End of the old ways – European hunter-gatherers fired their last arrows around 3000 BC

End of the old ways – European hunter-gatherers fired their last arrows around 3000 BC

A study of ancient European DNA has found that indigenous hunter-gatherers and immigrant farmers lived together for 2,000 years, before the hunter-gatherer lifestyle finally died out around 5,000 years ago.  The study, led by anthropologist Joachim Burger of the University of Mainz, studied bones from the Blätterhöhle Cave near Hagen, Germany, where both hunter-gatherers and farmers were buried.

Study co-author, Dr. Ruth Bollongino, said: “It is commonly assumed that the Central European hunter-gatherers disappeared soon after the arrival of farmers, but our study shows that the descendants of Mesolithic Europeans maintained their hunter-gatherer way of life and lived in parallel with the immigrant farmers, for at least 2,000 years.  The hunter-gathering lifestyle thus only died out in Central Europe around 5,000 years ago, much later than previously thought.”

It marked the end of a way of life in Europe practised since the first arrival of their modern human ancestors on the continent 40,000 years before, and which had helped them survive the last Ice Age.

When the glaciers finally retreated and the first farmers began to arrive from the Near East 7,500 years ago, it had been assumed that the old hunter-gatherers quickly died out or were swiftly absorbed into the farming populations, as evidence of their lifestyle began to disappear from the archaeological record.  In fact, the study found that the two populations lived side by side for thousands of years.  They also buried their dead in the same cave.

Dr Bollongino said:  “It was only through the analysis of isotopes in the human remains, performed by our Canadian colleagues, that the pieces of the puzzle began to fit.  This showed that the hunter-gatherers sustained themselves in Central and Northern Europe on a very specialized diet that included fish, among other things, until 5,000 years ago.”

The mitochondrial DNA in their bones also showed that hunter-gatherer women began marrying into the farming communities, but there was no evidence of reciprocal marriages of farmer women into hunter-gatherer communities.  Professor Burger explained: “This pattern of marriage is known from many studies of human populations in the modern world.  Farmer women regarded marrying into hunter-gatherer groups as social anathema, maybe because of the higher birthrate among the farmers.”

The results of the inter-marriage can be found in the DNA of modern Europeans, who carry the genes of both the farmers and the hunter-gatherers.  The study’s genetics expert, Dr Adam Powell, said: “Neither hunter-gatherers nor farmers can be regarded as the sole ancestors of modern-day Central Europeans.  European ancestry will reflect a mixture of both populations, and the ongoing question is how and to what extent this admixture happened.”

Source: Universität Mainz

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