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First genetic study of Neolithic transition reported

Map of the world showing approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread in prehistory.
Map of the world showing approximate centers of origin of agriculture and its spread in prehistory.
Joey Roe This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license by the copyright holder.

The Neolithic transition from hunter-gatherer culture to farming has been examined in a genetic study of Neolithic remains for the first time. Previous genetic studies have compared the genetic structure of both hunter-gatherer populations and the first farming populations to the genetic structure of modern man. Pontus Skoglund from Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden and colleagues from Denmark, Australia, and Estonia reported this first of its kind evidence in the April 24, 2014, issue of the journal Science.

The researchers examined the mitochondrial DNA of six Neolithic hunter-gatherers from the Pitted Ware Culture and four Neolithic farmers from the Funnel Beaker culture. All the individuals came from Sweden and were about 7,000 years old. A single late Mesolithic hunter-gatherer that dated to 9,500 years ago was used for comparison.

Farming first became an established way of life about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East according to all evidence presently available. The farming culture reached Sweden about 8,000 years ago. Farming cultures and hunter-gather cultures coexisted in the same regions at the same time during the transition from hunter-gatherer culture to farming culture.

The scientists found that hunter-gather groups in Neolithic Sweden had a lower range of genetic diversity than farmer groups. Both cultures are considered to have originated in Africa and migrated to Sweden and the rest of Europe in different time periods. This research is the first to show a genetic cause for the ascendency of farming culture over hunter-gatherer culture.

The lower genetic diversity among farmer-gather groups is explained by the small extended family structure of hunter-gatherer societies. The research shows that hunter-gatherers joined farming cultures and contributed to the genetic structure of modern Swedes but there was no genetic contribution from farming groups to hunter-gather cultures. The evidence is explicitly shown in the lighter skin and hair colors of farming cultures versus hunter-gatherer peoples that lived at the same time and in the same areas of Sweden.