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A team led by Mainz anthropologist Professor Joachim Burger studied bones from the 'Blätterhöhle' cave near Hagen in Germany, where both hunter-gatherers and farmers were buried. "It is commonly assumed that the Central European hunter-gatherers disappeared soon after the arrival of farmers," said Dr. Ruth Bollongino, lead author of the study. "But our study shows that the descendants of Mesolithic Europeans maintained their hunter-gatherer way of life and lived in parallel with the immigrant farmers, for at least 2,000 years. The hunter-gathering lifestyle thus only died out in Central Europe around 5,000 years ago, much later than previously thought."
The relationship between these immigrant agriculturalists and local hunter-gatherers has been poorly researched to date. The Mainz anthropologists have now determined that the foragers stayed in close proximity to farmers, had contact with them for thousands of years, and buried their dead in the same cave. This contact was not without consequences, because hunter-gatherer women sometimes married into the farming communities, while no genetic lines of farmer women have been found in hunter-gatherers. "This pattern of marriage is known from many studies of human populations in the modern world. Farmer women regarded marrying into hunter-gatherer groups as social anathema, maybe because of the higher birthrate among the farmers," explains Burger.
"This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology," says joint-lead author Dr Wolfgang Haak of ACAD. "Focussing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in 'real-time' from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age."
"Our study shows that a simple mix of indigenous hunter-gatherers and the incoming Near Eastern farmers cannot explain the modern-day diversity alone," says joint-lead author Guido Brandt, PhD candidate at the University of Mainz. "The genetic results are much more complex than that. Instead, we found that two particular cultures at the brink of the Bronze Age 4,200 years ago had a marked role in the formation of Central Europe's genetic makeup."
Professor Kurt Alt (University of Mainz) says: "What is intriguing is that the genetic signals can be directly compared with the changes in material culture seen in the archaeological record. It is fascinating to see genetic changes when certain cultures expanded vastly, clearly revealing interactions across very large distances." These included migrations from both Western and Eastern Europe towards the end of the Stone Age, through expanding cultures such as the Bell Beaker and the Corded Ware (named after their pots).