Scientists overturn Meri’s 5,000 years hypothesis

Nils Niitra
, reporter
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Photo: Margus Ansu / Postimees

An article published in the journal Current Biology in July confirms Estonians do not have a single original home in the Ural mountains from where people started moving westward to reach the shore of the Baltic Sea some 5,000 years ago.

In the 21st century, when archaeogeneticists bring us one new discovery after another, no one holds it against Lennart Meri that he introduced the said hypothesis to the masses. Head of the international team of scientists, Ph.D. student of the Estonian Biocenter Lehti Saag has other news concerning the origins of Estonians.

You studied the bones of five hunter-gatherers and five farmers from 4,500-6,300 years ago. What did you find?

That is the time agriculture reached Estonia. The hunter-gatherers we looked at lived here 6,300-5,600 years ago, the farmers some 4,700-4,500 years ago. Agriculture came to Estonia in the circa one thousand years in between.

We wanted to know how people moved during that time as there has been a lot of talk about how Estonians have lived here for a very long time, and that we are a very indigenous people. It is true in the sense that we still have the most genetic material from hunter-gatherers in Europe. However, we are not the isolated hunter-gatherers who lived here thousands of years ago. We have seen several influxes of people over the millennia.

What does this more substantial hunter-gatherer component speak of? Does this mean we have not seen such waves of migration as took place in Central and Western Europe?

Not quite. Hunter-gatherers had been here a while before the first farmers reached these lands. The latter had less of the hunter-gatherer in them than modern Estonians do. When the Corded Ware farmers arrived, they did not kill off the hunter-gatherers - both groups lived side by side for a long time without mixing. Eventually the groups merged, which meant future people had more of the hunter-gatherer in them.

Another wave of immigrants had to reach the territory after the period we looked at 4,500 years ago. Haplogroup N of the Y chromosome is very common in modern Estonians, while neither group we looked at had it.

We looked at five Corded Ware culture farmers, and they were all clearly genetically different from the hunter-gatherers who lived here before. This means farming reached these lands with people who did not initially mix with the local hunter-gatherers.

A naive question; however, modern migration looks rather chapter and verse: people cross the Mediterranean on boats and arrive in Europe. How might it have looked in Estonia thousands of years ago - did people just take their things and walk across an imaginary line? Rather it was different?

Exactly. Those people might have numbered just one initially. Next came their sons and daughters etc. It happened over a very long period of time. The people who introduced agriculture were from the steppes of Eastern Europe, quite a long way from here. They were representatives of the Yamna culture that covered a great area from the coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea northward. They expanded toward both Europe and Asia. It is probable they came to need more space, arable land, and other necessities than their original territory had to offer.

Lennart Meri’s book “Silverwhite” has left many people with the impression that our ancestors’ road to Estonia began in the Ural mountains, and that they reached the shores of the Baltic Sea some 5,000 years ago. Where does this hypothesis stand today?

It seems that this claim, that has made its way into people’s hearts, is not quite accurate. The bones we looked at confirms that people did not come here from the Ural mountains 5,000 years ago. It is, however, probable it happened more than 4,500 years ago. Like I said, future studies should answer the question of how Estonians came to have the haplogroup N of the Y chromosome. We hope to find where it came from.

The picture is now clearer in terms of farmers who came later; however, where did the hunter-gatherers who lived here before come from?

That is more difficult to say; they inhabited a huge territory. An article on the origins of Latvians was published before our work. They looked at several hunter-gatherers who had lived in different periods. Both that article and ours conclude Central Europe’s hunter-gatherers were somewhat different from those living in the Baltic region and in Karelia for example. So we can distinguish between Western European and Eastern European hunter-gatherers.

The Latvians looked at even older hunter-gatherers than we did and found that western hunter-gatherers had inhabited these lands before their eastern counterparts. At some point, hunter-gatherers from the east must have migrated to our area.

Could these groups have been different in terms of their appearance?

Probably not, even though hunter-gatherers did look different from modern Europeans. Our samples have not yielded enough information; however, work by others confirms the hunter-gatherers who lived here had dark skin but blue eyes. How dark their skin was exactly is difficult to say, while it was certainly much darker than our complexion today. They might have looked quite interesting.

If I’m not mistaken, the modern conclusion is that languages and genes might not have spread together.

Yes; however, we try to avoid such speculation in our work. A person’s genome can tell us where they’re from and even what they looked like; however, there is no gene to tell us what language someone spoke.

Let us speculate a little. It is probable the hunter-gatherers from thousands of years ago did not speak the language we’re speaking now?

That is quite probable indeed. It is a rather widespread conviction that Indo-European languages that have the most speakers in Europe came from the very steppes the people in our study did. Both arrived in Europe at the same time, some 4,500 years ago. (This would in turn confirm our ancestors are related to the ancestors of Indo-Europeans. On the other hand, this fails to explain why Estonians speak a Finno-Ugric language and not an Indo-European one. It is probable Finno-Ugric peoples and their languages arrived here later. - N.N.). It is, however, impossible to be absolutely sure.

Did you learn anything about the state of health of the people you studied?

Yes, we found plague bacteria in one of the farmers’ tooth.

What was their life expectancy?

Anyone over forty was considered an elderly person. Hunter-gatherers were healthier for longer. However, once they took ill, recovery was very rare. They had no treatments or a fixed home; they were wanderers.

Things were different for farmers. They were more settled. People could stay home when they took ill and eat porridge. On the other hand, farmers had livestock that were kept in homes and introduced new diseases. A grain-based diet rich in carbohydrates also brought tooth decay - their teeth are clearly much uglier and have more cavities than those of hunter-gatherers who mostly ate berries and meat.

So you advocate for the paleo diet?

(Laughs.) It is funny how the paleo diet is advertised today.

What else did your genetic study find?

Among other things that agriculture reached Western Europe more than a thousand years before it reached Estonia - here people started growing cereals circa 4,500-5,000 years ago. The roots of the first Central and Western European farmers were in modern day Turkey, in Anatolia. That wave did not reach us, even though they were present in Scandinavia. Representatives of the Yamna culture later took some of the genetic material of these early Anatolian farmers with them on their long road to what is modern day Estonia. There was amalgamation.

More of the Yamna steppe component came over with men and more of the Anatolian origin with women. This means men headed west took local women with them from the road.

How far back can archaeogenetics go? You have penetrated through several thousand years already, while Christian civilization is but a few thousand years old.

It is probable the area was hardly habitable during the ice age that ended some 10,000 years ago. From there we can hope people lived here.

I suppose it is difficult to study what came before the ice age?

Yes, the movement of the ice altered the topography …

… and wiped away any bones?

Yes. The first settlements found are from 9,000 years ago or so.