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Molecular Middle Ages Of The Russian North


Current achievements in molecular genetics allow scientists to look not only in the depths of genomes but also back to ancient times. By analysing fossil DNA, Russian biologists have reconstructed the picture of colonisation of the Russian Northern lands. The research was supported by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the RF Ministry of Industry and Sciences.

Today’s molecular biology is capable of analysing DNAs extracted from an ancient material up to 100,000 years old. Even Neanderthal men’s DNAs can be examined. However, Russian scientists working at the V.A. Engelgardt Institute of Molecular Biology, Russian Academy of Sciences, and Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Sciences, make no moves to look to such ancient history. Analysing an ancient DNA, they reconstruct the picture of Slavic colonisation of the areas to the North of the Volga and the Sukhona watershed, lying between Lake Onega and the Pechora river. The development of the area called "the Russian North" began no later than in the 11th century, and was completed in the 16th century. According to archaeologists and anthropologists, first Slavic colonists were coming to the North in small family groups, and were settling down in a detached manner. Now, genetics could also contribute to the overall picture.

The scientists examined 47 samples of mitochondrial (mt) DNA extracted from the bones found in the burial grounds of the settlements Nefedyevo, Minino, and Shuygino located in the Vologda Region, around Lake Beloye. The burial places date back to the 11th -13th centuries. DNAs were extracted from various skeleton parts but mostly from teeth. According to the researches, ancient DNAs are best preserved in teeth. All DNA isolation and research activities were performed with extreme precautions in order not to contaminate the ancient probes with modern nucleic acid. This resulted in 47 compounds of paleo-DNA; the scientists determined their structure and isolated three kinds of mt DNA typical of the people buried in the burial places. The overwhelming majority of the examined ancient persons (43) had the so-called “Cambridge” DNA type which is typical of contemporary European inhabitants. The rest four persons had other, more rarely found types, which are, however, also typical of all populations in Eastern Europe. Therefore, the examined group can positively be said to have the European background. Those having more rare types of mt DNA were buried approximately 200 years later than the others. All of them are male. In the scientists’ opinion, they could be born from the couples consisting of local women belonging to the Finno-Ugric group, and the settlement founders’ offsprings. Thus, the assimilation did not begin immediately but started during medium colonisation stages.

Molecular geneticists note a surprising level of local inhabitants’ genetic homogeneity. It can be explained by a “founder effect” when each settlement was found by a small kindred group of 8 to 14 persons. This data is confirmed by demographers, anthropologists and archaeologists. Garments details, funeral ceremony peculiarities, and some anthropological markers related to heritable diseases speak for familiar relations within the group. Thus, eight persons out of 65 buried in Nefedyevo, had typical finger-shaped pressed-in areas on frontal and parietal bones of the inner side of the scull, which indicate predisposition to high intracranial pressure. This feature is rather rare; most of its carriers lived in the 11th century. Apparently, people who built this burial place presented a solid community with their own cultural norms. They had been living there for ages avoiding virtually any assimilation with local inhabitants, and preserved their originality. Because of complex migration processes, such genetic uniformity was not typical of most European populations. The uniformity of the kind is characteristic only for American aboriginal population: for example, ancient inhabitants of Kopana, a Maya town, and the mikstek people, the Maya descendants, bear such features.

Sergey Komarov | Informnauka
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