many samples used in the study has been made possible by new methodological approaches that have greatly reduced the cost per sample of ancient DNA analysis. One is based on a chemical treatment that allows researchers to fix its sequence on the small part of the genome that is most useful for analysis. It has also been taken into account that the amount of DNA extracted from the petrous portion of the temporal bone is much greater than that from any other part of the skeleton.

SINC Agency

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