Is religious belief in decline and atheism on the rise?

Ronald Inglehart has recently published an article in Foreign Affairs called “Giving up on God: the global decline of religion” in which he uses data from the most recent wave of the World Health Surveys (WVS) to claim that between 2007 and 2019, the importance of religion has declined in most countries [1]. This is based on a single question on the importance of God in the respondent’s life on a 10-point scale. The average importance declined in 39 countries and increased in only 5.  Apart from the fact that this is based only on a single question on the importance of God, it also does not tell us how regional or global average ratings have changed. Depending on the relative populations and scale shifts in different countries, it could potentially even be consistent with a global average increase.

I’ve taken a closer look at trends in religious belief and practice using data from the World Values Survey and European Values Study [2-5] which have interviewed over 630,000 people in 110 countries in seven waves of the surveys over the period 1981 to 2020. These surveys include a direct question on whether you believe in God (Yes/No/Don’t know), but also “Are you a religious person” (Religious, Non-religious, Confirmed Atheist) and questions on frequency and type of religious practices, and on the importance in your life of religion and God. Of the 105 countries, 76 have data for years in range 2017-2020, and another 17 have data on or later than 2010.

I used these questions to define four categories of “religiosity” as follows:

Atheist: A “confirmed atheist” and/or does not believe in God

Non-religious: A non-religious person who believes in God, but rates the importance of God as 8-10 at the not important end of a 10-point scale.

Non-practicing religious person: A religious person who believes in God but does not attend religious services or pray to God outside of religious services at least once a month.

Practicing religious person: A religious person who believes in God and attends religious services or prays to God outside of religious services at least once a month.

Modified versions of these definitions are used for persons stating affiliation to a non-theist religion and for the predominantly Buddhist countries. A more detailed explanation of these definitions and the survey questions used, as well as details of the analysis, is available here and here. Note that my definition of religiosity is based on belief in God (or engagement with nontheist religious teachings) and degree of engagement with religious practice, not on a stated religious affiliation or type of affiliation, or on the types of belief (such as degree of fundamentalism, degree of tolerance or bigotry etc).

Country-level trends in religiosity and atheism

The following plots show trends in the prevalence of the four religiosity categories from 1980 to 2020 for six representative countries from different religious/culture zones. High income countries in Western Europe and North America are characterized by declining religiosity and rising prevalence of atheism. Former Communist countries of Europe are characterized by a drop in atheism after the breakup of the Soviet Union, some rise in the practicing religious and a much larger rise in the non-practicing religious. The vast majority of people in Africa and Islamic countries are religious, though substantial proportions are non-practicing, and the prevalence of stated irreligion (non-religious and atheists) is very low.

In his article, Inglehart notes that the USA has had the sharpest decline in the importance of God of all the countries in the WVS, and now ranks as the 11th most irreligious country (based on the single question he analysed). The graph for the USA also shows a very substantial rise in the prevalences of atheism and non-religious across the last two waves, and a corresponding decline in non-practicing and practicing religious prevalences.  If I exclude China and South Korea due to the difficulties in classifying religiosity in countries with historically important non-theistic religions, then the USA has the 3rd highest rate of decline after Chile and Denmark, but these countries all share a very similar rate of decline over the last decade around 3.5% per year.

Based on my projections of atheism prevalence to 2020 for all the WVS/EVS countries, the leading 31 countries are listed in the following table. Note that the prevalence of atheism is now higher in the USA than in Russia. The prevalence of “non-religious” has also been rising fast in the USA, now around 10% compared to between 1 and 5% in other developed countries.

China has the largest prevalence of atheism in the world at an estimated 78% but as the plot shows there has been a substantial shift from the non-religious category to the atheist category and it is difficult to interpret this given the lack of fit of the WVS questions with the non-theist religions that are most common in China.

Many of the reports of prevalence of atheism add the Non-religious to Confirmed Atheist, but the data shows that a majority of the non-religious believe in God but are estranged from institutional religion. Other reports use data on those who report “None” when asked their religion, but these also include many people who believe in God but have rejected institutional religion.

Most of the countries of Western Europe, excluding Portugal and Italy, as well as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have more people who are non-religious or atheist than religious people. There is considerable cultural variability in the willingness of people to label themselves atheist, even if effectively they do not believe in god or consider god irrelevant to their life. The USA is an outlier with high prevalence of “non-religious” compared to other high income countries with a European heritage, and this may reflect unwillingness to use the label “atheist” due to the stigma associated with it in the USA.

Religiosity in Iran and other Islamic countries

Iran and other Islamic countries generally report very low levels of atheism, 2.4% on average, and I suspect this is lower than reality because of the quite severe social and legal consequences in many Islamic countries. The WVS uses telephone interviews and its quite likely irreligious respondents would be fearful of being identified if they respond honestly to a telephone interview. A recent internet survey provides some support for this concern. The internet-based survey collected responses from 40,000 Iranians living in Iran in June 2020 [6]. Respondents took part in the survey anonymously, and would have felt safer to express their real opinions than in telephone surveys or surveys conducted at respondents’ residence. According to this survey, only 40% of Iranians identify as Muslims (quite similar to the 43% if Iranians who are practicing Muslims according to the WVS), 8% as Zoroastrian and 9% as atheist (12% if those who identify as humanist are included). Around 20% said that they did not believe in God. This contrasts with the WVS, where 96% state they are Muslim (43% practicing, 53% non-practicing) and only 1.5% say they do not believe in God. %. Its quite likely that real levels of irreligion are higher in many other Islamic countries than the WVS survey data suggest.

Global trends in religiosity and atheism

At global level, the proportion of people who are religious and practicing has barely changed over the last 40 years, as has the prevalence of atheism, but there has been a shift from non-religious to non-practicing religious, reflecting mainly the change in former Soviet bloc countries.  Excluding China, there is a slight decline in the prevalence of atheism but overall, there has been relatively little change in prevalence of religiosity at global level over the last 40 years. This conceals quite substantial changes in developed countries and in former Soviet countries, in opposing directions.

Trends in average religiosity over the last 40 years

It is entirely possible that while the prevalences of religiosity categories have changed little, the average religiosity within categories has changed, for example through less frequent religious observance, or lesser importance placed on God in the respondent’s life (as used by Inglehart for his claim that religion is in global decline). To examine this, I used the set of religiosity variables in the WVS/EVS to compute a continuous latent variable for religiosity using an item response analysis of the relevant survey variables measuring aspects of religiosity (see here for details).

The following plot shows population-weighted trends in average religiosity from 1980 to 2020 for 10 culture zones and the world. Note that negative values indicate higher levels of religiosity and positive values indicate higher levels of irreligion. The large increase in irreligion in North America stands out, as does the more steady increase in the Reformed West, and the decrease in irreligion following the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries around 1991. However, the continuous latent variable also picks up an increase in religiosity in Sub-Saharan Africa and an decrease in religiosity post-2000 in Latin America, the Old West and the Returned West. At global level there has been a slight increase in religiosity over the forty year period. This is the opposite conclusion to that reached by Inglehart in his recent Foreign Affairs article.

The country groups used in this plot are based on the 10 culture defined by Welzel [7] and used in my previous post, with one modification. Because Australia’s and New Zealand’s culture values are much closer to the countries of the Reformed West than to those of the USA and Canada, I have included Australia and New Zealand in the Reformed West (European countries strongly affected by the Reformation) and renamed the New West as North America. The Old West includes the mostly Catholic countries of Western Europe, the Returned West those former Soviet bloc countries who have joined the EU, and the Orthodox East includes the Christian Orthodox or Islamic parts of the former Soviet bloc countries.

Why is religion on the decline in the Reformed West, Old West and North America? Not coincidentally, these countries are essentially those in which the scientific and industrial revolutions of the last three centuries first occurred. In my view, a key reason for this was the utter revulsion intelligent people developed for absolutist religious and political institutions which regulated beliefs and speech and resulted in centuries of wars in Europe. Europeans rejected the idea that the King or Pope or Bishop could order them what to believe and think on pain of death. Freedom of thought was a crucial factor in the development of science, which underpins the technological revolution. Widespread education, improving standards of living, and the evident benefits of scientific knowledge have all resulted in fewer and fewer people continuing to hold to fundamentalist (ie Bronze Age) understandings of religion. And religious extremists are reacting to this. Just two days ago, a French teacher discussing freedom of thought with his class was beheaded by a Muslim student offended by his use of cartoons to illustrate freedom of thought.

To be clear, science and modern values are not at all incompatible in principle with spirituality, but are definitely incompatible with forms of religion that define their truths as being absolute and beyond question.


  1. Inglehart R Giving up on God: the global decline of religion. Foreign Affairs 2020, 99(5): 110-118.
  2. Inglehart, R., C. Haerpfer, A. Moreno, C. Welzel, K. Kizilova, J. Diez-Medrano, M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2014. World Values Survey: All Rounds – Country-Pooled Datafile Version: Madrid: JD Systems Institute.
  3. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno,A., Welzel,C., Kizilova,K., Diez-MedranoJ., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2020. World Values Survey: Round Seven–Country-Pooled Datafile. Madrid, Spain & Vienna, Austria: JD Systems Institute& WVSA Secretariat[Version:].
  4. Gedeshi, Ilir, Zulehner, Paul M., Rotman, David, Titarenko, Larissa, Billiet, Jaak, Dobbelaere, Karel, Kerkhofs, Jan. (2020). European Values Study Longitudinal Data File 1981-2008 (EVS 1981-2008). GESIS Datenarchiv, Köln. ZA4804 Datenfile Version 3.1.0,
  5. EVS (2020): European Values Study 2017: Integrated Dataset (EVS 2017). GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7500 Data file Version 3.0.0,doi:10.4232/1.13511
  6. Maeki A, Arab PT. Iranians’ attitudes toward religion: a 2020 survey report. The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN). Published online, GAMAAN.
  7. Welzel C. Freedom Rising. Human Empowerment and the. Quest for Emancipation. 2013. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hubble observed a supernova brighter than its galaxy

A supernova releases as much energy in days as our Sun does in several billion years. In 2018, the Hubble Space Telescope observed a supernova 70 million light years away, which outshone its entire galaxy until it faded away over the following year.

This video zooms into the barred spiral galaxy NGC 2525, located 70 million light-years away in the southern constellation Puppis. As we approach an outer spiral arm a Hubble time-lapse video is inserted that shows the fading light of supernova 2018gv. Hubble didn’t record the initial blast in January 2018, but for nearly one year took consecutive photos, from 2018 to 2019, that have been assembled into a time-lapse sequence. At its peak, the exploding star was as bright as 5 billion Suns.

While nuclear fusion and a slow neutron capture process form all the elements up to 83 (Bismuth), the elements are also produced very rapidly in supernovae along with all the heavier elements. Supernovae have produced the the bulk of the universe’s precious metals, silver, platinum and gold, and are responsible for the creation of the heaviest elements up to uranium.

Supernovae like this all peak at the same brightness and so can be used to accurately measure the distance of their host galaxy, allowing accurate measurement of the universe’s expansion rate. The current best estimate is that the universe is expanding at a rate of 69.3 km/sec/Megaparsec plus or minus 0.8. That means that for every Megaparsec (about 3 million light years) that you go out, the Universe is expanding 69.3 km/sec faster. So that means that NGC 2525 is moving away from us at a speed of around 1500 km/s or half a light year each century.

A family history mystery – who is the 2nd Annie Priscilla Wilson?

Thomas Wilson

In a previous post, I wrote about my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Wilson (who was transported to Australia as a convict in 1834). He had been sentenced to 7 years transportation for highway robbery. In researching his descendants, I documented a granddaughter Annie Priscilla Wilson, who was born in 1880 to his son Thomas Wilson (1847-1923) and wife Frances Oliver (1852-1893). Annie Priscilla married John Fitzgerald in Manly in 1900 and they moved to Wollongong. She died in 1964, I have seen the death certificate, and she is buried in the Wollongong Cemetery (Sect. RC Row: Nth 25 Site: 26). I have been contacted by one of her grand-daughters who has confirmed all these details.

This is where it gets interesting. In searching for information on Thomas Wilson and his family, who lived at Church Point, Pittwater north of Manly in Sydney, I came across a website with the following information. It described the rediscovery of the graveyard associated with the first St John’s Anglican Church in Mona Vale, about 5 km from Church Point, where the Wilson family lived. This church was a small weatherboard structure built in 1871 overlooking Mona Vale Beach, which was moved to a new site in Bayview in 1888.  One of the gravestones uncovered was for “Annie Priscilla Wilson Aged 2 Years (1880-1882) Dearly loved daughter of Frances and Thomas Wilson”. I have also found a photograph of the Memorial Plaque erected on the site in her memory. There is only one birth “Annie Priscilla Wilson” registered in NSW for anyone with the names Annie, Ann, Anne, Priscilla and parents Thomas and Frances Wilson in the date range 1865-1900. So this is a complete mystery. Although her gravestone has been found saying she died in 1882, she also got married to John Fitzgerald in 1900. I also cannot find a death certificate for Annie Priscilla Wilson in 1882.

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Anaximander – the first scientist

Recently I discovered Carlo Rovelli, an Italian physicist and best-selling popular science writer and noticed he had written a book on Anaximander, an early Greek philosopher who lived around 150 years before Socrates in the sixth century BC. Though I read some of the Greek philosophers when I was younger, I don’t recall coming across Anaximander. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book and so here is a review.

Anaximander (c. 610 – c. 546 BC), lived in Miletus, a city of Ionia (in modern-day Turkey) and was a student of Thales. Nothing but a few quotations and descriptions of his work survive in the works of later philosophers, but from this sparse information, Rovelli mounts a persuasive argument that Anaximander was the first true scientist, the first to suggest that order in the world was due to natural forces, not supernatural ones.

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The twin pandemics and the second wave

Today, I took another look at the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic using data on confirmed new cases per day. The first figure shows four countries where the second wave has peaked and is coming down. Australia is somewhat unique in that its second wave peaked considerably higher than the first. Croatia and likely Spain will join that club.

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Variations and trends in cultural values across 105 countries, 1980 to 2020

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the stages of development of the individual (whether stages of moral development, psychological development, or consciousness) and the stages of development of human societies and civilizations. With the increasing prominence of fundamentalist religion in some regions of the world, the rise of science denialism and “post-truth” popularist politics, differences in human values are of huge importance and can literally become life and death matters for people. More generally, it seems fairly clear that people’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender equality, and the extent to which societies have effective governments.

So I have taken an interest in results from the World Values Survey over the last two decades, and last month learnt that data from its most recent wave was being released in late July. There have now been seven waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), the first in 1980-1982 and the seventh underway since 2017. There have also been five waves of the European Values Study (EVS), which includes many of the same items as the WVS, and whose most recent wave covers the period 2017-2020. With the release of the WVS 7th wave data for 48 countries in July 2020, the WVS plus the EVS now include data for 117 countries or territories and over 638,000 respondents, covering the period 1981-2020.

Data from previous waves of the World Values Survey were used by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel to identify two major dimensions of cross cultural variation across the world. They refer to these as Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and Survival values versus Emancipative values. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values in contrast to secular-rational values. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Emancipative values are associated with gender equality, relative acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. Inglehart and Welzel used factor analysis to estimate where each country lies on these two dimensions are constructed what they called a “culture map”.

I set out to replicate this analysis with the full WVS+EVS dataset including the latest wave [1-4]. I decided to use a different statistical approach (item response theory) to estimate the two dimensions. I have posted a more technical summary on my professional website to give details of this analysis. In brief, I used structural equation modelling to estimate two latent variables. The survival-emancipative variable was derived from data for three questions of gender equality (jobs, politics, education) and three questions on acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. The traditional-secular values variable was derived from data for three questions on sources of authority (nation pride, government, parents) and three questions on religion (importance, belief, practice. The values for countries with data for years 2005 or later were used to extrapolate values for year 2019. The following “culture map” shows the location of 105 countries based in these two variables.

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The jet d’eau of Geneva

The jet d’eau (jet of water) is a famous Geneva landmark, situated just off the shore of Lake Leman near the centre of Geneva and its old town. The original jet d’eau was a pressure release mechanism for the Geneva water supply in the 19th century. When engineering improvements made it obsolete, the City of Geneva decided to make the jet a tourist attraction. The current version was installed in 1951 and sends the water plume to a height of 140 m (460 feet). Its two pumps expel 500 litres of water per second at a speed of 200 km/hour.

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My paternal ancestors – from Adam via ice age Siberia to the steppes of Europe

In earlier posts, I discussed how I have used an analysis of my Y chromosome DNA to identify my paternal ancestors all the way back to Y-chromosomal Adam, the most recent common ancestor of all men alive today. The following map summarizes my Y haplogroup ancestors from Y-chromosomal Adam down to those who left Africa around 70 thousand years ago (70 kya) and headed east through India and South East Asia and then up through China into ice age Siberia and then across to the Ukrainian steppeland north of the Black Sea.

I was originally going to continue this story all the way across Europe to the Iberian Peninsula and up to Ireland and Scotland, but I will keep that for a later post. I have discovered that there is an immense amount of recent research on European Bronze Age genetics and migrations and a very considerable unfinished debate on how to interpret the evidence. So it may take me a little while to come to grips with it.

The estimated dates for haplogroup founders shown on the map are mostly taken from the SNP Tracker [1] and are interpolated from the dates in the Y haplotree on The latter use the updated method of Adamov et al [2] to estimate ages, based on the average SNP mutation rate parts of the Y chromosome expected to be stable in the mutation rate. The date for Y chromosomal Adam is estimated from recent studies cited in the post about him. Note that there is large uncertainty in age estimates and locations of Y haplogroups. The 95% uncertainty for dates ranges from ±10% for early haplogroups to ±20% for R1b. Some of the possible locations discussed below are speculative and will be revised as new data becomes available. The acronyms BCE and CE refer to “Before Current Era” and “Current Era” and correspond to BC and AD respectively.

The Y chromosome is substantially larger than mitochondrial DNA (56 million versus 16,600 base pairs). As a consequence there are more paternal haplogroups than maternal haplogroups. There are 36 paternal haplogroup founders between me and Y chromosomal Adam, compared to only 17 maternal haplogroup founders between me and mitochondrial Eve. In the story below of my paternal ancestors, I have focused on important haplogroup founders associated with key developments in human migration and culture.

Y-Chromosomal Adam

Y-chromosomal Adam, our great*8,870th grandfather [3], lived approximately 275,000 years ago in western Africa, likely in western Cameroon. His haplogroup A is ancestral to all Y-haplogroups found today. Y-chromosomal Adam was not the first Y-chromosomal Adam was not the first man, nor was he the only man alive at the time. His contemporaries could still have descendants, whose line zig-zagged back and forth between males and females, but Adam was the only one who had an unbroken line of sons, through thousands of generations, right down to the present time. He is the paternal ancestor of all humans alive today. In a previous post, I have told the story of the discovery around 2010 of a new haplogroup A00, which pushed the date of Y-chromosomal Adam from around 120-160 thousand years ago (kya) to 275 kya. This is somewhere around the time the first anatomically modern humans appeared.

Haplogroup A is restricted to Africa, where it is present in several populations at low frequency but is most commonly found in populations of the Koi and the San tribes of Southern Africa. Early sub-branches of A have been found in central Africa. My paternal lineage descended through haplogroups A0-T, A1, A1b and BT to haplogroup CT, whose founders progressively moved eastwards towards the horn of Africa.

Haplogroup CT – Out of Africa Adam

Haplogroup CT (CT-M168/PF1416) has been referred to as the lineage of “Eurasian Adam” or “Out of Africa Adam”; because, along with many African Y-lineages, all non-African Y-lineages descend from it. Recent dating of CT [4, 5] gives a date close to 100 kya, making the CT founder my great*3,160th grandfather (and yours if you are a non-African). He is thought to have lived in what is now Ethiopia.

In describing these haplogroups, I will note the key mutations (SNP) which define the haplogroup (or sometimes are a marker chosen from a larger group of SNPs defining the haplogroup. Thus CT is defined by the two SNPs M168 and PF1416.

There is some evidence that modern humans left Africa around 130 to 115 kya, and possibly in even earlier waves, but none of these survived or left any trace in the human genome. All modern non-African men (and women) descended from Eurasian Adam in their paternal line. This migration is thought to have occurred between about 70 to 50 kya, at a time when a period of warmer temperatures and moister climate in Africa changed the desert in north-east Africa to savannah. Parts of the inhospitable Sahara briefly became habitable. As the drought-ridden desert changed to a savanna, the animals hunted by our ancestors expanded their range and began moving through the newly emerging green corridor of grasslands.

Bab-el-Mandeb. Source:

It has been estimated that from a population of less than 10,000 individuals in Africa, only a small group, possibly as few as 150 to 1,000 people, crossed the Red Sea around 70,000 years ago, and these were all members of haplogroup CT [4]. Today at the Bab-el-Mandeb straits, the Red Sea is about 20 kilometres wide, but 70,000 years ago sea levels were 70 meters lower (owing to glaciation) and the water was much narrower. Though the straits were never completely closed, there may have been islands in between which could be reached using simple rafts.

Haplogroup CF

The founder of haplogroup CF-P143/PF2587 probably lived in the Arabian Peninsula around 68 kya, making him my great*2,130th grandfather. Haber et al. [5] estimate the date is somewhat earlier at 75.6 kya. Over the next twenty thousand years, my paternal lineage descended through haplogroups F, G, H and I to K as humans numbering at most in a few tens of thousands, moved north along the Arabian Pensinsula through Iraq and Iran into India. This period was towards the beginning of the Upper Paelolithic or Late Stone Age. At this time, stone tools were still relatively unsophisticated, humans were hunter-gatherers with an increasing diversity of foods, including fish. Cave paintings and carvings became more common, and the first evidence has been found of organized settlements, in the form of campsites.

Haplogroup K

The founder of haplogroup K-M9/PF5506 probably lived in South Asia or South East Asia around 47 kya, making him my great*1,450th grandfather. His identifying SNP M9 marked a new lineage, the Eurasian Clan, which spent the next 30,000 years populating Europe, Asia and the Americas. One group of descendents in subclade K2, then K2b move down through South East asia.

Haplogroup P (or K2b2)

The founder of haplogroup P (or K2b2) is identified by the SNP P295. The basal P* haploclade is found at its highest rate in the Aeta (or Agta), a people indigenous to Luzon, in The Philippines. Luzon is also the only location where P*, P1* and rare P2 are now found together, along with significant levels of K2b1.[5] Even though P1 is now more common among individuals in Eastern Siberia and Central Asia, these distributions suggest that P* (P295) emerged in South East Asia, and I have shown its origin as Luzon.

Haplogroup P1 (or K2b2a)

Members of haplogroup P (P-M45 or K2b2a) migrated northwards from the Philippines through China and Haplogroup P1 probably arose in Siberia or in Kazakhstan in the Late Stone Age around 42,000 years ago. Around this period, the environment on the Eurasian steppes was becoming increasingly hostile as the glaciers of the ice age began to expand again. Reductions in rainfall may have induced desert-like conditions in the south and led members of ancestral haplogroup P to follow herds of game north. They developed smaller stone points and blades—microliths—that could be mounted to bone or wood handles and used effectively. Their tool kit also included bone needles for sewing animal-skin clothing that would both keep them warm and allow them the range of movement needed to hunt the reindeer and mammoth that kept them fed.

In 2001, Russian scientists discovered a 31,000-year-old site where ancient hunters lived on the Yana River in Siberia, 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of the Arctic Circle and not far from the Bering land bridge that then connected Asia with North America [6]. The researchers found stone tools, ivory weapons and the butchered bones of mammoths, bison, bear, lion and hare, all animals that would have been available to hunters during that Ice Age period. This age is twice that of other known human occupations in any Arctic region and shows that people adapted to this harsh, high-latitude, Late Pleistocene environment much earlier than previously thought.

The archaeological site where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. Credit: Elena Pavlova

DNA analysis of two human milk teeth found at the site found that one of them (labelled Yana1) belonged to haplogroup P1 (P-M45) Yana2 had five additional SNPs that defined a new haplogroup P1a (P-P284) [7]. The earlier map shows the location of the Yana site.

Haplogroup P gave rise to haplogroup R, the ancestors of most European men, and also to haplogroup Q, to which most native Americans belong.

Haplogroup R

The founder of haplogroup R, identified by signature SNP M207, lived in southern Siberia around 31,000 years ago, making him my great*997th grandfather. At this time, glaciers were expanding over much of Europe and western Eurasia, and the estimated population of homo sapiens was approximately one hundred thousand.

The 24,000 year old remains of Mal’ta boy

Several thousand years later we have our first evidence of R-M207. The remains of a four year old boy was found in a hunter-gather group dated to 24 kya, near the village of Mal’ta in the Lake Baikal area of Central Siberia [8]. Descendants of the haplogroup R founder moved westward over the next twenty thousand years across the Eurasian steppes into Europe, another group of descendants turned south and eventually made it to India.

Haplogroup R1

Haplogroup R1 (R-M173) is estimated to have arisen during the height of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), about 23,000 years ago, most likely on the Eurasian steppes (possibly in Kazakhstan). During this period, the Eurasian steppelands extended from present-day Germany, and possibly France, to Korea and China. The two most common descendant clades of haplogroup R1 are R1a and R1b.

Map of the Eurasian Steppes

Haplogroup R1b

The founder of haplogroup R1b (R-M343)  most probably was born around 20,000 years ago in Western Asia, at a time close to the peak extent of the European and Siberian ice sheets, which extended to the northern edge of the Eurasian steppe.  The steppe itself became much less hospitable tundra, and the steppeland people moved south down the eastern side of the Caspian, the likely location of the founder of the R1b haplogroup.

Map shows Palaeolithic Europe 18,000 years ago in the grip of the last ice age. Glacial ice 2km thick covers much of Northern Europe and the Alps. Sea levels are approx. 125m lower than today and the coastline differs slightly from the present day. The air would have been on average 10-12 degrees cooler and much more arid. In between the ice and the tree line, drought-tolerant grasses and dunes would have dominated the landscape.

Haplogroup R1b (R-M343) is the most frequently occurring paternal lineage in Western Europe, accounting for 50% or more of all paternal lineages in Europe. It peaks at the national level in Wales at a rate of 92%, at 82% in Ireland, 70% in Scotland, 68% in Spain, 60% in France (76% in Normandy), about 60% in Portugal,] 45% in Eastern England, 50% in Germany, 50% in the Netherlands, 42% in Iceland, and 43% in Denmark.

Haplogroups R1b-L754 / R1b-L388 / R1b-P297

Soon after the appearance of R1b, another marker, R-L754 (R1b1) appeared in an individual who probably lived somewhere around the southern shore of the Caspian Sea, possibly in Iran. Three thousand years later (17 kya), haplogroup R-L388 arose near the northern border of modern day Ajerbaijan, and another four thousand years later (13 kya), haplogroup R-P297 arose further north on the western steppeland of southern Russia.

Rock carvings of paleolithic hunters on the western shore of Lake Caspian

When I was in Azerbaijan in 2011, I visited a stone age rock shelter close the western shore of the Caspian Sea, about 65 km south of Baku. The earliest rock engravings date back to around 23 kya, and others date from the Mesolithic period around 10,000 kya. The migration route of my paternal ancestors (and quite possibly yours) would have passed by this site around 18 kya. I like to think that one of my paternal ancestors used this rock shelter around 18 kya, ie 16,000 BCE. Just to complete the sweep of history, there is also a carving of what appears to be a Viking longship, and it is known that a Viking trade route connected northern Europe and Russia with the Caspian Sea via the Volga River. And in a field a couple of kilometres away is a boulder with Roman graffiti in Latin that translated says “In the time of Emperor Domitian Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Lucius Julius Maximus, Centurion of the 12th “Thunderbolt” Legion [was here]”. This is the furthest east that a Roman inscription has been found and is dated to around 90 AD.

Haplogroup R1b-M269

Haplogroup R1b1a2 (R-M269) is observed most frequently in Europe, especially western Europe, but also with some frequency in southwest Asia. R1b1a2-M269 is estimated to have arisen approximately 13 kya on the European Western Steppes and to have spread into Europe from there. R-M269 is the most common European haplogroup, greatly increasing in frequency on an east to west gradient (its prevalence in Poland estimated at 22.7%, compared to around 60% in France, 70% in Spain and south-east England, 92% in Wales, and 98% in parts of north-west Ireland. It is carried by approximately 110 million European men.

R-M269 can be used to trace the Neolithic expansion into Europe as well as founder-effects within European populations due to later (Bronze Age and Iron Age) migrations. My R-M269 ancestors lived on the Western Steppes for at least 7,000 years until the appearance of the R-L23 founder 6,400 years ago.

Haplogroup R1b-L23

The founder of the R-L23 haplogroup was born on the Western Steppe (Pontic-Caspian Steppe) around 4,400 BC (6.4 kya). This was around 1,000 years before the appearance on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe of the Yamnaya culture. Genetic studies performed since 2015 have revealed that the Yamnaya culture, thought to have spoken some stage of the Proto-Indo-European language, predominantly carried R1b-L23.

Yamnaya herders from western Asia, four of whom are buried in this grave, started mating with European farmers hundreds of years before launching a major migration into Europe.

The Yamnaya culture, or Ochre Grave culture, was a late Copper Age to early Bronze Age herding culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppe, dating to 3300–2600 BC. Its name derives from its characteristic burial tradition: these people used to bury their dead in tumuli (kurgans) containing simple pit chambers. They lived primarily as nomads, with a chiefdom system and wheeled carts that allowed them to manage large herds. Recent studies indicate that the Yamnaya people played a role in the domestication of the modern horse.

Examination of physical remains of the Yamnaya people has determined that they were tall and massively built, overwhelmingly with brown eyed, dark haired and had a skin colour moderately light, though darker than that of modern Europeans. The Yamnaya culture is identified with the late Proto-Indo-Europeans, and is the strongest candidate for the urheimat (original homeland) of the Proto-Indo-European language, the ancestor of most modern European languages.

The migrations of the Yamnaya and their impacts on the Bronze age cultures and languages of Europe are complex and our understanding is evolving rapidly with increased genetic information from modern cultures and ancient remains. I will try to make sense of the evidence on the likely migration path of my paternal ancestors from the Western Steppe in Ukraine, through Bronze and Iron Age Europe and into Britain in a future post.

Horsemen of the Western Steppes


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  3. International Society of Genetic Genealogy (2015). Generation length. ISOGG Wiki For calculating approximate degree of great-grandfatherhood, I have assumed that my average paternal line generation length is 31 years prior to 1000 CE, and 32 years after that.
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