Eight years ago, only one ancient human genome had been sequenced. Today, the total stands at over 1,300. 625 of those were revealed earlier this week in papers published in Nature. The papers were a result of large studies conducted by international teams including more than 100 archaeologists and geneticists, co-led by Harvard Medical School professor David Reich. The subject of the research was European prehistory in the Stone and Copper Ages.

The Bell Beaker culture is made up of at least two genetically distinct populations. Unlike most prehistoric cultures in Europe, their spread was more of a culture nature. Rather than their people spreading out, it was their ideas that emigrated.

In fact, around 90% of the population of green and pleasant land we recognise as Great Britain today was completely replaced by an influx of Beaker practitioners 4,400 years ago. To give you an idea of what was going on around that time, it was just after Stonehenge was built. For those of you unaware of Stonehenge, here’s a crash course on why it’s so popular.

This influx accounts for the genetic shift that introduced variants for paler skin and lighter-coloured eyes. It would be several generations later that the necessary genes for digesting lactose became common, without which British people would not be able to enjoy extraordinarily milky tea in the future.

The switch to agriculture from hunter-gatherer societies also brought about significant change. It was previously believed that a single group had given rise to all European farmers. New data reveals that it is not so, and it was actually several groups of Asian farmers. Initially, the Asian farming communities integrated local women into their communities. However, this trend reversed later on with new hunter-gatherer ancestry coming from men.

Due to the large sample size, studies can now look into the following:

  • Genetic variation within a specific region and how it changes over time
  • The evolution of genes that affect complex traits
  • The distribution of families within and across grave sites
  • Matrilocality and patrilocality–areas where women stayed in the same place and men moved, and vice versa



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