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DNA study backs theory of massive steppe migration

Frank Jordans
Associated Press

Berlin — A wave of migrants from the eastern fringes of Europe some 4,500 years ago left their trace in the DNA — and possibly the languages — of modern Europeans, according to a new study.

Scientists discovered evidence of this Stone Age migration by analyzing DNA of 69 people who lived across Europe between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago.

Among the shifts in the genetic make-up of ancient Europeans they found that DNA associated with the Yamnaya people appeared strongly in what is now northern Germany. The Yamnaya were herders who lived in the steppe north of the Black and Aral Seas.

This injection of DNA indicates “a massive migration into the heartland of Europe from its eastern periphery,” concluded the researchers, led by David Reich of Harvard Medical School.

Such a large-scale influx would likely have affected not just the DNA but ancient cultures as well. Although genes can’t determine what people spoke, the researchers argue that their findings could influence the debate about the origins of Indo-European tongues that form the basis of modern languages such as English, German and Russian.

Linguists have long debated whether Indo-European languages came to Europe with farmers migrating from the Middle East or some other group, such as the Yamnaya.

“Major language replacements are thought to require large-scale migration,” said the authors of the study, which was published Monday by the journal Nature. “Our results make a compelling case for the steppe as a source of at least some of the Indo-European languages in Europe.”