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How did European farmers spread agriculture?

By analyzing ancient human remains, scientists have revealed that Stone Age farmers in Europe likely migrated from south to north.

By Jennifer WelshLiveScience / April 26, 2012

A French farmer displays wheat near his combine during summer harvest in Mons en Pevele, northern France. Young farmers make up a small proportion of EU farmers, but hope to have more of an impact in the future.

REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

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An analysis of 5,000-year-old genetic material from preserved human remains found in Sweden suggests that people moving from southern to northern Europe spread agriculture across that continent long ago.

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In addition to agricultural know-how, the intrepid farmers brought their genes: They interbred with hunter-gatherer communities to create modern humans living in Europe today.

"Genetic variation of today's Europeans was strongly affected by immigrant Stone Age farmers, though a number of hunter-gatherer genes remain," study researcher Anders Götherström, of Uppsala University in Sweden, said in a statement.

The results of this study, to be published in the April 27 issue of the journal Science, match up well with previous archeological evidence of farming in Europe.

Stone Age bones

The researchers studied the remains from four humans, one found on an ancient farm in Gökhem parish, likely belonging to a member of the agricultural Funnel Beaker culture. Less than 250 miles away, a second set of remains from three humans were unearthed on the island of Gotland, from hunter-gatherers of the Pitted Ware culture.

"We know that the hunter-gatherer remains were buried in flatbed grave sites, in stark contrast to the megalithic sites that the farmers built," said study researcher Mattias Jakobsson, also from Uppsala University. "The farmer we analyzed was buried under such a megalith, and that's just one difference that helps distinguish the two cultures."

Researchers already knew a fair bit about these different cultures and the excavated remains, though nobody had looked at their genetics. In the new study, the team analyzed the bones' genetic information to see how the humans differed from each other genetically as well as from other modern humans.

European genetics

The group analyzed thousands of genetic markers from each Stone Age individual. The genetics of the hunter-gatherer sample looked similar to that of modern northern Europeans (from countries like Finland), while the genes isolated from the Stone Age farmer looked more like modern southern Europeans who live along the Mediterranean Sea.

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