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Farming was brought to Britain by migrants from continental Europe, and not adopted by pre-existing hunter-gatherers, indicates a new ancient DNA study led by the Natural History Museum and UCL, in collaboration with Harvard University.
Scientists investigating the origins of farming in Britain examined DNA from 47 Neolithic (‘New Stone Age’) farmer skeletons dating from 6000 to 4500 years ago and six Mesolithic (‘Middle Stone Age’) hunter-gatherer skeletons from the preceding period (11,600-6000 years ago). The skeletons examined included that of Cheddar Man; the oldest near-complete human skeleton found in Britain
Dr Selina Brace, ancient DNA researcher at the Natural History Museum and lead author of the study explained why the remains of Cheddar man have continued to provide exciting scientific information: 'After extracting DNA from Cheddar Man’s inner ear bone, we were delighted at the preservation of his DNA. It’s likely that the cool dry burial conditions in Gough’s Cave were a key factor in keeping his DNA preserved.'
Natural History Museum postdoctoral researcher Dr Tom Booth says: 'We looked at the genetic ancestry of human remains from both before and after 6,000 years ago - so some dating to the Mesolithic and some to the Neolithic - to see if we can characterise any changes, as soon as these Neolithic cultures start to arrive, we see a big change in the ancestry of the British population. It looks like the development of farming and these Neolithic cultures was mainly driven by the migration of people from mainland Europe.'
From the DNA analysis the researchers were able to reveal that most of the hunter-gatherer population of Britain were replaced by those carrying ancestry originating in the Aegean, where farming cultures are thought to have spread from after beginning in the Near East.
Professor Ian Barnes, ancient DNA expert at the Natural History Museum and co-author of the study, said: ‘Because continental farmer populations had mixed to some extent with local hunter-gatherers as they expanded along both the Mediterranean and Rhine-Danube corridors, as well as later, we expected to see some mixing in Britain as well.’
Indeed it is now understood that populations of early Neolithic cultures would have travelled from the Aegean coast in Turkey bringing farming and the specific cultures that went with it, such as new funerary rites and pottery, and spread them across much of Western Europe along the two main corridors of the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhine-Danube axis of Central Europe.
Whilst this new research has now confirmed that farming was brought to Britain by these continental farmers, it does not explain why it took another 1000 years to establish in Britain after they arrived in northwest continental Europe. The current leading theory suggests that hunter-gatherer people from Britain were making forays to the continent and gradually coming around to the idea of farming before taking it up wholesale 6,000 years ago, whilst another argues that there was a widespread influx of Neolithic farmers at this time.
Tom explains that DNA analysis doesn't necessarily give the full picture: ‘The best explanation now is that the hunter-gatherer Mesolithic population of Britain just wasn't very high. So the newly arrived farmers could have mixed entirely with the native population but because this was quite small, the hunter-gatherers left little genetic legacy overall.'
Professor Mark Thomas (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment), an author of the study, added: ‘The transition to farming marks one of the most important technological innovations in human evolution. It first appeared in Britain around 6000 years ago; prior to that people survived by hunting, fishing and gathering. For over 100 years archaeologists have debated if it was brought to Britain by immigrant continental farmers, or if was adopted by local hunter-gatherers.
Our study strongly supports the view that immigrant farmers introduced agriculture into Britain and largely replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherers populations.’
The study Neolithic transition in Britain is published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.
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