Farming moved with ancient migrants

29 April 2012
Posted by Diana O'Carroll.

One of the great questions in archaeology, "did farming move across Europe through the spread of knowledge or people?" now looks somewhat closer to being answered.

Researchers at The University of Uppsala in Sweden have this week published a report that indicates it was the migration of people that brought farming to the continent.

Plowing farmer depicted in the burial chamber of Sennedjem, from 1200BC.The adoption of farming is seen as one of the great stepping stones in human development.  It allows more people to live off smaller areas of land, supporting a population with time to do other things like build impressive monuments and develop new technologies. Across the world there are several areas where agriculture has its origins, and the closest one to Europe is in the Near East, where it's thought farming started around 11,000 years ago.

Farming took around 6,000 years to move across Europe, but in order to work out how that spread occurred, archaeologists have several clues to work on. The usual lines of evidence are ceramics, technology and language. But the Swedish team, led by Pontus Skogland, looked at the problem using the DNA of four 5,000-year-old individuals. One of these was a farmer, buried on the Swedish mainland, while the other three were hunter gatherers that were excavated on the island of Gotland, 250 miles away.

What they found was that the two groups of people had quite different markers for their origins. The hunter-gatherers shared much of their genetics with modern Finnish populations, and the farmer shared a greater proportion of his DNA with Mediterranean populations of today. This implies that the farmer was a migrant, or at least a descendant of migrants, and that European hunter-gatherer populations were replaced, to some degree (there was probably some admixture).

It looks like farming was indeed spread along by a movement of people rather than a simple transmission of culture and knowledge, and that this has affected the genetic diversity present in Europe today. You can find out more about that story in the journal, Science.

Add a comment