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November 21, 2005

European Ancestors

The Gray Monk has already posted bits about his fascination with the National Geographic Genographic Project which tells us about the migration of our ancestors from Africa into Europe and the rest of the world. With regard to Europe there has been a debate for years among geneticists, archaeologists, and anthropologists whether modern Europeans are descendants of the Neolithic farmers who settled in Europe about 7,500 years ago or of the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers who had been already present in Europe 40,000 years ago.

A team of scientists from Germany and the UK have just published their findings in the magazine 'Science' that the genetic impact of the Neolithic farmers who migrated into Europe from the Middle East is much less than had been thought until now. They extracted and sequenced mtDNA (maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA) from 24 out of 57 Neolithic skeletons. The skeletons came from various locations in Germany, Austria, and Hungary. DNA samples were taken from bones as well as from teeth. 6 (25%) of the skeletons contained the characteristic mtDNA type N1a which was formerly widespread among the farmers of the Neolithic age. But Europeans today have a 150 times lower frequency (0.2%) of this mtDNA type. That supports the theory that the Paleolithic hunters and gatherers had a much stronger genetic influence on the modern European female lineage than the Neolithic farmers.

This comes as a bit of a surprise. Until now it had been thought that together with the spread of farming techniques also went the spread of language, genetic material, and cultural techniques. One of the oldest of the Neolithic Age is the Linear Band Ware Culture, also known as Linear Pottery Culture. It originated in Hungary and Slowakia and within 500 years spread into the vicinity of Paris and Belarus. The quick spread and the fact that finds from an area of almost a million square kilometers are practically indistinguishable from each other seems to indicate that most spread was mostly achieved by immigration. On the other hand some archaeological studies indicate that some Paleolithic hunters and gatherers turned into farmers without mixing very much with the already existing farming population.

To me this shows again that evolution is never a one way road. Obviously Paleolithic hunters were not simply replaced by Neolithic farmers in Europe but shared the place for some time. I find it fascinating that science somehow never fails to provide us with new tools which enable us to learn more about our past bit by bit. It will be very interesting to find out next what actually happened to the Neolithic farmers in Europe. Wait and see.

Posted by Mausi at November 21, 2005 04:08 PM

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