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New DNA research has led credence to a theory that the spread of agriculture throughout Europe followed migration into the Mediterranean from the Near East much earlier than previously thought.

Researchers from the University of Huddersfield in the U.K. believe the migration pattern began more than 13,000 years ago during the Late Glacial period—thousands of years earlier than what was widely believed.

The researchers believe that initially the migrants were hunter-gatherers, but later developed a knowledge of agriculture from other populations from the Near East—where farming began.

They also concluded that during the Neolithic period—approximately 8,000 years ago—they began to colonize other parts of Europe, taking their farming practices with them.

The researchers used almost 1,500 mitochondrial genome lineages to date the arrival of people in different regions of Europe.

They found that in central Europe and Iberia, these could mainly be traced to the Neolithic period, but in the central and eastern Mediterranean, they predominantly dated to the much earlier during the Late Glacial period.

Professor Martin Richards of the University of Huddersfield, explained that the research team carried out the latest investigations using modern DNA samples, because in Italy and Greece there is an acute shortage of pre-Neolithic skeletal remains from which ancient samples can be taken and the warmth of the climate has resulted in low levels of preservation.

“We haven't been able to fill the gap with ancient DNA, so we found a way to get round that by looking at modern samples,” Richards said in a statement. “Instead of dating the lineages across Europe as a whole we have dated them firstly in the Mediterranean area and then we have looked at what happens if you assume that they have arrived in that area and then moved on.”

Richards said he hopes that new sources of ancient DNA in Italy and Greece will be discovered, so that his migration scenario can be tested more directly.

“In the past, it's been difficult to recover DNA from these kinds of environments but there have been so many technical developments in the recovery of ancient DNA in the last few years that I think it will happen soon,” Richards said.

The study was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.   

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