How Did European Hunters Become Farmers?

Nov 11, 2010 By Deepa Gopal
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How did ancient Europeans learn to farm - did the hunter-gatherers learn the techniques from their eastern neighbors who were already way ahead of them or did they figure it out on their own?

As it turns out - neither, according to scientists analyzing the DNA from the remains of 8000-year-old farmers in Germany. The farmers from the east migrated to and settled in different parts of Europe and introduced farming in their communities.

Dead tell tales

The town of Derenberg in Central Germany is home to one of the earliest farming settlements in Europe. Here, archaeologists also found a graveyard with bones of 22 people who had been buried there.

Scientists compared the DNA in the mitochondria of these bones with those of present-day people. The mitochondrial DNA is passed down from one generation to another through the mother. They found that the DNA had genetic markers that match with people living in modern-day Turkey and Syria (more than 1500 miles away). People in these regions had been farming for nearly 2000 years before the Europeans.

The analysis also showed that the invaders did not wipe out the hunter-gatherers but instead, mingled with them. This finding has changed the long-established theory that early people in Europe and the Middle East developed independently.

Who were the first farmers?

The first farmers appeared 11,000 years ago in the Middle East - in an area known as Fertile Crescent which includes present-day Iraq, Syria, and Israel. There are many theories on what drove hunter-gatherers to start farming. Perhaps a shortage of food as populations grew or favorable climate changes as it got warmer and wetter.

The earliest farmers settled around river sources and planted wild cereals such as barley and an early form of wheat. They built granaries to store excess food and also learned to domesticate animals. This is known as the Neolithic Revolution - the start of society as people settled down, developed specialized jobs and start trading good and supplies. Societies in India, China and Americas developed independently.

With trade came movement and settlers migrated from the fertile crescent to Turkey and then on to rest of Europe.