Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Y-DNA European Migrations

Historically it was thought that the Celtic peoples originated in central Europe (the La Tène culture). However, more recently, primarily by genetic and other evidence researched by Stephen Oppenheimer, it seems the Celts of Ireland and Great Britain originated from the Basque country (in Spain) and moved northwards up the Atlantic coast after the last Ice Age. It is interesting how this evidence may have some connection to the mythological origins of the Irish in their ancient text “Lebor Gabála Érenn”. These legends tell the story of  the Irish arriving from Spain.

Historically it was also thought that the British (Celtic) inhabitants were displaced by later Germanic peoples, such as the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, then Normans as I will explain in a later post. However, “The genetic evidence shows that three quarters of our ancestors came to this corner of Europe as hunter-gatherers, between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands.” (Stephen Oppenheimer)

Genetically speaking the R1b genetic code in my Y-DNA is the highest among the Irish and the Basque people, but is high throughout Western Europe and accounts for as much as 40% of the Danish, where my paternal ancestry came from.  Oppenheimer’s genetic studies show that the bulk of Western European ancestry is Basque (Celtic/R1b), rather than Nordic (I & R1a) or Anglo-Saxon (I). As shown in the nearby map, during the Last Glacial Maximum (abt 20,000 years ago) there were three main refuges: R1b in northern Spain, I in the Balkans and R1a in the steppes north of the Caucasus Mountains. The map does not show that sea levels were much lower at that time, such that England and Ireland were connected to the mainland and not islands as they are today. (See the map on the previous post.) Thus began the migration of R1b along the coast into Ireland and western England as the ice melted while the I haplogroup migrated into southern Scandinavia.

An increasing amount of evidence shows that horses were first domesticated on the European steppes about 4000-3500 BCE. The use of horses immediately spread rapidly across Eurasia. This same area – in modern day Kazakhstan, north of the Black and Caspian Seas – was the homeland of the proto-Indo-European language which dominates Europe (and the world) today – the ancestor of our own English language. It is likely that a conquering Indo-European horse culture spread their language across Europe at some pre-historic time, likely between the time of horse domestication and the beginning of writing. Thus language is not always equivalent to genetics, as these conquerors left their language but did not wipe out the existing populations.

This can be seen in more recent historical evidence as shown by two major European language groups: Latin and Germanic. Two thousand years ago, the Romans managed to impose the Latin language on Gaul (modern day France) which evolved into the French language. Yet the French people were a Germanic tribe more closely related to the Germans and English (old Angles from southern Denmark), than they were to those on the Italian peninsula.

Not everyone is in agreement with the story I have laid out here. For example, on, the page on Haplogroup R1b seems to suggest that Europeans are descendants of the Indo-European horse culture about 1000 BCE.  But as stated earlier, language does not always equate to culture or genealogy. So I suspect the Indo-Europeans likely conquered and spread their language among pre-historical Europeans, but did not genetically replace the older inhabitants.  It is likely that a small part of their genetics were left behind, but the original inhabitants are still likely the dominant DNA.

The current distribution of Y-DNA Haplogroups can be seen in the map below. Notice the preponderance of R1b in Western Europe, as well as the I1 group in Scandinavia. We can also see a smaller group of R1a along the western coast of Norway. These are the areas of my ancestors.

For more information on ancient DNA ancestry see the recommended books and links at the bottom of my prior blog post.

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