EUROPEANS began farming pigs more than 5,000 years ago, North-East scientists have discovered.

Experts from Durham University have found evidence native European hunter-gatherers bought pigs from incoming farming tribes from the east as early as 4,600BC.

Although the two peoples had sharply contrasting lifestyles, they began to mingle more and share ideas, leading to the hunter-gatherers eventually settling down and starting to farm the land and breed animals.

It is accepted that the spread of plants and animals across Europe from the Middle East between 6,000 and 4,000BC involved a complex interplay between indigenous Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and incoming Neolithic farmers.

But how much they mixed and swapped ideas remains a hot topic among archaeologists.

Previous evidence of hunter-gatherers owning pigs was circumstantial.

But the Durham researchers say their work, carried out with colleagues in Scotland and Germany and published in the academic journal Nature Communications today (Tuesday, August 27), sheds new light onto the movements of pre-historic man and the growth of knowledge and technology.

Dr Greger Larson, from Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, said: “Humans love novelty and though hunter-gatherers exploited wild boar, it would have been hard not to be fascinated by the strange looking spotted pigs owned by farmers living nearby.

“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.”

The team studied the ancient DNA of bones and teeth from 63 pigs in northern Germany, learning that hunter-gatherers bought domestic pigs of all colours and sizes, of both Near Eastern and European breeds.

The study was led by Dr Ben Krause-Kyora, of Christian-Albrechts University, in Kiel, Germany.

He said: “Mesolithic hunter-gatherers definitely had dogs but they did not practise agriculture and did not have pigs, sheep, goats or cows, all of which were introduced to Europe with incoming farmers about 6,000BC.

“Having people who practised 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.”

The project was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes.