Europe’s ancient hunter-gatherers and farmers

Far from being mutually antagonistic, ancient farmers and hunter-gatherers mixed freely with each other and interbred, new genetic data shows.

Scientists led by Michael Hofreiter of Germany’s Potsdam University sequenced four human genomes from what is now modern Romania, dating between 8,800 and 5,400 years ago.

The results help illustrate the processes by which the Neolithic agricultural revolution across Europe took place.

Previous studies have indicated that in the west of the continent resident hunter-gatherer communities were displaced by incoming farmers. In the east, the process appears to have been less confrontational, and more diffuse.

Hofreiter and colleagues focused on Romania’s lower Danube basin, because it lies pretty much at the intersection of the east-west divide.

“We expected some level of mixing between farmers and hunter-gatherers, given the archaeological evidence for contact among these communities,” he says. “However, we were fascinated by the high levels of integration between the two communities as reconstructed from our ancient DNA data.”

The data revealed the ancient Romanians possessed significant genetic heritage from western European hunter-gatherers, but also a fair chunk inherited from Anatolian farmers.

The evidence indicates that in these cases, at least, the assumed divide between hunter-gather and farmer communities is not biological reality. The studied genomes show, says Hofreiter, a lot of “genetic mixing, implying a high level of integration between very different people”.

The conclusion is backed up by bone analysis revealing the subjects enjoyed wide and varied diets, not constrained by traditional hunter-gatherer or farming fare.

The findings add more flesh to a population model that maps differences in the forms taken by the Neolithic agricultural push across Europe.

“We see a gradient across Europe, with increasing mixing of hunter-gatherers and farmers as we go east and north,” Hofreiter says. “We can speculate that, as farmers encountered more challenging climatic conditions, they started interacting more with local hunter-gatherers.”

The study is published in Current Biology.

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