Mitochondrial DNA in ancient human populations of Europe.
The distribution of human genetic variability is the result of thousand years of human evolutionary and population history. Geographical variation in the nonrecombining maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA has been studied in a wide array of modern populations in order to reconstruct the migrations that have participated in the spread of our ancestors on the planet. However, population genetic processes (e.g., replacement, genetic drift) can significantly bias the reconstruction and timing of past migratory and demographic events inferred from the analysis of modern-day marker distributions. This can lead to erroneous interpretations of ancient human population history, a problem that potentially could be circumvented by the direct assessment of genetic diversity in ancient humans. Despite important methodological problems associated with contamination and post-mortem degradation of ancient DNA, mitochondrial data have been previously obtained for a few spatially and temporally diverse European populations. Mitochondrial data revealed additional levels of complexity in the population history of Europeans that had remained unknown from the study of modern populations. This justifies the relevance of broadening the sampling of ancient mitochondrial DNA in both time and space. This study aims at filling gaps in the knowledge of the genetic history of eastern Europeans and of European genetic outliers, the Saami and the Sardinians. This study presents a significant extension to the knowledge of past human mitochondrial diversity. Ancient remains temporally-sampled from three groups of European populations have been examined: north east Europeans (200 – 8,000 years before present; N = 76), Iron Age Scythians of the Rostov area, Russia (2,300 – 2,600 years before present; N = 16), Bronze Age individuals of central Sardinia, Italy (3,200 – 3,400 years before present; N = 16). The genetic characterisation of these populations principally relied on sequencing of the mitochondrial control region and typing of single nucleotide polymorphisms in the coding region. Changes in mitochondrial DNA structure were tracked through time by comparing ancient and modern populations of Eurasia. Analysis of haplogroup data included principal component analysis, multidimensional scaling, fixation index computation and genetic distance mapping. Haplotypic data were compared by haplotype sharing analysis, phylogenetic networks, Analysis of the Molecular Variance and coalescent simulations. The sequencing of a whole mitochondrial genome in a north east European Mesolithic individual lead to defining a new branch within the human mitochondrial tree. This work presents direct evidence that Mesolithic eastern Europeans belonged to the same Palaeolithic/Mesolithic genetic background as central and northern Europeans. It was also shown that prehistoric eastern Europeans were the recipients of multiple migrations from the East in prehistory that had not been previously detected and/or timed on the basis of modern mtDNA data. Ancient DNA also provided insights in the genetic history of European genetic outliers; the Saami, whose ancestral population still remain unidentified, and the Sardinians, whose genetic differentiation is proposed to be the result of mating isolation since at least the Bronze Age. This study demonstrates the power of aDNA to reveal previously unknown population processes in the genetic history of modern Eurasians.