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Early European farmers direct descendants of Aegeans

"When it comes to the big picture on how farming spread into Europe, this debate is over," said anthropologist Mark Thomas.

By Brooks Hays
Early European farmers direct descendants of Aegeans
DNA collected from the skeletons of the earliest farmers in northern Greece confirmed the ancient migration from Anatolia to Central Europe. Photo by K. Kotsakis and P. Halstead/Paliambela Excavation Project Archive

MAINZ, Germany, June 6 (UPI) -- Roughly 8,500 years ago, a new strategy for survival -- subsistence agriculture -- started spreading throughout Europe.

A new study suggests the practice was brought by direct descendants of the Aegeans, an ancient people of Greece and western Turkey. The findings undermine the theory that farming spread as an idea, not via migrating farmers.

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Genomic analysis using skeletal samples of early farmers in Greece and Turkey, as well as in central and southwestern Europe, confirmed the migration of early farmers from Anatolia westward. Researchers say the migrant farmers carried agricultural practices, as well as domestic animals and plants, to their new homes -- first to Central Europe and eventually all the way to the British Isles.

Though they exchanged cultural traditions and subsistence strategies with their new hunter-gatherer neighbors, the evidence suggests interbreeding was initially rare.

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"Only after centuries did the number of partnerships increase," lead researcher Joachim Burger, an anthropologist at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz in Germany, explained in a news release.

Scientists published their findings in the journal PNAS.

"There are still details to flesh out, and no doubt there will be surprises around the corner, but when it comes to the big picture on how farming spread into Europe, this debate is over," said study co-author Mark Thomas, a researcher at the University College London. "Thanks to ancient DNA, our understanding of the Neolithic revolution has fundamentally changed over the last seven years."

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The earliest anthropological evidence of sedentary life, farming and animal husbandry dates to 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, the land surrounding Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the Middle East. It's possible the farmers of Anatolia originally hailed from Mesopotamia, but not yet confirmed.

The Anatolian exodus that brought farming to Europe is one of two migrations that shaped the genome of modern Europeans. The second came a couple thousand years later, roughly 5,000 years ago, when people of the Eastern steppe arrived in Central Europe, interbreeding with former hunter-gatherers and early farmers.

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