Asia Minor, Dodecanese, Crete, Aegean islands, Peloponnese and the rest of mainland Greece. This was the daring – given the sea traveling means of the time – route the first Neolithic farmers coming from Middle East and Anatolia followed. These farmers immigrated to Europe 9,000 years ago, bringing along their valuable farming knowledge and their more developed culture, which they spread across the European continent, characterized until then by the more primitive Palaeolithic practices of the hunter-gatherers.

These are the results of a new international genetic survey directed by Greek scientists. The new research supports the hypothesis that there was a widely used sea route for the migration movements of the ancient farmers from East to West, apart from the mainland course which led from Middle East to Anatolia and Thrace, the Balkans and from there to the final destination: Europe.

The research team, headed by Professor of Genome Sciences and Medicine John A. Stamatoyannopoulos at the University of Washington in Seattle and Peristera Paschou of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the Democritus University of Thrace, which published their survey in PNAS, after looking at genetic markers found in 32 modern populations of Southern and Northern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. Samples were taken from inhabitants of Crete, the Dodecanese, mainland Greece and Cappadocia. Genetically closest to the populations of Anatolia (modern Turkey) were found to be those of Crete and the Dodecanese and not the Balkans or Northern Greece.

The genetic analysis of modern Europeans also detected genetic mixing between Palaeolithic populations (who had colonized Europe 35,000-40,000 years ago) and Neolithic ones (who came to Europe 9,000 years ago).

Archaeologists had already suggested an alternative route of ancient farmers from East to West, the island hopping across the Southern European coast, but finds to support this hypothesis were scarce (mainly coming from Milos). Now, the genetic science supports the theory by biological evidence.

The new survey shows that the first farmers travelled from the inland of Anatolia (Cappadocia) to the southwestern coast of Asia Minor. Then Crete and the Dodecanese served as a natural bridge connecting Asia Minor to Europe.

According to the researchers, their hypothesis is also supported by the fact that one of the oldest Neolithic settlements, dated back to 8,500-9,000 years ago, came to light at Knossos, Crete. These settlers were migrants coming from Anatolia, who eventually developed the Minoan culture, the first highly developed European culture, 5,000 years ago.

On the other hand, according to the Greek researches, Neolithic settlements in Thrace and Macedonia are “younger” than those of southern mainland Greece, a fact suggesting that the Neolithic migrants-farmers reached Europe from the South, e.g. through the island route, and not from the North (through Bosporus).

It still remains a mystery whether the starting point of the Neolithic migrants-farmers was mainly the coast of Southern Asia Minor or that of Middle East (Israel-Palestine-Lebanon-Syria). According to the survey, the predominant route was the first, through Anatolia and then by sea, although all of the routes must have been followed to a certain degree, as P. Paschou explains.

At any case migrants were arriving at the Aegean islands and mainland Greece – though it remains unclear by what means of sea transport these journeys were made. Part of these colonies were then transferred to the West, in Sicily and Italy.

These movements resulted to the gradual spread of agriculture across Europe. Evidence shows that farming developed much faster in Southern than in Northern Europe.

It is believed that the first farming practices emerged in the Fertile Crescent, the area between Middle East and Mesopotamia, 11,000-12,000 years ago. This Neolithing agricultural revolution led to the creation of the first cities and changed the face of the Earth and humanity.

Spanish confirmation

It is worth mentioning that a new Spanish survey comes to the same conclusion. The genetic team, directed by Daniel Turbón of the University of Barcelona, who published their paper in PLoS Genetics, sequenced the mitochondrial DNA of the first Near Eastern farmers for the first time. According to the survey’s conclusions, genetic affinities have been observed between the mitochondrial DNA of first Neolithic populations and the DNA of first Catalan and German farmers. This suggests that probably Neolithic expansion took place through pioneer migrations of small groups of population. Moreover, the two main migration routes ―Mediterranean and European― might have been genetically linked.

“The most significant conclusion —highlights Eva Fernández, first author of the article— is that the degree of genetic similarity between the populations of the Fertile Crescent and the ones of Cyprus an Crete supports the hypothesis that Neolithic spread in Europe took place through pioneer seafaring.”