Science & Technology

DNA and the Settlement of Europe

Professor Martin Richards
16th May 2017, 7:00pm

The past twenty-five years have witnessed the birth of a new academic discipline. Archaeogenetics stems from the realisation that we each carry a record of our evolutionary history within every cell in our bodies, written in the language of DNA.  Moreover, this record is augmented by our increasing capacity to recover DNA sequences from remains of the long dead, by extracting them from ancient bones or teeth.

One area of research that has benefitted from these developments is the prehistory of Europe. From the earliest studies of classical markers, such as blood groups, through the sequencing of the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA and paternally inherited Y chromosome, to the high-profile genome (and especially ancient genome) studies of the last few years, genetics has long played an important role in the debate about European origins and ancestry.

In particular, genetic studies have shown that modern humans arrived in Europe not long after leaving their original homeland in Africa, where they had emerged over hundreds of thousands of years, and that there were episodes of inter-breeding with other archaic species of human, such as Neanderthals, on the way. Genetic studies have also addressed the extent to which modern Europeans can trace their ancestors to these earliest pioneers, and the impact of subsequent developments such as the last glacial maximum twenty thousand years ago, the spread of farming and pastoralism within the last ten thousand years, and the arrival of the Indo-European languages. Whilst all these issues remain hotly debated, genetic studies are now starting to provide clear and convincing answers to these questions for the first time. 

About the Speaker

Martin moved into archaeogenetics research by taking up a post-doctoral research fellowship at the University of Oxford (1990–1999). From there, he developed collaborative links with a small group of like-minded colleagues who spearheaded the use of network diagrams in the phylogenetic and phylogeographic analysis of human mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). He subsequently moved to UCL, Huddersfield and then Leeds University, where he was awarded a Chair in Archaeogenetics in 2007. He returned to Huddersfield to take up a Research Chair in January 2012, and was awarded a five-year doctoral scholarship programme in Evolutionary Genomics by the Leverthulme Trust in 2014.

His research has encompassed many topics and genetic markers systems, including the Y chromosome, but has focused primarily on applying whole-mtDNA genome variation to archaeological and evolutionary questions, such as the route taken by modern humans dispersing out of Africa and the settlement of Southeast Asia and the Pacific – most recently returning the focus to the continuing controversy over the settlement of Europe. 


Photograph: Dorling Kindersley




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