Europeans owe their ancestry mainly to Stone Age hunters, not to later migrants who brought farming to Europe from the Middle East, a new study suggests.
Based on DNA analysis of ancient skeletons from Germany, Austria, and Hungary, the study sways the debate over the origins of modern Europeans toward hunter-gatherers who colonized Europe some 40,000 years ago.
The DNA evidence suggests immigrant farmers who arrived tens of thousands of years later contributed little to the European gene pool.
Instead they left a cultural legacy by introducing agriculture some 7,500 years ago, the researchers say.
The study’s findings, published this week in the journal Science, were a surprise to the study team, according to anthropologist Joachim Burger of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, in Mainz, Germany.
The team investigated mitochondrial DNA—a permanent genetic marker passed from mothers to their offspring—recovered from the teeth and bones of 24 skeletons from 16 central European sites.
These ancient humans all belonged to cultures that can be linked to the introduction of farming practices that began in present-day Israel, Jordan, and Syria around 12,000 years ago.
The researchers identified which cultures the subjects belonged to by the decorations found on their pottery.
A quarter of the prehistoric farmers were found to share a mitochondrial DNA signature that is now extremely rare worldwide and has left virtually no trace on living Europeans.
The apparent failure of these people to make their genetic mark stands in stark contrast to farming itself, which spread rapidly across Europe.
A possible explanation, the researchers write in their study, is “that small pioneer groups carried farming into new areas of Europe, and that once the technique had taken root, the surrounding hunter-gatherers adopted the new culture and then outnumbered the original farmers.”