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DNA Study: First Farmers Were Also Sailors 40

sciencehabit (1205606) writes "When hunter-gatherers in the Middle East began to settle down and cultivate crops about 10,500 years ago, they became the world's first farmers. But two new papers suggest that they were at home on both the land and the sea: Studies of ancient and modern human DNA, including the first reported ancient DNA from early Middle Eastern farmers, indicate that agriculture spread to Europe via a coastal route, probably by farmers using boats to island hop across the Aegean and Mediterranean seas."
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DNA Study: First Farmers Were Also Sailors

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  • More and more data (Score:5, Informative)

    by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @06:19PM (#47198545) Homepage

    Coming out about early humans via mitochondrial DNA sequencing. This is a hugely difficult undertaking and long thought to be impossible in any useful sense. If you are interested in how this particularly technology took off, Svante Paabo, one of the pioneers of this field, has an interesting, albeit someone self aggrandizing book Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes [] that is remarkably readable and reasonably technical at the same time.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      How does that book deal with topics that may be deemed "sensitive" in some regions, such as those involving race or the effect of genetic differences between various groups of people? In America, such research is often presented in a way that either ignores or severely limits any sort of emphasis on such matters. Some scientists actively avoid such investigation, because socially-uncomfortable discoveries may tarnish their reputation, if not put their lives at risk. Does this book present all of the scienti

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MightyYar ( 622222 )

        Bunk. The reason science doesn't emphasize racial differences is that there is no scientific basis for race. Sure, there's a gene that makes your skin brown - but it's been independently selected anywhere that the sun is bright. Sure, there's a curly hair gene - but again this has arisen spontaneously. And of course you have intermixing... if humans can travel to a place to initially populate it, then they can travel there later to mix it up with the natives. Science would not be able to classify most black

        • Paabo pretty much makes this argument. He points out that 'race' is a construct much like 'species' - outdated and not particularly useful. IIRC he does go on a bit about how it can be difficult to dance around, but much of the book is about how surprisingly difficult this whole field was to get started, both from the technical and social points of view. Not many collections wanted him to grind up significant parts of their specimens for some strange reason. The history of how Neanderthal Man was discov

          • He points out that 'race' is a construct much like 'species' - outdated and not particularly useful.

            ...unless you want to find a suitable mate. I haven't read the book but it sounds like he has it upside down to me. Xenophobia is an evolutionary trait in humans that has largely outlived it's prehistoric (probably even pre-human) usefulness. Denying our natural predisposition toward xenophobia won't help eliminate racism anymore than a priest denying his sexual urges will eliminate sex. A civilization that loudly proclaims it will not tolerate it is your only hope to control it's detrimental effect on our

            • He points out that 'race' is a construct much like 'species' - outdated and not particularly useful.

              ...unless you want to find a suitable mate.

              However, the term 'species' does have a very useful definition, ie: Organisms that can produce fertile offspring with each other.

              Species might be useful for finding a suitable mate but race isn't. I know plenty of people
              who date different races and even some who only date a race other than their own.
              xenophobia is not a evolutionary trait but more a social construct.
              The only part of xenophobia that is evolutionary is the tendency to like the familiar but
              there are also plenty of people that like the unfamiliar so it probably evens out.

            • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @09:00PM (#47199423) Homepage Journal

              We ought to be careful when ascribing an attitude like xenophobia to all of humanity, because even though it exists and even if we assume it has always been commonj, it's beside the point when it comes to the plausiblity of "race". The question isn't what people say or even think about people who are oustide their group The question is whether they'll *do* individual memebers of outside groups. And when you use genetics to rip the covers off what people have been actrually *doing* (as opposed to saying or even thinking), what you discover is what should be an unsurprising fact: they've been having sex with people they aren't supposed to be doing it with. Lots of it. For a very long time. Everywhere you look.

              So you may pick a small number of anatomical or genetic features and find a geographically coherent group where practically everyone has them. But that's *all* you've found: a geographic cluster of certain traits. You can choose a different set of traits that makes the group look very diverse. That means you have *not* found a large group of people who have descended more or less exclusively from some small primordial subgroup of humanity. Such a thing evidently doesn't exist.

      • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Tuesday June 10, 2014 @10:03AM (#47202491) Homepage Journal

        Well, I haven't read the book either, but most of the meat of your question is in the presumptions it makes. Let me address them respectfully.

        The main thrust of your post is that race is an objective reality but that studying it is politically incorrect. It is true that racial theories will tend to be dismissed as crackpottery. But there's more to it than just the bad aftertaste of Nazi pseudoscience. First, race as a scientific concept is too squishy to become a useful theory; it generates too many intuitively attractive hypotheses that can't be tested empirically; and that invites us to interpret myth as fact.

        Case in point: the Germans. My sister married into a family from Germany, and my daughter lived for awhile in Hamburg and made many friends there, and guess what? That's an awful lot of blue eyes and fair hair. The temptation is to think this is the genetic heritage of the "German Race"; that it comes down to them from a small group of fair haired, blue-eyed proto Germans in the far distant past. But there's no *evidence* to support that; it's just a satisfyingly simple myth.

        There are nomads in very "Yellow race" looking Central Asian steppe tribes that have blond hair and blue eyes. Aha! Some adventuring proto-German probably spread his wild oats on the Silk Road! But that's the *myth* speaking. The facts are *equally* consistent with the genes flowing the other way, or flowing to both places from a third source, say the Slavs. Even if we presume that the sharing of these features is due to interbreeding, the facts don't support one scenario over the other. Julius Caesar doesn't mention the appearance of Germans in his account of the Gallic Wars in 51 BC; they might have been light-skinned, fair skin and blue eyed as many Germans are today. But they *equally likely* might have been none of those things. A few hundred years would easily suffice for such features to go from rare to very common in such a small population.

        But the idea of "race" as we have received it is very definite on the matter. Take the case of one Frederic Austin Ogg, an otherwise intelligent and educated historian writing at the height of the respectability of "racial science":

        For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all trace of intermarriage with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves.

        Yes, but *why* did he believe this? What evidence did he have?

        Well, we now have genetic information now to address the question of how racially pure of the Germans are. The answer is, "not very". There was plenty of "intermarriage" (or at least inter-boinking) going on between Germans and others, even apparently *Africans*, although not necessarily *directly*. But the genes don't care, they just spread themselves as far and wide as they can. And that's the norm with humanity: populations are too genetically permeable for pure-bred peoples or "races" to exist.

        If you go beyond a few superficial features to the whole spectrum of genes, the various three and five race divisions of the human race that were concocted in the 19th and early 20th C all fall apart, and a more complicated picture of extensive interbreeding emerges.

        That should be a final nail in the coffin of "race", but science provides one more, a painful rejection for advocates of racial purity and self-love: Most of the genetic diversity in the human race resides within black Africans. So if you were to start with the *genes* and divided humanity into five "great races", what you'd end up with is four somewhat arbitrarily grouped African races and one catch-all race for everyone else in the world (e.g. Germans and Celts would be in the same category as Dravian Indians and Australian Aborignes).

        Now any one can see dividing humanity up into "races" this way is useless, but in fact there's actually *more* factual support for this than any of the three race or five race schemes of 19

  • It's widely understood at this point that the Clovis culture long pre-dated the arrival of the ancestors of today's Native Americans. And there's more and more evidence showing that there was a "pre-Clovis" culture that pre-dated even the Clovis.

    This discovery supports the theory that the Americas were populated by seafarers long, long before the ancestors of today's Native Americans drove the Clovis people to extinction, and before the Clovis exterminated the pre-Clovis population.

    This also raises the obvi

    • You seem to have a strange notion of "widely understood"...
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09, 2014 @06:58PM (#47198715)

      Calling Clovis a "culture" when its sole defining characteristic is a common utilitarian lithic assmblage is akin to saying the Chinese and Europeans are the same culture because we both use hammers. And by extension, it makes zero sense to say that any given population was exterminated because new technologies became commonplace. Did the Japanese culture simply disappear after adopting Western technologies following Perry's visit to Tokyo Harbor? The pre-conquest settlement of the New World was accomplished through several waves of eastern migrations from the Asian continent with possible lesser contributions via Oceania. As new settlers arrived, they were absorbed into the populations already existing there, adopting existing lifeways and/or making contributions of their own. Clovis technology was particularly well-adapted to the ecology of the American continents at the time, since Pleistocene megafauna were still abundant at the time, presenting an abundant and relatively easily exploited protein source. Of course it became ubiquitous across the many culturally distinct groups that doubtlessly lived in the Americas at the time. As the megafauna disappeared, so did the big-game lifeway and its corresponding tech. No "exterminaton" hypotheses necessary.

      There is also absolutely ZERO credible evidence, archaeological or genetic, that Africans or Mediterraneans made any forays into the New World prior to the age of exploration, or that any large-scale population extermination occurred prior to the arrival of Europeans. While smaller-scale massacres are attested, these only occurred long after the continent was fully settled and represent the results of conflicts between established societies, all of whom are genetically related to today's "Native Americans."

      Yes, I am an archaeologist.

    • This discovery supports the theory that the Americas were populated by seafarers long, long before the ancestors of today's Native Americans drove the Clovis people to extinction, and before the Clovis exterminated the pre-Clovis population.

      What? It does nothing of the sort. And your reading of the current trend in the literature is incorrect. The 'widely understood' theory (this month anyway) is that the Berengia hypothesis - that is the 'original' humans on the American continent came from the land bridge between Asia and Alaska - is most likely correct.

      But this particular find doesn't speak at all to that issue.

    • I certainly don't agree with any claims to great land masses based upon some vague genetic connection. Now watery tarts throwing swords, I understand that!
  • Farming and sailing are for those who can't punch [].

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Amazing how many places they settled.

  • Water lovers (Score:2, Informative)

    by TapeCutter ( 624760 )
    Even before boats and rafts were invented, humans have always expanded their territory along the coast and up the rivers, we were never fond of living in the woods and it takes a certain level of technology to navigate over deserts and high mountains. The ancient trade routes followed the people along the coast, before boats they could not cross large rivers, so they went up one river bank and came down the other side.

    The first maps for exploring the interior of a continent were carved in stone by Austra
  • Look, I can handle ancient farmers, but sailors, too? Come on! Next you'll be telling me they used language. The things you people believe!

    • by TarPitt ( 217247 )

      Of course they used language. Early seafarers used terms like "Arr" and "Avast", hence the pirate-like roots of most modern languages.

  • People settled further out on the continental shelf near the seashore before the last glaciers melted. Sea level was significantly lower.

    Archeology tends to underestimate the first time a technology is developed. Only a few may have ben using it in now-lost areas the first centuries. For example genetic evidence suggest body lie and clothing developed nearly 80K years ago. But we have sewing artifacts less than half that period.
  • by lagomorpha2 ( 1376475 ) on Monday June 09, 2014 @07:46PM (#47198973)

    Wouldn't a simpler idea be that human tribes generally developed boats before agriculture? I mean there are plenty of hunter gatherer societies that have boats but don't have agriculture. And I'm pretty sure it's easier to build a raft than it is to breed plants suitable to repeated cultivation.

  • Some crops are so easy to grow that it would be next to impossible not to farm them even by accident. Other crops are difficult and take a lot of luck to produce. Gather some cotton and work it by hand to remove the seeds and drop a few seeds and see what happens. Cotton can almost grow on an excuse. Gather some guava and spit the seeds or cast away a guava fruit with a worm in it and you will probably have a guava plant soon in that spot. The little cherry tomatoes sprout from bird droppings in all ki
  • Not the first farmers. Early European civilization certainly arrived by sea from the Middle East and invasion/colonization from the sea was repeated many times. It is not terribly shocking to think that agriculture could also have arrived initially by sea. However, that is a very different thing than claiming that the first farmers in the Middle East were also sailors. A thousand years or more could have passed between the beginning of farming in the Middle East and the transmission of that technology t

  • Maybe the first agriculture just went from one fertile river delta to the next? Those happen to be on or near the coastlines.

    Unless they have dug up some boats from 10,000 years ago, I don't see any evidence of actual sailing.

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