September 6 2019
Early farmer migration. Integrating archaeology and palaeogenomics
Gabriel de Mortillet in 1879 was perhaps the first prehistorian to explicitly suggest an unbroken chain of ‘neolithic’ migration across Southwest Asia into Europe, based on the distinctly ‘brachycephalic’ shape of Neolithic-period skulls in the Swiss lake-dwellings and the distribution of domestic animals in Eurasia. This ‘Alpine’ man, who was thought to have originated in Central Asia, perhaps as far east as the Hindu Kush, the western slopes of the Himalayas, became the prototype of the European Neolithic farmer – a narrative which was later rebranded and passed on to the 20th century by V. Gordon Childe through the story of the neolithic ‘revolution’ (Childe 1936).
Fast forward eighty years and we are still searching for the great Neolithic migration across Asia, usually described as the ‘spread of farming’ and sometimes conflated with the expansion of the Indo-Europeans. We no longer believe that European agriculture originated in Central Asia, but all the evidence, from archaeobotany to ancient DNA and C14 dating unequivocally point to Southwest Asia as the cradle of Old World agriculture. Meanwhile, recent ancient DNA studies suggest that Central European farmers originated in Anatolia and only marginally admixed with indigenous hunter-gatherer populations – making Neolithic migrations, if not outright ‘massive’, at least decisive.
In line with the theme of the conference, this contribution will ask why we cannot escape the neolithic ‘revolution’ paradigm and the story of its great migration to the west. But we will see that there is a twist. Where we might have expected Southwest Asia to behave as a single gene pool for all Eurasian Neolithic farmers, current ancient DNA studies point to a split: Anatolian, Iranian and South Levantine farming populations are all clearly distinguished on the PCA of genetic diversity. Suddenly the chain of migration is broken and the picture becomes complex.