Roots of European agriculture revealed

The first farmers in Europe were direct descendants of the region’s hunter-gatherers, geneticists have discovered, dispelling an earlier theory that farming was introduced by migrants from further east.

For several years it has been broadly acknowledged that agriculture in Europe was first established in the Anatolian peninsula in modern day Turkey, and then spread westward.

Researchers led by Choongwon Jeong of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, analysed eight prehistoric humans, including a 15,000-year-old Anatolian hunter-gather from whom they extracted a complete genome.

They discovered that the Neolithic farmers were direct descendants of the hunter-gathers. The finding strongly indicates that farming became commonplace because the indigenous population changed its subsistence strategy, rather than because it was overrun by incomers who brought the practice with them.

But if the Anatolian farmers did not themselves physically hail from the east, the knowledge they used certainly did.

The first evidence of farming across Eurasia dates from around 11,000 years ago. It is found variously in present-day Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan – a region known as the Fertile Crescent.

By around 8300 BCE the practice had been adopted in central Anatolia. Soon after that the Anatolians began to migrate westwards into classical Europe, bring their skills – and their genes – with them. Today, their genetic signature is the single largest component of European genomes.

The ancient Anatolians themselves were a more insular bunch. Jeong and colleagues found that genomes covering approximately 5000 years, from early hunter-gatherers to successful farmers, change by only 10%, indicating limited interaction with outsiders.

“Our results provide additional, genetic support for previous archaeological evidence that suggests that Anatolia was not merely a stepping stone in a movement of early farmers from the Fertile Crescent into Europe,” says Jeong.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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