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7 May 2004
Biologists reveal source of civilisation

Academics have won more than 1M for their work to reveal the source of European civilisation. Keri Brown and a team of archaeologists and biologists are analysing the DNA in wheat and barley to trace the path of agriculture. The arrival of agriculture allowed societies to give up their itinerant hunter-gatherer existence and settle down, grow bigger and become more complex. It also triggered the invention of writing as people began to record the cultivation and exchange of produce, and probably gave women more power.
     "We were no longer chasing our food, travelling from place to place - we were controlling things," Keri explains. "This gave us more time to pursue new activities such as culture, as well as giving rise to writing systems. And women were probably at the forefront of all this as they had always been the gatherers of wild plant food, so they would be the ones who could observe what plants grew best in which conditions."
     UMIST is the lead institution of a consortium including the Universities of Cambridge and Sheffield and National Institute of Agriculture and Botany (NIAB) that has won a 880,000 grant from the National Environment Research Council (NERC) for this work. NERC has granted a further 150,000 for a post-doctorate placement for similar research, taking the total to more than 1M.
     It is believed that agriculture started in the 'Fertile Crescent', an area of Southwest Asia or the Near East comprising the plains of Mesopotamia and parts of Syria and Palestine. It later arrived in Europe and spread northwards over thousands of years, with Britain one of the last places to benefit. The team will reveal how it came to arrive in Europe and explain its leisurely path through Europe.
     Their work began with an analysis of DNA from 'old landraces' of emmer wheat in a variety of Italian locations, which revealed that the country's first farmers were found in Puglia, Southern Italy. These grains held a record of their ancestry as they were collected before modern hybridisation. This work was supported by the existence of more than 560 ditched enclosures, the densest area of farming settlements in Italy, in an area that had the country's earliest radio carbon-dated agricultural sites, going back to 6000 BCE.
     The work now goes on, testing the DNA analysis of more wheat and barley 'landraces', to reveal how agriculture arrived in Europe from the Near East via the Balkan route and the Mediterranean route. It may also show why people adopted agriculture and why it spread through Europe the way it did, answering questions raised by intensive research more than 50 years ago from excavations in the now politically-sensitive areas of Iraq, Iran and Syria in the 1960s.
     "It either spread as existing populations were driven out or introduced to agriculture by migrating populations or as the ideas rather than people moved," Keri explains. "According to the theoretical archaeologist Ian Hodder, as agriculture spread across Europe there were several 'halts' such as on the Carpathian plain in Hungary, making for a long, slow process that took several thousand years. These 'halts' either showed that hunter-gatherers had to become 'domesticated' themselves or that the cereals had to adapt to colder, wetter environments than the Near East from whence they came. It is a question of social adaptation by humans versus environmental adaptation by plants. The old landraces are distinctive and have been in some places for thousands of years, giving a record of their past histories. So analysis of DNA can help to answer all these questions."

Source: UMIST (6 May 2004)

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