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Editor's Note

Prying tales from ancient DNA and a far-away moon

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3:00pm, May 2, 2014
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Farming didn’t originate in Europe. It was an import. But over thousands of years, it steadily took hold and transformed the landscape of the continent. Along with it came a transformation of Europe’s population.

Since the 1970s, genetics has been used to shed light on the spread of agriculture from the Middle East, as well as to look into the ancestry of modern Europeans. But only in the last decade has it become possible to study the genes of prehistoric people themselves. As molecular biology writer Tina Hesman Saey recounts, DNA painstakingly recovered from the skeletons of dozens of ancient Europeans is providing new details about the region’s prehistory. So far, the tale told by analyses of mitochondrial DNA and, increasingly, the entire genomes of early humans is a complicated one. It looks like migrants brought farming technology with them, but there’s little evidence of local hunter-gatherers taking it up and changing their ways. Some studies point to groups of farmers and foragers living near each other for a thousand years. The farmers’ DNA showed some signs of having mixed with hunter-gatherers’, but the mixing was only one way: The hunter-gatherers had no farmer DNA.

What’s most intriguing about these studies is the questions they raise about what life might have been like 5,000 years ago. How did these two groups of people think about and interact with each other? With fear, indifference, curiosity? Was hunting actually a more (or at least equally) successful living than farming, despite our modern bias that farming is superior? How do you explain the eventual demise of hunter-gatherers in much of Europe — was it violence, disease or something else entirely?

Answering some of these questions could shift our views of Western civilization itself. Another story addresses an equally profound question: Is Earth the only outpost for life in the solar system? Jupiter’s moon Europa is considered by many to be the other local spot most likely to host life. The problem, and hope, is its ice-capped ocean. Staff writer Meghan Rosen reports on efforts to build devices to pierce the thick ice and probe the waters below. Imagine the tales that await. 

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