Press Release: Unveiling the secrets to the genetic diversity of present-day France inhabitants from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age

In an article published on January 11th, 2021 in Current Biology, researchers from the brand new Centre of Anthropobiology and Genomics of Toulouse (CAGT - CNRS / UT3 Paul Sabatier) sequenced and analysed the complete genomes of 24 human individuals who lived in the Paris Basin and around Narbonne from 3,700 to 5,400 years ago. This study is the first to unveil the genetic makeup of ancient human populations from the end of the Neolithic, the Bell Beaker phenomenon and the Bronze Age in what is now present-day France.

The period explored in this study was deliberately chosen because it accompanies the end of the Neolithic phenomenon, during which the descendants of Neolithic farmers from Anatolia supplanted their hunter-gatherer predecessors. In addition, this period coincides with the arrival of descendants from the nomadic people of the steppes into Western Europe. While the genetic intricacies of these two major prehistoric transitions have already been examined in other areas of Europe, until now they have not been explored in present-day French territory.

This study, which was led by Associate Professor Andaine Seguin-Orlando from the University of Toulouse III- Paul Sabatier, has confirmed that the major genetic transition which took place during this time period in other parts of Europe also occurred in present-day France. Additionally, this study has uncovered surprising evidence that genetic traces of hunter-gatherer populations existed in the northern part of France during a time when there is no material evidence of culture from this group on archaeological record.

It now appears that the Neolithic communities living more than 5,000 years ago around Mont-Aimé (Marne) were comprised of a genetic mosaic of individuals. For the most part, their genomic makeup was similar to that found in individuals from Ireland and Germany during the same time period. The majority of genomic material in these individuals was inherited from Anatolian ancestors with a small fraction derived from the hunter-gatherer population who occupied the territory of France before them. However, for some of the individuals from this time period (in particular a father and his daughter buried in these graves) the majority of their genome was found to be of hunter-gatherer origin. Thus, the admixture between their hunter-gatherer and Anatolian ancestors had taken place barely a few centuries earlier. This evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer populations were still admixing with Anatolian descendants up to 5,800 years ago. To explain the persistence of this culturally invisible population, the authors suggest that the local hunter-gatherers had changed their lifestyle to that characteristic of the Neolithic people. Therefore, it seems that a process of acculturation accompanied the gradual collapse of hunter-gatherer people in Western Europe, specifically in France.

Another major finding of this study was the discovery that some individuals from this time period carried another genetic component characteristic of people originating from the steppes. This genetic material was found in the genomes of Narbonne individuals, who lived 4,400 years ago, as a result of another admixture event that took place three centuries prior. This event once again changed the genetic composition of the people living in France during this time period. Similar admixture events have also been found to have taken place only a few centuries later in Iberia and the British Isles.

This study is the result of interdisciplinary work, bringing together field archeology, physical anthropology and archeogenetics. It was made possible due to the state-of-the-art infrastructure of the CAGT laboratory, as well as financial support from the European Union (ERC PEGASUS and IF Marie Skłodowska-Curie NEO and ELITE programs), from the National Research Agency (LifeChange et Investissements d 'Avenir ANR-17-EURE-0010), the L'Oréal-UNESCO foundation for women in science (Young Talent France 2019 program), the Villum Foundation (miGENEPI project), the CNRS as part of the Mission for transversal and interdisciplinary initiatives “Health Ecology Challenge 2020”, of the Simone & Cino Del Duca Foundation (Scientific grants 2020, HealthTimeTravel) and a collaboration with the National Center for Research in Human Genomics of the Institute of Biology François Jacob from CEA.

Reference :

Andaine Seguin-Orlando, Richard Donat, Clio Der Sarkissian, John Southon, Catherine Thèves, Claire Manen, Yaramila Tchérémissinoff, Eric Crubézy, Beth Shapiro, Jean-François Deleuze, Love Dalén, Jean Guilaine, and Ludovic Orlando, Heterogeneous hunter-gatherer and steppe-related ancestries in late Neolithic and Bell Beaker genomes from present-day France, Current Biology 31, 1–12

Access to online article

Illustration: In the collections of the Palais-Musée des Archevêques de Narbonne, Ludovic Orlando is sampling from a Neolithic individual whose genome was sequenced for this study. Copyright: Andaine Seguin-Orlando

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