Research highlight

Palaeontology: Hunter gatherers bring home the bacon

Nature Communications

August 28, 2013

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Europe acquired domestic pigs around 7,000 years ago reports a paper published in Nature Communications. The work proposes that these pigs may have been accessed through contact with neighbouring agricultural communities and suggests that domesticated animals were present in the region around 500 years earlier than previously thought.

From around 12000 BC indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who were noted for collecting and hunting wild prey, habited Europe. By contrast, incoming Neolithic farming communities, who migrated to the region from the south between 5500 and 4200 BC, exploited domestic plants and animals such as sheep, goat, cattle, and pigs. A long period of co-existence has been documented between Mesolithic and Neolithic communities and while it seems some communication occurred between the groups - suggested by pottery and tool finds - the hunter gatherers appear to have maintained their own lifestyle, which was distinct from their agricultural neighbours.

There is a lack of evidence to suggest that Late Mesolithic hunter-gatherers had access to domestic animals others than dogs. Almut Nebel and colleagues carry out ancient DNA analysis to determine whether Mesolithic hunter-gathers of northern Germany did in fact acquire domestic animals from their early Neolithic neighbours in the south. They look at teeth from 63 pig specimens and find evidence that pigs existed with both Near Eastern and European mitochondrial DNA ancestry. They also note variation in the MC1R gene, which is associated with coat colour in many modern day domestic breeds and is used as a marker of hybridisation between wild and domestic pigs. The presence of this gene leads the authors to conclude that domestic pigs of varying sizes and colours were exploited by Mesolithic populations much earlier than was previously thought.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms3348

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