Scientists have figured out more details about one of human civilization’s most important developments: the transition from hunter-gatherer to agrarian societies, and it turns out that rather than a wholesale replacement of the one with the other, the two groups actually lived side-by-side in Europe rather harmoniously for quite some time.
Civilization has taken part in a number of agricultural revolutions over the years —the agrarian systemization that occurred in England during the 16th and 17th centuries and the so-called Green Revolution of the mid-20th century which brought new advances in irrigation and fertilizers to bear, producing greater yields both in the developing and developed worlds.
But neither of these compared to the full-scale turnaround that occurred across the Middle East and the European continent starting around 10,000 BC. The Neolithic Age began with the replacement of nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies with agricultural peoples, and in the process, paved the way for the growth of settled communities, the birth of the city and the development of both the ancient and modern worlds.
But how this transition occurred in Europe has been a bit of an anthropological mystery up until now. Did the farming peoples arriving from the Middle East effectively muscle the hunter-gatherers out of Europe or did they bring new diseases with them, as occurred in Canada, the US and Mexico when Europeans first arrived to the New World?
It turns out that the more likely scenario was that the two groups probably got along together just fine for a time, according to new research published in the journal Nature. Researchers tracked the genetic makeup of 180 early farmers from the period of 6,000 – 2,200 BC from three regions in Europe: the Iberian Peninsula, the Middle-Elbe- Saale region of north-central urope and the Carpathian Basin in Hungary.
The results showed that the percentage of hunter-gatherer DNA in a subject varied locally, meaning that there was likely a slow but steady integration with locally-established farming peoples.
What’s more, the farming peoples from each region seemed to interbreed with hunter-gatherers from their region more so than farmers or hunter-gatherers from other regions, which says something about the stability of populations in a region over time.
"We found that the most probable scenario is an initial, small-scale, admixture pulse between the two populations that was followed by continuous gene flow over many centuries," says senior lead author David Reich, professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, in a press release. The mix of early farmer and hunter-gatherer ancestry within particular individuals was a new finding, say the researchers.
“One novelty of our study is that we can differentiate early European farmers by their specific local hunter-gatherer signature," says co-first author Anna Szécsényi-Nagy of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "Farmers from Spain share hunter-gatherer ancestry with a pre-agricultural individual from La Braña, Spain, whereas farmers from central Europe share more with hunter-gatherers near them, such as an individual from the Loschbour cave in Luxembourg. Similarly, farmers from the Carpathian Basin share more ancestry with local hunter-gatherers from their same region."