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Study Casts Doubt on Europeans' Ancestral Link to Fertile Crescent

November 12, 2005|Alex Raksin | Times Staff Writer

Europeans are most closely related to the Stone Age hunter-gatherers who arrived on the continent 40,000 years ago -- not, as many archeologists have long surmised, the adept migrants from the Fertile Crescent who introduced agriculture to the continent 7,500 years ago.

That's the conclusion of the first detailed analysis of maternally inherited DNA extracted from 24 of the migrant farmers' skeletons.

The study was published Friday in the journal Science.

"We were surprised to find close to zero" resemblance between the early farmers' genes and those of modern Europeans, said Peter Forster, an archeologist at Britain's University of Cambridge who coauthored the study.

Although the farmers from the Middle East transformed European culture, bringing agriculture, distinctive pottery and advanced building techniques, the genetic mark they left is minuscule.

"In the worldwide database of 35,000 modern DNA lineages, there are fewer than 50 modern Europeans" with the farmers' DNA, Forster said.

The new data, however, clash with analyses of paternally inherited DNA, derived from the Y chromosomes of living Europeans.

Those genetic analyses suggest that the farmers may have contributed up to half of the European gene pool.

R. Alexander Bentley, an anthropologist at Britain's Durham University, said there may be an easy way to resolve the conflict.

"A simple explanation for the difference is that indigenous hunter-gatherer females intermarried" with early farmers, he said. Thus, maternally inherited DNA would show a connection to the hunter-gatherers, while paternally inherited DNA would be linked to the farmers.

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