The Origin of Farming in Europe: A View from the Y Chromosome

This guest post is by Roy King, who is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and a research colleague of Stanford geneticist and 23andMe scientific adviser Peter Underhill. Roy and Peter have been using genetics to trace the spread of agriculture from the Near East to Europe.

The question of how agriculture first arose and spread in Europe has perplexed archaeologists and geneticists alike for decades. Evidence for farming communities in Greece, Crete, the Balkans, Southern Italy, and Mediterranean France and Spain first appears in the archaeological record eight to nine thousand years ago with the appearance of domesticated wheat, barley, sheep, goats and cows, and a related culture featuring pottery and anthropomorphic figurines. Before this period, most of the indigenous people of Europe fished, hunted small game or foraged for their livelihood. But how did farming get to Europe in the first place? We know that 2,000 years before agriculture hit Europe, just after the end of the Ice Age, people living in the Near East had already developed farming, with the domestication of wild species of grasses, goats and cattle likely beginning in the fertile river valleys in present-day northern Iraq, Syria and southeastern Turkey. Near Eastern farmers also settled in villages and produced pottery and ceramic human figurines similar to the ones later found across Mediterranean Europe. So did the first farmers of the Near East hop into boats with their domesticated plants, animals and artistic motifs and colonize Mediterranean Europe? Or did native Europeans learn about farming through trade with the Near East and decide to adopt this agricultural economy too? Genetic studies are starting to provide answers to this enduring question. Not only do genetic studies of sheep, goats, cows and wheat demonstrate that the European varieties are subtypes of the species found in the Near East, but data from the human Y chromosome suggest that people currently living in Southern Europe are descended in large part (at least through the paternal line) from the Near East. This suggests, at least for the Mediterranean areas of Europe, that the most probable scenario is that Near Eastern farmers did actually move into Europe, bringing farming with them. 23andMe has a Y chromosome marker on its custom chip, rs34126399, which captures the spread of agriculture from the Near East to Europe. The G state at rs34126399 is found in most individuals carrying paternal haplogroup J2a, whose origin can ultimately be traced to Turkey 15,000 to 20,000 years ago. Southern Turkey is the likeliest source for the initial domestication of wheat.

In the millennia after its appearance in Turkey, rs34126399G then experienced a population growth and spread westward into the eastern Mediterranean and eastward into Mesopotamia, Iran and northern Egypt. The map to the right shows the present-day distribution of rs34126399G in Europe and the Middle East. In addition to its high frequency in the Near East, rs34126399G is present in 10 to 25% of the population of southern Greece and Italy, Crete, Sicily, Bulgaria and Romania. The concentration is an indication of the early spread of farming to these regions, where the climate of wet winters and hot dry summers suited the varieties of winter wheat that were first domesticated. Since the initial movement of people associated with the origins of agriculture nearly 10,000 years ago, there has been persistent contact and trade throughout the Mediterranean. Just think of the Mediterranean diet – rich in olive oil, goat cheese, and red wine – all of whose origins can be traced to these regions. One archaeologist described the Mediterranean Sea figuratively as a giant bathtub that for millennia has permitted easy seafaring transit from one area to another. The genetic evidence appears to support that analogy.
  • Subho

    The pattern of spread of agriculture in the Mediterranean is very interesting, although hardly surprising for three reasons. First, after last Ice age human as well as other animals started migrating out of Africa, along the Fertile Crescent into Europe and Asia; and the pattern exists for several undomesticated animals too. Second, the east-west spread of the plain provided favourable climate, and facilitated human to reproduce their newly developed skills of agriculture as they migrated. There are examples in other parts of the world (e.g. south America) where art of agriculture has been reinvented over and over again. Third, rapid deterioration of climate in sub-Saharan Africa and Arabian peninsula, and retreat of glaciation in Europe maintained a steady stream of migrating people, giving rise to the currently observed gradient.

    Such events, in combination favoured the spread of agriculture from the Fertile Crescent to the Mediterranean Europe.

  • Bschrack

    Hi Dr. King,

    Bonnie Schrack here, of the Y-Haplogroup J Project, and I was just alerted to this fascinating posting by a fellow researcher on J2. Thanks for sharing the news! When you say rs34126399 is derived in most of J2a, what immediately springs to mind is that this SNP could be equivalent to the DYS413 deletion, defining J2a1. Do you think so?

    Your nice map, showing “the present-day distribution of rs34126399G,” suggests that quite a few population samples have already been tested for this SNP. Or have you just discovered that all samples with DYS413≤18 that you’ve tested for rs34126399 have the G allele, and concluded that the maps showing the distribution of J2a1 are good for the SNP as well?

    If you have been able to test many population samples for rs34126399, I’ll look forward very much to seeing an upcoming paper describing your findings!

    As you may have heard, there is already a SNP in testing as a probable equivalent of DYS413≤18, called S57, but the rs number hasn’t been released. So far all samples tested for S57 show an exact equivalence to the DYS413 deletion. So it will be interesting to eventually discover the relationship between S57 and rs34126399.

    I’m also very interested in the small minority of J2a who do not belong to J2a1, and would be most interested in seeing any data you have gathered showing their distribution. I’ve been collecting their fascinating haplotypes for some time now.

    I hope that as more members of J2 are tested by 23andMe and similar companies, we’ll be able to discover further significant SNPs. Please keep us posted!

  • royking

    Dear Ms. Schrack,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are indeed correct — according to tests we conducted in Dr. Peter Underhill’s laboratory at Stanford University, rs34126399G is equivalent to the DYS413 deletion that defines J2a1. Thus the map reflects both the distribution of the DYS413 deletion and rs34126399G. As I wrote in the blog, rs34126399G captures the circum-Mediterranean migration of the first farmers in Europe and the Near East. Those individuals who are J2a and ancestral at rs34126399, although less frequently present in European and Mid-Eastern populations, do constitute a fascinating subgroup whose population history remains to be determined.

    I want to express my appreciation to you and others who organize and analyze data from the Y-Haplogroup J Project. I view your important work as complementary to that of academic population genetic laboratories. In general, we have access to several populations and can discover new SNPs, but we lack access to the many YSTRs that your clientele is genotyped for. Like sophisticated detectives, you can discover possible YSTR patterns that push us to search for underlying SNPs that may encompass them. With companies like 23andMe, you can have rapid access to most of the posted and published YSNPs and garner more information complementary to your YSTR information. Your project, thus, pushes forward the horizon of knowledge about Y chromosome population history.

  • Just found out we are Y “J”. Very interesting.

    We would like to join and learn more

    Thanks for your effort.


    To Royking,

    Please elaborate on the meaning of the phrase “captures the spread of agriculture”.

    Royking wrote: “23andMe has a Y chromosome marker on its custom chip, rs34126399, which captures the spread of agriculture from the Near East to Europe. The G state at rs34126399 is found in most individuals carrying paternal haplogroup J2a”

    “The J1e and J2a possible Cohen clusters (only one of them could indicate ancestry from Aaron), when including those tested who are of Sephardi background, have been estimated as descending from most recent common ancestors living 3,200 ± 1,100 and 4,200 ± 1,300 years ago respectively. Ashkenazis only have been estimated by the same article as descending from most recent common ancestors living 2,400 ± 800 and 3,800 ± 1,200 years ago respectively.”

    Were the farmers who immigrated from the Fertile Crescent to Europe followed by merchants, Cohen priests and slavers who belong to Haplogroup J2a (I read in a book authored and published in Israel that Hebrews bought and sold Slavs, whose name comes from the word slave).

    “According to the article at about members of Haplogroup R1b1b2 (R-M269): “The distribution of this lineage, the diversity within it, and estimates of its age all suggest that it spread with farming from the Near East. Taken with evidence on the origins of other lineages, this indicates that most European Y chromosomes descend from Near Eastern farmers… Previous studies suggested a Paleolithic origin, but here we show that the geographical distribution of its microsatellite diversity is best explained by spread from a single source in the Near East via Anatolia during the Neolithic.”

  • whitedesert

    haplogroup J is in greatest concentration in southwestern arabian peninsula and J1 group would suddenly collapse when crossing arabic speaking countries borders.