International researchers led by ancient DNA experts from the University of Adelaide, Australia, said today that they had settled the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8,000 years ago.
DNA carefully extracted from a complete graveyard of Early Neolithic farmers unearthed at the town of Derenburg in Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany, suggests that farming was introduced to Europe from people living in the Ancient Near East.
The detailed genetic study of one of the first farming communities in Europe, from central Germany, reveals marked similarities with populations living in the Ancient Near East (modern-day Turkey, Iraq and other countries) rather than those from Europe, the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide said in a news statement about the research.
“This overturns current thinking, which accepts that the first European farming populations were constructed largely from existing populations of hunter-gatherers, who had either rapidly learned to farm or interbred with the invaders,” said project leader Professor Alan Cooper, director of ACAD.
Caption: First farmer of the Linear Pottery Culture in Neolithic Central Europe. Illustration: Karol Schauer, State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.
Invaders With Revolutionary Ideas
“We have finally resolved the question of who the first farmers in Europe were–invaders with revolutionary new ideas, rather than populations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers who already existed in the area,” said Wolfgang Haak, lead author and senior research associate with ACAD at the University of Adelaide.
“We’ve been able to apply new, high-precision ancient DNA methods to create a detailed genetic picture of this ancient farming population, and reveal that it was radically different to the nomadic populations already present in Europe.
“We have also been able to use genetic signatures to identify a potential route from the Near East and Anatolia, where farming evolved around 11,000 years ago, via south-eastern Europe and the Carpathian Basin (today’s Hungary) into Central Europe,” Haak said.
Archaeology and Genetics Combined
“This work was only possible due to the close collaboration of archaeologists excavating the skeletons, to ensure that no modern human DNA contaminated the remains, and nicely illustrates the potential when archaeology and genetics are combined,” said Kurt Werner Alt, a professor at the collaborating Institute of Anthropology in Mainz, Germany.
The study involved researchers from the University of Mainz and State Heritage Museum in Halle, Germany, the Russian Academy of Sciences and members of the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, of which Cooper is a principal investigator and Haak is a senior research associate.
Genographic Project Director Spencer Wells commented: “This is a valuable insight into a revolutionary moment in European prehistory, when humanity left behind its ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adopted farming.”
The Genographic Project led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells and a team of international scientists and IBM researchers, uses genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand human genetic roots.
Wells examines the transition to agriculture, and its ongoing effects on human biology and culture, in his book Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. (Read a blog post by Spencer Wells: Planting the seeds of human destiny.)
“We’ve always recognized the profound cultural significance of this transition, which led to development of what we think of as ‘civilization,'” Wells said in an email to Nat Geo News Watch today.
“Through the ancient DNA analysis carried out by our Adelaide team we’ve now gained an insight into the genetic transition that accompanied it.
“The study highlights the power of incorporating ancient DNA results into our growing collection of genetic data from modern populations, and we anticipate that in the future these methods will provide important insights into the dynamics of other key cultural shifts in human history.”
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