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Stone Age Societies Lived Side by Side, Kept Their Distance

Polarization — right and left, red state and blue state, etc. — wasn’t invented yesterday. Ask the scientists studying the bones of prehistoric Europeans. Hundreds of skeletal remains, many from a newly discovered cave in Germany, have produced a startling reminder of the power of social boundaries.

When farmers showed up from the Near East about 7,500 years ago, eager to grow their grains in the soil of Central Europe, they were met by indigenous hunters and gatherers. The locals, apparently, did not welcome them with open arms.

Two new scientific techniques, ingeniously paired, suggest that for some 2,000 years, these distinct groups would rarely cross their cultural boundaries to find a mate.

At first, the indigenous people largely disappeared from the scene altogether, fleeing to the north to continue their traditional mode of life. But even when they drifted back and became neighbors with the farmers, they remained to a large extent a breed apart.

“We don’t really know who set up those social boundaries, so we don’t know if it was the farmers who didn’t mix with the hunter gatherers or if it was the hunter-gatherers who wanted to stay by themselves,” said Ruth Bollongino, a biologist at the University of Mainz and the lead author of “2000 Years of Parallel Societies in Stone Age Central Europe,” one of two new papers on Neolithic Europe published online Thursday by the journal Science. “Or maybe it’s both groups that wanted to keep their own identity.”

This is an old story. Think of the plot of Shane, in which the ranchers do battle with the “sodbusters.” Recall the tensions between “the farmer and the cowman” in the musical Oklahoma!

Exactly how cultures clashed in prehistoric times is necessarily a foggy subject, given that no one had a written language and archeologists must piece together the story from broken pottery, tools, bones and charcoal.

But new research techniques are clarifying that story. The analysis of mitochondrial DNA from skeletal remains allows scientists to study migration patterns and lineages. Moreover, scientists can tell what people ate by studying variations in the carbon, sulfur and nitrogen isotopes in their teeth and bones. They can tell, for example, if a diet was heavy in fish or heavy in grains.

An enduring debate for decades has been whether agriculture arose in Europe through “cultural diffusion,” in which the techniques of farming and animal husbandry were adopted by the indigenous population from distant sources, or whether an entirely new population of people rolled into that part of the world and pushed out the natives.