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FutureStarrAncient DNA Reveals History of Hunter-Gatherers in Europe
Researchers have used ancient DNA to explore how hunter-gatherers and farmers lived together in Europe during the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. They discovered levels of admixture - or genetic information from genetically distant populations combining to form one cohesive population - never before seen elsewhere in Europe.
Researchers analyzed mtDNA data from skeletons at a Neolithic site called Gurgy (no known inscription) in France and discovered an extensive level of admixture between expanding early farmers and local hunter-gatherers. This admixture may have taken place more recently than previously believed - four generations before farming began in this region.
Farmers and hunter-gatherers lived side by side throughout Europe during the Paleolithic era. Groups of hunters created stunning art, diverse lithic industries (which made tools from stone), as well as unique funerary practices.
Around 6,500 years ago in Europe, a shift occurred that can be seen in the archaeological record: instead of being buried individually, individuals were now interred in burial mounds. Archaeologist Thomas Perrin from Jean Jaures University in Toulouse believes this shift to be significant as it indicates an increase in inequality as farming societies began producing excess and distributing it unevenly.
It was also indicative of a changing environment, as farming proved more challenging in harsher climates than hunting did. As such, the size of hunting and gathering populations declined.
According to a new study published in Science on August 13th 2017, groups continued to interact despite this divide. Researchers used ancient DNA technology to unravel the nature of their relationship.
Scientists recently conducted an analysis of 180 ancient European genomes from around Hungary, Germany, and Spain to create mathematical models that depict how these people might have interacted during the Paleolithic era as they moved between locations.
Their findings demonstrated that farmers and hunter-gatherers had distinct genetic patterns in the ancient record, though they didn't always mix. At Brunn 2, near Vienna, three people were buried around 7,600 years ago: two had pure farming ancestry while the third was an "hunter" with six arrowheads engraved on his skull.
These findings reveal that farmers and hunter-gatherers remained connected even as their cultures diverged, which is an unexpected finding. It suggests that farming may not have been as significant a tipping point as some researchers have suggested.
Researchers also noted a common ancestry between farmers and hunter-gatherers, though this genetic admixture occurred approximately four generations before their first encounters. This finding is unusual and could have been due to prolonged contact between the groups.
Around 7,000 years ago, farmers and hunter-gatherers first came together in Central Europe. Through a myriad of interactions, these groups genetically and culturally intertwined for centuries.
Archaeologists have long debated the origins of farming. One theory suggests it was introduced by immigrant continental farmers, while another suggests local hunter-gatherers adopted it. No matter which version is correct, farmers' transition into farming was one of humanity's most significant technological advances.
Many thousands of years later, as farming became more common across Europe, those who first settled in Britain began to embrace it too. Their cemeteries, such as Cerny, offer a testament to this Mesolithic resurgence.
But they also reveal a much more nuanced picture of the relationship between hunter-gatherers and farmers across Africa. For example, researchers have discovered that one individual from Pendimoun in Provence carries an exceptionally high percentage of hunter-gatherer ancestry.
Four generations before the first Neolithic farmers settled in this region, individuals from these villages may have interbred with local hunters who had already immigrated from nearby Mediterranean shores.
In addition to discovering that an abundance of Anatolian-related hunter-gatherer DNA was present during the earliest stages of farming in central Europe, researchers also noticed that individuals carried mtDNA from hunter-gatherers living in Scandinavia and eastern Baltic regions during this period (Figure 1). The mtDNA of those populations showed significant differences from modern Norway and Sweden, suggesting they might have been direct descendants of those who moved from Scandinavia into Central Europe during this time of farming.
These findings have important ramifications for the relationship between early Neolithic hunter-gatherers and those who immigrated into the region from the Near East, often considered the primary source of agricultural migrants to Scandinavia and Central Europe at the start of the Neolithic Age. This collaboration may have played an essential role in creating an agriculture tailored to both climate and landscape in that region.
Europe's relationship between farmers and hunter-gatherers was long and intricate. The first farmers settled in the Paris Basin about 6,000 years ago, but it took several thousand years before they spread north and west.
Archaeologists have recently revealed that hunter-gatherers were still active in Europe - their genes even reaching farmers. A study of ancient DNA from Cheddar Man, whose remains date to 7,100BC, and other British hunter-gatherers has shed new light on the interaction between these groups.
Researchers from the University of Bordeaux examined mtDNA samples from 20 individuals buried at Michelsberg, France. They discovered that some individuals had high levels of hunter-gatherer ancestry while others were interred in what appeared to be typical farmer grave positions.
They further examined DNA samples taken from ten individuals buried at another French site, the Aven de la Boucle (BOU), and discovered high levels of HG ancestry among them. This suggests that Aven de la Boucle served as a hub for communication between hunter-gatherer and farmer communities.
These ten individuals had both European and Asian hunter-gatherer ancestry, suggesting that these groups had been in contact for an extended period.
This research is an important milestone in comprehending how genetic exchange shaped European societies. It also emphasizes the significance of studying regional genetic diversity and interactions between diverse populations within each region.
It appears that a combination of factors, including patrilocal residential rules and the expansion of agriculture in Europe, facilitated the mixing of these groups. These results are in line with previous reports regarding mtDNA admixture between hunter-gatherers and southern farmers from the Paris Basin but also highlight the need for further studies of genetic interactions across European regions.
These ten ancient farmers' mtDNA analysis revealed both European and Asian hunter-gatherer heritage. This suggests there have been multiple waves of intergroup gene flow throughout time and space, necessitating further research in various European regions.
In a study published in Science Advances last May, researchers discovered that early Neolithic farmers in southern France interbred with local hunter-gatherers long before they settled. By comparing DNA from individuals from burial sites in France with that of ancient hunter-gatherers, they were able to show that this admixture had been occurring for at least four generations prior to when farmers arrived.
In other parts of Europe, hunter-gatherers and farmers had been separated for thousands of years. Ultimately, the two groups came together in the Paris Basin - a large, flat plain that runs between the Rhine and Atlantic oceans.
Both groups lived together peacefully and culturally, with no signs of violence between them at any point during their relationship. Their genetic differences were more obvious though; farmers were shorter than their hunter-gatherer neighbors, had dark hair and eyes, and carried a genetic heritage closely linked to Western European ancestors.
These ancestors had parted ways on their way out of Africa and remained apart for most of their lives until they met again in the Paris Basin around 7,800 years ago.
These initial encounters between farmers and hunter-gatherers weren't particularly violent, yet they must have come as a shock to those who had once controlled everything from copper trade to cattle herds.
Though the encounter between farmers and hunter-gatherers was brief, it had a lasting effect on the continent. Farmers no longer had access to hunting skills that enabled them to survive independently.
That all changed quickly, however, as farming culture spread throughout Europe. It only took a few hundred years before nearly everyone adopted it.
Meanwhile, a Mesolithic resurgence was taking place as hunter-gatherer genes started appearing in European genomes. Additionally, new technologies like spears and nets began appearing, making life simpler for those who could afford it.
Hunter-gatherers and farmers had to come together or else both groups would have become extinct. This was no easy task, a prospect many anthropologists--including Nikitin--are still grappling with today. But their ancient DNA records indicate there was an opportunity for them to interact and learn from one another--even if they never became partners.