European hunter-gatherers may have had domesticated pigs 500 years earlier than previously thought.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers used domestic pigs as early as 4600 B.C. The nomadic hunters, known as the Ertebolle culture, most likely acquired the pigs from nearby farmers.
"It would have been hard [for the hunter-gatherers] not to be fascinated by the strange-looking spotted pigs owned by farmers living nearby," study co-author Greger Larson, an archeologist at Durham University in the UK, said in a statement. "It should come as no surprise that the hunter-gatherers acquired some eventually, but this study shows that they did very soon after the domestic pigs arrived in northern Europe."
Using DNA and fossil evidence, the findings are the first proof of live animal trade between the indigenous, nomadic Ertebølle hunters of Northern Europe and settled farmers that originally came from the Fertile Crescent—today's Turkey, Syria and Iraq, Agence France-Presse reports.
Scientists used DNA analysis and tooth morphology comparison techniques to study the bones and teeth of 63 pigs from an Ertebolle settlement. The results showed they acquired domestic pigs of varying size and coat color that had both Near Eastern and European ancestry.
"This is really the first evidence that we have for the Ertebølle culture having domesticated animals at this early date," study co-leader Ben Krause-Kyora, a biochemist and archeologist at Germany's Christian-Albrechts University, told National Geographic.
While the nomadic Ertebolle people and the nearby farmers had different lifestyles – one living on seals and wild boar while the others survived on cultivated crops and livestock – they may have made spontaneous contact, scientists say.
“Mesolithic hunter-gatherers definitely had dogs, but they did not practice agriculture and did not have pigs, sheep, goats or cows, all of which were introduced to Europe with incoming farmers about 6,000 B.C.,” Krause-Kyora said in a statement. “Having people who practiced a very different survival strategy nearby must have been odd, and we know now that the hunter-gatherers possessed some of the farmers’ domesticated pigs.”
Owning the pigs does not necessarily mean the Ertebolle people bred them, scientists said. "It would be a couple hundred years before they really got into domestication," study co-leader Almut Nebel, a molecular biologist at Christian-Albrechts University, said. "It could have started with the pigs, but we don't know for sure."