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Monthly Archaeology Round-Up: August
Fortified stilt village, Polish vampires, cuneiform DNA, Canary Islands genetics, Bronze age steppe pyramids and more
Welcome back to the monthly round-up, I’ve certainly struggled in the last few months to digest all the news and write it out for you, but we’re back now! August has seen some controversial papers, both inside and out of academia, including early human fossils and new genetic coverage of Otzi the Iceman. Added to this are some new ‘earliest’ - stilt-style Neolithic villages in Europe, and some new methodologies, including extracting DNA from a cuneiform mud-brick. So without further ado, the archaeology of August…
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This isn’t my typical kind of archaeological reporting, but maybe someone in my British extended readership might benefit from this. The University of Winchester has partnered with the Ministry of Defence to offer a free archaeology degree to wounded and recovering veterans. A number of initiatives now have found that injured servicemen recover far better when exposed to archaeological excavations, and although the experts are baffled as to why, it seems obvious that men in particular respond well to a goal-oriented physical team activity.
The role of archaeology as a therapeutic tool is well illustrated in a new book Broken Pots, Mending Lives: The Archaeology of Operation Nightingale by the co-founder of Operation Nightingale, Richard Osgood. It describes the origins of that initiative, the projects and experiences of veterans and the vital part played by the University of Winchester course.
Robert Cummings, a former Scots Guard who was in the first group of four veteran students, said: “The first year it was hard for me to adapt to academia after such a long time away from studying, but I soon got back into the swing of things and enjoyed being part of university life.”
Alastair Eager, a former Royal Marine about to start his fourth year at the University having recently completed the placement year of his BSc Archaeological Practice, is currently working in Nokalakevi as part of the Anglo-Georgian Expedition.
“Having left the Royal Marines in 2016 I was effectively at a loss as to what to do next, and it was by chance that I discovered archaeology through Waterloo Uncovered,” said Alastair.
I wrote a piece a few weeks ago outlining the current evidence for the human colonisation of Europe through time. The traditional view that the Aurignacians (43-26,000 ya) were the first modern humans to settle in Europe has been challenged recently. In its place we have a new ‘three-wave’ model, which you can explore in detail in my article, the second wave of which is known as the Châtelperronian:
What happened next is just as remarkable. The controversial tool industry known as the Châtelperronian has been argued to be either a Neanderthal innovation based on contact with modern humans, or an early intrusion of humans into Neanderthal Europe. Recent arguments for the Châtelperronian sites in Franco-Iberia as a second wave of sapiens has to be considered alongside the reoccupation of the Rhône:
If the Châtelperronian effectively corresponds to a second migratory phase by H. sapiens, and originated from the same Levantine cultural substrate, the absence of chronological and geographical overlap between phase I (IUP / Neronian) and phase II (NEA / Châtelperronian) is all the more remarkable, as the territorial expansion of this phase II affected large territories- Atlantic, continental, and Mediterranean- which remain quite geographically disjointed. Over this same period, the Rhône valley was occupied by Neandertal groups that carried the Post-Neronian II traditions . Could it be that in the same geographical space that saw the first migrations of H. sapiens into Europe, Neanderthal groups no longer allowed access to their previous territory? This would be remarkable, since the Post-Neronian I and Post-Neronian II, which mark a return of Neandertal populations to a large territory around Mandrin, also indicate a persistence of Neandertal populations in one of the main migratory arteries of Western Europe . This could well indicate a refusal or a resistance from the aboriginal populations against a return of H. sapiens at the very moment when, according to this hypothesis, these latter populations would manifest their first real colonization by way of settlements, not only numerous, but also over vast territories across Western Europe.
What we have to postulate then is that modern humans had established a strong maritime presence along the Mediterranean shorelines, and were finding major river systems blocked off by Neanderthals. They were forced to instead move up through northern Iberia and the Balkans.
So this Châtelperronian tool industry has been reconceptualised as a human culture, rather than a Neanderthal culture which had borrowed human tool styles. Supporting this is the published study from this month, based on excavations at the French site of Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure).
Here we see a nice stratigraphic layer of Neanderthals to modern humans through the Châtelperronian period. On top of older Neanderthal bones was a human infant ilium (pelvis bone). When researchers looked at it, they found that it was morphologically unusual, and in their assessment it belongs to a separate, older lineage of modern H.sapiens:
Clearly different from Neanderthal morphology, AR-63 [Châtelperronian sample] also shows morphological peculiarities, such as its very "laterally offset" posterior-superior iliac spine, that exclude it from RH [modern humans] variability. This reflects, in our view, an ancient biologically modern phenotypic expression not previously documented within RH [modern human] variability.
This is yet more evidence in favour of the three-wave model, as well as highlighting the many unknowns surrounding these initial human migrations, including their phenotypical diversity.
Last year I wrote a short piece looking at, amongst other things, connections between the Bronze Age Bell Beakers in Spain and any trips/movements to North Africa. Plenty of evidence exists to suggest that these expansive people sailed to Africa and created long distance trade networks for all kinds of exotic goods:
In 1971 an excavation in Sidi Allal, Morocco, turned up the only known copper knot-headed pin in the country. Along with bone and stone tools were also found Maritime Bell Beaker sherds and a classic Beaker Palmela copper arrowhead. The map above shows the distribution of knot-headed pins across Europe. In fact, the connections between North Africa and Iberia are overwhelming for the Maritime Beaker period - wrist guards, pottery, halberds, arrowheads, awls and daggers have all been uncovered across Morocco and Algeria. Maritime pottery has turned up in 11 Moroccan sites and 2 Algerian, while imports of Asian and African ivory seem to have come from several coastal regions.
It appears that, not only did these Beaker people make it as far as Morocco, but now we have genetic evidence from the Canary Islands that points to even further voyages south! The Canaries are a strange group of islands in the prehistoric record, there is no evidence for any human habitation before 100 AD, which suggests that local African groups lacked the technology to sail further than the shoreline. From the paper:
We analyzed genome-wide data from 49 individuals from the CIP, including 40 newly generated samples and 9 whole-genome sequencing data from previously published studies15,21. With this larger dataset, we have shed light on the prehistory of North Africa. Data from the CIP, who colonized the archipelago around the first centuries CE, indicate that this North African population was composed of four main ancestral components. First, as observed for Late Neolithic Moroccans5, the Canarian indigenous people have both North African Paleolithic/Early Neolithic and European Early Neolithic components. However, the contribution of the North African Paleolithic/Early Neolithic component is greater in the indigenous people than in the Kef El Baroud individuals, confirming that the impact of European Neolithic migrations was not homogenous in the North African region. In addition, the indigenous people show the presence of a steppe component, most probably associated with the migration of North Mediterranean populations into North Africa during the Bronze or the Iron Ages. Finally, we detect a small sub-Saharan African component implying the existence of trans-Saharan migrations in North Africa already before the first centuries CE, predating such gene flow inferred from modern DNA data6,42.
So whilst these people are not ‘pure’ Bell Beakers, they are the product of those migrations into North Africa. We also see the combined mixtures of the Neolithic North Africans, who show an underlying Palaeolithic substrate and additions from the same Anatolian wave which spread across Europe in the late 7th millennia. Islands like the Canaries, Iceland, New Zealand and so on are fascinating in this respect, being uninhabited until very late in human prehistory/history.
Albania is one of those parts of Europe which is still something of a blank compared to its neighbours, despite being in a critical location to understand the emergence and spread of agriculture around 6,900 BC. We know that somewhere around that time farmers from Anatolia began traversing the Aegean and colonising Greece, probably after prolonged interaction with the Mesolithic foragers who lived on the coasts. The so-called ‘6.2’ or ‘8.2’ kiloyear event saw a sharp downturn in the weather, and seems to have prompted an expansion of farmers up to the Iron Gates of Serbia/Romania, where a very powerful Mesolithic culture had developed along the rivers.
Early Albania has several phases of ‘Neolithisation’ - including the Vlushë monochrome ceramics, which look poor enough to be an experiment by local foragers. Afterwards we see the introduction of Impressed Ware pottery and then finally a bold red-and-white pottery which comes directly from Anatolia, and is associated with a more aggressive phase of agricultural expansion. This is important because many suspect that the local Mesolithic foragers, rather than adopt farming which never seems to happen, switched to becoming pastoralists.
The announcement that the earliest fortified stilt village in Europe has been found on the shores of Lake Ohrid fits neatly into this hypothesis. The village was surrounded by no fewer than 100,000 spiked planks suggesting that defence was a priority for this community. Personally I think this new Anatolian wave fell into long standing conflict with upland Mesolithic pastoralists, who could have taken to raiding exposed villages, prompting a move towards stilt villages with spiked defences. We wait to see the results of any future excavations.
We have become used to the idea that DNA can be extracted from bones, and that lipids and proteins can be extracted from ancient pottery - but what about extracting DNA from clay bricks? A new paper from a joint British-Danish team has successfully shown that DNA can be removed from Neo-Assyrian era mud bricks, inscribed with Akkadian cuneiform impressions, which read “The property of the palace of Ashurnasirpal, king of Assyria”.
Through extraction and sequencing of aDNA from the clay brick and the following data analysis, we were able to detect 34 unique taxonomic groups of plants representing the order Laurales as well as seven distinct families from other orders
The most abundant sequences of plants were from the families Brassicaceae (cabbage) and Ericaceae (heather). Furthermore, contributions were observed from the families Betulaceae (birch), Lauraceae (laurels), Selineae (umbellifiers) and Triticeae (cultivated grasses).
These results show some of the plant diversity in the region at the time, and could provide researchers with a number of opportunities - to match up recorded descriptions against extant species, to monitor the change in species diversity through time, to record the presence of cultivated species which are not archaeologically visible nor mentioned in the historical record, and so on. With the proof of concept now settled, we can expect to see more of these projects in the future. In the wider sense, the ability to extract molecules such as fats, proteins, starches and DNA is entering something of a golden age, with both new finds and archived materials being tested for every scrap of biological information we can salvage.
Ötzi the Iceman is probably the most famous prehistoric individual at this point, along with a handful of others. His body was recovered from the Ötztal Alps in 1991, where he had been perfectly preserved by the glacial ice since around 3350–3120 cal BC. His full story is long and complex and I would recommend my friend Dan Davis’ thorough documentary on Ötzi for all the details.
The first genetic sequencing of Ötzi was done in 2012, which was poor compared to today and contained modern DNA contamination. This new round of genetic sequencing takes place in a radically different environment - not only are the methods better and less expensive, but we know considerably more now about prehistoric European genetics than a decade ago.
Using the same sample as before, the researchers were able to create a more thorough sequence revealing a number of interesting points:
Previously the results suggested that Ötzi had a mix of Anatolian farmer and Western Steppe Herder genes, but the steppe component was almost certainly a modern contaminant
As well as losing the steppe mixture, Ötzi had a very low amount of hunter-gatherer genetics (7.5%), suggesting that his community and any local hunter-gatherer groups did not intermix much.
Alleles for skin colour, hair, metabolism and many more were presented. The most controversial of which was that Ötzi was likely darker-skinned than previously assumed and was either bald or in the process of balding.
Pyramids are normally something associated with massive agricultural civilisations - think the Maya, the Egyptians, the Aztecs. So imagine the surprise of researchers from L. N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University, when they uncovered evidence for one on the steppes of Kazakhstan, dating to around 2,000 BC.
This monumental edifice, distinguishable by its hexagonal form, defies conventions, showcasing remarkable geometric precision and intricate design, unlike any other known step pyramid within the Eurasian region.
Historian Ulan Umitkaliyev, who leads ENU’s Archaeology and Ethnology Department, described the pyramid as an extraordinary architectural marvel. “The steppe pyramid is built with great precision, it is hexagonal,” Umitkaliyev stated. “There are thirteen meters and eight rows of stones between each face. It is a very sophisticated complex structure with several circles in the middle.”
The ‘Vampire Phenomenon’ of the eastern European early modern period continues to throw up disturbing burials. Previous examples include stakes through the heart, sickles placed over throats, stones to weigh the body down and decapitation. This month a child burial was found in the village of Pień near Poland’s northern city of Bydgoszcz. Aged between 5-7, the child was placed face down with an iron padlock shackled to its ankle, to prevent them from rising again:
According to the traditions of the time, such padlocks were intended to secure a corpse in its grave.
"The padlock shows people were afraid of this child after its death," Dariusz Poliński, an archaeologist at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, told Live Science.
Finally - researchers opening the many pits surrounding the mausoleum of Emperor Wen of Han got a shock when they discovered the skeleton of a complete giant panda, which had been placed inside as a sacrifice. Emperor Wen was the 5th emperor of the Western Han dynasty who ruled from 180 BC to 157 BC.
According to the researchers: “Animal burial pits symbolise the underground gardens of the royal cemetery.” Other burial pits around the mausoleum also contained the remains of tigers, tapirs, Indian wild buffaloes, oryxes, serows and yaks.
The wide variety of animal sacrifice was seen as a status symbol for the Han rulers. Animal sacrifice was also found in commoners’ tombs but was limited to domesticated animals such as dogs and pigs.
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