Bell Beakers and R1b

By Razib Khan | May 6, 2012 12:20 am

Over at Dienekes blog he has a post up about the extraction of R1b from a male who lived in Germany 4-5,000 in the past. This is important because R1b is one of the two most common male lineages (on the Y chromosome, passed from father to son) in Europe, and, it has inexplicably been underrepresented or absent in the ancient DNA samples. The other modal lineage is R1a (it too is underrepresented).

I have a pretty good grasp of variation on the autosomal dimension. A modest familiarity with uniparental lineages, Y and mtDNA. And finally, a rather weak understanding of archaeological patterns. Since mtDNA tends to be found at very high concentrations in subfossil remains you’ll get a good yield of that in the near future (as in the paper Dienekes covers). Y chromosomal information is more difficult. The problem with autosomal information is that you need more of it to make robust genealogical inferences (due to confounding with selection, as well as recombination breaking apart haplotypes), though if you manage to hit a functional region that can be very informative.

I assume in the year 2020, and perhaps well earlier, we’ll be able to pull up a “genetic map of Europe” circa 4,000 BC. But that is going to take some time, and until then we’ll have to grapple with light and lacunae biased by the methods on hand and the caprice of nature. And even then we’ll have to have some understanding of the history and geography of human material culture. So I guess I have some reading to do…at some point.

But until then, check out Dienekes comments. He moderates with a light touch, so there’s a lot of deleterious memetic garbage in the land of near neutrality, but there’s signal to extract within the lot. My lack of archaeological knowledge notwithstanding, I agree with David that it looks as if there was a sweep of cultures, and to some extent genes, from the eastern Mediterranean out to Western Europe, and then back east through North Europe. One other thing I will also suggest: these cultural patterns probably spread through the expansion of male lineages. I suspect this explains why total genome variation in Europe seems to be partitioned between a northern and southern component (i.e., the British have more in common with Russians than they do with the Spaniards, and Greeks more with Spaniards than they do with Russians), but the two modal Y chromosomal lineages seem to exhibit a west-east pattern. The expansion of male lineages may have been an overlay upon the earlier population structure.

Image credit: Wikipedia, Wikipedia

  • Cliff Clark

    Or does the pattern of colonization/conquest have a lot to do with it? I wasn’t sure whether your comment about the British and russions having more in common, genetically, than either group with the Greeks and Spaniards. Assuming so, both Britain and Russia had a healthy “injection” of genes from the Scandanavians in relatively recent historical times, the British from the Vikings and Normans and the Russians from the Rus, a Scandanavian tribe. How would this muddy the waters genetically, and could it be partially responsible for the situation you describe?

  • ohwilleke

    It is worth noting that the high frequency R1b lineages in Europe are actually a quite specific subtype of R1b, with further sublineages regionally within that narrow subtype (mostly R1b1b2). Some recent modelling of the expansion of these lineages can be found in Sjödin P, François O (2011) Wave-of-Advance Models of the Diffusion of the Y Chromosome Haplogroup R1b1b2 in Europe.

    The root of the R1a and R1b split is probably somewhere in the vicinity of Central Asia-Caucasus-Iran or even Pakistan (which is home to R2, not found at high frequencies very far outside the Indus River Valley). There is more R1b diversity here than in the Atlantic region.

    African R1b called R1b-V88 is a quite basal split relative to the European branches, and is characteristic of speakers of the Chadic languages and to a much lesser extent, their immediate geographic neighbors.

    The most striking possibility, which this find supports, but doesn’t come close to proving, is that R1b may be something that appeared only in the Chalcolithic (i.e. copper age) in Western Europe, at least on a widespread basis, rather than the early Neolithic (i.e. the advent of farming and herding), or in the repopulation of Europe during the Upper Paleolithic from refugia after the Last Glacial Maximum had retreated.

    This scenario, with fairly late population replacement/displacement would be a major blow to notions of Paleolithic continuity, while also not embracing a “First Farmers” view of the defining period for modern-like European population genetics.

    The fact that the Basque are high in R1b means that R1b arrived in the region surely pre-Indo-European (which arrives in these regions by 1200 BCE), but perhaps as late as the Chalcolithic (ca. 3200-2900 BCE) expanding with the proto-Basque who could be the Bell Beaker people. This would be two or three thousand years after the first farmers in many of these places.

    If the Basque have origins after the Paleolithic and early Neolithic, then all linguistic and cultural traces of earlier European cultures have probably been obliterated by now, and the Basque look not like European indigenes, but like a wave intermediate between the early Neolithic and the Indo-Europeans. It suggests that they could be the last remnants of a once sprawling Bell Beaker civilization. (Or not. We don’t have enough data for more than speculation at this point.)

  • Ed

    I assume in the year 2020, and perhaps well earlier, we’ll be able to pull up a “genetic map of Europe” circa 4,000 BC.

    Reminded me of a news article I read a while back:
    Two researchers may have found the answer to that question. They’ve discovered a way to track human settlement — from the biggest cities to the tiniest farms — using spy satellite photos from the 1960s blended with modern multispectral images of the Earth’s surface. Call it an ancient version of a GPS.

    I think a ‘genetic map’ would be more accurate than the method mentioned in the news piece though.

  • Eurologist


    Your image of the extent of the Bell Beaker phenomenon may be more of an outline of its boundaries rather than representing coverage. Here is another image, from the German wikipedia, and supposedly based on R.J. Harrison, The Beaker Folk, Thames & Hudson, London (1980) (I haven’t checked):

    You can see that there are lot’s of holes – areas that had no Bell Beaker impact but are highly R1b, today, and areas like the East of Germany and parts of Central Europe that had strong Bell Beaker influence but are less than 20-30% R1b, today.

    Clearly, after the break-up of LBK, at some point R1b started to dominate the West (and Bell Beaker people may very well have their part in this), and R1a the East. The question is, how long ago those haplogroups already resided in their respective areas. We need more ancient DNA to answer that.

  • ohwilleke

    @4 It looks to me like the two maps aren’t necessarily inconsistent so much as representing different points in time, and perhaps narrow v. broad definitions of “Bell Beaker” (a broad definition, for example, might include archaeological cultures that were successors to Bell Beaker and show clear continuity with it).

  • Eurologist

    No, it’s a matter of coverage. Razib’s (wikipedia) image is misleading if it is interpreted as representative of settlement or population density – which it is not. We would need an expert to chime in, but I doubt that the relative (to Corded ware and related cultures) Bell Beaker settlement density exceeded 10-20% between the Rhine, Danubian and Elbe basins. I mean, it was so thinly settled with Bell Beaker, that so far, in that entire region, AFAIK not a single house has been excavated. Even in Moravia – one of the most densely settled areas, Bell Beaker makes up only 35%, and 10% in Bohemia ( Virtually everywhere, there are contemporaneous (and even mixed) Corded Ware sites.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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