Europe's 1st Farmers Were Segregated, Expert Immigrants

John Roach
for National Geographic News
September 3, 2009
Central and western Europe's first farmers weren't crafty, native hunter-gatherers who gradually gave up their spears for seeds, a new study says.

Instead, they were experienced outsiders who arrived on the scene around 5500 B.C. with animals in tow—and the locals apparently didn't roll out the welcome wagon.

"Within a few generations, all the farmers—probably coming from southeast Europe—moved into central Europe bringing their culture, [livestock], and everything," Joachim Burger, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Mainz in Germany, said via email.

The finding is based on analysis of genetic material in the skeletal remains of ancient hunter-gatherers and early farmers found in Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia—though farming is thought to have reached areas as far west as western France during the period of rapid expansion, about 7,500 years ago.

The study goes against a long-standing idea that Europe's first farmers were former hunter-gatherer populations that had settled the region after the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.

Perhaps, the thinking went, the hunter-gatherers had observed farming practices during their travels or had learned from neighbors.

Instead, the researchers found, the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers remained segregated, according to the study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

Though the two groups had "cultural contacts," Burger said, they generally didn't mate, at least initially, according to the genetic analysis.

"We have to think of parallel existing societies of hunter-gatherers and farmers," Burger said. "They were different people."

Missing Link in European "Evolution"

The researchers were able to identify the remains of hunter-gatherers because the specimens were either more than 8,000 years old—and therefore older than the first European farms—or were surrounded by "hunting" artifacts, such as arrowheads and bear-tooth necklaces. Farmers, by contrast, were found with root-digging tools and livestock bones, among other things.

When the researchers compared the genetic material of the two ancient groups with modern-European genes, a mystery emerged.

The two lineages "don't look like the complete set of ancestors necessary to build the modern gene pool," Burger said.

The puzzle highlights how little we know about where modern Europeans came from.

"Another, unidentified factor must come in, maybe an additional migration" or genetic mutation, he said.

Archaeologist Ron Pinhasi, of University College Cork in Ireland, agreed that more ancient migrations might await discovery.

Pinhasi, who was not involved in the new study, said the report "raises the possibility that the modern European genetic structure has been shaped by a series of subsequent migrations [or] dispersals during prehistoric and historic times."

(Related: "Europeans Descended From Hunters, Not Farmers, Study Says.")

Where Did Europe's First Farmers Come From?

Though study author Burger is placing his bets on southeastern Europe—specifically parts of what are now western Hungary and southwestern Slovakia—no one knows where the early immigrant farmers came from.

To pinpoint the pioneers' origins, Burger, Pinhasi, and others are working on a separate project, which also uses genetic material from skeletal remains.

According to Burger, it's possible that the first farmers in Europe were part of a vast chain of farming populations that stretched perhaps as far as the ancient Near East, including Anatolia (now Turkey) and Mesopotamia (roughly present-day Iraq)—where agriculture is thought to have been born about 11,000 years ago.

(See "Ancient Fig Find May Push Back Birth of Agriculture.")

Pinhasi recently reached the same conclusion—detailed in a separate study published in the journal PLoS ONE in August—by comparing skulls from hunter-gatherers and early farmers found at sites from Europe to the Near East.

More evidence that these far-flung farming populations were genetically similar should be forthcoming, he said. And that would confirm "that agriculture was certainly introduced into Europe from western Anatolia."

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