The discovery of Chauvet cave, at Vallon-Pont-d’Arc (Ardèche), in 1994, was an important event for our knowledge of palaeolithic parietal art as a whole. Its painted and engraved figures, thanks to their number (425 graphic units), and their excellent state of preservation, provide a documentary thesaurus comparable to that of the greatest sites known, and far beyond what had already been found in the group of Rhône valley caves (Ardèche and Gard). But its study – when one places it in its natural regional, cultural and thematic framework – makes it impossible to see it as an isolated entity of astonishing precocity. This needs to be reconsidered, and the affinities that our research has brought to light are clearly incompatible with the very early age which has been attributed to it. And if one extends this examination to the whole of the Franco-Cantabrian domain, the conclusion is inescapable: although Chauvet cave displays some unique characteristics (like every decorated cave), it belongs to an evolved phase of parietal art that is far removed from the motifs of its origins (known from art on blocks and on shelter walls dated by stratigraphy to the Aurignacian, in France and Cantabrian Spain). The majority of its works are therefore to be placed, quite normally, within the framework of the well-defined artistic creations of the Gravettian and Solutrean. Moreover, this phase of the Middle Upper Palaeolithic (26,000–18,000) coincides with a particularly intensive and diversified local human occupation, unknown in earlier periods and far less dense afterwards in the Magdalenian. A detailed critique of the treatment of the samples subjected to AMS radiocarbon dating makes it impossible to retain the very early age (36,000 cal BP) attributed by some authors to the painted and engraved figures of Chauvet cave.
Category Archives: European prehistory
Prehistoric material culture proposed to be symbolic in nature has been the object of considerable archaeological work from diverse theoretical perspectives, yet rarely are methodological tools used to test the interpretations. The lack of testing is often justified by invoking the opinion that the slippery nature of past human symbolism cannot easily be tackled by the scientific method. One such case, from the southwestern Iberian Peninsula, involves engraved stone plaques from megalithic funerary monuments dating ca. 3,500–2,750 B.C. (calibrated age). One widely accepted proposal is that the plaques are ancient mnemonic devices that record genealogies. The analysis reported here demonstrates that this is not the case, even when the most supportive data and techniques are used. Rather, we suspect there was a common ideological background to the use of plaques that overlay the southwestern Iberian Peninsula, with little or no geographic patterning. This would entail a cultural system in which plaque design was based on a fundamental core idea, with a number of mutable and variable elements surrounding it.
|Fig. 2 – General design of the plaques.|
Important note (update Feb 25): the dates given in the previous paragraph are uncalibrated (i.e. raw BP minus 1950). The calibrated dates are quite older: between c. 3500 and 2600 “actual years” BCE, as you can check in table 1. They still overlap with the known dates for Los Millares (c. 3200–2300 BCE) and its “Almeriense” precursor culture but less so with Zambujal (c. 2600-1300 BCE, subject to possible revisions). My apologies for the confusion.
The most dense area, and seemingly also the most diverse, for this kind of findings is the southern part of Évora district (Central Alentejo, near the Guadiana River, known as River Ana in Antiquity), a mostly flat country with some low hills (the highest peak in the district has 600 m.) and a scattered natural forestry of corks and holm oaks. It was once known as Portugal’s “bread basket” and was surely of relevance in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic period, especially in relation with the development of the influential burial style of dolmens or cairns (known as mamoas in Portuguese), later partly replaced by tholoi.
|Typical Alentejo landscape (CC by Alvesgaspar)|
|Ruins of Zambujal (source)|
|Reconstruction of the known area of Zambujal, possibly just an acropolis (source)|
|Figure 3. Character states used in the analysis.|
Back to the plaques, I don’t feel able to say anything about them that is not in the paper (read it and browse the many figures, please), except for one thing: some of the characteristics of certain plaques compare well with other “religious” iconography from the Southern Iberian Peninsula in Chalcolithic times.
For example plaque A in figure 1 clearly has the “oculado” (eyed) symbol found in many other artistic elements of the time and believed to represent some divinity and very likely representing the eyes of an owl (suspected to have been an ancient divinity or divine symbol in much of Europe, and found also in India).
|“Oculado” symbol in a bowl from Los Millares (CC by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez)|
|An “oculado” idol (CC by Luis García (Zaqarbal))|
|Proto-Chorintian owl (public domain, credit: Jastrow)|
Other plaques with a more defined head (plaque G in fig. 1, NK2 in fig. 3), remind also to the Millarense “cruciform” idols:
|(CC Museo de Almería)|
|Diverse types of idols from Chalcolithic Iberia (source)|
The appearance of farming, from its inception in the Near East around 12 000 years ago, finally reached the northwestern extremes of Europe by the fourth millennium BC or shortly thereafter. Various models have been invoked to explain the Neolithization of northern Europe; however, resolving these different scenarios has proved problematic due to poor faunal preservation and the lack of specificity achievable for commonly applied proxies. Here, we present new multi-proxy evidence, which qualitatively and quantitatively maps subsistence change in the northeast Atlantic archipelagos from the Late Mesolithic into the Neolithic and beyond. A model involving significant retention of hunter–gatherer–fisher influences was tested against one of the dominant adoptions of farming using a novel suite of lipid biomarkers, including dihydroxy fatty acids, ω-(o-alkylphenyl)alkanoic acids and stable carbon isotope signatures of individual fatty acids preserved in cooking vessels. These new findings, together with archaeozoological and human skeletal collagen bulk stable carbon isotope proxies, unequivocally confirm rejection of marine resources by early farmers coinciding with the adoption of intensive dairy farming. This pattern of Neolithization contrasts markedly to that occurring contemporaneously in the Baltic, suggesting that geographically distinct ecological and cultural influences dictated the evolution of subsistence practices at this critical phase of European prehistory.
Correction: I wrongly reported the main European lactase persistence SNP as rs13910*T, when it is in fact rs4988235(T) (already corrected in the text above) This was caused by the nomenclature used in the Sverrisdóttir paper, where it refers to it as -13910*T, which must be some other sort of naming convention. Thanks to Can for noticing.
Nick Ashton et al., Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE 2014. Open access → LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088329]
Investigations at Happisburgh, UK, have revealed the oldest known hominin footprint surface outside Africa at between ca. 1 million and 0.78 million years ago. The site has long been recognised for the preservation of sediments containing Early Pleistocene fauna and flora, but since 2005 has also yielded humanly made flint artefacts, extending the record of human occupation of northern Europe by at least 350,000 years. The sediments consist of sands, gravels and laminated silts laid down by a large river within the upper reaches of its estuary. In May 2013 extensive areas of the laminated sediments were exposed on the foreshore. On the surface of one of the laminated silt horizons a series of hollows was revealed in an area of ca. 12 m2. The surface was recorded using multi-image photogrammetry which showed that the hollows are distinctly elongated and the majority fall within the range of juvenile to adult hominin foot sizes. In many cases the arch and front/back of the foot can be identified and in one case the impression of toes can be seen. Using foot length to stature ratios, the hominins are estimated to have been between ca. 0.93 and 1.73 m in height, suggestive of a group of mixed ages. The orientation of the prints indicates movement in a southerly direction on mud-flats along the river edge. Early Pleistocene human fossils are extremely rare in Europe, with no evidence from the UK. The only known species in western Europe of a similar age is Homo antecessor, whose fossil remains have been found at Atapuerca, Spain. The foot sizes and estimated stature of the hominins from Happisburgh fall within the range derived from the fossil evidence of Homo antecessor.
Following its initial arrival in SE Europe 8,500 years ago agriculture spread throughout the continent, changing food production and consumption patterns and increasing population densities. Here we show that, in contrast to the steady population growth usually assumed, the introduction of agriculture into Europe was followed by a boom-and-bust pattern in the density of regional populations. We demonstrate that summed calibrated radiocarbon date distributions and simulation can be used to test the significance of these demographic booms and busts in the context of uncertainty in the radiocarbon date calibration curve and archaeological sampling. We report these results for Central and Northwest Europe between 8,000 and 4,000 cal. BP and investigate the relationship between these patterns and climate. However, we find no evidence to support a relationship. Our results thus suggest that the demographic patterns may have arisen from endogenous causes, although this remains speculative.
Figure 2: SCDPD-inferred population density change 10,000–4,000 cal. BP using all radiocarbon dates in the western Europe database.
Colored arrows and their annotations are mine.
|La Braña 1 without makeup|
The late Epipaleolithic forager from NW Iberia (previously discussed here) had the patrilineal haplogroup C6, found so far only very rarely among modern Europeans (Scozzari 2012). This, I must say, I know by the moment only from secondary sources (Eurogenes, Dienekes and a personal communication) because I have not been able yet to put my hands on the relevant paper and this key detail is not mentioned in the abstract.
→ freely available supplementary materials.
Ancient genomic sequences have started to reveal the origin and the demographic impact of farmers from the Neolithic period spreading into Europe1, 2, 3. The adoption of farming, stock breeding and sedentary societies during the Neolithic may have resulted in adaptive changes in genes associated with immunity and diet4. However, the limited data available from earlier hunter-gatherers preclude an understanding of the selective processes associated with this crucial transition to agriculture in recent human evolution. Here we sequence an approximately 7,000-year-old Mesolithic skeleton discovered at the La Braña-Arintero site in León, Spain, to retrieve a complete pre-agricultural European human genome. Analysis of this genome in the context of other ancient samples suggests the existence of a common ancient genomic signature across western and central Eurasia from the Upper Paleolithic to the Mesolithic. The La Braña individual carries ancestral alleles in several skin pigmentation genes, suggesting that the light skin of modern Europeans was not yet ubiquitous in Mesolithic times. Moreover, we provide evidence that a significant number of derived, putatively adaptive variants associated with pathogen resistance in modern Europeans were already present in this hunter-gatherer.
There have been some rush to conclusions on the pigmentation of this and another Western European hunter-gatherer based only on genetics. I think that some of the conclusions are most likely incorrect, at least to some extent, because they are based on a SNP which only weights ~15% on skin coloration.
Judging on the figures (freely accessible, it seems), La Braña 1 carried two pigmentation alleles of gene SLC45A2 now rare among Europeans (but common elsewhere, i.e. the ancestral variant):
- rs16891982, which affects hair color (7x chances of black hair among Europeans)
- rs1426654, which affects skin pigmentation to some degree (correlated with skin color in Indians, irrelevant among modern Europeans because of fixation, weights only ~15% in Cape Verdeans’ skin coloration).
Notice that while you can find online reconstructions that give La Braña 1 a very dark coloration, this is not necessarily the case at all but rather an oversimplistic interpretation based only on one allele, allele that is not just dominant in West Asians and Europeans but also, for example, among Gujaratis, who are quite dark for European standards.
It seems correct anyhow that this allele was only brought to Europe with Neolithic farmers (Stuttgart had it) but its alleged effect on pigmentation seems very much exaggerated.
|Fig. 4 from Beleza 2013 highlights that no single gene is decisive in skin pigmentation.|
- rs2745098 (PTX4)
- rs11755393 (UHRF1BP1, related to lupus)
- rs10421769 (GPATCH1)
|Extended Data Figure 5: Pairwise outgroup f3 statistics.
a, Sardinian versus Karitiana. b, Sardinian versus Han.
c, La Braña 1 versus Mal’ta. d, Sardinian versus Mal’ta.
e, La Braña 1 versus Karitiana. The solid line represents y = x.
Update: I already got the paper (thanks again to the donor), I’ll see to update as need be once I have time to read it. Minor urgent edits above in red (and slashed out text).
Update (Jan 29): The supplementary data is freely available (LINK) but I could not find it earlier. Almost all the information is in it, including a long list, much longer than mentioned above, of the SNPs found in La Braña 1, compared to various modern population frequencies. I don’t have time right now to dwell on it but I guess from a first read that I will have to amend some comments made on the issue of pigmentation above.
Regarding the Y-DNA haplogroup, it is important to notice that its adscription withing haplogroup C seems very clear but its assignation to C6-V20 is more dubious because of the low quality of the genome. Only the V20 marker could be assigned, so the authors themselves are in doubt and wonder if it could alternatively be C* or C5, both with a South Asian affinity.
In this sense I think it is worth noticing that the reference Y-DNA site ISOGG has recently revised the phylogeny of macro-haplogroup C and that they have already renamed C6-V20 as C1a2, making it a relative of the minor Japanese lineage earlier known as C1 (now renamed to C1a1), similarly South Asian C5-M356 has been renamed to C1b. So C1 is now perceived as a lineage that spans all Eurasia with an arguable South Asian centrality.
Another (Papuan?) lineage once known as “C6” has long vanished from the phylogeny because of lack of plural samples, I understand.
- In Götland (Pitted Ware culture) only 1/20 alleles was T (i.e. 1/10
persons had the CT combo, all the rest being CC and therefore likely
- In Longar (Navarre, dated to c. 4500 BP)
1/7 individuals was TT, while the other six were CC (intolerant). There
were no CT cases.
- In San Juan Ante Porta Latinam (SJAPL, Araba, dated to c. 5000 BP), 4/19 were TT, 2/19 were CT, while the remaining 13 were CC.
PS- This social inequality & goats argument makes sense assuming that the positive selection theory is correct. However before I fully embrace it, I would need a half-decent sample of aDNA sequences from the Atlantic areas of Europe, notably Britain & Ireland, the Basque Country & SW France and mainland Scandinavia, where the T allele peaks. I say because what we find in some Chalcolithic sites, notably in the Basque Country, rather strongly suggests that there was already a TT population somewhere and we have not yet found it. So maybe some of the premises of the positive selection theory are not as sound as I said above – but we do not know yet.