The heights of the first European farmers did not meet expectations

A combined study of genetics and skeletal remains shows that the shift from hunting, gathering and foraging to agriculture around 12,000 years ago in Europe may have had negative health effects, as indicated by shorter-than-expected heights among early farmers, according to an international team. of researchers.

“Recent studies have attempted to characterize the contribution of DNA to height,” said Stephanie Marciniak, research assistant professor, Penn State. “We started thinking about the long-standing questions about the shift from hunting, gathering and foraging to sedentary agriculture and decided to look at the effect on health with height as an indicator. »

Together with George H. Perry, associate professor of anthropology and biology, Penn State, and more than 40 international researchers, Marciniak examined the heights of individuals who lived before the Neolithic and in the Neolithic, Copper, Bronze, and iron. The researchers measured long bones from skeletal remains that were also sampled or already sampled for ancient DNA testing by other researchers.

The researchers created a model that used adult height, stress indicators observed in bones and ancient DNA. They also looked at genetic indications of ancestry. The researchers reported their findings in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Our approach is unique in that we used height measurements and ancient DNA taken from the same individuals,” Marciniak said.

The shift from a hunting, gathering and gathering lifestyle to a sedentary agricultural lifestyle did not occur simultaneously across Europe, but in different places at different times.

The researchers studied 167 individuals who lived between 38,000 and 2,400 years ago. This included pre-agricultural individuals, early farmers, and later farmers. They found that Neolithic individuals, taking into account their genetically indicated potential height, were on average 1.5 inches shorter than earlier individuals and 0.87 inches shorter than later individuals. They also found that the heights increased steadily through Copper – 0.77 inches, Bronze – 1.06 inches and Iron – 1.29 inches compared to Neolithic heights.

“Right now, what we know is that 80% of height comes from genetic makeup and 20% from environment,” Marciniak said. “Researchers have not yet identified all the genetic variants associated with height. »

The shift from hunting, gathering and gathering to farming hasn’t always resulted in height loss, although it does in some parts of Europe, according to Marciniak.

Marciniak and his team also looked at genetic ancestry in their study.

“There was movement of people, generally from east to west,” she said. “We wanted to account for this migration which may have brought different proportions of genetic variants associated with height. »

When the team incorporated ancestral information, they found that for the Neolithic, the decrease in height is somewhat reduced so that it is not as extreme.

“This research requires more studies with larger data sets,” Marciniak said. “Our work represents a snapshot of something that is very dynamic and very nuanced. We need to do more to see what is causing the decrease in attained height relative to predicted genetic height during the transition to agriculture.

The researchers said they believe their approach is adaptable to past human health studies and could be applied in other settings.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Czech Science Foundation, the Croatian Science Fund, the Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Grant, and the Hungarian Office for Research, Development and of innovation have supported this work. The Supercomputing Cluster at the Penn State Institute for Computational and Data Sciences performed the calculations for this project.

Source of the story:

Materials provided by Penn State. Original written by A’ndrea Elyse Messer. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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