European face-off for early farmers

A new analysis of modern and ancient human skulls supports the idea that early farmers in the Middle East spread into Europe between 11,000 and 6,500 years ago, intermarried with people there, and passed on their agricultural way of life to the native Europeans.

C. Loring Brace of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his colleagues compared 24 measurements for each of 1,282 skulls from current and prehistoric populations in Europe, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. The sample included 201 skulls from early farmers and 219 skulls from Bronze Age people, who lived between 4,300 and 2,700 years ago.

Modern populations from Scandinavia to the Middle East display close genetic links, reflected in skull similarities, Brace’s team reports in the Jan. 3 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ancient farmers and their Bronze Age successors share many skull features but display a considerably weaker anatomical link to modern Europeans, especially in northern regions, the researchers say.

These results fit a scenario in which farming spread into Europe via population mixing rather than by natives simply adopting agriculture (SN: 12/3/05, p. 358: Available to subscribers at Waves of Grain: New data lift old model of agriculture’s origins), the investigators propose. They say that facial traits of early immigrants have become diluted through intermarriage.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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