Europeans Descended From Hunters, Not Farmers, Study Says

James Owen
for National Geographic News
November 10, 2005
Europeans owe their ancestry mainly to Stone Age hunters, not to later migrants who brought farming to Europe from the Middle East, a new study suggests.

Based on DNA analysis of ancient skeletons from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, the study sways the debate over the origins of modern Europeans toward hunter-gatherers who colonized Europe some 40,000 years ago.

The DNA evidence suggests immigrant farmers who arrived tens of thousands of years later contributed little to the European gene pool.

Instead they left a cultural legacy by introducing agriculture some 7,500 years ago, the researchers say.

The study's findings, published this week in the journal Science, were a surprise to the study team, according to anthropologist Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, in Mainz, Germany.

"I expected the distribution of DNA in these early farmers to be more similar to the distribution we have today in Europe," he said.

"Our paper suggests that there is a good possibility that the contribution of early farmers could be close to zero," added co-author Peter Forster, an archaeology research fellow at Cambridge University, England.

"If the ancient DNA results turn out to be valid and reproducible, [they] are very exciting indeed," commented Alex Bentley, an anthropologist at Durham University, England.

Pottery Clues

The team investigated mitochondrial DNA—a permanent genetic marker passed from mothers to their offspring—recovered from the teeth and bones of 24 skeletons from 16 central European sites.

These ancient humans all belonged to cultures that can be linked to the introduction of farming practices that began in present-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria around 12,000 years ago.

The researchers identified which cultures the subjects belonged to by the decorations found on their pottery.

A quarter of the prehistoric farmers were found to share a mitochondrial DNA signature that is now extremely rare worldwide and has left virtually no trace on living Europeans.

The apparent failure of these people to make their genetic mark stands in stark contrast to farming itself, which spread rapidly across Europe.

A possible explanation, the researchers write in their study, is "that small pioneer groups carried farming into new areas of Europe, and that once the technique had taken root, the surrounding hunter-gatherers adopted the new culture and then outnumbered the original farmers."

Cambridge's Forster added, "It's interesting that a potentially minor migration of people into central Europe had such a huge cultural impact."

Archeologist Marek Zvelebil agrees, saying the DNA findings support evidence from pottery and other artifacts from the beginning of the Late Stone Age.

"This is one of the first studies to actually examine the bones of ancient human beings who lived 7,000 to 8,000 years ago," said Zvelebil, a professor at the University of Sheffield, England.

"Archaeological evidence indicates that what we had was cultural diffusion and a mixture of perhaps some immigration and local adoption of farming culture," he added. "There's been 30 years of debate about this point—how the farming way of life reached Europe and spread.

"Small groups of people migrated from the Near East into parts of the East Mediterranean and central Europe. But in most other parts of Europe you had local hunter-gathering people adopting farming."

Male Genes

Other researchers are less certain about this theory, saying the farmers' male genetic material—known as Y-chromosome sequences—needs to be established first.

They argue that colonizing male farmers might have taken up with indigenous European women, in which case mitochondrial DNA traces of their lineage could have been largely erased over time.

Bentley of Durham University says this theory may hold true in part.

"In many historical instances men in colonizing populations have intermarried with indigenous women," he said.

Yet evidence from elsewhere in Europe supports the idea that the introduction of farming represents a cultural rather than a genetic exchange, according to David Miles, research fellow at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, England, and author of the book, The Tribes of Britain.

"In northwest Europe the genetic evidence suggests [farming] came mainly as an idea and that the number of people moving was relatively small," Miles said.

Most of the farmers in Britain, for instance, would have been native descendents of the hunter-gatherers, he said.

"There's been a lot of arguing over the last ten years, but it's now more or less agreed that about 80 percent of [modern British] genes come from a very small number of hunter-gatherers who came in immediately after the Ice Age," he said.

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