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DNA suggests Stonehenge builders came from Anatolia

Around 6,000 years ago, Britain's genome became dominated by the genetic signatures of Mediterranean farmers.

By
Brooks Hays
The Neolithic farmers that built Stonehenge were the descendants of Mediterranean farmers. Photo by EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA
The Neolithic farmers that built Stonehenge were the descendants of Mediterranean farmers. Photo by EPA-EFE/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

April 16 (UPI) -- The people who built Stonehenge and brought farming to Britain came from the Mediterranean.

According to a new survey of DNA extracted from ancient human remains, Neolithic farmers began migrating out of Anatolia, modern Turkey, several thousand years ago. Some went north, following the Danube. Another group traveled west across the Mediterranean, arriving in Britain around 6,000 years ago.

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When scientists analyzed DNA from the remains of early British farmers, they found they were most closely related to early farmers in Iberia, modern day Spain and Portugal. The genetic data showed the Iberian farmers hailed from the Mediterranean.

Dozens of archaeological studies have detailed the spread of farming and new cultural practices, including new more sophisticated pottery traditions, across Europe. But scientists weren't sure whether new traditions arrived with new people, or reflected the spread of ideas.

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The latest genetic study suggests migrating farmers brought their traditions with them.

"As soon as these Neolithic cultures start to arrive, we see a big change in the ancestry of the British population," Tom Booth, a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, said in a news release. "It looks like the development of farming and these Neolithic cultures was mainly driven by the migration of people from mainland Europe."

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In Britain, as well as the rest of Europe, Neolithic farmers encountered groups of hunter-gatherers. But the newcomers didn't wipe out the locals.

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"As this Neolithic population moved west, we can track cumulatively increasing levels of the local hunter-gatherer signatures in the genetics," said Booth. "So this wasn't just one population wiping the other out. Instead, they were mixing."

Still, around 6,000 years ago, Britain's genome became dominated by the genetic signatures of Mediterranean farmers. Scientists estimate Britain's hunter-gatherer population was too small to maintain a significant influence on the population's genome.

In addition to bringing new ways of subsisting and new types of pottery, the Neolithic farmers also brought the tradition of building stone monuments. Their arrival preceded the construction of Stonehenge.

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Scientists shared their analysis of Neolithic DNA this week in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

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