June 7, 2014

West-East admixture in Mongolian Altai in the Bronze Age

This new study found West-East Eurasian admixture in Mongolian Altai before the Iron Age. This finding partly contradicts previous data by González-Ruiz 2012 that suggested a strict genetic divide until the Iron Age.

Clemence Hollard et al., Strong genetic admixture in the Altai at the Middle Bronze Age revealed by uniparental and ancestry informative markers. FSI Genetics 2014. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2014.05.012]

The new data comes from two kurgan burial sites in Westernmost Mongolia: Tsagaan Asga and Takhilgat Uzuur-5 (abbreviated as TA and TU respectively).

In both sites mtDNA lineages have dual origins, although in TU (close to the Russian and Khazakh border) there is some prevalence of Western matrilineages (3/5), while in TA (somewhat farther East) the opposite is true instead (3/7 Western matrilineages), suggesting some clinality. 

On the other hand Y-DNA is totally dominated by Western lineages with a single exception (C), although these Western lineages (Q and R1a) are of Central Asian/Siberian type without exception. Of course, Q variants have been lingering in Central Asia, Siberia and some parts of East Asia almost certainly since Aurignacian, being part of the early genesis of Native Americans (see here for a more in-depth discussion and here for China's Neolithic Y-DNA, which includes some Q), while R1a-Z93 seems a more recent arrival, maybe Epipaleolithic or Neolithic (see here), but both seem to have their origins in or near Iran, judging on basal diversity. 

There is no trace of European-specific inflows on the Y-DNA side, even if some of the mtDNA lineages may be thought as having this origin (H1, H7, U4).

The Eastern ancestry is all typical of NE Asia. I would pay particular attention to mtDNA D, which seems to have spread in the Taiga with the Seima-Turbino phenomenon, which inaugurated the Bronze Age in that area and is believed to originate in Altai.

So, as conclusions, we can say that:
  1. There was incipient East-West admixture in parts of Altai already in the Bronze Age, the main actor of this admixture were females.
  2. Patrilineal ancestry was essentially "Western" of the kind that must have been in Altai since the Neolithic or earlier (i.e. not European but Central Asian of West Asian affinities/origins)
  3. The cultural context is Kurgan, strongly suggesting Indoeuropean language (of the Tocharian branch probably).
  4. The Seima-Turbino link however suggests some sort of affinity with carriers of the mtDNA D lineage in the Taiga in that same period, lineage not found further West in Altai. These Siberian Bronze Age vector people were very likely of Tungusic ethnicity. Although early Turkic connections cannot be totally ruled out, in general Turkic peoples seem more associated to the steppe instead and the roots of their expansion were probably forged some centuries later, already in the Iron Age. 
  5. Both in the expansion of Indoeuropean eastwards and later in that of Altaic languages and ethnic affiliation westwards, the Altai region seems to have played a key pivotal role. However modern Altaians, even if Turkic by language, retain almost integrally the same Y-DNA genetic signature as the Bronze Age peoples mentioned here, what underlines their capacity to cross ethno-linguistic lines once and again while keeping their patrilineal ancestry nearly unaffected. They are therefore a good example of how populations can change ethno-linguistic ascription without significant genetic flow in such a key factor as the patrilineages. Surely many other peoples did the same in many other geographies. Ancestry and language need not to be linked, even if they sometimes are.


  1. The H1b (five modern hits in Poland), H7e and U4 are all from Europe.

    The R1a-Z93 is also from Europe. That's where the most basal clades of Z93 are found. In fact, that's where European-specific CTS4385 broke away from Z645 (which is ancestral to Z93).


    You're in some sort of denial over this fact, which is sad to watch, considering that you're actually aware that there were multiple migrations from the Russian Steppe deep into Asia.

    1. "You're in some sort of denial over this fact"...

      Fact: Underhill 2014, R1b spread from Iran.

      Denial: YOU. You have never come to terms with that study, you simply do not seem to accept (but with no reason at all), that R1a's structure simply does not support a European origin or any other steppe origin: it migrated from South to North very clearly and did so in or before the Neolithic.

      FTDNA's commercial data with strong bias towards NW Europe is in conflict with academic data and an unbiased sample? Which should I choose? It is obvious that Underhill.

      "considering that you're actually aware that there were multiple migrations from the Russian Steppe deep into Asia."

      Cultural flows. Migration is just a potential interpretation which is clearly rejected by Y-DNA structure it seems.

      "The H1b (five modern hits in Poland)"

      And another one in Portugal in the study's sample, yes. But the markers listed are those defining H1b and nothing else, with the exception (?) of 16183 that PhyloTree considers not phylogenetic and hence ignored:

      The mutations 309.1C(C), 315.1C, AC indels at 515-522, 16182C, 16183C, 16193.1C(C) and 16519 were not considered for phylogenetic reconstruction and are therefore excluded from the tree.

      H1b is found per Vanesa Álvarez Iglesias 2009 in the following populations:

      Catalonia, Estonia, Eastern Slavs, Slovakia, Balcans, Turkey, NW Caucasus, Ossetia, Karachay-Balkaria and Austria. She did not include North Africans in the sample (although I have seen nothing about H1b existing among them). H1b was also spotted per HVS-I in Epipaleolithic Portugal (Chandler 2005, check the sequences).

      So yes, H1b seems a lineage most common towards Eastern Europe, with rarer but quite old instances in Iberia too and seemingly absent in West Asia (where H1 in general is very rare). It is probable that H-CRS (surely H1 too) and H7a are also from Europe, as is U4. But, please, remember that mtDNA of European affinities is found in Central Siberia since at least the LGM (MA1, AG), so this is no novelty as such. In West Siberia, where the cultural and Y-DNA affinities were probably Uralic, we also see a lot of mtDNA of European affinity (U4, U5a and U2e) since the oldest known samples (4th millennium BCE), which can't be owed to an Indoeuropean influence not yet documented in that area and precisely then beginning to spread.

      This European-like mtDNA element in West and Central Siberia is therefore probably very old, pre-dating the IE expansions by a lot. One can well consider it of Gravettian origin or something like that (otherwise its presence in Epipaleolithic Portugal can't be explained), as was probably the case of mtDNA H in general (also H17'27 in Sunghir, other Paleolithic H in Iberia, other unclear R-CRS all around).

      It seems correct that this is about the oldest H known so far East but we do not have older samples from the Altai to compare with anyhow, so lack of evidence...

    2. Don't worry, Underhill will eventually work it out.

      He started with R1a originating in India, just like you, now he's pushed it up to Iran, again like you. Give him a little time and the penny will drop that R1a started off on the Russian steppe, and that R1a-Z93 represents European admixture in Asia.

    3. The ones who proposed R1a originating in India were another team, I believe.

      Whatever the case, I must follow serious scientific research for whatever is worth and, unless you can demonstrate that FTDNA has an unbiased sample, which they simply do not, I must dismiss that kind of pseudo-research as pointless noise. They do not even incorporate Underhill's or other academic samples into their own, so how can it be taken seriously at all?

    4. "The R1a-Z93 is also from Europe. That's where the most basal clades of Z93 are found."

      The trouble is that FTDNA is going to biased towards people who 1) speak some English and 2) can afford FTDNA's services. Unfortunately that passes over huge swaths of Asia that are extremely relevant to the history of R1a.

      Unless I'm mistaken, that FTDNA link shows the most basal branches spread from Siberia to the Middle East to Europe. So I'm not sure what that is suppose to prove? Many of the lineages in Underhill's paper are absent from FTDNA and visa versa. Underhill does provide a phylogenic network though, and it shows European lineages as generally deriving from other lineages either in Siberia, Central Asia or the Middle East (though there is one interesting exception to that in Crete).

      I'd note too that FTDNA shows the most basal clades of R1a itself as being present in Kurdistan as well - perfectly consistent with Underhill.

      I do think it's plausible that Z93 (or its predecessor) passed through the Russian/Ukrainian Steppe before heading east. As far as I can tell Underhill took no position one way or the other in terms of the route, and it certainly seems consistent with archaeology. A Bactrian route seems plausible too though. I haven't seen any data that convincingly distinguishes between the two possibles routes - have either of you?

      BTW Maju - the Underhill paper's data seems to pretty solidly show the Ashkenazi R1a as rooted in Kurdistan, which is interesting.

    5. To my eyes it seems that the Underhill data supports a West Asian origin quite unmistakably for: (1) R1a, (2) R1a1 and (3) R1a1a1b2 (Z93). Less clear is the intermediate node R1a1a1, which could equally originate in Turkey or Denmark but the upstream and downstream nodes suggest rather an origin towards Turkey than towards Denmark.

      The short timeline between R1a-M417 and R1a-L657 (just one thousand years!) does not support a convoluted forth-and-back migration pattern but rather a sudden expansion, with some odd but minor branches migrating to Scandinavia, what is the main cause of the confusion.

      "BTW Maju - the Underhill paper's data seems to pretty solidly show the Ashkenazi R1a as rooted in Kurdistan, which is interesting."

      I recall vaguely but more like something mentioned by Palisto or some commenter in his blog. In any case I would not be surprised because there was an important Jewish realm in Kurdistan known as Adiabene. This was not the only such state converted to Rabbinic Judaism in Antiquity or the Middle Ages: Khazaria and Yemen, as well as some Berber tribal states did the same (and I'm probably forgetting some others). Eventually either the Christians or the Muslims forced them out of existence but they often are at the origin of components of modern Jewish ancestry.

    6. Adiabene was prior to the existence of Rabbinic Judaism FYI. The other state you're probably thinking of is Ethiopia. The Jewish presence in some of these areas is likely older than any state-level conversion though. In Ethiopia it's at least as old as the 2nd Century BC. The Jewish presence in Elephantine goes back to at least the 6th Century BC. Jewish/Kurdish contacts probably go back to the 8th Century BC. Interesting none the less, no?

    7. "Adiabene was prior to the existence of Rabbinic Judaism FYI"...

      Fair enough. But it can be another source of Rabbinic Judaism and anyhow is part of the Hellenistic Diaspora.

      "The other state you're probably thinking of is Ethiopia."

      Aksum before conversion to Christianity, indeed. Not sure if there was some other realm. Certainly Jews were very influential form example in Medina and played a critical role in the protection of Mohamed during the Hegira, although they later fell apart, time when Mohamed decided to change the center of his religion from Jerusalem to Mecca.

      "The Jewish presence in some of these areas is likely older than any state-level conversion though."

      Obviously before persuading the monarchs and court to convert they must have gained some influence among the populace, especially the upper echelons. The same happened when Rome converted to Christian Judaism, for example.

      Alternatively monarchs could convert because of foreign influence and then force the conversion of their subjects, as happened often in Europe with Christianity or in Africa and Asia with Islam, but Judaism lacked a powerful state to back them, so it is not likely the case.

  2. "Both in the expansion of Indoeuropean eastwards and later in that of Altaic languages and ethnic affiliation westwards, the Altai region seems to have played a key pivotal role."

    The Altaic expansion ca. the 7th century CE appears to be the event that toppled the Indo-European Tocharians in the Tarim Basin.

    I would also note that the expansion of the Mongolian empire a few centuries after the Altaic expansion had a similar launching point, and that the Altai is not so very far from the earlier Denisova.

    Apparently, there are a number of things that make the region's geography special. The Altai has areas of milder weather than some of the surrounding territory (or at least did during the ice age that produced the Last Glacial Maximum ca. 20,000 years ago); it is near an important mountain pass from East Asia to Siberia. And, it is located in the world's largest endorheic basins (i.e. it is not connected by river systems to any continental coast) which means that it is not naturally linked to one or the other regions that border it by waterways, making it "neutral territory" in some sense that only adventurous explorers willing to venture beyond secure water supplies would locate.

    Some of the other notable endorheic basins which have also played significant roles in notable archaeological cultures in prehistory are the Lake Chad basin, much of the Arabian interior, much of the Kalahari Desert, and the Great Basin of North America.

    1. I feel some confusion between Altaic (language family that includes Turkic, Tungusic and Mongolic) and Altaian (people from the Altai region). Before the Turkic expansion almost surely Altaians did not speak Altaic but Indoeuropean.

      The Altaic languages surely did not originate in Altai but further East, in Mongolia and nearby areas.

      Not sure how relevant is the endorheic basin, as member of a mountain people, I know that you always want to know what is at the other side of the mountain and that, excepted the highest peaks, mountains are not really barriers but vantage points, so they are something that you want to be familiar with and use in your exploration, control and exploitation of the territory. If there's a mountain range by where you live you definitely want to go up there and check what is in the other side, even frequently so (both for hunt and for security).

      On the other hand, what you say about Altai having a milder climate than its surroundings is very much in agreement with the pivotal role it played in all Prehistory, being even at the origin of some cultural and demic processes of relevance. But it was also a destination.

  3. "Fact: Underhill 2014, R1b spread from Iran." This appears to be a typo. Underhill 2014 and your discussion appear to be talking about R1a spreading from Iran. There is some mention of R1b in Underhill 2014, but it does not appear to be nearly as definitive or to be what you are discussing in your comment.

    1. Yes, it is a typo: it should read R1a. R1b probably spread from somewhere further West like Anatolia or the Levant, and did at older dates as well.

    2. Glad to clear that up.

      You may be interested in a rumored finding of ancient Y-DNA R1b (mostly M269) in individuals from the Afansevo archaeological culture which I analyze in a recent post at my blog. http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com/2014/06/new-archaic-y-dna-r1b-in-southern.html

    3. Google Translate cannot access the reference. I had to translate it fragment by fragment. The article could be interesting (detailed post-Neolithic archaeology of Altai and speculations on it) but I see no mention of actual findings of R1b. Tell me if you can find anything specific.

      I think that Uyghur R1b is distinct enough from European one to have originated in West Asia and, quite possibly, migrated in NE direction together with R1a-Z93, having a founder effect specific to the historical Tocharians, rather than Afanasevo.


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