They came, they saw, they farmed and then they stole our women. Stone age farmers from the middle east not only brought their agricultural know-how with them to western Europe, they settled down with the local womenfolk and had children.
A genetic analysis of present-day male Europeans has revealed that the first farmers spread both their agricultural technology and their genes across the continent, out-competing the resident hunter-gatherer males for female attraction.
The spread of agriculture from the fertile crescent of the Middle East to Europe was one of the most important cultural developments in the history of the continent. An agricultural way of life boosted the human population and allowed the establishment of urban centres and the rise of civilisation.
Until about 10,000 years ago, Europeans hunted wild animals and gathered whatever fruit and berries they could find. These paleolithic hunter gatherers created cave art drawings such as those at Lascaux in France, yet they were unable to build the cities and generate the art and culture that came with the boost in food production resulting from an agricultural way of life.
But scholars were not sure whether the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer was the result of the passing of technological know-how from the middle east to people already living in Europe, or whether it was introduced by the actual migration of farmers across the continent, from Turkey to Ireland.
The study found that the spread of farming know-how coincided with the migration of farmers, which can be still be detected by analysing the DNA of the male Y chromosome of present-day male Europeans. The analysis shows that the Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, of most European men is descended from the Y chromosome of neolithic farmers who moved into Europe between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.
However, a similar analysis of the mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed down the maternal line from mothers to their children, indicates that most European women are descended from the female hunter-gatherers who had lived in Europe long before the arrival of the first farmers, according to the study, published in the on-line journal Plos Biology.
“We found that farmers migrated from Anatolia [in Turkey] and that they have been very successful because they probably dominated the hunter-gatherer population by transmitting their genes more efficiently,” said Patricia Balaresque of Leicester University.
“In total, this means that more than 80 per cent of European Y chomosomes descend from incoming farmers. In contrast, most maternal genetic lineages seem to descend from hunter-gatherers. To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering to farming – maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer,” Dr Balaresque said.
The study investigated a particular form of the Y chomosome carried by 110 million men of European descent. The variation in this chromosome follows a gradient from south-east to north-west, the direction of the migration.