With the White Rabbit down the Hole
R1b/Hg1/Eu18>R-M213>R-M9>R1b-M45>R-M207>R-M173>R-M343>R-L278>R-L754>R-L389/R1b1a1>R-M415>R-P297/R1b1a1a>R-M269/R1b1a1a2>R-M520>R-L23>R-M412>R-L11>R-S21/U106/M405/R1b1a1a1a2a1a1... Knock Knock… Wake up Neolithic… Follow the White Rabbit…|
These serial numbers, chronologically arranged, represent groups and subgroups of people who genetically share a common ancestor. Pulling these protein strands is like going down the Rabbit Hole. It leads you from the Old Stone Age to the Middle Bronze Age. From 20,000-15,000 years ago to 4,500-4,000 years ago. From the shores of the brackish Caspian Sea to the southern shores of the murky North Sea. It is there where the genetic common ancestor of the Germanic peoples lived. The highest concentration of this specific DNA today can be found precisely in the area what the Frisia Coast Trail covers. Some even speak of ‘the Frisian branch’.
So, the question arises:
Is Frisia the cradle of the Germanic peoples?
This blog post is about genetics. Developments in this research field go in a high pace. Nearly impossible to keep track. We, therefore, repeat a warning we found on the web concerning genetics “Everything presented in this document is wrong. The question is: how wrong?” (MacDonald, 2015).
And, trying to understand the language geneticists use, is like decoding The Matrix. Therefore, people easily risk copying existing texts on the web. We recall Dawkins (1976) that this is how memes behave; an idea or a (cultural) concept replicating itself through the minds of people. Like that the G5 network is responsible for COVID-19. Before you know it, everybody starts believing it. Identical to how our selfish genes operate. In today’s language of policy makers and news reporters memeing is called framing. Yeah, you got it, by now.
Direct cause for us to take a closer look at ‘the Frisian branch’, was the recent post ‘Genetic Maps of Europe’ (The Dockyards, 2020). That post, however, turned out to be a replication (a meme) of the information available on the community platform Eupedia which has a separate section on the genetics of Europe. Sadly, no useful specific references at Eupedia either, albeit their presentation is quite impressive. So, we descended further down the Hole, in search of sources upon which this so-called Frisian-branch theory was based. Browsing for "germanic DNA" we found mostly more-or-less replicative texts, saying this genetic group was (proto-) germanic, that it originates at the shores of the Netherlands and of northwest of Germany, and that is about 2.500 years old. Indeed, a meme or frame. But what was the veracity? Or better, what was least wrong?
We continued following the White Rabbit. Trying to leave the web parrots behind us, and with great awe and reverence we, humble hikers, explored articles of genetic science. Below is what we found. When, however, you are the type who prefers to remain in blissful ignorance, this is the moment to stop reading this post and swallow the blue pill.
Welcome in Wonderland
Congratulations, you continued reading!
Before we start, we must explain two or three things about genetics. Do not worry, we limited it to the bare minimum, to avoid reading this post feels like a lecture, and because of our extreme limited understanding of this complex science as well.
YX and XX
DNA research concerning the origin of men can be approached via the male chromosomes or via the female chromosomes. The first is the study of the Y chromosome (yDNA). This is DNA passed on from father to son via the Y chromosome. The second is the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which is passed from mother to her children via the two X chromosomes. There is a third variant, namely autosomal DNA (atDNA) which studies the twenty-two non-sex related chromosomes. We leave atDNA for what it is. Most genetic research focusing on origins of peoples, concentrates on the Y chromosome, because it is especially useful for reconstructing population histories (Altena, 2019).
Comparing yDNA and mtDNA can give you interesting insights in the (mis)behaviour of males. For example, the yDNA of African Americans in the United States is overall thirty-three percent European. When you look at the mtDNA of the same African Americans, only about six percent is European. A Snow White-like mirror, this time genetically confronting us with the behaviour of European men during slavery (Shaw, 2009). Comparable male behaviour might have taken place during the colonization of England by the so-called Anglo-Saxons, considering the massive contribution to the English gene pool. Indeed, early Anglo-Saxon society might have known apartheid-like structures in which the native Romano-Celtic population was restricted in reproduction (Thomas, 2006). Another, final, example is the population of Iceland. Male yDNA is predominantly Nordic and female mtDNA is predominantly Gealic (O’Sullivan, 2018). The Icelandic sagas recount of women from Ireland and Scotland raided by Vikings, are gentically confirmed. Read also our blog post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! to read more about this grab-a-woman phenomenon.
Once you are down the Rabbit Hole, there is little Miss Sunshine left.
A central entity you come across in genetics are haplogroups, sub-haplogroups and haplotypes. A haplogroup is a group of haplotypes. Haplotypes are organisms, including humans, that share a common ancestor with a specific, chromosomal mutation. Subgroups of a haplogroup are often named clades, subclades or, even more brainy, single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced as snips). The term ‘genetic marker’ or short ‘marker’ is thrown in for good measures as well. Since all these genetic (sub)groups are one way or the other a subgroup of an older DNA lineage, or at least form a common genetic variation, we keep it simple in this post and stick to the term haplogroup. Probably missing crucial subtleties, but it does give you a feeling you understand some things.
Another difficulty we experienced, is the inconsistent naming of haplogroups. You might have three, four, sometimes five names for a single haplogroup. Besides that, the names itself are always a confusing combination of letters and numbers. Cause of this wild growth of names, is that private companies are very active in the genetic genealogy business and have their own naming. Science is, predictably, reluctant to copy names invented by the private sector.
Try not to resist it. It is too late for the blue pill.
Sign the Times
A last remark concerns the time scales and the determination of the age of haplogroups. Geneticists, like geologists, often use the abbreviation BP (before present) rather than BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) as most archaeologists and historians do, or rather than BCE (before the common era) and CE (common era) which are used by scholars who want to stay religious and political correct. The BP time scale takes the year 1950 as ‘Present’. As to why; it has something to do with radiocarbon dating. Do not bother. Plus, you have scholars who use the abbreviation ya (years ago) with k as thousand, m as million and b for billion. So, 9kya is 9,000 years ago. Lastly, you have those simple souls of science who only use ‘9,000 years ago’. Check the date the article was published in e.g. Nature, and you know the age of the haplogroup. Or, should you take the date when the research was carried out? We decided to stick with BC and AD, familiar to everyone.
Anyway, it looks like a situation comparable to the many different electric plugs, connectors, and sockets in the world, without anyone having an adaptor.
Concerning the dating of Y-chromosome lineages, based on mutation rates, this in general is notoriously difficult and thus controversial within science. Age estimates can differ by a factor of three (Busby, 2011). Again, the question is: how wrong?
Where in the history of genes should we start? At the cradle of mankind in Africa or later? We start where the genetic tree splits and haplogroup Rb1 emerges. Fifty percent of men in Europe, namely, carry the genetic combination of the R haplogroup. It emerged in West Asia based on three evident genetic splits that occurred outside Europe. Probably between 23,500 and 10,500 BC (not a very precise estimation, indeed). The two main branches of R1b are the R-V88, a group migrating to Central Africa, and R-M269, a group migrating to Europe.
This is the R-M269 DNA sequence, not somebody in agony.
During the Mesolithic Period, also called the Middle Stone Age, between around 9,000 to 5,000 BC (interestingly enough, there is not a real consistent time period for -also- the Mesolithic), people living in Europe were hunter-gatherers who had started to settle and who built huts. Before that, during the Paleolithicum or Old Stone Age, people basically wandered in small units and sought shelter in caves. Farming was still unknown during the Mesolithic Period.
Around 8,000 BC agriculture techniques, including cattle herding, developed in the Fertile Crescent in southwest Asia, i.e. the combined regions of Assyria, Mesopotamia, the Nile Delta and Phoenicia. These farmers started to migrate and took with them their new technology. They spread into Europe and initiated a dramatic growth of the European population, around 5,500 BC (Busby, 2011). It marked the end of the Mesolithic Period and the beginning of the Neolithic Period, also called the New Stone Age. Indeed, "Wake up Neo..." and Bedrock cities popping up like mushrooms.
Farmer communities entered Europe from the east via two main routes: the central European route via Hungary and Germany, and the southern, Mediterranean route via Turkey and Greece. The Neolithic Period lasted from around 5,000 to 2,000 BC when the Bronze Age started.
The first farmers and cattle herders, from southwest Asia reached Europe via the Mediterranean route with western Anatolia in Turkey as steppingstone. It was between circa 7,000 and 6,500 BC that the first farmers based themselves in western Anatolia, northern Greece, on the Peloponnesus and on the island Crete. By around 6,000 BC they had reached the south of Italy. From there they migrated to Mediterranean France and Spain. Genetic research also proofed that agriculture was not the migration of a concept, but of people having this knowledge. This migration flow is generally identified with the spread of Indo-European language family, and western Anatolia is considered its homeland. This southern, Mediterranean route, with only slightly different time scales, is confirmed in different genetic research (a.o. Myres, 2011; Bouckaert, 2012; Hofmanová, 2016).
The second, younger flow of farmers came via the central European route via Hungary through Germany to France, around 5,500 BC. This group reached the British Isles and Scandinavia around 4,000 to 3,000 BC. These genetic movements resemble the archaeological findings on how the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture, also called Linear Band Ware, spread over Europe. Following the rivers Danube, Elbe and Rhine.
So, from roughly 7,000 BC the transition of Europe from hunter-gatherers to farmers started in the southeast of Europe and was accomplished by around 3,000 BC when it had reached the western fringes of the continent (Gkiasta, 2003). These new settlers were genetically distinct from the existing population and were related to populations in the Near East (Bramanti, 2009; Balaresque, 2010).
It is haplogroup R-M269 that coincides with the arrival and spread of agriculture over the European continent. Also, R-M269 is associated with the spread of the Indo-European languages. Today, more than 100 million European men carry Y chromosomes belonging to R-M269. Furthermore, haplogroup R-M412, also named S167 or L51, can be considered the founder of western Europe. More than seventy percent of all West European men carry this mutation. The frequencies of R-M412 are highest in the west and decreasing eastward, while it is absent in the Near East, Caucasus, and West Asia (Myres, 2011).
The immigration flows of the R-M269 peoples did not wipe out the native European hunter-gatherers. Au contraire, research revealed a complex process of admixture. Study of the human remains of the Kostenki 14 body (34,000 BC, Russia), shows that much of its genes (C-M130) can still be found in western Europeans, with highest resemblance in northern Europe (Baltics). This research also demonstrated that the European hunter-gatherers split from the East Asian gene pool around 34,000 BC already. The K14 DNA also contains relatively high Neanderthal ancestry, namely of 2,4 percent (Seguin-Orlando, 2014). Of course, features of northern Europeans still show their admixture... Other research also confirmed that the Bronze Age populations in central and northern Europe are composed of a mixture of the new Neolithic farmers and the native, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers (Allentoft, 2015).
This is the R-S21 DNA sequence, not someone choking. For your convenience we have marked in bold the difference with the R-M269 sequence.
In 2005 R-S21 was identified for the first time by dr. Faux of the company EthnoAncestry, ltd. This haplogroup became one of the distinctive genetic groups in northwestern Europe. The R-S21 has different names, by the way. First known as R1b1b2a and later as R1b1b2a1a. It is also known as R-U106 and as R-M405. Out of all these names we use R-S21, without having a particular criteria to choose this name.
The European haplogroup R-269 can be subdivided into the northwestern haplogroup R-S21, the western haplogroup R-S145 (also known as R-L21), and the southern haplogroup R-S28 (also known as R-U152). R-S21 frequencies score highest in the Netherlands with almost eighty percent, and fade out to the east and south, with respectively over fifty percent in the Czech Republic and about twenty-five percent in Italy. Hence, R-S21 is considered being the ‘northwestern’ or ‘germanic’ haplogroup (Lucotte, 2015). That R-S21 frequencies are highest in the Netherlands was established already before, soon after its discovery in 2005 (Myres, 2007). More specific, this means that the Netherlands is the most obvious location for the common ancestor of the Germanic peoples. Other genetic research showed that within in the Netherlands, province Friesland had highest frequencies of R-S21 (Busby, 2011).
Quite recent research (Altena, 2019) investigated the most common yDNA haplogroups in the Netherlands, namely haplogroup I (twenty-eight percent) and R (sixty-two percent). Within R, the most common haplogroups are: R-L48 (fifteen percent), R-S21 (fourteen percent) and R-S116 (nine percent). This research showed highest frequencies of R-S21 along the coastal zone, but this time time with province Zeeland highest. But all gradient differences were marginally. However, when the genetic dataset of Flanders in Belgium was combined with that of the Netherlands, no significant gradient was observed anymore concerning R-S21. So, this study of Altena does not present a deeper insight into the local spread of the ‘germanic’ chromosome R-S21 within the Netherlands, additional to the studies mentioned of Lucotte and Busby. Within the wider region with Germany, however, it does confirm the southeast-northwest axis of haplogroup R-S21 with increasing frequencies towards the northwest, i.e. towards the Netherlands.
Furthermore, in general, male yDNA shows clear genetic geographic patterns in the Netherlands, whilst female mtDNA does not show any population substructures (Chaitanya, 2015). This could mean different demographic patterns between men and women, yet to be explained.
We could not find firm results on dating the age of R-S21, but it spread over northwestern Europe during the Neolithic Period (New Stone Age), between circa 5,000 and 2,000 BC (Lucotte, 2015). So, from the shores of the Netherlands to southern Scandinavia, Belgium, northern France and into Germany. Others date R1b-S21 between 3400-2500 BC (McNeill), or around 3,000 BC (FamilyTreeDNA), or between 2,600 and 500 BC (McDonald, 2015). To what extent the three latter datings are, in fact, repetitive memes, we do not dare to say. No scientific substantiation could be found, anyhow.
Being an R-S21 mutant
Maybe after reading this post you decide to test your own DNA at one of those family tree companies to see if you are 'true' Germanic. But you might ask yourself, what does it mean? How does it change my life?
The answer: not at all. It solely means you have a common ancestor together with all other people sharing this tiny piece of DNA strand. Being part of the peoples who live in northwestern Europe, the Germanic countries. This common ancestor was born, perhaps 5,000 years ago, in the area what is now the Netherlands. Most probably near the coast and very well in what is now province Friesland. From there, his offspring spread over the Germanic countries of today. Particularly, further to east of the river Rhine and to southern Scandinavian. These tribes were first called Germanic by the Romans two thousand years ago (2kya!). A generic classification given by them without too much anthropological or genetical substantiation.
Later, during the Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, migration movements happened from southern Scandinavia to the south and southwest again, and from the southern coast of the North Sea into Britain. The latter explaining why, in fact, the modern English and Frisians are genetically indistinguishable (Weale, 2002). Check also our blog post Have a Frisians Cocktail to learn more about the Ango-Saxon-Frisian connection. During the late Early Middle Ages, another wave of Germanic immigrants into the British Isles occured. These were called Norsemen. Their genetic footprint is about six per cent of the UK population carries 'Viking DNA' (Margaryan, 2020).
Furthermore, the migrating offspring of the so-called ‘Frisian godfather mutant’, of course, admixed with other genetic, ‘original’ populations. In other words, the DNA of what we call the Germanic peoples is much richer and very complicated. Above, we do not even know if this particular germanic haplogroup is responsible for any features. If you think it might be a fairer skin, eh’nt! Wrong. Probably, the early farmers migrating from the Near East already had this phenotype. To finish it off; blue eyes were already present among the hunter-gatherers in Europe long before the R-S21 mutant came into play (Lalueza-Fox, 2012; Allentoft, 2015). Just look at Fred Flintstone, his family and his neighbours, and judge for yourself.
We arrived at the end of the Rabbit Hole. Conclusion, we (re-)confirmed the location of the so-called Frisian godfather of the 'germanic' gene pool.
What we think is the most interesting part, is that genetic research proved -for the time being- that proto-Germanic peoples originate at the southern coast of the North Sea and spread from there into Europe. Thus, from now on Frisians finally have something to boast of about and can bleat they are the real daddies of Viking and Anglo-Saxon warriors. But what does this specific piece of DNA mean in terms of how we look like and how we (mis)behave(d), etc? Well, it doesn't mean squat. At least, nothing concrete, as far as we could find. We hope that is not too much of a disappointment for you that we end like this. It is like what Socrates said: “Ένα ξέρω, ότι δεν ξέρω" (I know that I know nothing). Who knows what more knowledge genetic research will bring in the near future. A lot we expect!
Note 1: In our blog post The Giants of Twilight Land we described the happy, long lugs of the north of the Netherlands. In fact, the tallest people that have ever lived on the earth. Has it to do with their genes?
Annex: More Lebesraum for Germanic genes
During the Second World War the Nazis carried out a sick scheme in Europe. In the Netherlands it was named, at first, Culano (i.e. Commission for Sending Farmers to Eastern Europe) but later carried out by the NSB (i.e. National-Socialistic Movement) itself under the banner of the NOC (i.e. Dutch East Company).
Soon after Hitler had conquered eastern Europe, the Nazis tried to mobilize people from the Germanic countries to colonize these lands, especially the Baltics, Belarus and the Ukraine. A way to replace the Slavic race by the Germanic one and creating more Lebesraum; the Drang nach Osten. In most European countries there were no volunteers but in the Netherlands, however, there were quite a few. The Dutch were "blutmässig unerhört wertvolle Kräfte" according to Heinrich Himmler.
From 1941 the first Dutch volunteers left for the east. Frisians featured prominently in this scheme, both in organizing as in volunteering. The Frisian Director General of Agriculture Geert Ruiter, and member of the SS, was one of the driving forces. Although the farming sector in the Netherlands was in decline, most volunteers gave as reason their membership of the NSB. The whole scheme was an utter disaster, as was everything that came out of the brains of the Nazis. The Nazis showed their frustration that the Dutch pioneers soon mingled with the Slavic people, including having sexual affairs with the local non-Germanic women. Furthermore, many Dutch farmers transformed into smugglers and fences. From 1944 onward the blutmässig wertvolle Kräfte hastily returned, with their scared genes, to the Netherlands once Russia was in the counter attack all the way to Berlin.
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