National Geographic Society Newsroom

Asian Invaders Showed Europeans how to Farm, Graveyard Study Finds

International researchers led by ancient DNA experts from the University of Adelaide, Australia, said today that they had settled the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8,000 years ago. DNA carefully extracted from a complete graveyard of Early Neolithic farmers unearthed at the town of Derenburg in...

International researchers led by ancient DNA experts from the University of Adelaide, Australia, said today that they had settled the longstanding issue of the origins of the people who introduced farming to Europe some 8,000 years ago.

DNA carefully extracted from a complete graveyard of Early Neolithic farmers unearthed at the town of Derenburg in Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany, suggests that farming was introduced to Europe from people living in the Ancient Near East.

The detailed genetic study of one of the first farming communities in Europe, from central Germany, reveals marked similarities with populations living in the Ancient Near East (modern-day Turkey, Iraq and other countries) rather than those from Europe, the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide said in a news statement about the research.

“This overturns current thinking, which accepts that the first European farming populations were constructed largely from existing populations of hunter-gatherers, who had either rapidly learned to farm or interbred with the invaders,” said project leader Professor Alan Cooper, director of ACAD.


Caption: First farmer of the Linear Pottery Culture in Neolithic Central Europe. Illustration: Karol Schauer, State Museum of Prehistory in Halle (Saale), Saxony-Anhalt, Germany.

The results of the study were published today in the online peer-reviewed science journal PLoS Biology.

Invaders With Revolutionary Ideas

“We have finally resolved the question of who the first farmers in Europe were–invaders with revolutionary new ideas, rather than populations of Stone Age hunter-gatherers who already existed in the area,” said Wolfgang Haak, lead author and senior research associate with ACAD at the University of Adelaide.

“We’ve been able to apply new, high-precision ancient DNA methods to create a detailed genetic picture of this ancient farming population, and reveal that it was radically different to the nomadic populations already present in Europe.

“We have also been able to use genetic signatures to identify a potential route from the Near East and Anatolia, where farming evolved around 11,000 years ago, via south-eastern Europe and the Carpathian Basin (today’s Hungary) into Central Europe,” Haak said.

Archaeology and Genetics Combined

“This work was only possible due to the close collaboration of archaeologists excavating the skeletons, to ensure that no modern human DNA contaminated the remains, and nicely illustrates the potential when archaeology and genetics are combined,” said Kurt Werner Alt, a professor at the collaborating Institute of Anthropology in Mainz, Germany.

The study involved researchers from the University of Mainz and State Heritage Museum in Halle, Germany, the Russian Academy of Sciences and members of the National Geographic Society’s Genographic Project, of which Cooper is a principal investigator and Haak is a senior research associate.

Revolutionary Moment

Genographic Project Director Spencer Wells commented: “This is a valuable insight into a revolutionary moment in European prehistory, when humanity left behind its ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adopted farming.”

The Genographic Project led by National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells and a team of international scientists and IBM researchers, uses genetic and computational technologies to analyze historical patterns in DNA from participants around the world to better understand human genetic roots.

Wells examines the transition to agriculture, and its ongoing effects on human biology and culture, in his book Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. (Read a blog post by Spencer Wells: Planting the seeds of human destiny.) 

“We’ve always recognized the profound cultural significance of this transition, which led to development of what we think of as ‘civilization,'” Wells said in an email to Nat Geo News Watch today.

“Through the ancient DNA analysis carried out by our Adelaide team we’ve now gained an insight into the genetic transition that accompanied it.

“The study highlights the power of incorporating ancient DNA results into our growing collection of genetic data from modern populations, and we anticipate that in the future these methods will provide important insights into the dynamics of other key cultural shifts in human history.”

Join Nat Geo News Watch community

Readers are encouraged to comment on this and other posts–and to share similar stories, photos and links–on the Nat Geo News Watch Facebook page. You must sign up to be a member of Facebook and a fan of the blog page to do this.

Leave a comment on this page

You may also email David Braun ( if you have a comment that you would like to be considered for adding to this page. You are welcome to comment anonymously under a pseudonym.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn