Three waves of immigrants settled prehistoric Europe. The last, some 5,000 years ago, were the Yamnaya, horse-riding cattle herders from Russia who built imposing grave mounds like this one near Žabalj, Serbia.
The idea that there were once “pure” populations of ancestral Europeans, there since the days of woolly mammoths, has inspired ideologues since well before the Nazis. It has long nourished white racism, and in recent years it has stoked fears about the impact of immigrants: fears that have threatened to rip apart the European Union and roiled politics in the United States.
Now scientists are delivering new answers to the question of who Europeans really are and where they came from. Their findings suggest that the continent has been a melting pot since the Ice Age. Europeans living today, in whatever country, are a varying mix of ancient bloodlines hailing from Africa, the Middle East, and the Russian steppe.
The evidence comes from archaeological artifacts, from the analysis of ancient teeth and bones, and from linguistics. But above all it comes from the new field of paleogenetics. During the past decade it has become possible to sequence the entire genome of humans who lived tens of millennia ago. Technical advances in just the past few years have made it cheap and efficient to do so; a well-preserved bit of skeleton can now be sequenced for around $500.
The result has been an explosion of new information that is transforming archaeology. In 2018 alone, the genomes of more than a thousand prehistoric humans were determined, mostly from bones dug up years ago and preserved in museums and archaeological labs. In the process any notion of European genetic purity has been swept away on a tide of powdered bone.
Analysis of ancient genomes provides the equivalent of the personal DNA testing kits available today, but for people who died long before humans invented writing, the wheel, or pottery. The genetic information is startlingly complete: Everything from hair and eye color to the inability to digest milk can be determined from a thousandth of an ounce of bone or tooth. And like personal DNA tests, the results reveal clues to the identities and origins of ancient humans’ ancestors—and thus to ancient migrations.
Three major movements of people, it now seems clear, shaped the course of European prehistory. Immigrants brought art and music, farming and cities, domesticated horses and the wheel. They introduced the Indo-European languages spoken across much of the continent today. They may have even brought the plague. The last major contributors to western and central Europe’s genetic makeup—the last of the first Europeans, so to speak—arrived from the Russian steppe as Stonehenge was being built, nearly 5,000 years ago. They finished the job.
In an era of debate over migration and borders, the science shows that Europe is a continent of immigrants and always has been. “The people who live in a place today are not the descendants of people who lived there long ago,” says Harvard University paleogeneticist David Reich. “There are no indigenous people—anyone who hearkens back to racial purity is confronted with the meaninglessness of the concept.”