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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

In search of the genetic footprints of Sumerians: a survey of Y-chromosome and mtDNA variation in the Marsh Arabs of Iraq

Nadia Al-Zahery1, Maria Pala1, Vincenza Battaglia1, Viola Grugni1, Mohammed A Hamod23, Baharak Hooshiar Kashani1, Anna Olivieri1, Antonio Torroni1, Augusta S Santachiara-Benerecetti1 and Ornella Semino14*

Author Affiliations

1 Dipartimento di Genetica e Microbiologia, Università di Pavia, Via Ferrata 1, 27100 Pavia, Italy

2 Department of Biotechnology, Faculty of Sciences, Baghdad University, 10001 Baghdad, Iraq

3 Department of Microbiology, UNESCO-MIRCEN for Marine Biotechnology, College of Fisheries, 575002 Mangalore, India

4 Centro Interdipartimentale "Studi di Genere", Università di Pavia, 27100 Pavia, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:288  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-288

Published: 4 October 2011

Abstract

Background

For millennia, the southern part of the Mesopotamia has been a wetland region generated by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before flowing into the Gulf. This area has been occupied by human communities since ancient times and the present-day inhabitants, the Marsh Arabs, are considered the population with the strongest link to ancient Sumerians. Popular tradition, however, considers the Marsh Arabs as a foreign group, of unknown origin, which arrived in the marshlands when the rearing of water buffalo was introduced to the region.

Results

To shed some light on the paternal and maternal origin of this population, Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) variation was surveyed in 143 Marsh Arabs and in a large sample of Iraqi controls. Analyses of the haplogroups and sub-haplogroups observed in the Marsh Arabs revealed a prevalent autochthonous Middle Eastern component for both male and female gene pools, with weak South-West Asian and African contributions, more evident in mtDNA. A higher male than female homogeneity is characteristic of the Marsh Arab gene pool, likely due to a strong male genetic drift determined by socio-cultural factors (patrilocality, polygamy, unequal male and female migration rates).

Conclusions

Evidence of genetic stratification ascribable to the Sumerian development was provided by the Y-chromosome data where the J1-Page08 branch reveals a local expansion, almost contemporary with the Sumerian City State period that characterized Southern Mesopotamia. On the other hand, a more ancient background shared with Northern Mesopotamia is revealed by the less represented Y-chromosome lineage J1-M267*. Overall our results indicate that the introduction of water buffalo breeding and rice farming, most likely from the Indian sub-continent, only marginally affected the gene pool of autochthonous people of the region. Furthermore, a prevalent Middle Eastern ancestry of the modern population of the marshes of southern Iraq implies that if the Marsh Arabs are descendants of the ancient Sumerians, also the Sumerians were most likely autochthonous and not of Indian or South Asian ancestry.