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
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
News
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Life and Style
Audrey Hepburn with Hubert De Givenchy, whose well-cut black tuxedo is a 'timeless look'
fashionIt may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
music
Life and Style
fashionFrom bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine