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Saturday, May 18, 2013

Norse dwarves: Bronze Age metallurgists from the Mediterranean?

First of all, for the lack of a better summary of what these dwarves were all about, here are a couple of quotes from Wikipedia. I checked the original sources and they look legit, so this ought to be accurate:

Dvergar or Norse dwarves (Old Norse dvergar, sing. dvergr) are entities in Norse mythology associated with rocks, the earth, deathliness, luck, technology, craft, metal work, wisdom, and greed. They are sometimes identified with Svartálfar ('black elves'), and Dökkálfar ('dark elves'),[1] due to their apparently interchangeable use in early texts such as the Eddas.

While the word "Dvergar" is related etymologically to "dwarves", the early Norse concept of Dvergar is unlike the concept of "dwarves" in other cultures. For instance, Norse dwarves may originally have been envisaged as being of human size.


The Dvergar are often called 'black', especially as the 'black elves' (svartálfar). In Old Norse, this byname 'black' (svartr) refers to hair color or eye color.

The illustration above is of Reginn the Dvergr, again courtesy of Wikipedia. Now here's an abstract from a recent open access paper on maritime contacts between the East Mediterranean and Scandinavia during the Bronze Age. Note the references to rocks, technology, craft, metal work and trade (and thus greed, I suppose).

The Bronze Age of Scandinavia (1750-500 BC) is characterized by the sudden appearance of bronze objects in Scandinavia, the sudden mass appearance of amber in Mycenaean graves, and the beginning of bedrock carvings of huge ships. We take this to indicate that people from the east Mediterranean arrived to Sweden on big ships over the Atlantic, carrying bronze objects from the south, which they traded for amber occurring in SE Sweden in the Ravlunda-Vitemölla–Kivik area. Those visitors left strong cultural imprints as recorded by pictures and objects found in SE Sweden. This seems to indicate that the visits had grown to the establishment of a trading centre. The Bronze Age of Österlen (the SE part of Sweden) is also characterized by a strong Sun cult recorded by stone monuments built to record the annual motions of the Sun, and rock carvings that exhibit strict alignments to the annual motions of the Sun. Ales Stones, dated at about 800 BC, is a remarkable monument in the form of a 67 m long stone-ship. It records the four main solar turning points of the year, the 12 months of the year, each month covering 30 days, except for month 7 which had 35 days (making a full year of 365 days), and the time of the day at 16 points representing 1.5 hour. Ales Stones are built after the same basic geometry as Stonehenge in England.

Interesting stuff. The only thing I'd add is that these contacts between the Mediterranean and Scandinavia most likely stretched back to the Neolithic, when Megalithic cultures dominated Southern and Western Europe. Indeed, the remains from a TRB (Funnelbeaker) Culture burial in western Sweden were recently genotype for autosmal DNA and they came out surprisingly Mediterranean (see here).

Nils-Axel Mörner, Bob G. Lind, The Bronze Age in SE Sweden Evidence of Long-Distance Travel and Advanced Sun Cult, Journal of Geography and Geology, Vol 5, No 1 (2013), DOI: 10.5539/jgg.v5n1p78

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

High mtDNA affinity between Bronze Age Minoans and Western Europeans

The first ever study on the ancient DNA of Minoans suggests that these enigmatic Bronze Age inhabitants of Crete were very similar in terms of mtDNA to present-day Cretans. Overall the Minoan sample shows the greatest affinity to the modern population of the Lasithi Plateau, in eastern Crete, where it originated. But here's the other really interesting part: as per the spatial maps below, the Minoan mtDNA sequences also show unexpectedly high affinity to those of modern English (a) and Bronze Age Sardinians and Iberians (b). See also Table 1 from the paper, where the top ten "nearest neighbors" to the Minoan sample are ancient and extant Western European populations.

So the results imply genetic links between Bronze Age Crete and Western Europe. Now, Martinez et al. 2007 found that 36.6% of Cretans from the Lasithi Plateau belonged to Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b. They only tested 41 individuals, but that's still an interesting result for Southeastern Europe, where R1b is generally uncommon. Indeed, perhaps the Minoans carried a much higher frequency of R1b, and they (or a related seafaring culture) spread this marker to Western Europe via maritime routes, where it has since become the most important Y-chromosome haplogroup? It's a valid question considering the ancient mtDNA data. The pics of Minoan bull leaping and Spanish bullfighting below are courtesy of Wikipedia (see here).

Update 16/05/2013: To add to my comments above about the Minoans, or a related group, being potentially responsible for the introduction of Y-DNA R1b to Western Europe, it's interesting to note that one of the Minoan mtDNA sequences belonged to the rare H13a1a haplogroup.

Both H13a1a and R1b were recently found in late Neolithic Bell Beaker remains from Germany (see here). Moreover, today H13a1a shows a peak in frequency and diversity in the Caucasus, particularly in Dagestan, but also occurs at low frequencies in Italy, Sardinia and Iberia. Interestingly, R1b is found at fairly high frequencies among some ethnic groups in and around Dagestan, like the Lezgins, and it's obviously also common in Italy and Iberia.

So what am I getting at? Well, it looks like a group with loads of R1b from what is now Dagestan or surrounds - perhaps the deep ancestors of Bell Beakers and Minoans - learned to sail, crossed the Mediterranean Sea from east to west, settled a few islands along the way, and eventually their descendants conquered much of Western and Central Europe. This is certainly not the most parsimonious theory of how R1b might have appeared on the scene in Western Europe during the late Neolithic, but it does make sense considering all the data.

But what might have caused this purported population movement from the Caucasus, and is it a coincidence that both R1a and R1b only appear among European ancient DNA from the late Neolithic onwards? It's unlikely that the Minoans and Bell Beakers were part of the Indo-European expansion, but perhaps their ancestors in the Caucasus felt the pressure of this expansion from the steppe to the north, which was at that time most likely dominated by Kurgan groups high in R1a?

Update 18/05/2013: Maju isn't convinced that the gradient maps and "nearest neighbor" analysis show explicit links between the Minoan and post-Neolithic Western European mtDNA gene pools. He calls it a "pseudo-affinity" which should be taken with a pinch of salt (see here). Moreover, he suggests the Minoan mtDNA shows closest links to early European Neolithic mtDNA because of four HVS-1 sequence matches.

But the high affinity between the Minoan and post-Neolithic Western European mtDNA can be seen clearly in two different analyses, so it's real, even if mostly indirect. Therefore, there's no need to take the results with a pinch of salt, they should just be viewed in their proper context. In other words, this affinity is certainly not due to a massive invasion of Western Europe by Minoan women, but the result of the same processes acting on the post-Neolithic Western European and Minoan mtDNA gene pools, which probably included some direct gene flow from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe during the Bronze Age.


Hughey et al., A European population in Minoan Bronze Age Crete, Nature Communications 4, Article number: 1861, doi:10.1038/ncomms2871, Published 14 May 2013

Martinez et al., Paleolithic Y-haplogroup heritage predominates in a Cretan highland plateau, European Journal of Human Genetics (2007) 15, 485–493. doi:10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201769; published online 31 January 2007

South Asian R1a in the 1000 Genomes Project

After a recent update, the 1000 Genomes project now includes 62 individuals of South Asian origin belonging to Y-DNA haplogroup R1a-M17. Their full Y-chromosome sequences have been analyzed by Semargl and Maximus (aka. YFull project), with some interesting but not unexpected results:

- All individuals belong to R1a-Z93, which appears to totally dominate South Asian R1a-M17.

- A single Punjabi from Lahore, northeastern Pakistan, is ancestral for the Z94 mutation, which is just below Z93. All the other individuals are derived for Z94.

- Six individuals - of Punjabi, Bangladeshi and Gujarati origin - are ancestral for L657 and Z2124, the two main mutations immediately below Z94.

- All individuals of South Indian and Sri Lankan origin are derived for L657 or Z2124.

- Based on this sample, there appears to be no substructure along ethnic or geographic lines within South Asian R1a-M17 derived for L657 and Z2124.

Thus, it seems the SNP diversity of South Asian R1a-M17 is low, and decreases from Pakistan, North India and Bangladesh to South India and Sri Lanka. In comparison, there are only 12 European R1a individuals in the 1000 Genomes sample, and they represent all the major subclades of this haplogroup: R1a-Z283, R1a-Z93 and R1a-L664. Therefore, sampling bias can't be used as an argument for the more diverse result from Europe.

The lack of substructure along ethnic and geographic lines within South Asian R1a-L657 and R1a-Z2124 looks unusual, especially considering the caste system in India, and needs to be verified with more extensive sampling. However, if this outcome holds up, it'll suggest that paternal gene flow across South Asia has not been restricted by the caste system or geography. Then again, it could mean the caste system appeared after R1a-L657 and R1a-Z2124 arrived in South India via massive population movements from the north.

Below are all the results in as much detail as the current R1a SNP tree allows. Key: BEB - Bengali from Bangladesh; GIH - Gujaratai from Houston, Texas; ITU - Indian Telugu from the UK; PJL - Punjabi from Lahore, Pakistan; STU - Sri Lankan Tamil from the UK.

Z93+ Z94-
PJL - 1

Z94+ L657- Z2124- Z96-
BEB - 2 PJL - 3 GIH - 1

L657+,Y2+ etc.
1) Y9 (inc. Y7)
GIH - 7
STU - 4
ITU - 4
PJL - 8
BEB - 2

2) Y4+, Y8+, Y28+ (inc. Y6+)
GIH - 6
ITU - 6
PJL - 2
STU - 6
BEB - 5

Z2125+ (Z2124+ Z2122- Z2123-)
PJL - 1

Z2123+ (Z2124+ Z2122-, Z2125-)
PJL - 2
STU - 3
BEB - 1
ITU - 6
GIH - 2