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Archaeological DNA analysis raise international attention


A massive study of prehistoric DNA gives new knowledge of the first people who domesticated horses, the development of our languages and the earliest eruption of hepatitis B, among other things. Archaeologists Kristian Kristiansen and Karl-Göran Sjögren have been involved in the research which is now presented in three papers in the journals Nature and Science.

The research project which has involved geneticists, archaeologists and linguists from around the world has studied genomes from hundreds of prehistoric individuals scattered in Central Asia and Turkey. The oldest skeletal remains were up to 11,000 years old.
The results have provided new, revolutionary knowledge in several different areas. Among other things, the study shows that the Botai people in Kazakhstan was the first to domesticize horses in an isolated manner about 5,500 years ago. A crucial event in human history, which has influenced migration and the spread of different languages.

"Being able to ride increases your opportunities for migration but also your ability to attack others and quickly disappear. The steppe becomes a highway of mobility”, says Kristian Kristiansen, professor and director for Centre for critical heritage studies (CCHS).

The interdisciplinary research group has been led by Danish Eske Willerslev, at Copenhagen University and St John's College of Cambridge. Together with Karl-Göran Sjögren, Kristian Kristiansen from Gothenburg University has contributed to the archaeological research and co-authored the papers in Science and Nature. Papers that have attracted some international attention.

“The DNA analysis have created a scientifically secure foundation for migration and mobility in the past, something that the archaeologists never have agreed on before. The detection of the extensive migrations has completely changed the understanding of history”, says Kristian Kristiansen.

Solves old mystery

The group has also solved an old question about the movement of the Indo-European languages from the west to the east. Previously, scientists have not been able to agree on how this happened, but it has now been shown that the Sintashta culture with the help of horse and wagon could quickly conquer the steppe during the Bronze Age and take the languages to South Asia and India. A movement that gave origin to several languages today spoken in India, but also Persian, Kurdish and Romani.

The other paper in Nature reveals further new knowledge based on the study of prehistoric DNA. Analysis of genomes have shown that humans have been infected with mortal liver disease hepatitis B (HBV) since the early Bronze Age. With 257 million people infected today it is one of the world's most common serious diseases. Now, traces of the disease have been found in skeletons which are up to 4,500 years old. The finding makes hepatitis B the oldest virus known to man.

“Prehistoric Hepatitis B shows that fatal diseases must be considered as a factor of explanation for the fall of civilizations, but also as a general factor in migration and cultural change”, says Kristian Kristiansen.



Read more:

Article in Science: The first horse herders and the impact of early Bronze Age steppe expansions into Asia (new window)
Article in Nature: 137 ancient human genomes from across the Eurasian steppes (new window)
Article in Nature: Ancient hepatitis B viruses from the Bronze Age to the Medieval period (new window)

Press contact:

Kristian Kristiansen, professor