How did ancient farmers take over Europe?

old time european farmers
© Morphart Creation/Shutterstock

Long before the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, Europe was a land of hunter-gatherer tribes. While the Middle East was building empires, Europeans were sharpening spears and migrating with the seasons. But over the last dozen or so millennia, Europe transformed into the vast agricultural society it is today. What happened?

Previously, many assumed farmers simply drove hunter-gatherers out through warfare. Farmers kept needing more land, so they must have taken it from local tribes. But a group of scientists from Harvard Medical School, the Max Planck Institute and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences just found evidence for another option.

The scientists looked at genetic evidence for 180 farmers who lived from 6000-2200 B.C. in three locations: the Iberian Peninsula, north-central Europe and the Carpathian Basin in Eastern Europe. And the results showed farmers entered Europe from the Middle East, and then ... Hunter-gatherers and farmers had centuries of sexy fun times.

scientists examining human skull DNA© Institute of Archaeology RCH HAS, Budapest.

"We find that the hunter-gatherer admixture varied locally but more importantly differed widely between the three main regions," explained Mark Lipson, a Harvard Medical School scientists who worked on the study. "This means that local hunter-gatherers were slowly but steadily integrated into early farming communities."

That means farmers and hunter-gatherers likely lived side by side for a long time, mixing with one another.

"We found that the most probable scenario is an initial, small-scale, admixture pulse between the two populations that was followed by continuous gene flow over many centuries," explained David Reich, another Harvard Medical School professor who worked on the study.

Farmers did eventually edge out hunter-gatherers, likely because farming societies produce so many more calories and, thus, so many more people than hunter-gatherer tribes. That may be a shame for many reasons — hunter-gatherers were likely healthier, more egalitarian and enjoyed more leisurely lives than farmers. Farming also unleashed the environmental catastrophe we live in today.

But the nature of the takeover matters. People often like to fixate on humans as being violent: either proud warriors or vicious barbarians, depending on your point of view. But for the most part, humans just want to get along.

How did ancient farmers take over Europe?
Hunter-gatherers used to populate Europe before ancient farmers took over. Scientists are trying to figure out what happened.

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