By: Miguel Vilar

Learn about the recent advancements in the field of ancient DNA, and new genetic insights from Mayan, Neolithic, and Late Roman period discoveries, and their integration into FamilyTreeDNA Discover.

The field of Ancient DNA, in a way, gives new life to people who have passed away by enabling scientists to learn details about their lives through the remnants of DNA they leave behind. Make your week memorable by spending time on Discover™ and making hundreds of new ancient connections, made possible by FamilyTreeDNA with haplogroup matching.

Insights from Chichén Itzá

In one study soon to be published by Nature titled “Ancient genomes reveal insights into ritual life at Chichén Itzá,” Rodrigo Barquera and his team analyzed the genomes from 64 ancient young individuals discovered in the famous Mayan site in the Yucatan of Mexico.

Most of the individuals unearthed were children who had lived during what is known as the Classic Period in Mayan prehistory. Given the homogeneous age distribution (they were all children) and the location of the subterranean burial at the center of the historical site, archaeologists believe these were possible victims or ceremonial deaths associated with a ritual. Most individuals were male, yet further analysis has yielded a variety of Y chromosome haplogroups among them, suggesting they may not all have been part of the same group.

Although every Y chromosome sequenced yielded haplogroup Q, the most common haplogroup among ancient indigenous Americans, several different branches of Q were found among the individuals. Both major branches of haplogroup Q found today in modern Mexicans, Q-M3 and Q-Z780, which share a common ancestor more than 15,000 years before present, were found among the ancient children. This DNA pattern suggested both high genetic diversity in the burials as well as genealogical continuity to modern days. Although the individuals were pre-adults and thus did not leave any direct descendants, you can still match your own Y-DNA haplogroup to them through FamilyTreeDNA Discover.

Cross-cultural interactions in the Danube Gorges

Another set of ancient connections recently completed and added to Ancient Connections is from the 2022 paper by Zuzana Hofmanova and colleagues titled “Between fishing and farming: Palaeogenomic analyses reveal cross-cultural interactions triggered by the arrival of the Neolithic in the Danube Gorges.”

In this study, the team analyzed 54 ancient genomes from central and eastern Europe and Turkey spanning thousands of years from the Mesolithic to the late Neolithic periods. This time period saw some of the greatest cultural and biological transformations the region had ever seen. With the dawn of the Neolithic, Agriculture was first introduced, new tools and weapons and ceramics began to emerge and through it all Europe emerged as a more heterogeneous genetic landscape.

Furthermore, the frequency of Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups changed as the time passed, and one archaeological period was replaced by another. The Mesolithic saw a larger share of Y-DNA haplogroup C and I, known to be some of the first haplogroups to populate the continent.

In contrast, with the Neolithic revolution came agriculture, and with that, we see a higher frequency of haplogroup G. The change is even greater when looking at the mitochondrial DNA. During the Mesolithic, we see a homogeneous landscape of almost entirely mtDNA haplogroup U. Yet after the Neolithic transition, we see new occurrences of haplogroups H, J, K, and T, all of which were previously absent. This suggests that the transition was not just cultural but also biological.

Hunnic legacy in Poland

We have also recently added data from two late Roman period sub-adult individuals from Poland who were buried together but showed different ancestral markers. The manuscript, written by Jakob Niebylski and titled “Unveiling Hunnic legacy: Decoding elite presence in Poland through a unique child’s burial with modified cranium,” looked at both the skeletal and the genetic evidence to better understand the relationship between the invading Hunnic groups and the local Eastern European populations during the first millennium.

The two individuals had distinct genetic affinities, as well as distinct material objects associated with them, suggesting that the two groups were not considered equals. The second individual, with Asian genetic affinities, also showed cranial deformation, a practice not common among European populations at that time.

Expanding the Ancient Connections database

These and other scientific discoveries are being added to Ancient Connections every month, steadily growing our reference database of ancient individuals to more than 6,000 possible familial matches. Stay tuned for more Ancient Connections in the next few months as the summer publication season begins to take shape.

Miguel Vilar - FamilyTreeDNA Blog

About the Author

Miguel Vilar, PhD.

Professor, Author, and Consultant for FamilyTreeDNA

Dr. Miguel Vilar was a Senior Program Officer for the National Geographic Society (NGS) and Lead Scientist for NGS’ Genographic Project, a multi-year anthropology study that aims to map human migration patterns by collecting and analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of thousands of people from around the world. By training, Vilar is a molecular anthropologist and science writer.

In addition, Vilar is a professor of Biology and Anthropology and publishes in both anthropology and genetics academic journals, as well as in popular print and online magazines. Vilar is also a public speaker, writer, and consultant with FamilyTreeDNA.