An Illustration of ancient farmers. Copyright Nicholls (2008)

Ancient Skeletons Change History: Farming Invented Multiple Times Across the Globe


An international research team led by Mainz palaeogeneticists demonstrates that populations in the ancient Fertile Crescent are the ancestors of modern day South Asians but not of Europeans.

Sedentism, farming, and agriculture was invented some 10,000 years ago in a region between southeastern Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, an area traditionally labeled as the Fertile Crescent. Most of the technology and culture associated with farming including domestic sheep, goat, cattle, and pig originated here. The transition from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture and sedentism was considered such a radical change in human ecology that the term Neolithic revolution was coined for it. Some 2,000 years later, the new Neolithic lifestyle appeared in southeastern Europe and shortly afterwards in Central and Mediterranean Europe.

Konjan Cham River near Chogha Golan, Iran.

Konjan Cham River near Chogha Golan, Iran. [Image courtesy of TISARP/University of Tübingen]

This week, an international research team led by palaeogeneticists of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) published a study in the journal Science showing that the earliest farmers from the Zagros mountains in Iran, i.e., the eastern part of the Fertile Crescent, are neither the main ancestors of Europe's first farmers nor of modern-day Europeans. "This came as a surprise," said Farnaz Broushaki, first author of the study and a member of the JGU Palaeogenetics Group. "Our team had only recently shown that early farmers from across Europe have an almost unbroken trail of ancestry leading back to northwest Anatolia. But now it seems that the chain of migration into Europe breaks somewhere in eastern Anatolia."

According to the team's previous study, Neolithic settlers from northern Greece and the Marmara Sea region of western Turkey reached central Europe via a Balkan route and the Iberian Peninsula via a Mediterranean route. These colonists brought sedentary life, agriculture, and domestic animals and plants to Europe. New research shows that some of the world's earliest farmers from Iran were a genetically distinct group and only very distantly related to the first farmers of western Anatolia and Europe.

Latest research shows farming sprung up multiple times around the world

Latest research shows farming sprung up multiple times around the world (

"It is interesting that people who are genetically so different, who almost certainly looked different and spoke different languages adopted the agricultural lifestyle almost simultaneously in different parts of Anatolia and the Near East," said Professor Joachim Burger, senior author of the study. "The group of prehistoric inhabitants of the Zagros region separated more than 50,000 years ago from other people of Eurasia and were among the first who invented farming."

Professor Joachim Burger, his Mainz palaeogeneticist team, and international collaborators have pioneered palaeogenetic research of the Neolithization process in Europe over the last decade. In 2005, they presented the first ancient DNA study on prehistoric European farmers, and in 2009 and 2013 they analyzed their complex interactions with hunter-gatherers. Now they demonstrate that the idea of "ex oriente lux" is true in cultural but not in genetic terms.

Analysis of ancient DNA in the laboratory.

Analysis of ancient DNA in the laboratory. Credit: photo/©: JGU Palaeogenetics Group

Marjan Mashkour, an Iranian archaeozoologist who works at the CNRS in Paris and initiated the study with Burger and Fereidoun Biglari, a prehistoric archaeologist at the National Museum of Iran, added: "The Neolithic way of life originates in the Fertile Crescent, maybe also some Neolithic pioneers started moving from there. But the majority of ancient Iranians did not move west as some would have thought."

However, they did move east, as the study shows. The research team found that the Iranian genomes represent the main ancestors of modern-day South Asians. Whilst sharing many segments of their genome with Afghani and Pakistani populations, the almost 10,000 year old genomes from the Iranian Zagros mountains were found to be most similar to modern-day Zoroastrians from Iran. "This religious group probably mixed less with later waves of people than others in the region and therefore preserved more of that ancient ancestry," said Broushaki.

In sum, it seems like at least two highly divergent groups became the world's first famers: the Zagros people of the Neolithic eastern Fertile Crescent that are ancestral to most modern South Asians and the Aegeans that colonized Europe some 8,000 years ago. "The origin of farming was genetically more complex than we thought and instead of speaking of a single Neolithic center, we should start adopting the idea of a Federal Neolithic Core Zone," emphasized Burger.

Top image: An Illustration of ancient farmers. Copyright Nicholls (2008)

Article Source: University of Mainz. "Prehistoric genomes from the world's first farmers in the Zagros mountains reveal different Neolithic ancestry for Europeans and South Asians." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 July 2016.

Journal Reference :

  1. F. Broushaki et al.  Early Neolithic genomes from the eastern Fertile Crescent Science, 2016 DOI:  10.1126/science.aaf7943


Pete Wagner's picture

What never changes is a people’s desire to live and eat with least effort.  Easiest would be hunting/trapping and gathering locally, so you do that until it fails you,  Over time, the ancients would have experimented and learned, and thus have it established within their cultures, that agricultural pursuits require a lot of implements and physical effort, provide a food not as good as wild, rely upon uncontrollable weather, and reduce the supply of local wild food, particularly big game spooked by the strangeness of it.  Long-term sustainability of hunter-gathering would at some level involve clan and tribe cooperation in sharing the resources and not over-stripping supply.   The locations of the “ring forts”, which are actually foundation ruins of ancient (collapsed) stone/earthen dome shelters would to some degree suggest a supportable hunter-gatherer population density.  But perhaps inside the dome structures, or deep within the caverns, some animals were farmed, fish ponds kept, or plants or mushrooms grown.  We have to think what we would do in ancient times to understand what our Ice Age ancestors did.  We should get past the silly notion that the cave peoples were not as intellegent as we are today.  Logic may even suggest they were highly intelligent in a pure way, but just naive and vulnerable to being deceived by (e.g.) strangers with forked tongues.

Nobody gets paid to tell the truth.

The results of this study are pure nonsense, based on biased sampling of data. A recent study, with far better sampling, has shown that Neolithic Anatolians had, in fact, a highly Iran Neolithic component. Not only that, but the study reveals Caucaus and Steepe populations recieved a massive influx of genetic input from the Iranian plateau. The genetic structure of modern Europeans, is in fact, predominately Iranic.

Farming and DNA. Before there is a constructive argument on this subject, there has to be an agreement upon terminology.

Farming is merely encouraging a row of plants or herd of animals to prosper so they can eventually be turned into food for human consumption. So, it is difficult to argue when "farming" actually came about in mankind's history. A neanderthal that weeds and defends his row of berry bushes could be accused of farming. A steppe dwelling denisovan that manages, follows and basically lives with a herd of reindeer could be accused of ranching.

You see, "farming" is as old as eating food. The "farming" you guys seem fixated on is actually otherwise known as "civilization". And here's why. Without the structure of a society, sedentary agrarianism is impossible to defend from marauders. The defense of property is THEE DETERMINING FACTOR in claiming property and commencing with agrarianism, not the knowledge of how to actually grow your own food. In the absence of organized defense, anyone attempting to farm was not just putting themselves in danger, but rather at the very top of the menu. Why bother hunting or gathering, when someone else has done all the work of preparing the crops/animals and all you have to do is swoop down from the mountains and take them. Especially when there are goods and women to be captured as well. Maybe with enough loot, you can buy goods from the next group of suckers (I mean farmers) on the other side of the mountains. Doubt my theory? Just ask present day person that has run a community garden, and you'll see this behavior still persists to this day.

Also, DNA seems to be the end-all-be-all answer to everything these days. Just because all members of given species exhibit similar behaviors, it doesn't mean there is a genetic link between them, other than just the basic characteristics of that organism's behavior within the normal behavioral parameters of that given species.

People have been the same people for longer than you think, thin veneer of civilization be damned.

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