8000 Years of European Evolution Disclosed by Genome Study
Through the analysis of 230 samples of prehistoric genome, scientists believe they have identified the genes that gave rise to the European Neolithic revolution - with the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and domestication. They have also been able to detect variations in 12 genes associated with traits such as skin color, eye color, tolerance to lactose, and the height difference visible in European populations.
A recent study, published in the journal Nature and led by the Harvard Medical School in the United States (among 28 other research centers) has allowed the analysis of 230 samples of prehistoric genetic material. With the results obtained from the samples, including 15 from the Spanish cave of El Mirador de Atapuerca, a portrait has been sketched of the evolution of the European continent’s inhabitants in recent millennia.
The emergence of agriculture in Europe, about 8,000 years ago, produced great lifestyle changes - and those changes entailed a number of adaptations that are clearly reflected in the DNA of prehistoric peoples.
15 of the samples analyzed in the study come from Atapuerca in Burgos, Spain. In the picture, a detail of the eastern section of the site of Sima del Elefante in Atapuerca from the excavations of 2006. ( Public Domain )
The researcher Carles Lalueza-Fox , a member of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (CSIC-Universitat Pompeu Fabra) and co-author of the current study, told the news agent Agencia Sinc :
“Samples have been collected from different times and regions over the last 8,000 years of European prehistory (including some from Central Asia), to have an overview of adaptive changes that have occurred on this continent over time. The lighter skin pigmentation was necessary to supplement vitamin D in the agricultural diets, celiac disease-related genes could have had advantages to prevent vitamin deficiencies in this new diet as well, and genes associated with immunity probably reflect adaptations to the pathogens that come from contact with domestic animals.”
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4,000 Years Drinking Milk
Some of the variations in genes include the persistence of the lactase enzyme , which allows humans to digest milk in adulthood, and appeared in Europe 4,000 years ago. Currently, the mutation of the lactase gene is present in 100% of Europeans in Northern Europe.
According to Lalueza-Fox:
“This feature probably shows a greater chance of survival for the Europeans, that is, the genetic trait that evolution has selected with greater intensity. 4,000 years ago it was a residual mutation, which means that later it was selected for in the European populations by the great advantage that milk as a food source had for adult life.”
"The Milkmaid" (1657-1658), painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands. ( Public Domain ) European adults have been consuming milk regularly for 4,000 years.
Although, the exact origin of this "milk mutation" is unknown, scientists have found it first in individuals in central and northern Europe who lived in the late Neolithic, specifically in the samples analyzed from Sweden, Hungary, and Germany.
Variation in Inhabitants
This work also supports the idea that the first European farmers came from ancient Anatolia (now Turkey). This has been explained by Ron Pinhasi , associate professor of archaeology at University College Dublin and co-author:
"The Neolithic Revolution is perhaps the most important transition in human prehistory. Now we have evidence that there was a flow of population from Anatolia to Europe which brought agriculture to the area. For more than 40 years it was thought impossible to resolve this issue. "
Map of the Anatolian peninsula - the origin of the first European farmers, according to the recent study. ( Public Domain )
The present research has also confirmed that modern Europeans are the result of three major population substrates: Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Neolithic farmers, and people of the steppes who reached the continent during the Bronze Age .
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For Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro , a researcher at the National Research Center on Human Evolution (CENIEH) , another author of the study, the differences between northern and southern Europe have an environmental component, due to factors such as diet and the quantity of sunlight, but they are also based on the fact that there was migration from southwestern Asia at different times and by different tribes.
Regarding the height of Europeans, the northerners tend to be taller than the southerners. This may be because the people of the north descended more from the populations of the Eurasian steppe, who were taller, while southern Europeans are related to a greater degree with Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, who were often shorter. As Lalueza Fox described to Agencia Sinc :
“We have found that height was selected for in a declining manner in the Iberian Peninsula from the early Neolithic to the Chalcolithic (Copper Age), that is, that more and more variants associated with short stature appeared over this period. Probably this trend also occurred in other regions of southern Europe, of which we do not have samples yet. Recently, this trait has been found in samples from Sardinia and it has been attributed to insular issues. It could be something related to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean area and the resources available, but we still do not know.”
Ceramics with typical European Chalcolithic cord impressions from the Swedish necropolis Lilla Bedinge. (2900 -2350 BC) ( Public Domain )
Featured image: Ancient European hunters face an Uro (European bison). ( SINC / Fotolia )
By: Mariló T.A.
This article was first published in Spanish at https://www.ancient-origins.es and has been translated with permission.