London (14.5.12) – Information is being unearthed about ancient European farming by looking at the DNA of four ancient skeletons; three were Neolithic hunter-gatherers and one a farmer who lived in the same region of modern-day Sweden about 5,000 years ago (1).

The hunter-gatherers, from the island of Gotland, genetically resembled contemporary Europeans from the extreme north while the farmer was retrieved from a large stone burial structure in the mainland parish of Gokhem, about 250 miles away: he DNA more like that of modern people in southern Europe.

According to Mattias Jakobsson, a population geneticist at Uppsala University, it has been known for some time that agriculture spread from the Middle East to Eastern Europe and northward and westward. The difficulty was in determining whether people migrated and brought farming with them, or if local hunter-gatherers changed their practices. It looks as though people from elsewhere moved into northern Europe.

The risks of extrapolating from just four samples notwithstanding, Jakobsson and colleagues concluded that traditional Neolithic European tribes simply did not learn how to farm; instead, they continued to live the migratory, ground-to-hand-to-mouth existence of the professional hunter-gatherer or, in modern terms, the road-warrior business consultant (2).

Could Europeans have already been technology-averse ten or eleven thousand years ago? IT World thinks so: their headline for the story was “Caveman DNA proves keeping up with technology is a survival tactic”, with a sub-header “Neolithic Europeans stuck to hunting, ignored farming for thousands of years”.

Perhaps IT World is right judging by the bizarre fears shown by modern Germans. We have had occasion in the past to comment on the condition of Germany and we have cause now to do so again. The German populace seems to live in fear of their own shadows. The philosopher Jürgen Mittelstraß, commenting on the role of science and technology, noted that GM crops had been marginalised in Germany because of fear: fear about health, fear about “the environment”, anything so long as one can be afraid of it. Scepticism about the German scepticism is warranted, he thinks. One forgets that the agricultural sector has always been about growing genetically engineered crops and (GM) is nothing more than a continuation of this practice by other means. The culture of fear, probably a German peculiarity, is out of place here (3). Germany also abandoned nuclear power out of fear after Fukushima, the only major industrial nation to do so.

That was a rash act of panic whose consequences are still with us. On the other hand, Mittelstraß is sure business and industry will overcome its challenges. This, however, will not be easy. If you do not think about the problems and consequences early on, he pointed out, you will find it harder to do so later.

Let’s hope his prodding is effective and that Germany grows up. The country is hardly seems a progressive force in contemporary Europe.

In this context it is sad to have to report that as, the result of repeated anti-GM vandalism, the demonstration garden at Üplingen near will not open this year (4). “We had again planned to showcase various international research projects undertaken by universities, research facilities and industry under field conditions,” said Kerstin Schmidt, managing director of the BioTechFarm. “However, the lack of newly developed genetically modified plants has severely restricted our ability to show the latest innovations. We have therefore decided not to have the Plant Science Garden this year,” continued Schmidt. Last year some of the trials were destroyed and the guards at the site violently attacked.

Sources:

1. Eryn Brown (27.4.12). Ancient DNA sheds light on spread of European farming. Los Angeles Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/27/science/la-sci-dna-europe-agriculture-20120427)

2. Kevin Fogarty 30.4.12). Caveman DNA proves keeping up with technology is a survival tactic. IT World (http://www.itworld.com/it-managementstrategy/273274/caveman-dna-proves-keeping-technology-survival-tactic)

3. „Nicht alles Neue ist Innovation“, Der Tagesspiegel (19.4.12) (http://www.tagesspiegel.de/zeitung/nicht-alles-neue-ist-innovation/6503676.html)

4. Kein Schaugarten mit gentechnisch verbesserten Pflanzen in Üplingen in diesem Jahr. Schaugarten Üplingen (9.5.12) (http://www.schaugarten-ueplingen.de/)


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