Early Neolithic Farmers Brought Their Culture to Europe by Sea

First Posted: Jun 11, 2014 09:31 AM EDT

Scientists have long wondered how Neolithic people found their way to Europe. Now, researchers have turned to genetics. With the help of genetic markers, they've uncovered new clues and have found exactly how Neolithic culture first came to Europe.

Between 8,000 and 10,000 BC in the Levant, which is the region in the eastern Mediterranean that encompasses Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and part of southern Turkey, people began to domesticate wild grains. This allowed our ancient ancestors to abandon their nomadic lifestyles and instead become farmers. This transition from hunting and gathering to farming marked the end of the Paleolithic era and a transition to the Neolithic era.

These farmers, though, didn't stay in the Levant. Instead, they moved to Europe and introduced farming and genes to native Paleolithic people. Yet exactly what routes they used have long remained a mystery-at least until now.

The researchers looked at genetic markers found in 32 modern populations from the Near East and North Africa, Anatolia, the Aegean Islands and Crete, mainland Greece, and Southern and Northern Europe. They compared the proportion of certain markers, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) appearing in these different populations. As a population moves, it introduces these markers into other populations, which allows the researchers to trace their route.

In the end, the scientists found that the Neolithic migrants arose from the Levant. Then, they migrated to Anatolia in central Turkey, across the Dodecanese, to Crete and then to Laconia at the southeastern tip of Greece. While some populations moved north into Greece, the bulk of the people continued west to Sicily, then to the Mediterranean coast of Southern Europe and into Northern Europe.

"There were multiple migrations of Neolithic people into Europe and some, no doubt, went by the land route, but the predominant route was through Anatolia and then by sea, with Crete serving as a major hub," said George Stamatoyannopoulos, one of the researchers, in a news release. "While cultural diffusion certainly took place, these findings strongly bolster the demic diffusion hypothesis."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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