Kerttu Majander (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena) & Kerkko Nordqvist (University of Helsinki) & Arkadii Korolev (Samara State University of Social Sciences and Education) & Alexander Khokhlov (Samara State University of Social Sciences and Education) & Roman Smolyaninov (Lipetsk State Pedagogical University) & Henny Piezonka (University of Kiel) & Päivi Onkamo (University of Turku) & Johannes Krause (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena) & Wolfgang Haak (Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena):

Genome-wide ancient DNA investigation of Eneolithic individuals from southwestern Russia reveals a genetic contact point between the forest-steppe and steppe populations

Ancient-DNA studies over the last decade have described substantial gene flow from Bronze-Age populations of the Eurasian steppe, with likely connections to the spread of Indo-European languages. The origins of these people and their later dispersals to the northwestern end of Eurasian steppe zone remain less understood. In northeastern Europe, the Neolithic and Eneolithic (Chalcolithic) periods witnessed the transition of subsistence strategies of local populations from the foraging lifestyle into pastoralism. These changes both caused and encouraged large-scale environmental modifications and substantiated divisions between boreal forests, temperate grasslands, and the intermediate belt of forest-steppe. Whether the genetics and evolution of local languages of human populations reflect these environmental zones, is yet largely to be explored.

Here we target the population-genetic transition processes through genome-wide next-generation sequencing data of 25 Eneolithic to Bronze-Age individuals from seven archaeological sites in southwestern Russia. We observe a consistent signal of the hunter-gatherer -like ancestries described in both eastern and western Europe. Following the time gradient, we also detect the earliest occurrences of individuals with mixed Iranian Neolithic-related ancestry (previously described as ‘steppe ancestry’) and the underlying European hunter-gatherer substrate. In addition, remnants of the genetic ancestry from early Siberian populations, today mainly prevalent in the Native Americans, are present in the region. These results provide novel insight to an integral contact zone between major cultural movements, illuminating the role of the forest-steppe populations in Eurasian prehistory. The gradual integration of a genetic component associated with the Eurasian agro-pastoralists into the forest-steppe gene pool suggests a close contact between these two groups at that time. Furthermore, the waves of cultural input insinuated by the genetics may have heralded language exchange between the early forms or predecessors of Uralic languages and the Indo-European effects, which are still observed in their modern equivalents.