Farming moved north with southern farmers

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 26, 2012

This is going to be all over the serious (and not so serious) blogs and news outlets, because it grabs the imagination better than a punch of burnt old seeds. DNA from four 5000-year old human skeletons in Sweden has revealed two genetically distinct populations. Three of the skeletons were hunter-gatherers. The fourth was a farmer. And the farmer’s DNA matched that of Mediterranean people, such as the people of Cyprus, while the hunter gatherers were typical Northern Europeans, but without any great affinity with any particular people. The two groups lived side by side for a long time, more than a thousand years, according to the researchers, and eventually interbred. The result is that none of today’s Northern Europeans has the same genetic profile as the original hunter-gatherers, although some hunter-gather genes are present in most Northern Europeans.

These results help to shore up the prevailing account of the spread of agriculture: that is was the farmers themselves who spread, rather than merely ideas about how to farm. The great mystery, for now, is did those farmers bring rye (Secale cereale, the classic cereal of Scandinavia) with them, or did it arrive much later. I don’t know nearly enough about the current story on rye domestication, but the centre of diversity and wild relatives seems to be in the Fertile Crescent, along with wheat and barley. There is evidence of domesticated rye from Neolithic Turkish sites, the earliest dated about 10,000 years ago. So plenty of time for it to have reached the southern Mediterranean and then moved up to Scandinavia, but did it? Most of the Central and Northern European rye remains are much more recent, only a couple of thousand years old. I look forward to a more learned account.

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