Monthly Archives: June 2012

Oldest Neolithic bow of Europe found in Catalonia

One of the oldest preserved bows of Europe and, so far, the oldest one found in a Neolithic context, has been unearthed in the lacustrine site of La Draga (Banyoles, Catalonia). The bow is made of yew wood (an all-time favorite material for archery) and measures 108 cm and is dated to c. 7400-7200 years ago from context, being among the earliest dates for Neolithic in Western Europe. 
Older bows are known in Europe, specifically Denmark, but are from the Epipaleolithic period, some 9000 years ago. What could be arrow points are known from c. 64,000 years ago in South Africa.
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Posted by on June 30, 2012 in European prehistory, Iberia, Neolithic


Oldest pottery is 20,000 years old from SE China

No wonder they call it “china”!
Xianrendong cave, near the city of Shangrao (Jiangxi, SE China), has now the curious honor of hosting the oldest known specimens of pottery on Earth.
The pottery shards from that cave were known since the 1960s (and later digs) but had not been properly dated yet. The result of such dating is the oldest known pottery on Earth, dating to the Last Glacial Maximum, that even in a subtropical region like Jiangxi must have caused some discomfort.


The invention of pottery introduced fundamental shifts in human subsistence practices and sociosymbolic behaviors. Here, we describe the dating of the early pottery from Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, China, and the micromorphology of the stratigraphic contexts of the pottery sherds and radiocarbon samples. The radiocarbon ages of the archaeological contexts of the earliest sherds are 20,000 to 19,000 calendar years before the present, 2000 to 3000 years older than other pottery found in East Asia and elsewhere. The occupations in the cave demonstrate that pottery was produced by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Late Glacial Maximum. These vessels may have served as cooking devices. The early date shows that pottery was first made and used 10 millennia or more before the emergence of agriculture.

We already knew that the oldest pottery was from China (albeit from the North) and that it pre-dated agriculture… but we did not know it was so old. 

Posted by on June 29, 2012 in China, East Asia, pottery, SE Asia, Upper Paleolithic


Reliability of Greenland ice cores questioned for Younger Dryas only

It seems now that the main proxy to understand Northern Hemisphere glaciation, the Greenland ice cores, is not as straightforward as scientists used to think. At least that is what a new study claims in relation to the Younger Dryas (only):
Zhengyu Liu, Younger Dryas cooling and the Greenland climate response to CO2. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (6-month embargo or depending on world region).


Greenland ice-core δ18O-temperature reconstructions suggest a dramatic cooling during the Younger Dryas (YD; 12.9–11.7 ka), with temperatures being as cold as the earlier Oldest Dryas (OD; 18.0–14.6 ka) despite an approximately 50 ppm rise in atmospheric CO2. Such YD cooling implies a muted Greenland climate response to atmospheric CO2, contrary to physical predictions of an enhanced high-latitude response to future increases in CO2. Here we show that North Atlantic sea surface temperature reconstructions as well as transient climate model simulations suggest that the YD over Greenland should be substantially warmer than the OD by approximately 5 °C in response to increased atmospheric CO2. Additional experiments with an isotope-enabled model suggest that the apparent YD temperature reconstruction derived from the ice-core δ18O record is likely an artifact of an altered temperature-δ18O relationship due to changing deglacial atmospheric circulation. Our results thus suggest that Greenland climate was warmer during the YD relative to the OD in response to rising atmospheric CO2, consistent with sea surface temperature reconstructions and physical predictions, and has a sensitivity approximately twice that found in climate models for current climate due to an enhanced albedo feedback during the last deglaciation.

The problem is that, when compared with other records, the Greenland Ice cores’ oxygen isotope ration does not hold. The explanation is complex and related to CO2 levels, the North American Ice Sheet (which was already in retreat) and the different composition of oxygen isotopes when they arrived from the Pacific Ocean.

From the Archaeology News Network:

Working with UW-Madison climatologist Zhengyu Liu, collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and others, Carlson found their computer climate model breaking down on the Younger Dryas.
While it could reliably recreate temperatures in the Oldest Dryas — a similar cooling period about 18,000 years ago — they just couldn’t find a lever in the model that would simulate a Younger Dryas that matched the Greenland ice cores.
“You can totally turn off ocean circulation, have Arctic sea ice advance all the way across the North Atlantic, and you still will have a warmer climate during the Younger Dryas than the Oldest Dryas because of the carbon dioxide,” Carlson says.
By the time the Younger Dryas rolled around, there was more carbon dioxide in the air — about 50 parts per million more. The warming effects of that much CO2 overwhelmed the rest of the conditions that make the Oldest and Younger Dryas so alike, and demonstrates a heightened sensitivity for Arctic temperatures to rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
The researchers zeroed in on the Northern Hemisphere’s temperature outlier, Greenland ice cores, and found that the conversion of oxygen isotope ratio to temperature typically used on the ice cores did not account for the sort of crash climate change occurring during the Younger Dryas. It assumes prevailing winds and jet streams and storm tracks are providing the moisture for Greenland precipitation from the Atlantic Ocean.

“The Laurentide ice sheet, which covered much of North America down into the northern United States, is getting smaller as the Younger Dryas approaches,” Carlson says. “That’s like taking out a mountain of ice three kilometers high. As that melts, it allows more Pacific Ocean moisture to cross the continent and hit the Greenland ice sheet.” The two oceans have distinctly different ratios of oxygen isotopes, allowing for a different isotope ratio where the water falls as snow.

Hat tip: Pileta.

Some temperature proxies for the Younger Dryas

More North Iberian Epipaleolithic mtDNA (and first Epipaleolithic nuclear DNA)

[Scroll down for updates]

In this case two individuals (right) from La Braña-Arintero site in Valdelugueros (León province near the Asturian border), dated to 7000 years ago, borderline with Neolithic arrival but, according to the paper, still “Mesolithic” (i.e. Epipaleolithic).

The two individuals carried haplogroup U5b2c1 (I guess that they were relatives, maybe siblings). The mtDNA sequence was retrieved in full. 
It is worth mentioning that there have been other recent studies of Northern Iberian pre-Neolithic mtDNA:
Previously,  conference materials by Chandler, Sykes and Zilhao (2005) and by Kéfi (also 2005) had reported lots of likely mtDNA H and, less commonly, U5 and other lineages, in Epiplaeolithic Portugal and Late Upper Paleolithic (Oranian) Northern Morocco (Taforalt cave) respectively. Other studies in Upper Paleolithic Andalusia are also consistent with the presence of both main European grand lineages in the Iberian peninsula since Solutrean (U5 plus what?) and Magdalenian times (H with great likelihood).

Pre-Neolithic mtDNA lineages found in Northern Iberia to date (all quite unquestionable)

Update (revised): on the nuclear DNA sequences

Interestingly the study includes a large SNP sequence of the nuclear DNA of both individuals. When compared with several modern European populations (overloaded of Finnish and Tuscans, who hijack the analysis, the result is as follows:

Figure S3
PCA with 1KGPomni Chip Data (European Populations) and La Braña 1 (left) and La Braña 2 (right)
click to expand to original resolution (still not enough to discern Iberians by subpopulation easily)

As we can see the dimension 1 is hijacked by the Tuscan-Finnish duality, while the dimension 2 seems almost private, extending inside all populations with minor variations. This render the PCA essentially useless and meaningless. However it would seem that the La Braña individuals cluster best with some British and some of their creole cousins from Utah (CEU).

However when global tripolar comparison is made (after removing the noisy Finns), the result is:

Figure S2. PCA with the Shotgun Data from La Braña 1 (Left) and La Braña 2 (Right) and the Worldwide Data Set from 1,000 Genomes Project,

Interestingly the La Braña individuals not just cluster separately from Modern Europeans but they actually look “more Asian” than these. In fact, would we superimpose these PCA plots on any global one with more samples (which always takes an L shape with vortex at or near the European cluster) like this one (from Etyo Helix), the La Braña people would overlap Afghans and Gujaratis, roughly.

So it’s like the analysis performed is more perplexing than informative. Not really helpful. We can only hope that the sequences are soon released to the public domain so independent researchers can perform contrasting analysis. These PCAs alone are almost useless.

Update (Jun 29): details of the La Braña-Arintero findings:

Close-up of Braña 1 (source)

The cave was only excavated since 2006. Braña 1 was found in flexed position with ochre and a delimitation of the niche by rocks (but there is evidence that no earth was disposed on top of it). Braña 2 was found in non-anatomical disposal (possibly because of post burial alterations by water or people), at the bottom of a natural hole 4 m. deep, just beside the other one and with indications of being also a primary burial.

Braña 1 had no caries but erosion of some teeth in what is suggested to have been caused by the use of teeth tool. There is a serious injury in the upper jaw by piercing artifact (spear?), which healed.

Associated to Braña 2, there were found 24 perforated deer canines, possibly part of a necklace or other decoration originally.

The two burials are from almost exactly 7000 years ago. The ages are:

  • Braña 1: 6980±50 calBP (5990-5740 BP – raw C14)
  • Braña 2: 7030±50 calBP (6010-5800 BP – raw C14)

The assigning of the burials to ‘Mesolithic’ (Epipaleolithic) is based 100% on the datings and not on cultural elements (other than the deer canines) that are absent in this site. The ‘Mesolithic’ comparison dates from further North (Asturias) are from the 7th or 6th millennium uncalibrated but none of them is more recent than the ones from La Braña-Arintero (in fact they look as quite older):

  • El Espertín (Burón): 7080±40 BP and 7790±120 BP (not calibrated)
  • Los Canes: unspecified dates from the 6th millennium BP (not calibrated), where similar deer canine decorations were found also in burial context




    Update (Jul 1):
    Even if I do not often see eye-to-eye with Dienekes, he is the one providing the first known independent analysis of the La Braña people. He has done so in two successive updates of the entry on these interesting, yet perplexing, sequences.
    As you may know, he uses two main sets of zombie components (deduced from his own analysis, sometimes a bit questionably but well…), which he calls K7 and K12. They are Eurocentric in concept, what is convenient for this purpose.
    K7 has three West Eurasian components that he labels West Asian, Southern and Atlantic-Baltic. Where Atlantic-Baltic is the main European component, being strongest towards the West and the North, the top population being Lithuanians and the 50% isocline going through the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Northern Appenines, the Greek-Bulgarian border and the ethnic border between Russians and others in the North Caucasus. In other words: Europeans are generally high in this component, with very few exceptions, all them Mediterranean or Caucasian.
    For the K7 analysis, Dienekes got:

    9.3% African and 90.7% Atlantic_Baltic

    No modern Europeans are so high in the Atlantic-Baltic component (Lithuanians are 84-88%) but more notably none have such high levels of (simplified) African component, the closest being modern Portuguese with 2.5%. In fact Portuguese-D are in Dienekes’ K7 analysis: 60% Atlantic-Baltic, 2.5% African and the rest belonging to components that we can safely consider Neolithic or post-Neolithic arrivals:
    • 30% Southern (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean South or Arabia)
    • 7% West Asian (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean North or Caucasus)
    • 1% South Asian
    After removal of these likely Neolithic-arrival components and apportioning, the “reformed” Portuguese sample would end up being 96% Atlantic-Baltic and 4% African, what leads me to think that some extra Atlantic-Baltic may also have arrived with the Neolithic-specific components, assuming that the La Braña pre-Neolithic substrate can be extrapolated to Portugal (what may be but is not necessarily the case).
    As for K12, it may shed even more light. According to Dienekes, the La Braña people produce:

    45% Atlantic_Med, 41.6% North_European, 10.3% East_African, 1% Sub_Saharan

    Basically the Atlantic-Baltic has split in two European subcomponents and the African one in two as well (with a tiny 3 points displacement from the European to the African components as these become more refined). Remember that they are zombies (pre-determined components) and not the product of any direct comparison with actual populations. However for this purpose it is probably the best thing to do initially.
    For reference the Atlantic-Mediterranean component is highest in SW Europe (Basques and Sardinians notably), while the North European is highest in NE Europe, in spite of the misleading name (former USSR, Finland). British (or the CEU HapMap sample or the Irish) are almost half-and-half for both components, just like the La Braña people, what explains why they cluster best with them… if we ignore the African part.
    Like the La Braña people, British also have c. 10% “other stuff”, in their case it is however the “Gedrosia” component, strongest in Pakistan and Caucasus and which is suspected to be informative of Indoeuropean (Kurgan) ancestry (along with uncertain amounts of the Northeastern, “North European”, component).
    But the big mystery is the  East African component, which is distinct from the North West African (Moorish or Berber) one, which we might all have expected on first look. This East African component is highest among the Sandawe (68%), Somali (69%), Ethiopians (55%) and that’s about it. North Africans have some but not at all at such levels and certainly not without the NW African or other components absent in the La Braña pair.
    This is extremely hard to explain because modern Portuguese’s African component is nearly all NW African (7.7%), with some minor Sub-Saharan (0.7%) and nearly no East African (0.1%). So the illusion maybe generated at K7 of these people’s genomes being explainable by means of revising modern Iberians… seems to collapse.
    So the results remain perplexing (I have received criticisms for using this and similar words but that’s the truth and if you look online, nobody seems to have good answers – it’s not just me).
    But the results are still informative. Regardless of whatever the East African component means (what obviously demands further analysis), it seems obvious now that both European-specific components (North European and Atlantic-Med in Dienekes’ slang) are pre-Neolithic.
    And that is important because it opposes the most common and simplistic Neolithic replacement  models. It would seem that, whatever the intra-European genetic shaking and re-scattering and the arrival of minority genetic components from the Neolithic onwards (mostly from West Asia), the bulk of European ancestry is Paleolithic European after all.

    Update (Jul 1 – II):

    (From Dienekes’ blogfair use of copyrighted work)
    Dienekes is even providing us with a nice visual comparison (right), using his K12 zombies, of five prehistoric Europeans.
    Notice that the two so-called hunter-gatherers from Götland (an island off Sweden) are actually Neolithic hunter-gatherers at the best and Neolithic mixed-economy people most likely. They belong to the Pitted Ware culture, which is derived from the Neolithic of Ukraine and nearby parts of Russia: the Dniepr-Don culture. Derived from this, eventually some people with characteristic pottery, possibly some domestic animals such as pigs, but a largely gatherer economy (hunt and fish) spread towards the Baltic and in some cases crossed it towards Sweden.
    That would explain their high levels of NE European (aka North European) component.
    The South (or rather SW) Swedish farmer belonged instead to the Megalithic phenomenon and the Funnelbeaker (TRB) culture of Denmark and nearby areas. His affinities are mostly Sardo-Basque (Atlantic-Med), with a bit of Neolithic and NE European elements.
    The North Italian farmer (or rather Alpine pastoralist)  is the famous Ötzi “the iceman”. His affinities are also Sardo-Basque (to a lesser extent than the Nordic farmer) and also has a good deal of West Asian affinities (Caucasus and SW Asian) and even some North African affinities.
    Finally the Northwes Spanish hunter-gatherer is a combo of both La Braña genomes (very similar and quite incomplete), whose meaning (in my opinion always) I have discussed in the previous update section, a few lines above.

    Updates (Jul 3): strange ritual for ‘Mesolithic’ and some other DNA comparisons

    The latest zombie comparison (different set of zombies) by Dienekes (scroll for updates in the already provided link) is similar to the previous (i.e. c. 90% like modern Europeans, specifically NW ones without the “Neolithic” stuff) but instead of being anomalous towards Africa it is towards East Asia. Not sure what to think other than it seems to point to some unchartered component with deep roots.

    Maybe more interesting but still in the hmmmm zone is the comment at Diario de León[es] by Pablo Arias, Director of the Prehistoric Research Institute of Cantabria. Among other less important details,he argues that the burial or rather lack of it thereof (as the corpses were placed in the cave without earth covering, even if Braña 1 does display signs of intentional funerary disposition) is most anomalous, actually unique, among ‘Mesolithic’ burial practices which always included proper burial and not just disposition. My translation:

    Nevertheless, he details that there are some peculiarities making it unique: like the kind of necklace found along individual number 2 and very specially the characteristic of the funerary space: corpses deposited on the floor of a selected hypogeum. “From another point of view, La Braña-Arintero provides another evidence of the spectacular increase in the number of burials in the 7th millennium a.C. and that may relfect an intensification of the territoriality in these societies”.

    Pablo Arias precises that the more striking characteristic of the funerary context of La Braña-Arintero resides in the sepulchral space itself, detailing that it is an exclusively funerary site, with no link to settlements of that age. We see that a remote cavity, apparently not suited for habitation, and the corpses have been placed there in peculiar spaces, well delimited by natural space in the way of niches.

    And this, as he defends in the article, is a funerary behavior that has no clear precedents in other peninsular contexts and rather reminds to behaviors more common in later periods instead.

    And… what we just needed, so to say: Bushman affinities! In his latest comparison, using the DIY Harappa World calculator, Dienekes finds that the Braña composite is stubbornly >80% European (in this case 55% NE Euro and 27% Mediterranean) and some 17% (the highest figure so far!) non-European, mostly 7% Siberian and 6% Bushman (San).


    Cromlechs of Syria

    I thought I had already mentioned this but can’t find it. So just in case, here it is again:

    These cromlechs (or stone rings in insular archaeo-slang) of  are estimated to be 6000 to 10,000 years old. 
    Source and some more details at Discovery News.

    Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Chalcolithic, Megalithism, Neolithic, Syria, West Asia


    Iberian pine forest is 6000 years old

    Pines from Tierra de Pinares (source)
    Another curious snippet: the Castilian forest district of Tierra de Pinares (Land of Pine Forests), located at the border of the provinces of Segovia and Valladolid, happens to be at least 6000 years old, questioning the notion that it was a human creation. 
    Since time immemorial the villages and towns of the area have lived with an economy largely centered on the exploitation of the resources of the pine tree (wood, resin, pine nut), what led many to suspect it was in fact a human design. However a new study of paleosoils has found that the maritime or resin pine (P. pinaster) has been there in large amounts since at least the Neolithic period, some 6000 years ago. 
    The forest is an island of sorts among the wheat and sunflower fields that dominate the Castilian landscape, long ago probably more dedicated to cattle herding however. 

    Cuéllar, above the “sea of pines” (green area behind).

    Sources[es]: Pileta, SINC.

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    Posted by on June 27, 2012 in ecology, Iberia, Neolithic


    Copper metallurgy in Iberia began c. 3100 BCE

    The dating, established at the site of Cabezo Juré, Alosno (Huelva province, Andalusia), pushes back the beginnings of soft metallurgy in the area by some 350 years, grosso modo. It is the oldest known metallurgy of Western Europe. 
    Source: Pileta[es].
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    Posted by on June 27, 2012 in Chalcolithic, European prehistory, Iberia


    Dairying in Africa some 7000 years ago

    At least.

    In the prehistoric green Sahara of Holocene North Africa—in contrast to the Neolithic of Europe and Eurasia—a reliance on cattle, sheep and goats emerged as a stable and widespread way of life, long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities1, 2, 3. The remarkable rock art found widely across the region depicts cattle herding among early Saharan pastoral groups, and includes rare scenes of milking; however, these images can rarely be reliably dated4. Although the faunal evidence provides further confirmation of the importance of cattle and other domesticates5, the scarcity of cattle bones makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures via kill-off patterns, thereby precluding interpretations of whether dairying was practiced. Because pottery production begins early in northern Africa6 the potential exists to investigate diet and subsistence practices using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues7. This approach has been successful in determining the chronology of dairying beginning in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Near East and its spread across Europe8, 9, 10, 11. Here we report the first unequivocal chemical evidence, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major alkanoic acids of milk fat, for the adoption of dairying practices by prehistoric Saharan African people in the fifth millennium bc. Interpretations are supported by a new database of modern ruminant animal fats collected from Africa. These findings confirm the importance of ‘lifetime products’, such as milk, in early Saharan pastoralism, and provide an evolutionary context for the emergence of lactase persistence in Africa.
    While there are some related articles (different author) that propose yogurt instead of milk as being the actual consumed product, this seems mostly a molecular-clock-o-logic wild speculation. Otherwise, the invention of yogurt is generally attributed to the steppe peoples (or Indians maybe) and arrived to the West only in the Middle Ages. There is no classical source discussing it at all (cheese or butter however are mentioned, as is raw milk) and instead Medieval Arab sources consider it a typical Turkish product. 
    No African tradition exists of yogurt, unlike the case of butter or diverse ways of drinking raw milk, be it alone or mixed with blood.
    Most likely, as in Europe and elsewhere, the relevant alleles pre-dated Neolithic changes (after all there’s no advantage in lactose intolerance, so no reason why it would have been fixated other than random drift) although they may have been somewhat favored by the development of Neolithic dairying, specially in areas where other foodstuffs were not easily available.
    The archaeological site of Tadrar Acacus is at the in the Central Sahara, Fezzan region of Lybia, bordering the lands assigned to Algeria and Niger. Its chronology is illustrated in the supplemental figure 2:

    click to expand
    Equivalent evidence of dairying in Europe is from similar dates (or somewhat earlier in the Balcans and West Asia).

    Firefighter discovers Neolithic rock art at the Spanish-Portuguese border

    Destiny seems obsessed with rock-art these days. Juan Carlos Jiménez, forest firefighter at Valencia de Alcántara at the Spanish-Portuguese border, in Extremadura, discovered several Neolithic rock art weeks ago at San Roque pass and other mountain locations (Sierras of San Pedro and Santa Catalina).
    Archaeological experts from the regional government estimate the age of these paintings on 3500 to 2250 years BCE. 
    Examples of the findings:

    Source: Pileta[es].


    Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Chalcolithic, Iberia, rock art


    Conference on funerary practices in recent prehistory (Lisbon – November)

    Dr. Antonio C. Valera, who writes the always interesting blog Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures, is organizing and promoting a conference on the matter of funerary practices in relation to Megalithism and enclosures to be held on November 6-7 (plus an optional field trip on Nov-8) in the quite impressive frame of the Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation. The fees seem quite accessible.

    Program of the conference (click to expand)

    Sources: Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures, ERA-Arqueologia.