for National Geographic News
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.
The team investigated mitochondrial DNAa permanent genetic marker passed from mothers to their offspringrecovered 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.
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