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Mitochondrial DNA Reveals Origin of Near Eastern Farmers

Jun 09, 2014 11:48 AM EDT
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Middle Euphrates basin, Syria
Researchers for the first time have sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of Near Eastern farmers, revealing the origins of their transformation to the agricultural lifestyle.
(Photo : Dr. Alejandro Pérez-Pérez)

Researchers for the first time have sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of Near Eastern farmers, revealing the origins of their transformation to the agricultural lifestyle.

Experts analyzed samples from three sites located in the birthplace of Neolithic agricultural practices: the Middle Euphrates basin and the oasis of Damascus, located in today's Syria and dating back to about 8,000 BC.

"Neolithic" is a profound social, cultural and economic transformation of human populations, such as the shift to agricultural production and sedentary farming lifestyle, as well as the origin of the first cities and modern societies. These practices originated around 12,000 years ago in a region of the Near East known as the Fertile Crescent.

Eva Fernández, first author of the article, explains in a press release that "the Neolithic Revolution rapidly expanded from these territories into Europe, where the hunter-gatherer subsistence economy - prevailing till then - was replaced by an agropastoral producing system."

Whether the Neolithic was a population migration process or a cultural adoption has been widely debated for the last fifty years.

Until now, the genetic composition of first Neolithic populations was one of the mysteries of science. Researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA - which is maternally inherited - from samples of the first Neolithic farmers.

The results "are the first ones regarding first Near Eastern farmers; in other words, the genetic stock of original Neolithic," Professor Daniel Turbón points out.

According to conclusions, Neolithic expansion probably took place through pioneer migrations of small groups of population. Moreover, the two main migration routes - Mediterranean and European - might have been genetically linked.

"The most significant conclusion," Fernández said, "is that the degree of genetic similarity between the populations of the Fertile Crescent and the ones of Cyprus an Crete supports the hypothesis that Neolithic spread in Europe took place through pioneer seafaring colonization, not through a land-mediated expansion through Anatolia, as it was thought until now."

The findings were published in the journal PLOS Genetics.

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