The idea that there were once “pure” populations of ancestral Europeans, there since the days of woolly mammoths, has inspired ideologues since well before the Nazis. It has long nourished white racism, and in recent years it has stoked fears about the impact of immigrants: fears that have threatened to rip apart the European Union and roiled politics in the United States.
Now scientists are delivering new answers to the question of who Europeans really are and where they came from. Their findings suggest that the continent has been a melting pot since the Ice Age. Europeans living today, in whatever country, are a varying mix of ancient bloodlines hailing from Africa, the Middle East, and the Russian steppe.
The evidence comes from archaeological artifacts, from the analysis of ancient teeth and bones, and from linguistics. But above all it comes from the new field of paleogenetics. During the past decade it has become possible to sequence the entire genome of humans who lived tens of millennia ago. Technical advances in just the past few years have made it cheap and efficient to do so; a well-preserved bit of skeleton can now be sequenced for around $500.