On The Recent Archaeogenetic Speculation As To An Armenian Ur-Urheimat

Over the next few days, you’re going to hear some very ‘excited’ takes about this recent Lazaridis, Reich et al paper – “The genetic history of the Southern Arc: A bridge between West Asia and Europe” – effectively ‘dethroning’ the Pontic Steppe by positing a pre-Yamnaya “Armenian” Indo-European ur-urheimat.

Yet the paper doesn’t actually disprove the extant consensus on IE origins – something it itself acknowledges.

For example – this excerpt I’m about to quote is from the longer-form ‘Summary of Key Findings and Discussion’ in the ‘Supplementary Materials’; and pointedly notes that the genetic data still fits a Pontic Steppe Urheimat.

Even as it tries to postulate a rival narrative. That’s to the authors’ credit.

In their own words:

” Thus, the genetic data appears to be most consistent with the following two scenarios:

• Proto-Indo-European originated in the steppe, in a population of substantial EHG ancestry. Yamnaya and descendant IE languages are derived genetically from this population, and Anatolian language speakers acquired the language without any measurable admixture from the PIE population. […] Yet, despite these influences, steppe-derived Y-chromosomes are rare to non-existent throughout Anatolia.

• Proto-Indo-European originated in the Near East (including the Caucasus region which was genetically an extension of the Near East during the Chalcolithic and Bronze Age(17)) in a population devoid of EHG ancestry. Anatolian language speakers acquired the language from the PIE population, perhaps related with the spread of “eastern” (CHG-related) ancestry across Anatolia since the Chalcolithic. Yamnaya and descendant IE languages acquired the language in conjunction with the “southern” component of their ancestry( 8 ) which had begun to spread into the steppe since at least the Chalcolithic.(9, 17)”

Now, of course, they favour the latter scenario – although they are also good enough to highlight various problems with their own position, along with ways that what they’ve produced to try and support their hypothesis could instead be read entirely congruously with the ‘orthodox’ position of a Pontic Steppe PIE origination.

One example of this concerns the R-V1636 y-dna haplogroup.

The authors set out the existence of several Early Bronze Age male samples which do have the relevant patrilineage, yet lack EHG ancestry and were found in relevant Caucasus, Armenian, Anatolian sites.

They use this to suggest the possibility of a ‘south-of-Caucasus’ (i.e. not-Steppe) origination for the clade. Which would have corresponding potential impacts on our understanding of where Indo-European comes from.

Except then, immediately after we have, to quote the paper itself:

“(we caution, however, that the haplogroup occurs earlier in several sites in the north, which could be consistent with an alternative scenario in which male migrants from the steppe introduced it into Southern Arc populations during the Chalcolithic, but their autosomal genetic legacy was diluted by the much more numerous locals).”

That’s basically the crux of the situation, I feel. Their paper makes significant utilization of autosomal components to try and make up for the haplogroup components either not going their way or being (at best, and highly charitably) ‘inconclusive’.

Which is not to say there’s no scope for doing something like this. Only that it’s vulnerable to – as they’ve pointed out – ‘founder effect’ style developments skewing things quite significantly.

Something that, as it happens, has been effectively presumed to underpin the acknowledged ‘weirdness’ of the Anatolian Indo-European sphere. Along with the very real potential for ‘geneflow’ and ‘culture-flow’ to not always entirely match up

(To illustrate that last comment with some exemplars – see, for instance, how much of the modern world speaks English as a first or at least major language … despite having little-to-no actual Anglo-Saxon ancestry.

Or, going the other way – how strongly Indo-European the Basques are … by genetics, even patrilineally, which looks suspiciously like a situation of IE men having been heavily ‘assimilated’ by their Basque wives after ‘marrying in’)

Still – given the relative frequency with which the archaeogenetic record does appear to be usefully predictive / correlative for Bronze Age / earlier Iron Age cultural-sphere movements … archaeogenetics absolutely still should form a significant element in our ‘toolbox’ for making sense of where we (and our cousins) might have come from, considered themselves to be, and gone to as a result.

Sticking with y-dna, then – R-M269 is considered by many to be … potentially pretty important for figuring out where PIE’s roots lie.

Prior to this paper’s release, there’d been chatter claiming that Reich et co had somehow managed to find a ‘smoking gun’ – samples of this particular haplogroup south of the Caucasus prior to its saliency on the Steppe, with this showing migratory flow etc. heading northwards and directly underpinning the Yamnaya that most would assert to be the Proto-Indo-Europeans (or immediately adjacent to) Themselves.

Because only something like that was going to be enough to really definitively displace the Pontic Steppe theory for the PIE Urheimat.

And given the reputations of the geneticists in question, it seemed like they’d have to have found something pretty compelling on this front in order to overtly put effort into being seen to back a now-outmoded theory that had since been openly disavowed even by its initial and very vocal proponent, Renfrew.

(I mention Renfrew because, of course, we all thought that ‘Southern Arc’ meant the Anatolian Hypothesis was back on the menu.

Few would have predicted that the Armenian Hypothesis – a creature significantly of 1980s-era Soviet academia and which had largely vanished subsequent to that, was what they’d wind up going for.)

Except here’s what the paper itself (from its ‘supplementary material’) says upon the matter:

“Where did the R-M269 founder live? The early presence of this lineage in steppe samples and its association with steppe ancestry in many of its descendants may suggest that the R-M269 founder belonged to a population with EHG ancestry. However, the complete lack of association of R-haplogroup descendants and EHG ancestry in either Armenia or Iran is consistent with
either a massive dilution of EHG ancestry in these populations resulting in the dissociation of Y-chromosome lineages from autosomal ancestry over time, or with a scenario in which R-M269
was not associated with substantial EHG ancestry to begin with.

At present, we have no archaeogenetic information on where the R-M269 population originated. The TMRCA of R-M269 descendants is 6,400 ybp and of the immediately upstream node R-P297 a much earlier 13,300 ybp. R-P297(xM269) chromosomes are found in hunter-gatherers from the Baltic(3, 458) as well as in a hunter-gatherer from the Samara region of Russia.(8, 9) This would suggest an EHG-associated origin of this lineage, but the “long branch” of R-M269 reduces greatly any confidence in the proximity of the earliest R-M269 bearers to these eastern European relatives. Yet, the data are equally consistent with a scenario in which the R-M269 founder did not have EHG. It is a challenge for future archaeogenetic research to pinpoint the origin of the R-M269 lineage.”

Or, phrased more succinctly – as applies R-M269, we’re still very much in Steppe territory. Something that is … not unrepresentative of the situation all up, I feel.

That is to say – much of the evidence pointing toward the Pontic Steppe hasn’t been really challenged by the contents of this paper; with instead, some acknowledgements that that’s the case, and some (not entirely unreasonable) comments about ‘further research is needed’.

So if you came in hoping for a complete and forcible ‘re-write’ of the conventional understanding of our history … as some OIT (‘Out Of India Theory’) types appear to have been keen on when they decided to start championing an Anatolian Urheimat in order to desperately try and stoke ‘controversy’ as to the now-largely-settled situation of the Steppe …

… well, you’re going to be rather disappointed.

The paper simply doesn’t present the sorts of proof needed to really claim definitively (or even much more than very ‘hypothetically’) that PIE spread from Armenia into the Steppes to the north across the Caucasus.

Indeed, funnily enough, what Lazardis, Reich, et al. have actually managed to demonstrate is the opposite.

Namely, relatively early interaction of the Steppe (P)IE sphere with Armenia that has migration and geneflow going southward across the Caucasus and into Armenia rather than northward.

This would postdate their hypothesized northward movements, of course, yet is still quite interesting for an array of reasons that we shall not get into here (basically you get some preservation in Armenia of elements that ‘faded out’ on the Steppe, to paraphrase / summarize really, really briefly .. inter various alia).

Which is, again, something of a ‘microcosmic example’ for the paper’s contents all up. In that there’s a whole trove of intriguing elements that are useful and definitely flesh out our understandings of things … but are at best peripheral to the major ‘Big Ticket’ thing that everybody’s going to take away from the ‘headlinization’ of its theme into something decidedly different.

Effectively, Lazaridis, Reich, et al, have done two things with this paper.

One’s a really nice overview of archaeogenetic elements across Anatolia, Armenia, the Balkans, etc. in the time-period in question, especially in relation to Indo-European.

The other is a speculative interpretation of same.

And I stress that it’s ‘speculative’ – because, as the authors keep acknowledging in the longer-form presentation of their work … there’s significant gaps that deny a south-of-Caucasus ur-urheimat a reasonably conclusive proof.

Whilst at the same time, the previously-known evidence that is utilized to demonstrate the Pontic Steppe PIE Urheimat remains viable; with the authors even being good enough to provide entirely plausible ways to explain much of their data in congruence with this position.

Which, as I think I’ve said several times in the course of this piece – is really quite refreshing to read and speaks positively toward both their characters and their commitment to academic integrity.

Even if I do personally feel they may perhaps be somewhat ‘overstating’ the relative merits of their own hypothetical position here and there.

So, as applies their work – if it is read in the spirit that it was likely intended, that of a broad cross-section of both time and place about archaeogenetic data and associated shifts in the relevant area … then it should be received reasonably well by those of us who have some level of interest in all of this.

If, however, one goes looking for the polemical ‘dynamite’ with which to ‘defuse’ and/or outright ‘destroy’ the dominant academic consensus upon the archaic origins of the Proto-Indo-European culturo-linguistic sphere [i.e. that the Pontic Steppe is where it’s at] … then one is going to be rather disappointed.

If, of course, one actually delves into its contents rather than effectively ‘writing one’s own paper’ as an exercise in ‘creative fan-fiction’ (as happened in Indian media following the release of the Rakhigarhi skeletal dna analysis – which showed a lack of Steppe dna in some Indus Valley Civilization skeletal remains … which was bizarrely misread by some outlets over there as somehow “proving” that there had been no noteworthy migration from the Steppe into India after the IVC’s decline, leading to some quite breathlessly enthusiastic headlines upon the subject from same)

The actual conclusion to their paper is, effectively, that ‘more research is needed’ – particularly on the elements that they just simply weren’t able to adduce around various y-dna origination & spread questions.

I absolutely do not disagree.

One thought on “On The Recent Archaeogenetic Speculation As To An Armenian Ur-Urheimat

  1. Pingback: On The Recent Archaeogenetic Speculation As To An Armenian Ur-Urheimat – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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