Most Europeans can trace their roots back to two ancient groups of huntergatherers, rather than the Neolithic farmers who settled more recently, say geneticists. Researchers have found that 80 per cent of modern European men have inherited their Y-chromosomes from Paleolithic ancestors who lived between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago.
Modern Europeans have long been thought to descend from a mix of local Paleolithic huntergatherers and Neolithic farmers, who arrived from the Near East after the invention of agriculture. But no one knew for sure whether these newcomers replaced most of the locals, or whether the hunter-gatherers learned to farm and trade. Palaeoanthropologists have welcomed the work, but are skeptical about some of its more detailed conclusions.
“It’s very important, and moves us on a great deal,” says Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London. However, he adds that genetic dating methods are only estimates, and probably can’t be used to pin particular genetic lineages to particular cultures.
Strong Chromosomes Ancestors
The Y chromosome is passed only from father to son. By comparing 22 genetic mutations, or markers, on the Y-chromosomes of over 1000 European men, the team built up a family tree of ancient populations. They found that 80 per cent of the men fell into four of 10 Y chromosome ‘variant’ groups. These four groups were descended from two ancient lineages. One of the most important findings is that the older of these two lineages is linked to people who spread to Europe from Central Asia 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, says Giuseppe Passarino of Stanford University, who was involved in the study.
These first migrants probably established the Aurignacian culture – an advanced group that developed sophisticated rock art painting and tools. Around half of modern European men are descended from these people. The second lineage represents a second wave of migrants, which came from the Middle East about 25,000 years ago. The researchers link this group with a people called the Gravettian. Finally, about 9000 years ago, Neolithic farmers migrated to Europe from the Middle East. But only about 20 per cent of modern European men can trace their ancestry to these people.