Professor Volker Heyd: How a wave of migrants became the foundation of modern Europe 5,000 years ago

19.11.2018
The arrival of the Yamnaya people transformed Europe in the Bronze Age. But who were the Yamnaya?

Five thousand years ago, new people arrived from the east to the regions currently known as Europe. Their name, the Yamnaya, derives from the Russian word for the burial type they left behind. It is unlikely that this migrant wave was very large – probably just some tens of thousands of individuals.

According to Volker Heyd, professor of archaeology at the University of Helsinki, that group of people still ended up changing the entire continent.

The influence of the Yamnaya shines through the linguistic heritage of Europe and the European concept of kinship. They also had an impact on genetics and even our diet.

“The influence of the Yamnaya shines through the linguistic heritage of Europe and the European concept of kinship. They also had an impact on genetics and even our diet – likely thanks to the Yamnaya, Europeans are on average the tallest people in the world.”

How could such a group of people transform an entire continent of already as many as seven million inhabitants?

“Therein indeed lies the conundrum,” answers Heyd.

That is what he has been investigating for more than a decade.

There is no written source material available dating back 5,000 years. That is why Heyd’s research group approaches the topic from all available directions: through archaeological excavations, as well as from the perspectives of bio and environmental sciences, and with the help of Indo-European linguistics.

Their methods are modern. Remnants of lost grave mounds, for example, are sought by geophysics using magnetometers, radar and laser devices to survey hectares of fields.

In his office, Heyd has millennia-old teeth found in such graves on display. The analysis of genetic samples collected from the teeth has made it possible to study the genome of the interred, including their selectivity for height. The strontium and oxygen isotopes found in the teeth reveal the regions where the deceased travelled while alive, whereas other investigated isotopes and teeth erosion betrays their diet.

Even atmospheric sciences are employed in this analysis, with the aim of finding out whether the Yamnaya arrived in Europe due to a warming climate or drought.

A great deal has already been discovered. The Yamnaya practised animal husbandry, which brought a welcome addition to the European diet based mostly on grain. On the other hand, earlier Europeans died in swathes at the time of the Yamnaya migration.

“We don’t know whether this was due to wide-spread conflict or, for example, diseases transmitted by the migrants.”

Then again, there is clear evidence of the Yamnaya and earlier Europeans reproducing with each other.

In addition to the Yamnaya, Heyd has a broader interest in the events of north-eastern Europe in the neolithic and bronze Age. His other research topic focuses specifically on the settlement of the region of the contemporary Nordic countries.

“In this research too, we are employing a similar multidisciplinary approach. We aim to uncover the movements and culture of the people who inhabited this region 3,000–6,000 years ago.”