New studies suggest Neolithic farmers sailed to Europe
The origins and spread of agriculture are some of the best studied—and most debated—subjects in archaeology. A simplified version of the conventional narrative goes as follows: Over 10,000 years ago, people began to domesticate and cultivate crops in the Fertile Crescent, a term coined by James Henry Breasted to describe a hemispherical region rising northwest from the Persian Gulf through Mesopotamia, stretching up into southern Anatolia before turning back down through the Levant and into Egypt. This “Neolithic Revolution”—actually a slow, millennia-long evolution of developments in domestication, husbandry and sedentism—spread outward from the Fertile Crescent.
How did Neolithic farming spread from the Near East into Europe? Some have suggested a cultural diffusion of farming practices. Others suggest a migration of farming communities from the Near East, possibly overland through Anatolia. New studies point to a new route for the Near Eastern roots of the European Neolithic.
Archaeologists have published genetic data from early farming communities in Europe, but we have limited access to this type of information from the Neolithic Near East, where hot temperatures challenge DNA preservation. However, that is changing with the publication of well-preserved genetic data from the Syrian Pre-Pottery Neolithic sites Tell Halula, Tell Ramad and Dja’de El Mughara in “Ancient DNA Analysis of 8000 B.C. Near Eastern Farmers Supports an Early Neolithic Pioneer Maritime Colonization of Mainland Europe through Cyprus and the Aegean Islands” in PLOS Genetics. The Syrian skeletons not only bore strong similarity to finds from Neolithic Europe; they also resemble modern populations in Cyprus and Crete, suggesting “a survival of ancient Neolithic genetic stock in these populations probably through endogamy and geographic isolation,” leading the authors to propose “a primary role of pioneer seafaring colonization through Cyprus and the Aegean islands along the southern coast of Anatolia to the western coast of Greece” during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, before these early farmers turned north.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study also examined modern genetic markers–75,000 of them taken from 32 modern Mediterranean regions—to trace the populations’ origins. According to this study, Near Eastern populations traveled to Turkey, and then set sail for the Aegean islands some 9,000 years ago. Unlike the PLOS study, which suggests a movement of early farmers directly from the Levant, the PNAS researchers suggest that “Near Eastern migrants reached Europe from Anatolia. A maritime route and island hopping was mainly used by these Near Eastern migrants to reach Southern Europe.”
Both genetic studies suggest some degree of maritime-based migration resulting in the gene flow that we see in both modern populations and ancient skeletons. Some degree of agricultural diffusion is also due to the spread of ideas, not just people, and Neolithic migrants certainly traveled by land routes as well. But these two studies reveal a strong pattern of Neolithic maritime migration from the Near East to Mediterranean/Aegean islands that is still reflected in the genetic makeup of the Mediterranean and European world.
Read more about the recent studies on the Science website, or read the full articles in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and PLOS Genetics.
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