Being an expat is nothing new and nothing out of the ordinary, says new research

by Ray Clancy on September 29, 2015

Being an expat or migrant might seem like a very recent phenomenon but now research reveals how it has been going on for thousands of years and been normal rather than exceptional.

Genetics researchers at the UK’s Oxford University have used DNA to map the history of population movements in and around Europe and say that the technique may help historians to understand more about how over nearly three thousand years people across the continent have migrated, mingled and multiplied.

GLOBEsmileyStudying 500,000 genetic markers in 2,000 samples, the international team looked at how genes had been exchanged between 1,000BC and 1950. While half the samples were from within Europe, the Caucasus and areas of the Middle East, half were from other areas of the world, enabling the researchers to trace not only which groups moved around Europe, but also which groups migrated to the continent.

“We looked at admixtures, which is where you can see genes coming together with a minor source, the incoming group, and a major source, the settled group in the area. By looking at where and how individual genetic markers are found in the chromosome, we can piece together a genetic history,” said Dr George Busby, first author of the research.”

“As written historical records tend to be written by elites and winners, this technique can show what happened to ordinary people,” added Professor Cristian Capelli, senior author.

Using statistical techniques, the team were able to assign date ranges for when particular admixtures were happening. Unsurprisingly, some of those dates are well matched to items in the historical record. For example, genetic markers associated with Mongolian ancestry were dated to the time of Genghis Khan’s expansion.

However, other dates point to events that are not well known. Another period of Mongolian admixture was identified, revealing a population movement earlier than Genghis Khan that was much less well known.

Similarly, those areas at the edge of Europe, notably around the Mediterranean, have seen regular movements of African and Middle Eastern groups, followed by gene exchange with Southern European populations.

“These tools tell us something about the main population movements but they do not tell us that a particular individual is X% Mongolian’ for example. Over time, across Europe, our genomes have become mosaics, as groups have mixed and remixed to form complex patterns of heritage that may include genetic markers from many different areas,” the researchers explained. “Because Europe has comprehensive written and archaeological records, we have been able to validate this technique by comparing our results to what is shown by those sources. What it tells us is that we could use the approach to understand more about the history of areas of the world where fewer records exist. It’s clear that migration and admixture have been the norm, rather than the exception throughout human history.”

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