DNA analysis reveals population change with arrival of the Neolithic Beaker people

Researchers revealed that at least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a wave of the Neolithic Beaker culture people, who arrived about 4500 years ago at the British Isles.

Two of 155 individuals whose remains were studied in the research (by Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

The Beaker culture is named after the striking clay drinking vessels with an elegant flared lip, were clearly among the most treasured possessions of the people who were buried with them, and have been excavated from graves across Europe for centuries. However, archaeologists could not agree whether they represented a fashion spread by trade and imitation, or a culture diffused by migration. But the largest ancient DNA study so far, utilising samples of more than 400 prehistoric skeletons from across Europe, revealed that a wave of migration rolled westward across Europe, almost totally displacing the earlier population in many places – including Britain. The study included remains of 155 individuals who lived in Britain between 6000 and 3000 years ago, with many samples taken from skeletons which have been in museums since the 19th century.

The wave of migrants about 4500 years ago brought with them new customs, new burial practices, and beautiful, distinctive bell-shaped pottery. According to the researchers, in Britain the effects were dramatic. The people buried with the beakers did not have the same DNA as those from an earlier period, and the effect endured. In the centuries after the Beaker burials the DNA shows that the earlier Britons did not just come slipping back out of the woods. Many questions remain, including where the Beaker culture originated. The earliest carbon-14-dated beakers come from the Iberian peninsula, but the study showed that DNA from burials there did not match the central European samples.

Neolithic grave with two individuals and a beaker vessel (by Dave Webb, Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

(after The Guardian, Dave Webb & Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

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