Learning more about the world’s first farmers
UWinnipeg research helps inform Nature magazine article
WINNIPEG, MB –Who were the first people on the planet to try farming? Where did they live? What do we know about them? That is the subject of an article published in accelerated preview form in the prestigious journal Nature that includes research with a University of Winnipeg connection.
As a new PhD graduate in the early 1970s, Dr. Chris Meiklejohn, now UWinnipeg’s Professor Emeritus in Anthropology, took possession of five metal trunks from Tehran, Iran. Inside were the remains of 116 human skeletons. From his lab on the 4th floor of Centennial Hall, Meiklejohn would spend the next several decades deciphering the secrets they contained. It took many years to reconstruct the fragments into complete skeletons and then move on to studying the health of these early farmers, who were mainly goat herders who also began planting crops such as barley.
“This was the birth of agriculture, 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, in the area stretching from Greece east to Iran,” said Dr. Meiklejohn. “What is most significant about the research just published in Nature, and what has really surprised us, is how diverse these groups of early farmers were genetically. They were not kissing cousins. That is going to lead to a whole new line of questioning.”
Researchers today are able to use new and improved DNA extraction methods to advance what is known about these pioneer farmers.
There is another UWinnipeg connection to the early skeletons. Dr. Meiklejohn was thesis advisor to Dr. Deborah Merrett, who did her Ph.D. at UManitoba and Postdoctoral work at UWinnipeg, where she was also a Lecturer in Anthropology. When Dr. Merrett left UWinnipeg for Simon Fraser University, the skeletons from the site of Ganj Dareh, which is in the Iranian High Zagros mountain chain, went with her where they remain under scrutiny today.
Dr. Meiklejohn and Dr. Merrett are authors of a number of papers and book chapters involving the Ganj Dareh collection and continue their collaboration with a book in progress.
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Diane Poulin, Senior Communications Specialist, The University of Winnipeg
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