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17 November 2010
DNA reveals origins of first European farmers

A team of international researchers has resolved the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8000 years ago. A detailed genetic study of one of the first farming communities in Europe, from central Germany, reveals marked similarities with populations living in today's Turkey and Iraq rather than those from Europe.
     Project leader Professor Alan Cooper, Director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide, says: "This overturns current thinking, which accepts that the first European farming populations were constructed largely from existing populations of hunter-gatherers, who had either rapidly learned to farm or interbred with the invaders."
     "We have finally resolved the question of who the first farmers in Europe were - invaders with revolutionary new ideas, rather than populations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers who already existed in the area," says lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak, Senior Research Associate with ACAD at the University of Adelaide. "We've been able to apply new, high-precision ancient DNA methods to create a detailed genetic picture of this ancient farming population, and reveal that it was radically different to the nomadic populations already present in Europe. "We have also been able to use genetic signatures to identify a potential route from the Near East and Anatolia, where farming evolved around 11,000 years ago, via south-eastern Europe and the Carpathian Basin (today's Hungary) into Central Europe," Dr Haak says.
     The ancient DNA used in this study comes from a complete graveyard of Early Neolithic farmers unearthed at the town of Derenburg in Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany. Past studies had already confirmed that the remains belonged to ancient European farmers from the Early Neolithic "Linear Pottery Culture".
     Richard Villems from the University of Tartu and Estonian Biocentre in Estonia, a co-author of the study, called the results exciting, but said that further studies might yield even more important results. "The ancient DNA is much better preserved in cold Europe than in warmer places," he said. "But if it were possible, and hopefully it will be possible in the future, to match it with some 8,000-10,000 year-old samples from the Near East, then it would really be perfect."
     The analysis also revealed that the hunter-gatherer population living in Europe did not die out as a result of the "invasion" of the migrants from the Near East. Instead, the two groups mingled together, which resulted in "mixed" ancestry.

Edited from PhysOrg (9 November 2010), BBC News (10 November 2010)

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