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European hunter-gatherers domesticated pigs earlier than thought

A DNA analysis of remains unearthed at a Mesolithic site in norther Germany suggests that European hunter-gatherers owned pigs as early as 4600 BC, some 500 years earlier than previously thought. 

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"We address a long-standing debate in archaeology that has implications beyond northern Germany," researcher Almut Nebel, a molecular geneticist at Christian-Albrechts University, told LiveScience. "Our multidisciplinary approach can also be used to obtain information on cultural contact — for example, between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists — for other areas of Europe and the world."

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Genetic analysis revealed the domestic pigs had colorful coats and spots that likely would have seemed exotic and strange to the hunter-gatherers and may have attracted them to the swine.

"Humans love novelty, and though hunter-gatherers exploited wild boar, it would have been hard not to be fascinated by the strange-looking, spotted pigs owned by farmers living nearby," researcher Greger Larson at Durham University in England, said in a statement. "It should come as no surprise that the hunter-gatherers acquired some [of the pigs] eventually, but this study shows that they did very soon after the domestic pigs arrived in northern Europe."

Scientists are not sure whether the hunter-gatherers procured the pigs via trade or by capturing escaped animals. Still, given the close proximity of these two groups and how they occasionally exchanged artifacts, the researchers suspect trade for pigs was a more likely scenario than hunting of escaped domestic pigs, Krause-Kyora told LiveScience.

The scientists detailed their findings in the Aug. 27 issue of the journal Nature Communications.

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