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10 June 2014
DNA of first Near Eastern farmers sequenced

The mitochondrial DNA of the first Near Eastern farmers has been sequenced for the first time. Experts analysed samples from three sites in the birthplace of Neolithic agricultural practices - the Middle Euphrates basin, and the oasis of Damascus, in present-day Syria - dating to about 8,000 BCE.
     Agricultural and husbandry practices originated around 12,000 years ago in a region of the Near East known as the Fertile Crescent - a profound social, cultural and economic transformation. Whether it was a population migration or a cultural adoption has been widely debated for the past fifty years.
     The genetic composition of first Neolithic populations has remained a mystery, although some advances in the genetics of European Neolithic populations were made during the past decade. Professor and co-author Daniel Turbón points out that the results "are the first ones regarding first Near Eastern farmers... the genetic stock of original Neolithic", however other data have been published about European first farmers - in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Germany.
     The study provides a new framework to interpret the results of other studies about European Neolithic populations. Genetic affinities have been observed between the mitochondrial DNA of first Neolithic populations and the DNA of first Catalan and German farmers. This suggests that Neolithic expansion probably took place through pioneer migrations of small groups. Moreover, the two main migration routes - Mediterranean and European - might have been genetically linked.
     According to co-author Eva Fernández, "The most significant conclusion is that the degree of genetic similarity between the populations of the Fertile Crescent and those of Cyprus and Crete supports the hypothesis that Neolithic spread in Europe took place through pioneer seafaring colonisation, not through a land-mediated expansion through Anatolia, as it was thought until now".
     Other studies had already provided signs of an alternative scenario. According to Turbón, "recent archaeological finds have proved that the Neolithic arrived to Cyprus around 10,600 years ago, some years after the first documentation of agricultural practices in the Near East." Architecture and burial models found on Cyprus are similar to those in the Middle Euphrates basin. "That indicates a direct colonisation of these territories", Turbón stresses, adding that "radiocarbon dates from different Neolithic sites in the Near East and Europe also suggests a first seafaring expansion through Cyprus."

Edited from Universitat de Barcelona (6 June 2014)

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