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Europe's first farmers

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People migrating from the Middle East brought farming techniques to present-day Germany and other parts of central Europe about 7,500 years ago. For years, scientists have been arguing over whether people with European ancestors are closely related to these first farmers. Some scientists say yes. Others say no – and argue instead that people with European roots are closely related to the humans who lived in Europe long before the first farmers showed up.

New research supports the idea that people who trace their ancestors back to Europe are not closely related to the very first European farmers.

This study by Wolfgang Haak from Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz in Mainz, Germany and his colleagues appears in the 11 November 2005 issue of the journal Science.

The scientists suggest that the following chain of events might have happened.

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Small pioneering groups of farmers may have carried agriculture into new areas of Europe already populated by people known as "hunter-gatherers." As the name suggests, hunter-gatherers fed themselves by hunting animals and gathering fruits, nuts and other foods. Once the pioneer farmers successfully started farming in these areas, the surrounding hunting-and-gathering people may have started farming too. If this happened, then the people who just picked up the farming culture might have outnumbered the original farming pioneers.

A variety of archeological discoveries support different parts of this explanation for the mystery of who the primary ancestors of Europeans are. But more research needs to be done before researchers can say for sure that this is what happened.

As for their own discovery, the researchers from Germany, the United Kingdom and Estonia successfully pulled genetic material called DNA from 24 skeletons. These skeletons are from 16 locations in the central European countries of Germany, Austria and Hungary. The DNA showed that a surprisingly large number of these skeletons are from a group of related humans or "lineage" that is extremely rare today.

The scientists took the genetic information about the skeletons from this lineage, analyzed it, and concluded that early farmers are probably not the primary ancestors of people whose family roots are in Europe.