Contrary to common belief, the lower intensity of sunshine didn’t whiten the humans’ skin tone that were migrating north to Europe, it was due to their change in diet. The new settlers switched from being hunter-gathers to farmers. The agriculture revolution revolutionized more than just ways of feeding themselves, it gave rise to the Europeans. Researchers recently discovered that after the Agriculture Revolution, European DNA changed drastically. The coding for their height, digestion, skin pigmentation, and their immune system all changed. Although sources vary between researchers, they could all agree that agriculture caused the ascension of the Europeans.
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Since the first harvest 8,500 years ago, European DNA are drastically different from ones found in Africa or Asia. One obvious example is the ability to drink milk. Their DNA allows the coding of LCT to occur, making the Europeans lactose-tolerant. Without the domestication of wheat, the domestication of cows would not have occurred. That would result in no milk. Some countries in rural Asia or Africa that still hunt and gather for food today are mainly lactose-intolerant. Overexposure to cattle also made them immune to the diseases found normally in pigs, cows, etc. Their immunity to these diseases allow them to conquer the New World with relatively ease. The New World inhabitants had essentially zero animals that could be domesticated. They could not have built up natural immunity to these diseases and when the Europeans came, were decimated.
By relying on agriculture now, the early Europeans risked getting low doses of crucial nutrients. When the Europeans started to farm, a gene called SLC22A4 became a very important gene for their survival. The gene encodes a protein on the cells’ surface and it attracts an amino acid called ergothioneine. This allows an increase in nutrient absorption in ergothioneine-low crops such as wheat as well as an increase in the rate of survival. Survivors will pass down this gene and their offspring will pass it down; soon enough, the Europeans fully transition into a farming society.
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For the longest time, scientists and the general public believed the lightening of European skin color was due to trouble capturing vitamin D in higher latitudes. Dr. Reich dismisses this by suggesting that with vitamin D in the meat they caught, dark skin hunter-gatherers were actually quite well off. The original hunter-gatherers had dark skin as recently as 9,000 years ago. Farmers from Anatolia were lighter skinned and through ethnic breeding, this trait spread throughout the European continent. They also brought their tall genes too. With the shift to farming, it reduced the amount of vitamin D intake and that may have started the skin color lightening process. A new gene variant eventually came to be that lightened their skin color even more.
In conclusion, the development of the Europeans and modern society depended on the domestication of wheat. Harvesting wheat led to the altering of European height, digestion, skin color, and their immune system and changed history forever. Knowing this, the researchers are one step closer in tracking historical changes in the human genome and uncovering more effects of natural selection that led to contemporary Europeans and humans in general. So much for the lowly farmer and wheat crop. Without them, humans would have never left the Stone Age. Modern civilization was truly born and bred in Europe through the Agricultural Revolution.
- Zimmer, Carl. “Agriculture Linked to DNA Changes in Ancient Europe.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 06 Dec. 2015.