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28 September 2015
Common origins of Neolithic farmers in Europe

An international team of researchers has sequenced the first complete genome of an Iberian farmer, which is also the first from the Mediterranean. This opens a window on understanding the distinctive genetic changes that map Neolithic migration in southern Europe, which possibly led to the abandonment of the hunter-gatherer way of life.
     A prevailing theory suggests that the first farmers entered Europe about 8,000 years ago from the Near East, and spread through the continent following two different routes: one to central Europe via the Danube, the other toward the Iberian peninsula following the Mediterranean coast. These latter farmers developed their own cultural tradition: the Cardium Pottery, so-called for its characteristic incised decoration made with the edges of cockle shells.
     So far, only genomic data of various individuals belonging to the inland route have been available. This is partly due to the climatic conditions in southern Europe, which hinder the conservation of genetic material.
     The team, led by Carles Lalueza-Fox from the Institute of Evolutionary Biology, has sequenced the complete genome of a Neolithic woman from a tooth dated to 7400 years ago, recovered from the Cardial levels of the Cova Bonica cave in Vallirana, near Barcelona (Spain). Thanks to this, researchers have been able to determine that farmers from both Mediterranean and inland routes are very homogeneous, and clearly derive from a common ancestral population, that most likely were the first farmers who entered Europe through Anatolia.
     Analysis of the genome from Cova Bonica has made it possible to determine the appearance of these pioneer farmers, who had light skin and dark eyes and hair. Modern Iberians mostly derive from those farmers, with Sardinians and Basques preserving the farming genetic component to the largest extent. This contrasts with previous Mesolithic hunters who had blue eyes and a darker skin than current Europeans.
     According to Carles Lalueza-Fox: "the Iberian Peninsula is crucial to understanding the final impact of population movements such as the Neolithic, or the later steppe migrations that entered Europe from the East."

Edited from Popular Archaeology (3 September 2015)

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