Why Armenians are a “Living Fossil” to Geneticists?!

History_2015-06-09

 

A number of genetic studies have recently investigated Armenian DNA from different perspectives revealing some fascinating and consistent results. For example in 2014 Hellenthal et. al. in a paper published in Science have investigated worldwide human admixture history over the past 4000 years and created a Genetic Atlas of human admixture. Oddly enough they could not identify the Armenian admixture for the past 4000 years and placed Armenians into the “no admixture, uncertain” category (read more about it HERE).

Another recent study by Haber et. al. (2015) has shed more light in this regard by specifically focusing on Armenian genetics. They found that Armenians show a signatures of an origin from mixture of diverse populations occurring 3,000 to 2,000 BCE which incidentally coincides with the legendary founding of Armenia by the patriarch Hayk in 2492 BCE. This revelation was even picked up by the New York Times. Haber et. al. also found that Armenian admixture after the late bronze age seized, showing no significant traces of further admixture for some three and a half thousand years. It appears that Armenians have stopped mixing from that time on showing genetic isolation to a great extent. The authors describe: “Our tests suggest that Armenians had no significant mixture with other populations in their recent history and have thus been genetically isolated since the end of the Bronze Age.” This makes Armenian genetics very unique in the region marked by great diversity and admixture. As such Armenians above all seem to better represent the ancient populations of the Near East. Haber et. al. have shown that the genetic landscape in most of the Middle East appears to have been continuously changing and that:

“the position of the Armenians within the global genetic diversity is unique and appears to mirror the geographical location of Anatolia… Armenians’ adoption of a distinctive culture early in their history resulted in their genetic isolation from their surroundings. Their genetic resemblance today to other genetic isolates in the Near East, but not to most other Near Easterners, suggests that recent admixture has changed the genetic landscape in most populations in the region.”

Moreover they found that modern Armenians show a great genetic affinity to ancient Europeans, meaning that Armenians of today because of their isolation have retained the genetic makeup of the ancient people of the Near East who have spread into Europe during various migration waves (read more about it HERE).

5000 Year Old Armenian Ancestry

As the genetic studies progress so does our understanding of Armenian ancestry increases.

Remains at a Bronze Age burial at Gegharot Armenia

Gegharot Armenia One might wonder, wouldn’t it be interesting if we dug out ancient bones from the Armenian Highlands and compared it to see how and if they are related to modern Armenians? Well, that is exactly what a team of archaeologists and geneticists set out to investigate along with a bunch of other questions related to ancient DNA.
Bronze Age burial sight at Gegharot, Armenia

Bronze Age burial sight at Gegharot, Armenia DNA samples from ancient burial sights found all over the Republic of Armenia have been collected and send off to be tested by the University of Copenhagen. The data has now been collected and the results are soon to be published in the prestigious Nature journal, authored by 44 people from 13 different countries. The authors of the study however have already lifted the vale on some of the findings affirming that the DNA from these ancient bones indeed matches with those of the modern Armenians. Referring to the international genetic study, the Head of the Laboratory of the Institute of Molecular Biodiversity of the National Academy of Sciences Levon Yepiskoposyan has recently stated in an interview to the press that: “Modern Armenians are direct descendants of the people who lived in the territory of Armenia 5000 years ago.” Eight samples from ancient burial sights across Armenia, dated to the middle and the late Bronze Age as well as the Iron Age, have been collected and tested.

“The results of genetic studies have shown that the DNA samples of the Bronze Age individuals that have been found on the territory of Armenia have a genetic portrait that is almost indistinguishable from the genetic portrait of people living today in Armenia” – said Yepiskoposyan.

Levon Yepiskoposyan at the press conference 06-05-2015Levon Yepiskoposyan at the press conference 06-05-2015

He added that from these results we can safely conclude that modern Armenians indeed have very old roots in the Armenian Highlands.

In this study, we were able to solve not only some of the the genetic, historical and archaeological questions, but also to some extent disprove the allegations that the Armenians are only living 200 years in the territory of Eastern Armenia. These findings again affirm that modern Armenians represent an ancient Near Eastern population, due to their genetic isolation in Armenian Highlands. As such Armenians can be regarded as a “living fossil”. To better understand the implications of these studies, I’ve been following several discussions on the internet about these recent findings. One expert, who was also involved with the above mentioned project, explains as follows:

06-07-2015

Armenians became genetically isolated during the Late Bronze Age (about 3500 years before the present) and have not intermixed with populations from distant regions since then. Because Armenians are Late Bronze Age (LBA) genetic isolates, we, as a population are like a living fossil. When comparing the ancient DNA of individuals dug up in modern Armenia with those of Armenians, there isn’t much of a difference in the DNA. It essentially means that we represent a genetic continuum of at least 3500 years. What this means beyond just Armenians, as the article that will be out in the prestigious journal of Nature soon, is that we can compare modern European populations with modern Armenians, knowing that it’s the same as comparing the modern European population with ancient Near Easterners (as Armenians represent an essentially pure sample of the Late Bronze Age). We are closer to the basal populations that existed in the Near East, subsequently migrated toward Europe during the Bronze Age-Iron Age, than any other population in present Europe.

Excavation at Shengavit Bronze Age burial sight in Armenia

Excavation at Shengavit Bronze Age burial sight in Armenia

So if you compare ancient DNA found in Europe between the Neolithic to the Iron Age, you see huge shifts in populations as Near Easterners and others from the East settled and influenced the substructure of the European genome. These groups were present as populations in the Near East, having contributed to the early Highland group that then became genetically isolated and became the Armenians as we know it today. Think of us as frozen in time for at least 3500 years. Comparing us to modern European groups is like comparing the modern groups to 3500 year old Highland tribes.
So imagine that you have various tribes in the Near East that coalesced to form Armenians. Let’s designate them with alphabetical letters. So assume that people from tribes A,B,C,D,E,F,G,H, and J became genetically isolated during the Bronze Age and coalesced to form Armenians. A few groups of people from some of these tribes, say A-D, migrated to Tuscany and mixed with indigenous tribes M,N,O,P,Q forming modern Tuscans. We can now compare modern Tuscans with modern Armenians as though we were comparing modern Tuscans with ancient Armenians (the Near Eastern tribes from over 3500 years ago) and uncover the links between the two. By doing so, we can recover the fact that Armenians and Tuscans share A-D in their genome. We can then recover ancient DNA from Tuscany and determine when the A-D tribal migration took place. As we do this all over Europe, we find certain patterns. These patterns show that there were substantial population shifts in the genome of Europeans, particularly after the Neolithic, based on Near Eastern waves of migration. The groups that migrated from the Near East during the Mesolithic/Chalcolithic, were later replaced by Early Bronze Age groups, then Mid-Late Bronze Age, then Iron Age, etc. By looking at ancient DNA, and also comparing the admixture of modern populations with each other, we can make sense of how Europe was populated.

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