Ancient migrations: Steppe and Iranian-related ancestry’s genes in the DNA of Sicilians, Sardinians and other Mediterranean islands populations

A new international study, in partnership with Sapienza, recreates the post-Neolithic migration dynamics in the western Mediterranean islands and reveals new data about the genetic history of their inhabitants. The results, which pave the way for future studies on migrations during periods of high commercial intensity, have been published on Nature Ecology & Evolution Journal

Since prehistory, the Mediterranean Sea has been one of the main routes for marine migrations as well as a centre of commercial relations and invasions. But these islands’ genetic history has still little documentary evidence, despite the recent development of the ancient DNA studies.

A new international study carried out by researchers of Sapienza University, the University of Vienna, Harvard University, the University of Florence in partnership with the Superintendency of Archaeological Heritage of Sassari e Nuoro analysed the DNA of 66 prehistoric individuals to retrace the genetic history of the Mediterranean Islands’ ancient populations, Sicily, Sardinia and Balearic Island in particular.  

The analysis of the ancient DNA of a group of individuals dated back to Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age brought to light a complex migrations model from Africa, Asia and Europe with different dynamics and timing for each Mediterranean island. In Sicily, for instance, a new ancestry, starting with the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 b.c) and that chronologically overlaps the Greek-Mycenaean commercial expansion, has been found.

Sardinia has got a different story in itself: the ancient Sardinians came from the first Neolithic farmers who reached Europe around 8000 years ago preserving that population’s genetic characteristics until the end of Bronze Age (1000 b.c.). Even if some episodes of marine migrations from North Africa can be also found in previous eras, as emerged from the analysis of an individual from the second half of the third millennium b.c., who had primarily North African ancestry Studies have estimated that, currently, 52-62% of Sardinian population comes from the Neolithic lineage. This percentage highlights, together with other data, how Sardinia, as well as other European regions, has been a melting pot for movement and mixture of people, despite the fact that such phenomenon started to be apparent after 1000 b.c. and in the current Sardinian population there is still a predominance of Neolithic lineage.

An even different scenario is the one of Balearic Islands. Here, during the Bronze Age (3300-1200 b.c.), the arrival from genetic components linked to a population from the steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas did not happen from eastern Europe but from Western Europe, that is a migration of individuals coming from Iberia.

These results help contextualise the movement of the individuals in the western Mediterranean during periods of high commercial intensity such as the Bronze and Iron age. This paves the way for future studies on migrations during Greek, Phoenician and even Roman times. 



The spread of steppe and Iranian-related ancestry in the islands of the western Mediterranean - Fernandes D.M., Mittnik A., Olalde I., Lazaridis I., Cheronet O., Rohland N.,Mallick S., Bernardos R., Broomandkhoshbacht N., Carlsson J., Culleton B.J., Ferry M., Gamarra B., Lari M., Mah M., Michel M., Modi A., Novak M., Oppenheimer J., Sirak K.A., Stewardson K., Mandl K., Schattke C., Özdoğan K.T., Lucci M., Gasperetti G., Candilio F., Salis G., Vai S., Camarós E., Calò C., Catalano G., Cueto M., Forgia V., Lozano M., Marini E., Micheletti M., Miccichè R.M., Palombo M.R., Ramis D., Schimmenti V., Sureda P., Teira L., Teschler-Nicola M., Kennett D.J., Lalueza-Fox C., Patterson N., Sineo L., Coppa A., Caramelli D., Pinhasi R. & Reich D. - Nature Ecology & Evolution (2020) DOI


Further Information

Alfredo Coppa
Department of Environmental Biology

Friday, 28 February 2020

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