Dienekes is arguing that Middle Eastern farmers demographically replaced Europe’s original population between 8,000 and 3,000 years ago. This argument seems to be proven by two recent papers that show no genetic continuity between Europe’s late hunter-gatherers and early farmers. The continent’s current gene pool seems to owe very little to the original Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic inhabitants. So goes his argument.
This argument raises one obvious problem. It implies that the physical characteristics of Europeans, especially northern Europeans, arose recently and over a short time.
How short? As late as 7500 years ago, hunter-fisher-gatherers still inhabited Europe above a line running from the Netherlands to the Black Sea. The line then gradually moved north, reaching northern Germany about 5500 BP and the eastern and northern agricultural areas of Scandinavia around 4300 BP. This leaves very little time for the evolution of the northern European phenotype, i.e., lightening of the skin to pinkish-white and diversification of hair and eye color into a wide range of hues. This phenotype is attested by historical records going back over two thousand years, so we’re left with a time window of less than five thousand years.
Is that enough time for so much phenotypic change? Perhaps, but the selection pressures would have to be very strong.
Let’s turn to the first of the two papers. Bramanti et al. (2009) compared mtDNA sequences from late hunter-gatherers and early farmers who had lived in northern and central Europe (Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Germany). There was no evidence of genetic continuity between the two populations.
But this paper raises several other points:
1. Modern Europeans are almost as distant genetically from the early farmers as they are from the late hunter-gatherers. To be ancestral to modern Europeans, these farmers and their descendents would need a very low female population size (less than 3,000 individuals). As the authors admit, this figure is well below current archaeological estimates (124,000 individuals).
2. The sample sizes are very small for the early farmers (25 individuals) and the late hunter-gatherers (20 individuals).
3. The sample of late hunter-gatherers covers a much longer time frame (15,400 – 4300 BP) than does the sample of early farmers (7650 – 7400 BP).
In sum, the authors have tried to describe the gene pool of late European hunter-gatherers with data from 20 individuals spread over four countries and over some 11,000 years.
Can such a sample be representative? Doubtful. Besides the smallness of the sample, the late hunter-gatherers were not a homogeneous population. By their time, Europe had completely changed ecologically. Open tundra had given way to forest and it was no longer possible to hunt wandering herds of reindeer. Hunter-gatherers now lived in smaller and more localized groups. Each group would have had its own genetic profile as a result of genetic drift and founder effects.
Even if these 20 individuals fairly represented late hunter-gatherers, the genetic continuity hypothesis is not disproved by genetic differences between them and early farmers. Undoubtedly, some hunter-gatherers adopted farming earlier than others and thus contributed more to the early farmer gene pool. Others never adopted farming and thus contributed nothing. Founder effects would have been considerable.
There are thus two serious problems with Bramanti et al. (2009):
1. The sample of late hunter-gatherers is too small and too scattered over space and time to be representative of the late hunter-gatherer gene pool;
2. The genetic continuity hypothesis does not assume that the early farmer gene pool was a representative cross-section of the late hunter-gatherer gene pool.
Let’s turn to the other paper. Malmström et al. (2009) retrieved mtDNA from 19 late hunter-gatherers and 3 early farmers who lived in southern Scandinavia. The late hunter-gatherers show no genetic continuity with the early farmers or with modern Scandinavians but they do show genetic continuity with modern Baltic populations (i.e., Latvians). This seems consistent with archaeological evidence that the eastern Baltic was a refugium for Europe’s last hunter-gatherers. Indeed, the inland boundaries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Old Prussia may hark back to a time when these people fished and sealed from coastal stations part of the year and then moved some distance inland to hunt game the rest of the year.
This study has the merit of being more narrowly focused in time and space. Like the other study, however, it suffers from very small sample sizes and the likelihood of founder effects. In fact, the early farmer sample is so small that genetic continuity with modern Scandinavians is unsure.
The challenge now will be to enlarge this sample of late hunter-gatherers. By ‘enlarge’, I don’t simply mean a larger sample. I also mean a larger number of geographic locations to be sampled. Late hunter-gatherers were a heterogeneous bunch. Some contributed a lot to the future gene pool. Others went extinct.
The ‘losers’ were small inland hunting bands with low population densities. They were less able to integrate agriculture into their nomadic way of life and also more likely to retreat in the face of much larger farming communities.
The ‘winners’ were semi-sedentary coastal groups with relatively high population densities. Because such groups depended more on fishing and sealing than on hunting and gathering, they could more readily integrate farming into their lifestyle, if only as a secondary subsistence activity. They were also more numerous and likelier to withstand encroachment by farming communities.
Bramanti, B., M.G. Thomas, W. Haak, M. Unterlaender, P. Jores, K. Tambets, I. Antanaitis-Jacobs, M.N. Haidle, R. Jankauskas, C.-J. Kind, F. Lueth, T. Terberger, J. Hiller, S. Matsumura, P. Forster, & J. Burger. (2009). Genetic discontinuity between local hunter-gatherers and Central Europe’s first farmers, Science, 326, 137-140
Malmström, H., M.T.P. Gilbert, M.G. Thomas, M. Brandström, J. Storå, P. Molnar, P.K. Andersen, C. Bendixen, G. Holmlund, A. Götherström, & E. Willerslev (2009). Ancient DNA Reveals Lack of Continuity between Neolithic Hunter-Gatherers and Contemporary Scandinavians, Current Biology, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.09.017