The introduction of agriculture into Europe about 8,500 years ago changed the way people lived right down to their DNA.
Until recently, scientists could try to understand the way humans adapted genetically to changes that occurred thousands of years ago only by looking at DNA variation in today's populations. But our modern genomes contain mere echoes of the past that can't be connected to specific events.
Now, an international team reports in Nature that researchers can see how natural selection happened by analyzing ancient human DNA.
"It allows us to put a time and date on selection and to directly associate selection with specific environmental changes, in this case the development of agriculture and the expansion of the first farmers into Europe," said Iain Mathieson, a research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School and first author of the study.
By taking advantage of better DNA extraction techniques and amassing what is to date the largest collection of genome-wide datasets from ancient human remains, the team was able to identify specific genes that changed during and after the transition from hunting and gathering to farming.
Many of the variants occurred on or near genes that have been associated with height, the ability to digest lactose in adulthood, fatty acid metabolism, vitamin D levels, light skin pigmentation and blue eye color. Two variants appear on genes that have been linked to higher risk of celiac disease but that may have been important in adapting to an early agricultural diet.
Other variants were located on immune-associated genes, which made sense because "the Neolithic period involved an increase in population density, with people living close to one another and to domesticated animals," said Wolfgang Haak, one of three senior authors of the study, a research fellow at the University of Adelaide and group leader in molecular anthropology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
"Although that finding did not come fully as a surprise," he added, "it was great to see the selection happening in 'real time.'"
The work also supports the idea that Europe's first farmers came from ancient Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, and fills in more details about how ancient groups mixed and migrated.
"It's a great mystery how present-day populations got to be the way we are today, both in terms of how our ancestors moved around and intermingled and how populations developed the adaptations that help us survive a bit better in the different environments in which we live," said co-senior author David Reich, professor of genetics at HMS. "Now that ancient DNA is available at the genome-wide scale and in large sample sizes, we have an extraordinary new instrument for studying these questions."