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The Eurasian region north of the Black Sea and Sea of Azov has long been a crossroads of history, conquest, and migration. The Steppe nations that have formed on the doorstep to Central Asia have built their identities and cultures over millennia. This vast territory has been ruled by a multitude of peoples over the ages. It has always been a challenge to define Ukraine and its surrounding countries.
Modern Ukraine is the largest country located fully in Europe. Its current population is the result of millennia of different populations arriving from every corner of the world. And yet, in the world of genetic research, Ukraine remains woefully understudied. 97 Ukrainian individuals currently living in Ukraine comprise the genome study’s dataset. The specific genetic groups, or haplotypes, that these people possess can be traced back through history, across the Steppe, and back into Africa, from which all our ancestors emerged 60,000 years ago. These first modern humans perhaps displaced or replaced the Denisovan populations of pre-modern humans who lived in caves. Denisovan remains have been found in Central Asia, specifically in a Siberian cave called Denisova, that are over 110,000 years old.
Linguistic and genetic evidence suggests that the Yamnya were the first speakers of Proto-Indo-European languages to arrive on the Steppe. Along with Hittite elements from Anatolia and Maykop from the Caucasus, these cultures forged the backbone of most modern languages spoken from India to Ireland, from Hindi to Persian to Gaelic to Latin. For a thousand years the speakers of Proto-Indo-European dwelled on the Steppe before charging outward, usually to the west and south, in a series of waves known as the Indo-European Expansion from c. 2000-1000 BCE.
Today, while ethnic Ukrainians comprise over 75% of the population of modern Ukraine, the genomes of many other ethnicities are present. The Russian genetic minority is approximately 20%, with a concentration in the southeast of the country, along with other smaller minority groups historically present in different parts of the country: Belarusians, Bulgarians, Crimean Tatars, Greeks, Gagauz, Hungarians, Jews, Moldovans, Poles, Romanians, Roma (Gypsies), and others.
The modern world is shaped by more than just a collection of ancestral peoples and events. Yet we can never escape our past. As genetics are used more and more to individualize medicine and discover the roots of our past migrations, it is imperative that we identify actual distinct populations whose genetics may respond differently to treatment than others. In the study Genome Diversity in Ukraine, the authors conclude that there are very specific genetic signatures that define the Ukrainian genome. As the authors state, “To our knowledge, this study provides the largest to-date survey of genetic variation in Ukraine, creating a public reference resource aiming to provide data for medical research in a large understudied population.”
This is the ancient history of the land of modern Ukraine. It is a tale of endless migration and conquest, of mixing cultures and ethnicities from every corner of the globe into a unique identity. These layers of history are the rich legacy of the peoples of the mighty rivers, endless Steppe, and Black Sea.
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