Eight thousand years ago small bands of seminomadic hunter-gatherers were the only human beings roaming Europe’s lush, green forests. Archaeological digs in caves and elsewhere have turned up evidence of their Mesolithic technology: flint-tipped tools with which they fished, hunted deer and aurochs (a now extinct species of ox), and gathered wild plants. Many had dark hair and blue eyes, recent genetic studies suggest, and the few skeletons unearthed so far indicate that they were quite tall and muscular. Their languages remain mysterious to this day.
Three millennia later the forests they inhabited had given way to fields of wheat and lentils. Farmers ruled the continent. The transition was evident even to 19th-century archaeologists, whose excavations revealed bones of domesticated animals, pottery containing remnants of grain and, most intriguing of all, graveyards whose riddles are still being solved. Agriculture not only ushered in a new economic model but also brought about metal tools, new diets and new patterns of land use, as well as novel human relationships with nature and with one another.
For 150 years scholars debated whether the farmers brought their Neolithic culture from the Middle East to Europe or whether it was only their ideas that traveled. In the early 2000s, however, geneticists such as Martin Richards, then at the University of Oxford, and others studied patterns of variation in modern genes to provide irrefutable proof that the farmers came—streaming across the Aegean Sea and the Bosporus to reach Greece and the Balkan Peninsula, respectively. From there they spread north and west. Then Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and others learned to extract DNA from ancient human remains and read it. This technological revolution enabled an unprecedented collaboration between archaeologists and geneticists, who rushed to characterize the DNA of individuals who had died in prehistoric hunter-gatherer or farmer settlements.
Since 2014, when archaeologist Cristina Gamba, then at Trinity College Dublin, and her colleagues found a hunter-gatherer bone in an early farming community in Hungary, a bewilderingly complex and multifaceted picture of the encounters between the residents and the immigrants has emerged. In some places, the two groups mingled from the time they met; in others, they kept their distance for centuries, if not millennia. Sometimes the farmers venerated their predecessors; at other times they dehumanized and subjugated them. Nevertheless, a clear trend is evident. As the decades passed and farmers increased in number, they assimilated and replaced the hunter-gatherers, pushing those who held out to the margins—both geographically and socially. Disturbingly, the progression toward greater inequality culminated, in at least a few places, in societies in which individuals with greater hunter-gatherer ancestry may have been enslaved—possibly even being sacrificed to accompany their masters to the afterlife. [Continue reading…]