DNA analysis solves the mystery of how Europeans came to be farmers

Science Editor

It was the biggest cultural shift in European prehistory but the Stone Age transition from a lifestyle based on hunting animals and gathering wild berries to one built on farming and livestock was largely a mystery – until now.

A detailed analysis of the DNA extracted from the bones of 11 prehistoric Scandinavians who lived thousands of years ago around the Baltic Sea has shown that the transition from hunting to farming was more of a one-way takeover than previously supposed.

The genetic makeup of the people who lived through this cultural revolution has revealed that the incoming migrant farmers from southern Europe subsumed the indigenous hunter gatherers of the north, rather than the other way round, scientists said.

For years, archaeologists and anthropologists have argued over the events that led to the replacement of Europe’s long prehistoric tradition of hunter-gathering, lasting tens of thousands of years, by the relatively new practice of farming, which first appeared in the middle-east about 10,000 years ago and gradually spread west and north across the entire continent.

One suggestion was that the incoming farmers simply pushed the indigenous hunters further to the fringes, while another proposition was that it was the technology and ideas of farming, rather than the people, that gradually replaced the older practice of hunting and gathering.

However, the DNA from the 11 Stone Age skeletons dating from between about 5,000 and 7,000 years ago has revealed that the hunter gatherers actually became part of the incoming community of farmers, who were genetically distinct from the people whose lands they eventually occupied.

The study, published in the journal Science, also shows that there was no apparent influx of genes from the farmers into the gene pool of the hunter-gatherers. In other words, it was the hunter-gatherers who married into the immigrant farming families, and not the other way round, said Professor Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University in Sweden, who led the study.

“We know that there was a mixture and we know it was happening about 5,000 years ago in this part of northern Europe. But the mixture was not symmetrical – it was the hunter-gatherers who were assimilated into the agricultural people and not the other way round,” Professor Jakobsson said.

“The asymmetric gene-flow shows that the farming groups assimilated hunter-gatherer groups, at least partly. When we compared Scandinavian to central European farming groups that lived about the same time, we see greater levels of hunter-gatherer gene-flow into the Scandinavian farming groups,” he said.

The DNA analysis of seven hunter-gatherer skeletons and four Stone Age farmers – who lived alongside one other at about the same time but in separate communities – immediately showed a genetic difference between the two cultures, Professor Jakobsson said.

“Stone-Age hunter-gatherers had much lower genetic diversity than farmers. This suggests that Stone-Age foraging groups were in low numbers compared to farmers,” he said.

“The practice of hunting and gathering was probably more vulnerable to food shortages which would have led to population crashes that caused a genetic bottleneck and a loss of DNA diversity in hunter-gatherers,” he added.

Farming allows people to store grain in times of plenty which would have helped to keep the farming population high, and so maintaining genetic diversity. But it is clear from the DNA analysis that agricultural technology came in with an influx of genetically distinct people, rather than it being an idea passed on and taken up by bands of hunter-gatherers.

“The study shows that information spreads well when people are moving and it’s not just about the spread of ideas through communication. The change to agriculture did not happen overnight but over many generations,” Professor Jakobsson explained.

The study was not able to show whether the gene flow into the immigrant communities of farmers was the result of indigenous women or men intermarrying with farmers – or people of both sexes. However, there was a clear, asymmetric flow from hunters to farmers, and not the reverse, said Pontus Skoglund of Harvard University, who was part of the team.

“We see clear evidence that people from hunter-gatherer groups were incorporated into farming groups as they expanded across Europe. This might be clues towards something that happens also when agriculture spread to other parts of the world,” Dr Skoglund said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Support Administrator - Part Time

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the South West'...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas