Who were the Neolithic?

16 October 2018

Interview with

Eske Willerslev, University of Cambridge


A reconstruction of the sort of hut used by the original builders of Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange at the Brú na Bóinne complex.


Where did the Neolithic come from, and how do we know about them? Georgia Mills spoke to Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge, who is a geneticist and evolution expert...

Eske - The Neolithic people seems to be a group of people who have invented agriculture, coming from the Middle East and Near East. Becoming farmers basically and they are moving up through Europe bringing that new lifestyle with them.

Georgia - Right. So they started in the Middle East and they spread across the world bringing their ideas with them, and they weren’t a separate species from us though?

Eske - No, no, no. It’s anatomically modern humans basically. But of course, they have different genetic composition than the hunter-gatherers that are living in Europe at the time when they’re entering and this is we can genetically observe their entrance into Europe.

Georgia - How do we understand their movements from their genetics?

Eske - Well, it’s because, as I say, they have different ancestry from the hunter-gatherers and, therefore, when you sequence the genomes of ancient individuals, you can see that some of them are completely different from the contemporary hunter-gatherers. And some are, you can say, mixtures between these hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. So we can see, we can basically observe, genetically how they are moving across Europe, approximately at what time they are entering the different parts of Europe, and to what extent they have genetically influenced the local hunter-gatherers.

Georgia - They brought with them the advance of agriculture, what else made them special?

Eske - Well, I mean, they had both agriculture, they had domestic animals, and they were living in a different way. You can say that the society included more people than the typical hunter-gatherer groups, which were probably something like 20/25 people most of the year. So these, you can say, had real settlements. They also were non-mobile - they didn’t have a mobile lifestyle to the same extent as the hunter-gatherers.

So they had a very different, both way of life, but also a different food source, of course. The people in Europe that they were meeting were living from mainly hunting animals and fish, and berries and nuts and things like that. What you would call a typical paleo diet, I guess today. And these hunter-gatherers were basically living from something much more similar to present-day muesli and, therefore, we can see that this is a very drastic change in lifestyle.

I mean when we're going from hunter-gathering to farming it’s potentially the most severe change in lifestyle that we have undergone as humans. And we can see that the selection, even in the genome, in regard to things that are associated with diet. So, for example, these fat regions of the gene that are involved in transforming short-term fatty acids into long-term fatty acids. This is something we need these long-chain fatty acids for example for our brain and we’re getting them directly through meat and fish, but if you are eating bread and carbohydrates you basically need to change the short chain fatty acids into long chain fatty acids, and the fat regions of the genome is involved in that. And we can see that there has been selection on those parts, so it’s something that transition also affected us, not only in terms of that mixture with new people but it’s also affecting us biologically, if you want.

Georgia - And did this starting to live in these larger static settlements affect our susceptibility to disease as well?

Eske - Definitely. We don’t know yet whether these agriculturalists brought diseases with them. We have some suspicion that this might be the case, but it’s certain you can say, at least during that time, or slightly after that time where we start seeing the first epidemics, like plague epidemics for example. We see already in the Bronze Age, which is the period just following the agricultural arrival into Europe and so this change of lifestyle, of course, where you have more people together is creating the background for epidemic outbreaks such as plague.

Georgia - Why is it important to study them, to understand them?

Eske - In many ways, they are providing the fundament for the modern lifestyle that we see today. Many people would argue that the agricultural revolution in Europe is really creating the base for the creation of civilisations, and our civilisation today. Other people have argued, of course, that it’s the worst thing that happened to humans because with the new civilisation there’s also a lot of problems coming with this change in lifestyle. People have argued that our suffering from diabetes and other lifestyle diseases is really a result of the agricultural revolution and that we are, as a species, still trying to adapt to that change in lifestyle.

But however you’re looking at it, whether it was a positive or negative event, it’s certainly an event that changed the way we are both living as humans, it’s an event that changed our ancestry in Europe and it’s an event that also changed and affected our biology


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