21st February 2018:

In the largest study of ancient DNA ever conducted, an international team of scientists of 144 archaeologists and geneticists from institutions in Europe and the United States, including Oxford Archaeology, has revealed the complex story behind one of the defining periods in European prehistory

Staff from all three offices at Oxford Archaeology are among the co-authors of this important study, which reports ancient DNA data from 400 prehistoric skeletons, drawn from sites across Europe.

Between 4,700-4,400 years ago, a new, bell-shaped pottery style spread across western and central Europe. For over a century, archaeologists have tried to establish whether the spread of ‘Beaker’ pottery represented a large-scale migration of people or was simply due to the spread of new ideas.

The new study, published this week in the journal Nature, shows that both sides of the debate are right. It reveals that the Beaker phenomenon spread between Iberia and central Europe without significant movement of people. But the Beaker culture spread to other places carried by large-scale human migration.

The pattern is clearest in Britain, where the study reports 155 samples ranging in age from between about 6,000 and 3,000 years ago, a period and place from which there are no published data. Among the sites that have contributed data are several excavated by Oxford Archaeology, including Yarnton and Radley in Oxfordshire, Eton Rowing Course in Buckinghamshire, Melton Quarry in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and Clay Farm in Cambridgeshire.

Geneticist Ian Barnes at London’s Natural History Museum, a co-senior author of the study, explains, “We found that the skeletal remains of individuals from Britain who lived shortly after this time have a very different DNA profile to those who came before. At least 90% of the ancestry of Britons was replaced by a group from the continent. Following the Beaker spread, there was a population in Britain that for the first time had ancestry and skin and eye pigmentation similar to the majority of Britons today.”

Carles Lalueza-Fox, a geneticist and co-senior author at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona Spain, adds, “Beaker culture arrived in Britain just after the last big stones at Stonehenge went up. The fact that the Beaker expansion achieved a near-complete turnover of the population that built these great megalithic monuments dramatizes how disruptive these events must have been.”