For thousands of years the Eurasian steppes have been a centre of human migrations and cultural change. Here we sequence the genomes of 137 ancient humans (about 1× average coverage), covering a period of 4,000 years, to understand the population history of the Eurasian steppes after the Bronze Age migrations. We find that the genetics of the Scythian groups that dominated the Eurasian steppes throughout the Iron Age were highly structured, with diverse origins comprising Late Bronze Age herders, European farmers and southern Siberian hunter-gatherers. Later, Scythians admixed with the eastern steppe nomads who formed the Xiongnu confederations, and moved westward in about the second or third century bc, forming the Hun traditions in the fourth–fifth century ad, and carrying with them plague that was basal to the Justinian plague. These nomads were further admixed with East Asian groups during several short-term khanates in the Medieval period. These historical events transformed the Eurasian steppes from being inhabited by Indo-European speakers of largely West Eurasian ancestry to the mostly Turkic-speaking groups of the present day, who are primarily of East Asian ancestry.
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We thank K. Magnussen, L. Petersen, C. Mortensen and A. Seguin-Orlando at the Danish National Sequencing Centre for producing the analysed sequences; P. Reimer and S. Hoper at the 14Chrono Center Belfast for providing accelerator mass spectrometry dating; S. Hackenbeck for discussing palaeodietary reconstructions; D. Christiansen Appelt, B. Heyerdahl, the Explico Foundation team, J. Isakova, B. Daulet, A. Tairov, N. Abduov, B. Tudiyarov, V. Volkov, M. Akchurin, I. Baimukhan, N. Namdakov, Y. Yusupov, E. Ramankulov, A. Nurgaziyev and A. Kusaev for important assistance in fieldwork; J. Stenderup, P. V. Olsen and T. Brand for technical assistance in the laboratory; all involved archaeologists, historians and geographers from Kazakhstan: A. Suslov, I. Erofeeva, E. Nurmaganbetov, B. Kozhakhmetov, N. Loman, Y. Parshin, S. Ladunskiy, M. Bedelbaeva, A. Marcsik, O. Gábor, M. Půlpán, Y. Kubeev, R. Zhumashev, K. Omarov, S. Kasymov and U. Akimbayeva; P. Rodzianko for creating the initial contact between P.d.B.D., S.E. and E.U.; and S. Jacobsen and J. O’Brien for translating and proofreading Russian contributions. E.W. thanks St. John’s College, Cambridge for support and for providing an environment facilitating scientific discussions. B.Boldg. thanks the Taylor Family-Asia Foundation Endowed Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology. The project was funded by the Danish National Research Foundation (E.W.), the Lundbeck Foundation (E.W.) and KU2016 (E.W.).
Nature thanks T. Higham, D. Anthony, B. Shapiro, R. Dennell and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.