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European Faces Reflect Stone Age Ancestry, Study Says

James Owen
for National Geographic News
December 20, 2005
 
Europeans inherit their looks from Stone Age hunters, new research suggests.

Scientists studied ancient skeletons from Scandinavia to North Africa and Greece, comparing ancient and modern facial features.

Their analysis suggests modern Europeans are closely related and descended from prehistoric indigenous peoples.

Later Neolithic settlers—notably immigrants who introduced farming from the Near East some 7,500 years ago—contributed little to how Europeans look today, the researchers add.

The scientists described their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.

The study suggests that the arrival of farming did not signal a broad wave of colonization as some scientists had thought. Rather, native hunter-gatherers absorbed the farming way of life and those who brought it.

The findings are based on 24 face measurements of modern-day Europeans compared with those of their prehistoric predecessors.

The team focused on facial dimensions which are "neutral" and don't change as human populations adapt over time to different environments and lifestyles.

Because these features are passed down generation to generation, they are good markers of human ancestry, according to lead study author Loring Brace.

The University of Michigan anthropologist says the craniofacial remains of late Stone Age Europeans reflect those of earlier inhabitants who lived 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

"They're really fairly close," he said.

Brow Ridge

Ancient peoples had heavier brow ridges than modern Europeans. "The faces were also broader and the jaws were heavier," Brace added.


Skeletal remains from Greece and elsewhere are thought to represent Neolithic settlers who introduced farming from modern-day Syria, Jordan, and Israel. Brace said these remains have facial measurements that don't match those of most present-day Europeans.

The anthropologist added that despite some similarities with modern Mediterranean populations, "the farther north and west you get, the less they resemble the people living there now."

"Modern Europeans don't look like the incoming Neolithic [farmers]," he said. "It's pretty clear that there's a much larger component of the indigenous foraging peoples across Europe, and they existed in far greater numbers than the archaeological record had led us to believe."

The study suggests that Neolithic remains, which have been taken as evidence of large-scale colonization, are misleading.

Brace says pots associated with Neolithic farmers tended to disintegrate into countless shards, creating the impression of a larger presence than was actually the case.

Early farmers also buried their dead together, unlike the native inhabitants, leaving groups of bodies for archaeologists to later uncover along with other artifacts.

Hunter-gatherers

The researchers say the fact that incoming settlers didn't pass on telltale facial characteristics to later Europeans suggests that they were absorbed by the indigenous hunter-gatherers.

"They absorbed them genetically—and their way of life," Brace said. "Molecular biology is telling us the same story."

Recent DNA analysis of the skeletons of prehistoric farmers found buried in Germany, Austria, and Hungary appears to show that they contributed little to the European gene pool. (See related story.)

A quarter of those analyzed remains share a DNA signature that is now extremely rare worldwide and which has left virtually no trace on living Europeans.

Those findings, described last month in the journal Science, suggest that "the contribution of early farmers could be close to zero," according to Peter Forster, archaeology research fellow at Cambridge University, England.

Other experts now broadly agree that the spread of farming across Europe represents more of a cultural legacy than a genetic one.

"Personally, I think it's a question that can be answered only on a regional basis," said Marek Zvelebil, professor of archaeology at the University of Sheffield, England.

"In some areas, particularly parts of the East Mediterranean and central Europe, you do have small groups of people migrating from the Near East," he said.

"But in most other parts of Europe, particularly western and northern Europe, you have local hunter-gathering people adopting farming."

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