Thanks to a strange type of pot, an international team of scientists have concluded that an unknown invasion of the British Isles took place around 2,500 BCE. According to the pre-print up on the bioRxiv server, this mass migration wiped out 90 percent of the UK’s gene pool within just a few hundred years.
Let’s recap a little. Around 4,500 years ago, bell-shaped pottery took Europe by storm. Back then, New Stone Age cultures began spreading across what is now Germany, France, and the UK.
The sudden appearance of the “Bell Beakers”, however, confused researchers. They couldn’t decide whether everyone was sharing their tips for these in-vogue objects or if an enigmatic migration of a particular tribe or group of people brought the designs with them.
A good way to test this would be to look at the genomes of those that perished in places that contained the Bell Beakers. A genetic similarity across all of Europe would support the mysterious diaspora hypothesis, whereas a dissimilarity would suggest that everyone just started to design them from within Europe at roughly the same time.
This new study analyzed the genomes of 170 long-dead Europeans, and found some surprising results. In Iberia – Spain and Portugal – and central Europe, the beakers’ former owners were not particularly similar on a genetic level, which implies that the pottery design cropped up in multiple spots.
However, in the UK, those that owned or used the Bell Beakers appeared to be very closely related indeed. Most significantly, their genomes were vastly different from the populations nearby that didn’t seem to own any of the beakers.
The study, therefore, has concluded that Britain’s Neolithic farmers – those that built Stonehenge – were ousted by a sudden influx of Bell Beaker-owning people from elsewhere. In fact, the analysis suggests that there was a greater than 90 percent shift in the country’s genetic make-up at this time – a massive changing of the guard.
So, at least for Britain, the Bell Beakers belonged to one closely-related group of people. As for the rest of Europe, the jury is still out on which hypothesis is more plausible.
It seems insane that pottery design can have such dramatic implications, but even a quick glance at the paper reveals the scale of the effort to uncover the truth behind the Bell Beakers – it has over 100 co-authors from all over the world, including those from the Harvard Medical School, the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Edinburgh, Florence, Strasbourg, and London’s Natural History Museum.
This paper, however, has brought up an even more curious conundrum than the original – who were the ancient invaders of Neolithic Britain? Right now, rather deliciously, no one knows.