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Beyond broad strokes: sociocultural insights from the study of ancient genomes

Abstract

In the field of human history, ancient DNA has provided answers to long-standing debates about major movements of people and has begun to inform on other important facets of the human experience. The field is now moving from mostly large-scale supraregional studies to a more local perspective, shedding light on socioeconomic processes, inheritance rules, marriage practices and technological diffusion. In this Review, we summarize recent studies showcasing these types of insights, focusing on methods used to infer sociocultural aspects of human behaviour. This approach often involves working across disciplines — such as anthropology, archaeology, linguistics and genetics — that have until recently evolved in separation. Multidisciplinary dialogue is important for an integrated reconstruction of human history, which can yield extraordinary insights about past societies, reproductive behaviours and even lifestyle habits that would not be possible to obtain otherwise.

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Fig. 1: The spread of farming and ‘farming ancestry’ during the Neolithic period.
Fig. 2: Homozygosity by descent in present-day and ancient humans.
Fig. 3: Changes in patterns of mobility through time.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank F. Silva for providing raw data for reproduction of agricultural spread patterns featured in a previous article by him. F.R. was funded by a Villum Fonden Young Investigator award (project no. 00025300). H.S. was supported by the Humanities in the European Research Area (HERA) Joint Research Programme “Uses of the Past” (CitiGen) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 649307. M.V.L. was supported by the European Research Council, funded under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/20072013; European Research Council grant agreement no. 313716). C.L.-F. was supported by a grant from Obra Social “La Caixa” (GRC2017-SGR880, Generalitat de Catalunya) and a grant from FEDER-MCIU-AEI (PGC2018-095931-B-100) of Spain.

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F.R., M.S., M.V.L. and H.S. researched the literature. All authors provided substantial contributions to discussions of the content, wrote the article, and reviewed and/or edited the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Fernando Racimo or Carles Lalueza-Fox.

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Supplementary information

Glossary

Population admixture

The introduction of genetic lineages from one population into another population that is genetically differentiated from it, because of interbreeding between them at some point in the past.

Eurasian Steppe

Large region of Eurasia extending from eastern Europe through Russia to Mongolia, which served as a major transit and connection route for many cultures throughout history and prehistory; characterized by temperate grasslands, shrub lands and savannahs.

Cultural diffusion

The spread of technologies or cultures from one region to another via the exchange of ideas between populations, with limited associated movements of people. By contrast, demic diffusion is the spread of technologies or cultures via movement of people, often prompted by population growth and expansion.

Megalithic

Pertaining to large stone structures, tombs or monuments. In Europe, the practice of megalith construction took off mainly in the Neolithic period, reached an apogee during the Chalcolithic period and continued into the Bronze Age.

Patrilineal

A term to describe a kinship system in which a person’s social status, family membership and/or property rights are determined through that person’s paternal lineage. By contrast, in a matrilineal system, these factors are determined through the maternal lineage.

Exogamy

The cultural practice by which individuals tend to marry outside their immediate kin group.

Identical by descent

(IBD). Two segments from two different genomes are IBD if they were both inherited from a recent ancestor shared between the two genomes.

Homozygous by descent

(HBD). Genomic segments shared identical by descent within the same individual, resulting in continuous stretches of homozygous genotypes termed ‘runs of homozygosity’.

Endogamy

The cultural practice by which individuals tend to marry within their own kin group or social group.

Uniparentally inherited markers

Sequences of DNA that are — barring rare exceptions — inherited from only one or another of a person’s parents. Examples include the mitochondrial DNA genome (transmitted from the mother alone) and the Y chromosome genome (transmitted from fathers to sons).

Agent-based models

Computational models designed for simulating and studying the behaviour of multiple autonomous agents that may interact with each other so as to study their collective effects on a system.

Isotope analysis

The study of the concentrations of different varieties of a chemical element — such as carbon, nitrogen or strontium — that have different numbers of neutrons in biological samples. They can indicate the relative abundance of vegetation types or dietary items or identify non-local individuals.

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Racimo, F., Sikora, M., Vander Linden, M. et al. Beyond broad strokes: sociocultural insights from the study of ancient genomes. Nat Rev Genet 21, 355–366 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41576-020-0218-z

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