The origin of modern Europeans

Physical anthropology is not my field at all but I have a slight interest in the genetic origins of the British population from which I personally am descended so I do occasionally note studies that attempt to enlighten us about that. I have however given up taking notice of the DNA studies as their conclusions seem to vary between saying that the English population is almost wholly Celtic and almost wholly Anglo-Saxon. My conclusion is that DNA is so complex and our understanding of it is still so slight that we will have to wait for some time before anything definitive emerges.

I was therefore rather interested to see the latest paper by Loring Brace using craniofacial measurements of ancient skulls to trace European ancestry. Such measurements do at least offer the prospect of being a lot simpler than DNA. There is an abstract of the paper here, the full paper is available here and there is a popular summary of it here. I am afraid, however, that I also find difficulties with Brace's conclusions. What Brace appears to have found is that modern Europeans are in appearance more like very ancient Europeans than the Europeans who came in between. The Europeans who came in between were the first farmers (he refers to them as "neolithic") and he says that they had heavier features than either present-day or very ancient Europeans. His explanation for his finding is that the first farmers came into Europe from the Middle East and taught the natives how to farm but then mostly died out (or at least left little genetic legacy).

That seems reasonable at first glance but if the natives soon learnt to farm from the incomers, how come most of the farmer remains are not in fact those of the natives? Surely it is absurd to claim that the natives conveniently refrained from farming until the incomers died out!

What seems a slightly more reasonable explanation to me is that the original European population evolved in two directions -- the more heavyset farmers and the more gracile hunters but, perhaps due to climatic changes, the hunters eventually took up farming too and in the process wiped out most of the original farmers -- aided in that, no doubt, by the superior fighting skills that their original hunting lifestyle had given them.

That of course leaves us with the problem of explaining how farming APPEARS to have originated in the Middle East. Time-lines that far back are however very speculative so I see no real difficulty in supposing that the first farmers in the Middle East in fact fled there from Europe.

But that still leaves the question of where the original Europeans came from. Brace believes that they gradually evolved from Neanderthals -- which conflicts with the usual view that they originated from Cro-Magnons out of Africa. Brace's data do conveniently show little affinity between Cro-Magnons and modern Europeans so that is certainly interesting. The only firm conclusion that seems to emerge from it all is that the present-day population of Europe is very ancient.

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