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Left:  tooth which has had its genome sequenced, discovered in a Spanish cave. It belonged to a Neolithic farmer from 7400 years ago. Right: Cardium Pottery typical of the culture to which the Neolithic farmer is believed to have belonged.

4,700-Year-Old Tooth Provides Insight on the First Farmers of the Iberian Peninsula

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Eight thousand years ago, the first farmer groups from the Middle East crossed the area currently known as Turkey and entered into Europe before branching out to follow two different routes: one headed for Central Europe through the Danube, and the other for the  Iberian Peninsula, following the path marked by the Mediterranean Sea. Some human groups in Europe implemented a new and revolutionary way of life, characteristic of the Neolithic period.

The Neolithic was a time that agriculture spread with unprecedented speed, causing fundamental changes in the lives of human beings, from hunters and gatherers to farmers. This fact in turn led to nomads becoming sedentary, settling in fixed locations and the creating the first residential villages. These settlements allowed the increase in population when there was a surplus of some products; they also led to the emergence rudimentary trade in the form of bartering.

The current study of the tooth found in the cave, Cova Bonica Vallirana, in Catalonia, has revealed information on one of the early European Neolithic farmers as well as showing us that the Neolithic farmers of Central Europe and the Mediterranean may have shared the same common origin.

Some of the Neolithic remains found in Cova Bonica Vallirana, Barcelona.

Some of the Neolithic remains found in Cova Bonica Vallirana, Barcelona. ( Photography of Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz / El País )

A  Female Farmer

A team of Spanish and Danish scientists have succeeded in sequencing the genome of one of the first farmers who lived in the Mediterranean area of ​​the Iberian Peninsula. The study of DNA from the tooth revealed that this ancient farmer was actually a woman; with light skin, dark hair, and brown eyes that lived about 7,400 years ago in what is now Catalonia.

This prehistoric woman, which we also know was lactose intolerant, belonged to the group of farmers who settled in the Mediterranean, developing their own culture, which has characteristically been called  Ceramica Cardial ( Cardial pottery). This pottery is noted for the decorative incisions on the handcrafted pieces with the edges of bivalve shells, such as some pottery shards found in the same level as the tooth from the farmer woman found at Cova Bonica.

 

As explained to the newspaper El Mundo  , Carles Lalueza-Fox, a researcher at  the Institute of Biology of Barcelona CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra , the investigation was not easy because the tooth was in a poor condition, which meant that it took over a year to complete the work that has been  published this week in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution :

"We used half the tooth to determine its age and the other half to sequence the DNA, so we used it all up, but we have its genome. Environmental conditions in the Mediterranean are much less favorable to the preservation of DNA than in central Europe. We already had the genomes of several individuals from Central Europe, but none of the farmers who settled in the Iberian Peninsula so, from the genetic point of view, they were strangers," said Carles Lalueza-Fox.

Map of Europe in which the dissemination of some of the different cultures of the Neolithic is observed, 4500-4000 BC

Map of Europe in which the dissemination of some of the different cultures of the Neolithic is observed, 4500-4000 BC ( Wikimedia Commons )

Another difficulty that the researchers had to face was that  "These old samples have a high component of bacterial DNA, to the point where the individual's DNA is a minority. Only 5% of the total is human sequences, 95% is because it is disposable environmental DNA" explained the geneticist.

Importance of Sequencing of the Genome

The greatest benefit to sequencing the genome  of the first Iberian farmer may be that it can better allow us to study our own evolution as we are descendants of those men and women of the Neolithic. Those individuals that survived epidemics, diseases, and adapted to major changes, including numerous variations in their diet and living conditions passed their genes on to modern humans.

The study of the genome, according to  information published in the newspaper ABC  now allows us to explain the reason why there are still many people with lactose intolerance (a mutation still existing in many locations in southern Europe) and others who do not have any problem to eat milk in adulthood (mainly in northern Europe.) 

The genomic study also helps explain why the Neolithic people in southern Europe had lighter skin than the northern European hunters. "We believe that diet strongly affects the pigmentation of the skin. While hunters had good quantities of vitamin D through meat, farmers had to fill their need for the vitamin through sun exposure, which is more efficient in lighter skin" Carles Lalueza-Fox stated.

Image inside the Cova Bonica Vallirana, Barcelona, ​​where the 7 400 year old tooth was discovered.

Image inside the Cova Bonica Vallirana, Barcelona, ​​where the 7 400 year old tooth was discovered. ( Photo: Joan Daura / Montserrat Sanz / World )

The genome of this Neolithic woman has been incorporated into a database that is being developed and which will provide a broader view of Prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula. As a researcher noted in the newspaper "El Pais," the current European populations are formed basically by mixing three genetic ingredients: "a hunter substrate, a Neolithic substrate, and a later substrate from the Bronze Age, associated with the expansion of the Indo-European languages.

The importance of these genomes is that they allow us to have a real genomic reference. A genome is an open door for future research to analyze which genes have changed over thousands of years due to infectious diseases or great plagues like the Black Plague. We are able to look back in time and space at the variants in individuals .  It's interesting to understand the drastic lifestyle change that there is between being a hunter or a farmer as well because many diseases came from domestic animals.

Every European would become a cocktail with different percentages of the three main genetic ingredients, and the current populations of the Iberian Peninsula, "especially the Basques," said Lalueza-Fox, can find their ancient ancestors mostly from those first farmers of the Middle East.

Neolithic architecture in Catalonia: Dolmen known as "The Haunted House," located in the municipality of Senterada, in the province of Lleida.

Neolithic architecture in Catalonia: Dolmen known as "The Haunted House," located in the municipality of Senterada, in the province of Lleida. ( Wikimedia Commons )

The scientists and have analyzed fifty individuals from the Mesolithic and different periods of the Neolithic and in the words of Lalueza-Fox: "This study is only the first step of a major project that aims to create a  transect (map in time and space) in the paleo-genome of Iberians from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages, allowing us to understand the transformations of the current Iberian populations."

Featured image: Left:  tooth which has had its genome sequenced, discovered in a Spanish cave. It belonged to a Neolithic farmer from 7400 years ago. Right: Cardium Pottery typical of the culture to which the Neolithic farmer is believed to have belonged. ( Photo: Joan Daura and Montserrat Sanz / Pablo Garcia Borja / ABC )

By Mariló T.A.

This article was first published in Spanish at www.ancient-origins.es and has been translated with permission.

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