Europe’s First Farmers Mysteriously Disappeared 5,000 Years Ago – Scientists May Have Discovered Why

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Frälsegården Passage Grave Skeleton

One of the complete skeletons found in the Frälsegården passage grave (Individual B/FRA043). The skeleton is that of a 30-40 year old woman, who is related only in the second degree to individuals in the kinship tree. According to strontium isotopes in her teeth, she was born outside the sedimentary geology of Falbygden, probably in a neighbouring region in western Sweden. The skull was removed earlier during the excavation. Credit: Karl-Göran Sjögren

Old DNA Bones and teeth show that the plague contributed to a population decline in the Stone Age. New research challenges previous assumptions and suggests that the plague was affecting European populations long before the major outbreaks of the Middle Ages.

In the 14th century, Europe was struck by the so-called ‘Black Death’, which killed almost a third of the population.

But the plague had already arrived in Scandinavia thousands of years earlier. According to new research from the University of Copenhagen, the plague may have caused an epidemic, despite several theories to the contrary.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, researchers from the Globe Institute analyzed DNA from ancient teeth and bones of 108 individuals who died 5,000 years ago.

“The analyses show that 18 of these individuals, 17 percent, were infected with the plague when they died. Furthermore, our results suggest that the youngest plague strain we identify may have had epidemic potential,” says postdoc Frederik Seersholm, who led the DNA analysis.

Frälsegården Passage Grave Skulls

The skulls of the two second generation individuals in the right branch, FRA022 and FRA023, placed next to a limestone slab covering the ancestral individual, FRA021. ​​Credit: Karl-Göran Sjögren

This means that the plague may have been a contributing factor to the population decline at the end of the Neolithic period, known as the Neolithic Decline. This population decline caused large parts of the farming population in Scandinavia and northwestern Europe to disappear within a few centuries, 5,000 years ago.

“We cannot prove – yet – that this is exactly how it happened. But the fact that we can now show that this is how it could have happened is very telling. The cause of this population decline, which we have known for a long time, has always been a subject of debate,” says Frederik Seersholm.

The archaeological material analysed comes mainly from passage graves in Sweden, but one of the individuals comes from a stone coffin in Stevns, Denmark.

Ancient DNA offers answers

The analyses were conducted using a method called deep shotgun sequencing, which allows researchers to extract very detailed information from archaeological material, even though ancient DNA is often badly damaged or degraded. The researchers examined DNA from tooth and bone material from the Neolithic period, studying both family relationships and diseases in the individuals.

“We’ve been able to do a comprehensive mapping of plague lineages, and a detailed description of other microbes in the DNA data. At the same time, these analyses have allowed us to look at human DNA from a broad perspective to a local perspective – and all the way down to the individual level, giving us a picture of the social organization that existed at the time,” says Globe Institute associate professor Martin Sikora, who is also behind the study.

The finding that 17 percent of individuals whose DNA was analyzed had the plague indicates that the plague was common in Scandinavia during the late Stone Age.

In one of the families analyzed, at least three plague outbreaks were observed, spread over the six generations within the family that the researchers were able to map.

“The question of possible kinship relationships between individuals whose bones and teeth have been found in megalithic graves has been discussed for at least 200 years. There have been many theories and speculations, but now we have data thanks to DNA,” says Karl-Göran Sjögren, associate professor of archaeology at the University of Gothenburg, who was also involved in the new study.

Frederik Seersholm believes the new results rule out previous theories that the population decline could not have been caused by the plague.

“In connection with the population decline at the end of the Neolithic, both wars and outbreaks of infectious diseases, including the plague, have been suggested. There are several theories about the plague, and one of them suggested that the plague could not have caused an epidemic – but that assumption no longer holds,” says Frederik Seersholm.

Reference: “Repeated plague infections across six generations of Neolithic Farmers” by Frederik Valeur Seersholm, Karl-Göran Sjögren, Julia Koelman, Malou Blank, Emma M. Svensson, Jacqueline Staring, Magdalena Fraser, Thomaz Pinotti, Hugh McColl, Charleen Gaunitz, Tatiana Ruiz-Bedoya, Lena Granehäll, Berenice Villegas-Ramirez, Anders Fischer, T. Douglas Price, Morten E. Allentoft, Astrid K. N. Iversen, Tony Axelsson, Torbjörn Ahlström, Anders Götherström, Jan Storå, Kristian Kristiansen, Eske Willerslev, Mattias Jakobsson, Helena Malmström and Martin Sikora, July 10, 2024, Nature.
DOI file: 10.1038/s41586-024-07651-2

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