The Mediterranean Sea has been an important track for maritime migrations, and regular trade, as well as invasions throughout prehistory. However, the genetic background of the Mediterranean islands has not been accurately documented, in spite of recent advancements in the research of ancient DNA.
An international team led by scientists from the University of Vienna, Harvard University, and University of Florence, Italy, is adding to the known information with the largest research yet of the genetic history of ancient populations of Sicily, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands.
The results showcase an intricate pattern of immigration from Africa, Asia, and Europe, which differed in direction and its timing for each of these islands. For Sicily, the paper finds a new ancestry during the Middle Bronze Age that temporarily coats with the Greek Mycenaean trade network expansion.
Sardinians Come From Neolithic Farmers
Sardinia, however, has a very different background. In spite of contacts and trade with other Mediterranean groups, ancient Sardinians kept most of the local Neolithic ancestry setting until the end of the Bronze Age. Even so, throughout the second part of the third millennium BC, one of the remains from Sardinia has a great proportion of North African ancestry.
Mixed with earlier results of a modern central Iberian individual and an older second millennium BC Bronze Age individual from Iberia, it definitely shows prehistoric maritime travels throughout the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to places in southern Europe, impacting over one percent of individuals reported in the ancient DNA register from this area and time to date.
“Our results show that maritime migrations from North Africa started long before the era of the eastern Mediterranean seafaring civilizations and moreover were occurring in multiple parts of the Mediterranean,” Ron Pinhasi, a co-senior author of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna, said.
During the Iron Age expansion and organization of Greek and Phoenician colonies in the West Mediterranean islands, the two Sardinian individuals examined from that time had almost no ancestry from the previous long-established groups.
“Surprisingly, our results show that despite these population fluxes and mixtures, modern Sardinians retained between 56-62 percent of ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers that arrived in Europe around 8000 years ago”, David Caramelli a co-senior author, and Director of Department of Biology at the University of Florence, said.
Eastern Europe Migration to Iberia
According to David Reich, a co-senior author at Harvard University, who is also an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, one of the most impressive discoveries is about the arrival from the Steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas in some of the islands in the Mediterranean region.
“While the ultimate origin of this ancestry was Eastern Europe, in the Mediterranean islands, it arrived at least in part from the west, namely from Iberia,” Reich said.
“This was likely the case for the Balearic Islands, in which some early residents probably derived at least part of their ancestry from Iberia,” first author Daniel Fernandes, of the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Vienna, said.