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15 August 2012
Human evolution in Europe more complex than previously thought

A team of scientists maintain that advances in analytical techniques and genetic applications are up-ending long-held, simplistic views about European human evolutionary history. Recent findings and analyses are indicating that there were actually many climatic, demographic and cultural events and a diverse group of mechanisms that worked together over time to shape the genetic variation we see today among modern Europeans.
     "We are currently at a stage in which next-generation sequencing technologies, ancient DNA analyses, and computer simulation modeling allow us to obtain a much more accurate and detailed perspective on the nature and timing of major prehistoric processes such as the colonization of Europe by modern humans, the survival of human populations during the Ice Age, the Neolithic transition, and the rise and fall of complex societies and empires," says Dr. Ron Pinhasi of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. "These methods and technologies hold great potential to shed new light on past genetic variation, the onset of major cultural and technological changes that left their imprint on past and present genomes, and potentially on the impact of changes in lifestyle and demography on the appearance of certain diseases and genetic disorders."
     Following the height of the Ice Age (from 27,000 to 16,000 years ago), hunter-gatherer groups began to re-populate most parts of Europe. Then, about 8,000 years ago, farming populations began to make their presence on the continent during the 'Neolithic transition'. For several thousand years, two distinctly different modes of life coexisted across Europe: hunter-gatherer populations, relying on food resources obtained in the wild, and farming populations, practicing domesticated crops, livestock, pottery-making, housing, and storage techniques.
     It has long been theorized that European human genetic diversity formed during the Neolithic transition; But now, some scientists are suggesting that it was also shaped before and after the transition. In addition, they say, the expansion of farming is likely to have varied by region, resulting in a more complex mix of farmers' and local hunter-gatherers' genetic contributions to European populations. The changing approach to researching human prehistory has made a profound difference in the efforts to understand the human evolutionary past. Says co-author of a new study Dr. Mathias Currat: "The development of inter-disciplinary approaches is crucial to elaborate realistic models of human evolution." explains Dr. Mathias Currat.

Edited from Popular Archaeology (14 August 2012)

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