Anthropologists have long debated how farming spread from parts of Asia to Europe. Was it cultural transmission, or did farmers immigrate and settle down with European hunter-gatherers? A new study of ancient DNA reveals that intermarriage created agrarian Europe.
An international group of scientists compared the DNA of contemporary Europeans with 7,500 year old DNA extracted from a Neolithic graveyard created by a German farming community. What they discovered was that these early European farmers shared DNA with people from the Near East. This suggests, as the researchers write in their paper, published today in PLoS Biology:
Ancient DNA from the earliest farmers can provide a direct view of the genetic diversity of these populations in the earliest Neolithic . . . When compared to indigenous hunter–gatherer populations, the unique and characteristic genetic signature of the early farmers suggests a significant demographic input from the Near East during the onset of farming in Europe.
In other words, farmers from the Middle East immigrated to Europe, intermarried, and passed their knowledge of farming down to their children.
Using this ancient population of farmers as a baseline, the researchers were also able to speculate about what path the farmers would have taken out of the Near and into Europe. Most likely they came from Anatolia (the part of Asia mostly occupied by Turkey today), then traveled a south-eastern route through the Carpathian Basin in Hungary into Central Europe. From there, they moved into Europe, with many farmers settling down with new families along the way.
This discovery paints a picture of Europe's early farmers as the product of cultural and social mixing, with hunter-gathers learning from immigrants how to settle down and work the land.
via PLoS Biology