I've just been sent a fascinating paper on the mtDNA of Iron Age and Medieval samples from Poland. It's a thesis by a PhD student from Poznan, Anna Juras, which suggests direct genetic continuity between Iron Age inhabitants of what is now West and Central Poland (belonging to the Przeworsk and Wielbark cultures) and modern Poles. Here's the English summary of the thesis, and a map of the sites under study:
For many years the origin of the Slavs has been the subject-matter in archaeology, anthropology, history, linguistics and recently also modern human population genetics. By now there is no unambiguous answer to a question where, when and in what way the Slavs originated. For the purposes of this dissertation, the analysis of ancient human mitochondrial DNA was applied. The ancient DNA was isolated from 72 specimens which came from Iron-Age and medieval graveyards from the area of current Poland. Ancient mtDNA was extracted from two teeth from each individual and reproducible sequence results were obtained for 20 medieval and 23 Iron-Age specimens. On the basis of HVR I mtDNA mutation motifs and coding region SNPs each specimen was assigned to a mitochondrial haplogroup. The obtained results were used together with other ancient and modern populations to analyse shared haplotypes and population genetic distances illustrated by multidimentional scaling plots (MDS). The differences on genetic level and quite high genetic distances (FST) between medieval and Iron-Age populations as well as significant number of shared informative haplotypes with Belarus, Ukraine and Bulgaria may evidence genetic discontinuity between medieval and Iron Ages. From the other side, the highest number of shared informative haplotypes between Iron-Age and extant Polish population as well as the presence of subhaplogroup N1a1a2, can confirm that some genetic lines show continuity at least from Iron Age or even Neolithic in the areas of present day Poland. The results obtained in this work are considered to be the first ancient contribution in genetic history of the Slavs.
Below is an MDS from the thesis, based on data corrected for the effects of potential relatives in the Iron Age sample. I don't think it's a particularly useful way of judging the intra-European affinity of the two ancient Polish groups, mostly because the samples are small, and contemporary North, Central and East Europeans don't differ very much in terms of mtDNA. Nevertheless, we can see that both the Iron Age (Okres Rzymski) and Medieval (Sredniowiecze) samples fall within the range of modern European mtDNA diversity. On the other hand, the German Neolithic LBK sample (Neolit LBK Niemcy) clearly does not, because it's sitting at the far right of the plot, away from the main European cluster. This dichotomy between the genetic structure of the LBK farmers and modern Europeans has been demonstrated in previous studies, but the reasons for it are still a mystery.
Interestingly, modern Poles are closer to an Iron Age sample from Denmark (Okres Zelaza Dania) than to the Polish Iron Age set, which I think illustrates well the inability of MDS methodology to discriminate at fine scale in this instance. Perhaps a better way to access the affinity of the ancient mtDNA in the context of modern diversity, is to pick the most informative haplotypes, and then see where they're found today? As per the summary above, the author has done just that, and found that extant Poles are the closest group to the Polish Iron Age remains, followed by Balts, Swedes and Baltic Finns. Below is a table showing those results.
According to the author, these matches might hint at Baltic, Germanic and Finno-Ugric influences in the Polish Iron Age population. Perhaps, but in my opinion, they're simply in line with geography, and reflect the general North European character of maternal lineages shared by populations from around the Baltic, both today and during the Iron Age.
The results for the Medieval Polish sample are more intriguing, because they're somewhat out of whack with geography. Its best matching modern groups are Belorussians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians. This might suggest that, during the early middle ages, the territory of present day Poland experienced an influx of groups from what are now Belarus and Ukraine, who then melted into the gene pool of the natives of Polish Iron Age descent. However, conversely, it might mean that Belorussians, Ukrainians and Bulgarians descend in large part from fairly specific medieval groups from the area of modern Poland.
In any case, whether present day Polish territory saw some migrations from the immediate east during the Medieval period or not, this preliminary look at ancient Polish mtDNA suggests long-standing genetic continuity in the region. What it clearly doesn't show is a complete, or almost complete, population replacement in the areas between the Oder and Bug rivers during the migration period.
Indeed, the thesis results put into doubt past notions that the Przeworsk and Wielbark cultures were of Germanic origin.
The (mtDNA) haplogroup missing from both the Iron Age and medieval samples from the territory of modern Poland was haplogroup I. In contemporary Slavic populations, this haplogroup is found at levels ranging from 1.2% in Bulgarians to 4.8% in Slovaks. It was also recorded at high levels in ancient remains from Denmark. It showed a frequency of 12.5% in an Iron Age sample, and 13.8% in a medieval sample. Melchior et al. 2008 suggest that haplogroup I might have been more common in Denmark and Northern Europe during that period. Therefore, the lack of this haplogroup in ancient DNA from the territory of modern Poland, might mean that the Przeworsk and Wielbark cultures should not be identified with Germanic populations.
I'm sure more ancient DNA studies are on the way looking at the origins of Slavs and Poles. Indeed, if the Y-chromosomes of Przeworsk and Wielbark remains are successfully tested, I won't be surprised if they look fairly typical of modern Poles, with a decent representation of R1a1a-M458, which is the most common Y-chromosome haplogroup in Poland today.
Anna Juras, Etnogeneza Słowian w świetle badań kopalnego DNA, Praca doktorska wykonana w Zakładzie Biologii Ewolucyjnej Człowieka Instytutu Antropologii UAM w Poznaniu pod kierunkiem Prof. dr hab. Janusza Piontka