It has long been debated as to whether the transition from a largely hunter-gatherer to an agricultural subsistence strategy in Europe was the result of the migration of farmers from the Near East and Anatolia, or whether this transition was primarily cultural in nature. A new study, co-authored by researchers at University College Cork and the University of Kent suggests that the prehistoric adoption of farming practices in outlying regions of Europe, Scandinavia, the Baltic, European Russia and the Ukraine, was the result of cultural diffusion.
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, uses measurements of skulls of hunter-gathering (Mesolithic) and early farming (Neolithic) prehistoric populations from Europe, Near East and Anatolia to find answers.
Results provide evidence that indigenous hunter-gatherers in central Europe were largely replaced or assimilated by incoming Near-Eastern farmers in the core region of south-east and Central Europe. However, hunter-gatherer populations survived in outlying regions and adopted some of the cultural practices from neighbouring farming communities.
Previously, it has been debated whether the transition from a largely hunter-gatherer (Mesolithic) to an agricultural (Neolithic) subsistence strategy in Europe was the result of the migration of farmers from the Near-East and Anatolia or whether this transition was primarily cultural in nature. The migration model (demic diffusion) would imply that indigenous hunter-gather populations in Europe were largely replaced or assimilated by incoming farmers and, therefore, that modern European populations are descended from these incoming farming populations. The cultural diffusion model, on the other hand, suggests that indigenous hunter-gatherer populations adopted farming practices and associated material culture, such as pottery, from Near Eastern farmers. This would suggest that modern European populations can trace their ancestry further back to the Palaeolithic period (roughly 2-4 million BC to 10,000 BC). Previous studies of modern European genetic variation have produced conflicting results regarding these debates, as these data are likely influenced by more recent (post-Neolithic) population migrations both from Asia and within Europe. Ancient DNA studies have the potential to shed light on this question, but at present, the available ancient DNA data are not geographically or chronologically widespread enough to model continent-wide processes.
The new study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, B uses craniometric data from 30 Mesolithic and Neolithic populations to address these questions, as it has previously been shown that cranial measurements can be used as a reliable proxy for genetic information. The results show that while the initial transition to agriculture in central Europe was the result of migrating farmers from the Near-East and Anatolia, agricultural practices were adopted by indigenous hunter-gatherer populations in outlying regions of Europe. Therefore, instead of employing two competing and mutually exclusive models of biological versus cultural diffusion, a mosaic model of both biological and cultural diffusion is a more appropriate model for this demographic change across Europe as a whole.
The two authors of the paper are Dr Ron Pinhasi, University College Cork, Ireland and Dr Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. Dr Pinhasi is a lecturer in archaeology at UCC and his research interests include the the Middle-Upper Palaeolithic transition, Neanderthal phylogeography and the bioarchaeology of the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in the Near East, Anatolia and Europe. The research was funded by the European Research Council Starting Grant. Dr Pinhasi is the first UCC researcher to be awarded funding by the ERC, a body set up by the European Commission to support the very best research across all fields of scholarship. Dr Pinhasi's other research in Armenia on Neanderthals and early modern humans is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Science Foundation Ireland and the Leaky foundation. Dr Pinhasi did his undergraduate studies in the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, his Masters in Leuven, Belgium and his Doctorate in biological anthropology in Cambridge, UK. He is the first Palaeolithic archaeologist to be appointed in Ireland.
Dr Noreen von Cramon-Taubadel is a National University of Ireland Galway graduate and lecturer in biological anthropology at the University of Kent. Her research interests include human evolution and the reconstruction of modern human population history from genetic and morphological markers.
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