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Sowing their seeds: Neolithic farmers spawned most European males

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european male farmer agriculture y chromosomeAgriculture emerged on the human cultural scene about 10,000 years ago, spreading rapidly through Europe from the Near East to the British Isles in about 4,000 years. But did this world-changing technology get disseminated via an expanding wave of industrious farmers or through word-of-mouth among local hunter-gatherer populations?

To help answer this much-debated question, researchers have peered into the genetics of modern Europeans for clues. Mark Jobling of the University of Leicester in the U.K. and his colleagues found not only that agriculture seems to have spread westward via a new group of Neolithic people from the Near East, but also that these new farmers were incredibly successful with the local ladies, leaving their genetic traces in their modern male descendents.

"We focused on the commonest Y-chromosome lineage in Europe," Jobling said in a prepared statement. The team analyzed a single haplotype, R1b1b2 (which is carried by about 110 million men in Europe today) from 2,574 European men whose families had been living in the same location for at least two generations. This common haplotype, however, is not randomly distributed across the continent. "It follows a gradient from south-east to north-west," he said. About 12 percent of men in eastern Turkey have it, whereas some 85 percent of men carry it in Ireland.

Others have previously speculated that this distribution was due to earlier, Paleolithic expansion from Africa. But Jobling and his fellow researchers asserted that it reflects a rapid, more recent genetic spread during the Neolithic—one that has a "striking" correlation with known Neolithic sites. "The geographical distribution of diversity within the haplogroup is best explained by its spread from a single source from the Near East via [Turkey] during the Neolithic," the authors concluded in their study, which was published online January 19 in PLoS Biology.

"In total, this means that more than 80 percent of European Y chromosomes descend from incoming farmers," geneticist Patricia Balaresque, also of the University of Leicester and lead study author, said in a prepared statement. "In contrast, most maternal genetic lineages seem to descend from hunter-gatherers."

How could these early European ancestors come from such different groups? "To us, this suggests a reproductive advantage for farming males over indigenous hunter-gatherer males during the switch from hunting and gathering to farming," Balaresque said. "Maybe, back then, it was just sexier to be a farmer." 

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/wrangel





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  1. 1. jonderry 3:18 pm 01/19/2010

    …or maybe the reproductive advantage was due to increased survival, and increased survival of offspring, rather than increased reproduction. Isn’t that a simpler hypothesis than guessing that hunter-gatherer women preferred farmers?

    The mixing could have been bidirectional, but the farmers were more likely to survive.

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  2. 2. panamabob 4:17 pm 01/19/2010

    Just maybe the gals like to keep their men within eyesight and earshot for the same reasons as today. Seems logical to me.

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  3. 3. clynch940 4:28 pm 01/19/2010

    …or maybe the farmers took advantage of the hunter-gatherer women while their mates were off hunting. Preference of the women probably had little to do with it.

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  4. 4. Kayaker 4:46 pm 01/19/2010

    @clynch940 – sounds reasonable and maybe the hunter-gatherer women were more physically fit aka attractive than the sedentary farmer gals.

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  5. 5. Archimedes 5:12 pm 01/19/2010

    I am going to hypothesize what is an extremely "politically incorrect" scientific statement. That is, the dynamics of the male y chromosome are such that men select mates for the purposes of "natural selection", for the purpose of and as a result of adapting to and succeeding in the natural environment, while women select mates for the purpose of "sexual selection", the fulfillment of needs exclusive of adapting to the natural environment.
    As a result of the aforementioned, in male dominated societies, humans adapted to and became more successful in meeting their needs (more successful natural adaptation) while in female dominated societies the human genome was less adaptive to the natural environment and/or actually regressed in it’s adaptive ability.
    The original article cites facts which are supportive of the aforementioned hypothesis.
    The social, economic, political, and cultural history of distinct Western nations, also, suggest this hypothesis, in my opinion.

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  6. 6. abyssalmystery 5:20 pm 01/19/2010

    Perhaps the farmers had more reproductive success because they lived in a fixed place which would be more conducive for successful childbirth and child rearing.

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  7. 7. psaltseller 7:00 pm 01/19/2010

    It is not unlikely that women who had spent their lives wandering from one place to another would find it attractive to join a group where you stayed in one place and the food came to you.

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  8. 8. 0110 12:24 am 01/20/2010

    sedentary farmer girls? must not have been near a farm growing up. It is a lot of work!

    I think the women liked the stability and availability of food/resources year round for themselves and their children instead of the unpredictability from hunting where you easily go from famine to feast. Being a hunter gather in northern Europe during the wintertime is not a good survival strategy unless you like being miserable, hungry and bloody cold for most of the year. Yes there are certainly some animals available to hunt in the wintertime, but you’d be quite surprised how scare/less abundant they are in the wintertime (I lived on the countryside in N.Europe growing up). And stalking one piece of pray for days and weeks in the snow is not efficient for the person doing so (too much energy spent for potentially no reward) nor for the group that is dependent on that hunter(s); So hunter gather is more likely a strategy that works best in warmer climates.

    Think abyssalmystery is spot on as well. Nothing like stability and availability or resources to produce like bunnies…and have that offspring successfully reach maturity and reproduce themselves. Cant help but think that this statement sounds quite similar to viruses or bacteria growing and spreading more successfully in the right environment and with the right resources…

    There is another point that is extremely politically incorrect, but fits nicely in this puzzle; did farming (and possibly combined with colder weather) spark more innovation (less focus on constantly thinking of next meal, constant calorie consumption/better brain development, more free time, more challenges to overcome with the weather)? Most hunter gather socialites in warmer/tropical weather are the same today (unless changed by the outside) as they were 2,3,5,10,000 years ago).

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  9. 9. mjoelner@get2net.dk 4:11 am 01/20/2010

    I don’t understand how they deduced the direction of travel for these "neolithic farmers"? How do we know that haplotype R1b1b2 isn’t from hunter gatherers? If only 12% in Turkey have this variant, then how can we say thats where it came from? Normally things spread from a high gradient to a low. Why is this rule now turned on its head? I certainly hope they can explain this theory better before it’s written into the history books.

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  10. 10. mjoelner@get2net.dk 4:13 am 01/20/2010

    I don’t understand how they deduced the direction of travel for these "neolithic farmers"? How do we know that haplotype R1b1b2 isn’t from hunter gatherers? If only 12% in Turkey have this variant, then how can we say thats where it came from? Normally things spread from a high gradient to a low. Why is this rule now turned on its head? I certainly hope they can explain this theory better before it’s written into the history books.

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  11. 11. Michael Hanlon 5:13 am 01/20/2010

    Women are from Venus, Men are from the Paleolithic,

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  12. 12. tharter 10:32 am 01/20/2010

    It seems pretty clear to me. You had farmers in the SW and HG’s in the NE. So imagine what happens. The farmers have 5x the population density of the HG’s. Every generation the oldest sons inherit the land and the younger sons have to go find there own. So they make war on the HGs, drive them out, capture their women, and set up farming on the new land.

    This also explains the filtering that creates the haplotype gradient. As each generation moves NE some lines of decent fail to spread and the pool of haplotypes gets smaller. The one being studied eventually predominated in the extreme NE, maybe because the founding male population there was pretty small. It is exactly what you would expect, more filtering keeps reducing the variation until only one line remains.

    The question then is "what about the farmer women?". They all stayed home with the eldest son. Probably not all of them realistically, but enough of the migrating men took HG women as mates that their genetic contribution predominated in the female lineage.

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  13. 13. tharter 10:33 am 01/20/2010

    It seems pretty clear to me. You had farmers in the SW and HG’s in the NE. So imagine what happens. The farmers have 5x the population density of the HG’s. Every generation the oldest sons inherit the land and the younger sons have to go find there own. So they make war on the HGs, drive them out, capture their women, and set up farming on the new land.

    This also explains the filtering that creates the haplotype gradient. As each generation moves NE some lines of decent fail to spread and the pool of haplotypes gets smaller. The one being studied eventually predominated in the extreme NE, maybe because the founding male population there was pretty small. It is exactly what you would expect, more filtering keeps reducing the variation until only one line remains.

    The question then is "what about the farmer women?". They all stayed home with the eldest son. Probably not all of them realistically, but enough of the migrating men took HG women as mates that their genetic contribution predominated in the female lineage.

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  14. 14. Philtron 1:18 pm 01/20/2010

    Interesting. It makes sense to me. I can think of the native americans, a nomadic people who mostly hunted for food and had to stay on the move, follow herds. On the other hand, Europeans had farming, had large stationary cities with plenty of resources… it’s more conductive to social experiences, and in more social scenarios it’s more likely to meet and, potentially, lay with more people. You can look at history and see which way proved the most successful at breeding and advancing technology, but on the other hand, perhaps the native’s had a better existence with their emphasis on nature and harmony.

    I wonder what kind of trends are apparent these days, with the dramatic changes society has gone through… I hope the genes of bar hopping d-bags aren’t running rampant now that big arms, hard abs, and bling are so popular (not to say they weren’t in the past, but it’s gone up the importance ladder compared to, say, not going hungry)

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  15. 15. Paleogirl 1:41 pm 01/20/2010

    Since hunter-gatherers are nomadic by nature and farming is a "civilised" activity, perhaps the women were attracted to the stability and predictability of farming. In hunter-gatherer societies, the males were often gone and the food supply was inconsistent. Females by nature seek security and stability so the farmer men would of course, appeal to them. It’s ironic because grains offer very poor nutrition compared to animal sources and farming at that time would have been extremely labour intensive. There is a direct correlation between degenerative diseases and the commencement of grain farming.

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  16. 16. cesarcarcamo 3:08 pm 01/20/2010

    I don’t think sexual preferences had much to do with it. I think two issues are more important here:
    1. Farming allows higher population densities and more time devoted to the development of technology. This would help farmer communities in wartime. War kills mostly men, while women from conquered communities would just be absorbed.
    2. In humans, reproductive potential of males is higher than that of females, therefore absorbing extra wombs would permit a faster population growth (or recovery after war) of a community.
    I wish the process was a was peaceful displacement due to sexual preferences, but human history tells otherwise (see the case of Amerindians after Columbus).

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  17. 17. Hadramawt 3:27 pm 01/20/2010

    It doesn’t sound too strange or unlikely. Many migrants from the Middle East, almost always males seeking greener pastures, have ensured localized patrilineages by taking wives from the local communities, but never allowing their daughters to marry locals. Their daughters could only marry men resulting from similar exchanges or from the original homeland. This sort of assymetric exchange would thus ensure the propogation of their Y-chromosomes at the expense of those of local men. Furthermore hypergamy, where females seek men who are wealthier and more privileged than themselves, i.e. farmers, and thus better able to provide for them and their offspring, would further ensure this ‘natural’ turn of events.

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  18. 18. winberly 4:52 pm 01/20/2010

    I would imagine that "farmer gals" probably got just as much exercise as the hunter/gatherer gals…farm life, especially in the Neolithic, didn’t leave much time for sittin’ around, ya know….

    I think the thing to keep in mind here is that we are talking about migration…groups of farmers would have started moving around during this time for several reasons…the need for more farm land (as more and more groups became farmers) and climatic change that occurred during this time that caused groups to go looking for "greener pastures." In many of these migratory groups, the gender ratios would have been heavily male, as more women would stay behind with their family group. Thus you have a lot of men moving into an area in need of mates. These groups had knowledge and technology that gave them a survival advantage…that’s an attractive thing to any group. Farming caught on like wildfire, EVERYONE wanted in on it, and that spells mating advantage.
    That farming brought on more stability and thus more ability to innovate is not only possible, it’s almost certainly a fact. I don’t think it’s "politically incorrect" to state that populations with more time on their hands to devote to other things beside food gathering were thus able to spend more time on inventing new technologies. Necessity is the mother of invention, but not having to devote all of your time to the next meal certainly is a big help, as well.

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  19. 19. cosmopolitan 4:11 am 01/21/2010

    Turks came to Anatolia less than 1000 years ago. While there was some mixing of turk nomads with local population, they still can not be considered ancestors of those people who farmed this region before their arrival. Naming Turkey as a country of origin of european race sends wrong political message.

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  20. 20. Michael Mendis 10:18 am 01/21/2010

    It seems to me that the "war" hypothesis and the idea of Paleolithic farmers killing off the hunter-gatherers and making off with their women does hold much water. I find it difficult to imagine farmers winning wars against the more robust, physically fit hunters, who were, after all, experts at killing. Sexual selection by females is a much more plausible hypothesis. It might be assumed that the ratio of males to females among hunter-gatherers was weighted in favour of the females, since the males were more likely to be killed in the hunt. This would leave a sizeable proportion of the female hunter-gatherer population wihout sexual partners, and therefore free to select males from the farmers who were moving in. It can also be assumed that the farmer males had a higher life-expectancy rate, since they were not exposed to the risks and dangers of the hunt and were thus less likely to get killed in their prime. This would account for the rapid spread of their genes. Finally, it might be added that farmer males would have spent more time at "home" with their wives and therefore had more opportunities for procreation and consequently had more children, who in their turn passed on the genes.

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  21. 21. jocelynm 7:38 pm 01/22/2010

    One hypothesis about the rise of agriculture is that farming predominated over hunter-gathering because it allowed higher population growth in smaller areas – if that’s true then that’s why more descendants of male farmers survived. In general female dna testing is not exact as male dna testing so I’m a bit skeptical. Since it’s not as easy to follow female dna patterns in the same way as male dna there may not be a record of female farmers in addition to hunter-gatherer/farmer population mixing. Male hunters and female gatherers are a myth by the way and even female gatherers foraged for long distances. Hunter-gatherer division of labor depends more on location than sex according to the Ohio State anthropology department with more extreme differences in labor appearing in more harsh environments. Attributing motivation to female hunter-gatherers is a bit more complicated than this article suggests. For more information see the Ohio State Anthropology wiki: http://foragers.wikidot.com/sexual-division-of-labor .

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  22. 22. rumill 11:37 pm 01/22/2010

    I think I just figured out how women paid for grocerys
    back in the good old days. I for one can’t think of a
    better reason for a "bumper" crop.

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