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For Cave Women, Farmers Had Extra Sex Appeal
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For Cave Women, Farmers Had Extra Sex Appeal

Brain Candy

For Cave Women, Farmers Had Extra Sex Appeal

For Cave Women, Farmers Had Extra Sex Appeal
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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122944258/122956273" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Stone ax heads from Neolithic settlement in Vinelz, Switzerland, c. 2700 BC

Tools like these ax heads from Vinelz, Switzerland, were used by Neolithic farmers and may have been part of their sex appeal to hunter-gatherer women. Sandstein via Wikimedia hide caption

toggle caption Sandstein via Wikimedia

Can a man's technology make him more attractive to women? A new study says it can. But before you run out and upgrade your smart phone, take note.

The technology in this story includes stone axes and other basic tools of agriculture. And the smitten women are the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Europe. Those technologies were not simply cutting edge about 10,000 years ago; they were revolutionary.

"You can regard it as the most important cultural change in the history of modern humans," says Prof. Mark Jobling at the University of Leicester in England. "It allowed people to generate their own food, and populations to grow and society to become specialized."

It was the foundation of modern civilization and so there's a big scientific push to understand just how agriculture spread from where it originated, which was in present-day Turkey and Iraq.

Evidence Of Migration Comes From Genetics

Over about 4,000 years, these transforming technologies moved west, throughout all of Europe. The question is whether the ideas swept the continent, or whether the farmers actually moved.

"We certainly know that technology moved," Jobling says. "The evidence of whether the people moved has come from genetic research in modern populations."

And that brings us to the story of the guys with their agricultural know-how. To track their movements, Jobling and his colleagues have been tracing the genetics of the Y chromosome, which is passed only from father to son.

His new study, in the journal PLoS Biology, concludes that farming men did, indeed, move from the Fertile Crescent, in the Near East, to all of Europe.

But here's the strange part. He did not see that pattern of westward movement in women, when he looked at genes handed down exclusively from mothers.

"Some people think well, one of them must be wrong. They've got to be the same," Jobling says. "But our view really is, why should they be, because they reflect the different sexes." And men and women don't behave in exactly the same way.

European Women Welcomed Farmers With Open Arms

In this case, Jobling sees a few possible explanations. He says maybe only farming men went west to seek their fortunes, leaving the farming women behind. And as they moved west, the men made families with the hunter-gatherer women.

But more likely, he says, is that "as the populations expanded from the Near East they contained men and women. But then the indigenous people, the hunter-gatherers who were already in Europe, the women were incorporated into these societies and had offspring."

Men can have more kids than women, presuming they aren't monogamous. So their genes would spread much faster than the genes of any women who were traveling with them. And it seems the women in Europe welcomed the farmers with open arms.

In fact, the finding implies that the hunter-gatherer men of Europe were the real losers here. They couldn't compete with the Johnnies-come-lately who knew how to grow grain and tend animals. So their genes faded from the population.

The result is the genetic pattern we see in many Europeans today: male genes from farmers who hailed from the Near East, and female genes mostly from women who had been hunter-gatherers in Europe after the last Ice Age.

Technology Can Make You More Attractive

So, to the punch line: Does technology make men more sexy?

"That would be one way to interpret it," says Peter Underhill at Stanford University. But it's not necessarily just sex appeal at work; it "might be in terms of not just physical appearance but also in terms of ability to provide for offspring."

So the farmer's daughters and sons would have more to eat, and therefore would be more likely to survive — and spread their genes to future generations. Underhill says the British study makes a pretty strong case for that.

Michael Hammer from the University of Arizona has found the same sort of story in how agriculture spread in both Africa and Japan. "The Y chromosome shows a very clear pattern, that looks like it's reflecting the spread of agriculture into Japan, starting about 2,100 to 2,300 years ago," he says.

And once again, it appears the men moved in on a population of women and outcompeted the men who where there already. So, assuming these scientists are reading the genes right, technology really can make a guy more attractive.

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