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The Archaeogenetics of European Ancestry

  1. Maria Pala1,
  2. Gyaneshwer Chaubey2,
  3. Pedro Soares3,
  4. Martin B Richards1

Published Online: 15 JUL 2014

DOI: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0024624



How to Cite

Pala, M., Chaubey, G., Soares, P. and Richards, M. B. 2014. The Archaeogenetics of European Ancestry. eLS. .

Author Information

  1. 1

    University of Huddersfield, Huddersfield, UK

  2. 2

    Estonian Biocentre, Tartu, Estonia

  3. 3

    University of Minho, Braga, Portugal

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 JUL 2014


The archaeogenetics of Europe remains deeply controversial. Advances in ancient deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis have suggested gene flow between Neanderthals and modern humans, who arrived in Europe <50 000 years ago, but have so far failed to support evolution of Neanderthals from a population of Homo heidelbergensis represented by remains in northern Spain. The extent to which European Mesolithic forager populations versus Neolithic pioneers from the Near East contributed to the extant gene pool of Europeans also continues to be contested. Whilst analyses of extant mitochondrial lineages have emphasised late Palaeolithic and Mesolithic expansions, ancient DNA (aDNA) results suggest significant Neolithic dispersals from the southern ‘refugial’ zone into the northern ‘bio-tidal’ zone. However, whether these had a primarily Near Eastern or North Mediterranean source remains a matter for debate. Meanwhile, aDNA has also begun to highlight an important role for later dispersals, especially during the late Neolithic, in shaping the European gene pool.

Key Concepts:

  • The archaeogenetics of Europe has been intensively studied but remains in flux and deeply controversial, with no universally accepted methodological approach.

  • Hominins, including Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Neanderthals and modern humans, have been present in Europe for more than 1 million years (My).

  • Neanderthals and modern humans are thought to have a common ancestor, Homo heidelbergensis, approximately half a million years ago, and to have interbred at low levels as modern humans dispersed into Eurasia from Africa approximately 60 000 years ago.

  • However, the status of hominin remains from northern Spain as representing a step from this ancestor towards the Neanderthals has recently been questioned by mtDNA evidence.

  • The importance of the phylogeographic approach can be seen in the elucidation of the relationships between the north European, Finnic-speaking Saami people, who traditionally lacked agriculture, and farming-based Europeans.

  • Analyses of contemporary mtDNAs suggest that most arose within the pre-Neolithic foraging communities of Europe >10 000 years ago, rather than being introduced with farming from the Near East approximately 9000 years ago, but ancient DNA evidence from central and northern Europe has questioned this view.

  • The solution may lie in the distinction between ‘bio-tidal’ sink and ‘refugium’ source areas, north and south of the continental divide respectively – there may have been significant dispersals from the latter into the former regions in the Neolithic as well as in the Late Glacial and immediate postglacial periods.

  • With increasing success in the recovery of ancient DNA, archaeogenetics is finally also beginning to shed light on post-Neolithic dispersals – as illustrated by the recent demonstration that most Ashkenazi maternal lineages have a European, rather than Levantine, source.

  • An integrated combination of both ancient and contemporary DNA studies and an eclectic variety of approaches to data analysis may be the best way forward for archaeogenetics.


  • archaeogenetics;
  • phylogeography;
  • founder analysis;
  • Structure-like analyses;
  • principal components analysis;
  • genealogy;
  • whole-mtDNA genomes;
  • Y-chromosome variation;
  • genome-wide autosomal variation;
  • ancient DNA