Category Archives: Ireland

Neolithic peoples from Britain and Ireland ate a lot of dairies and nearly no fish

I just discussed again the genetic sweep that apparently has happened in Europe after the Neolithic strongly favoring the selection of alleles that allow the digestion of lactose (the sugar present in milk and often in other dairies) by adults. However our knowledge of ancient European genetics is probably not sufficient (nor that of lactose tolerance genetics) and in any case the question remains, where did those lactase persistence (LP) alleles come from if all ancient Neolithic remains test negative?
An interesting possibility is opened by another recent study, not at all genetic in nature but rather bio-archaeological:
Lucy J. E. Cramp et al., Immediate replacement of fishing with dairying by the earliest farmers of the northeast Atlantic archipelagos. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2014. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1098/rspb.2013.2372]


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.

Not only fish consumption was pretty much abandoned in Britain and Ireland with the arrival of Neolithic (only recovered under Viking influence many millennia later) but the most striking fact is that it was replaced by milk as main source of proteins. 
This fact, considering that farmers studied in Central Europe and Iberia have systematically tested negative for lactase persistence, really opens an avenue for the possible origins of this nutritional adaptation because it is most unlikely that they were such notable dairy consumers without the corresponding digestive ability (even cheese may be harmful to lactose intolerant people unless it is aged, while yogurt was almost certainly not known yet in Europe). 
While the evidence comes from the Atlantic Islands, it is worth to notice that their chronologically late Neolithic has its origins in the much older agricultural cultures of NW France, another blank spot in the ancient DNA map of Europe. Nowadays NW France is high but not particularly high in this phenotype but SW France and Basques have among the highest LP scores (both phenotype and rs4988235(T) genotype) in Europe, together with the Atlantic Islands and Scandinavia. 
Then again it is worth recalling that one of the first areas where the rs4988235(T) allele is found is in the southern areas of the Basque Country, with clear signs of two different populations (one lactose tolerant and the other lactose intolerant) being still in the first stages of contact and mostly unmixed.
This leads us to the issue of Atlantic Megalithism (tightly associated to Atlantic Neolithic) and its still unsolved, but likely important, role in the conformation of the modern populations of Europe. 
Whatever the case the first farmers of the islands were heavy dairy consumers, although in Britain (but not in Ireland and Man) they eventually derived into heavy meat eaters later on:

Figure 1.

Prevalence of marine and dairy fats in prehistoric pottery determined from lipid residues. (af) Scatter plots show δ13C values determined from C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids preserved in pottery from northern Britain (red circles), the Outer Hebrides (yellow circles) and the Northern
Isles of Scotland (blue circles), dating to (a) Early Neolithic, (b) Mid/Secondary expansion Neolithic, (c) Late Neolithic, (d) Bronze Age, (e) Iron Age and (f) Viking/Norse. Star symbol indicates where aquatic biomarkers were also detected. Ellipses show 1 s.d. confidence ellipses
from modern reference terrestrial species from the UK [19] and aquatic species from North Atlantic waters [13]. (gi) Maps show the frequency of dairy fats in residues from Neolithic pottery from (g) Early Neolithic, (h) the Middle Neolithic/Secondary expansion and (i) Late Neolithic. Additional data from isotopic analysis of residues from Neolithic southern Britain (n = 152) and Scotland (n = 104) are included [19,20].

The data of this study also suggests that the so much hyped high-meat “Paleolithic diet” is more of a Late Neolithic (Chalcolithic) thing, with the real hunter-gatherers of Europe being more into fish in fact.

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.


Neolithic and Chalcolithic demographics of Western and Northern Europe

Somehow I missed this important study on the Neolithic and Chalcolithic demographics of Europe, as inferred from the archaeological record (h/t Davidski):
Stephen Shennan et al., Regional population collapse followed initial agriculture booms in mid-Holocene Europe. Nature Communications 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:doi:10.1038/ncomms3486]


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.

The most interesting aspect is maybe that the (apparent) demographic changes are detailed for many regions of Europe, but first let’s see the general outlook for the whole area surveyed (Western and Northern Europe, Iberia excluded):

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.

I decided that it was important to mark the main cultural episodes for reference.
1st Neolithic refers to Impressed-Cardium and Linear Band Pottery cultures, which arrived almost simultaneously to Germany and France (of the surveyed areas), although the Rhône-Languedoc Neolithic is a few centuries earlier than the arrow, which has been standardized to 7500 BP.
Atlantic Neolithic refers to the quite belated arrival of Neolithic to Britain, Ireland and Northern Europe (standardized at 6000 BP). This process was quickly followed and tightly associated with the widespread cultural phenomenon of Dolmenic Megalithism. It is most interesting that the main deviation from the pattern of regular growth concentrates in this period and is clearly positive.
Corded Ware culture (Indoeuropean consolidation in Central and Northern Europe) affected only to Germany and Denmark-Scania within the surveyed regions. It was followed by a more widespread subcultural phenomenon known as Bell Beaker, which almost invariably cases manifests within pre-existent locally rooted cultures. Neither seems to be correlated with demographic expansions in the general overview.
Now let’s take a look at the regional graphs:

Figure 3: SCDPD-inferred population density change 8,000–4,000 cal. BP for each sub-region.
Colored arrows, excepted the blue ones (which mark the local first Neolithic), are mine and mark general pan-European initial chronologies (not local!) for Megalithism, Corded Ware and Bell Beaker in those regions where they had some clear influence.

Here we can appreciate that:
Atlantic Neolithic and its associated Megalithic phenomenon are clearly related to notable demographic expansions in Ireland, Scotland, South England, Denmark and Scania. Megalithic influence may also be associated with some more irregular growth in South and Central Germany but rather not in France nor West Germany. A contemporary weak and irregular growth in North Germany (Brandenburg, Mecklemburg and Schlewig-Holstein) may be correlated with Funnelbeaker (with roots in Denmark) and the first Kurgan development of Baalberge and successor cultures (with roots in Eastern Europe), which would eventually evolve into Corded Ware.
Corded Ware only seems related to clear demographic growth in Jutland (and less resolutely in Scania). Bell Beaker is only linked with clear demographic growth in Ireland (and much more weakly in South England and Central Germany), while elsewhere it is rather associated with decline.
For the exact extension of the various regions as defined for this study, see fig. 1 (map).
As provisional conclusion, it seems obvious to my eyes that the most important demographic growth processes were the various Neolithic cultures but that the Atlantic Neolithic (and associated Megalithism) was particularly dynamic. In contrast Indoeuropean-associated cultural phenomena had a much weaker impact, with some localized exceptions, and are generally associated with local demographic decline instead, at least judging from the archaeological record.
See also:

Was the grove snail Epipaleolithic livestock in Western Europe?

Cepaea nemoralis
(CC by Papa Lima Whiskey 2)
The problem of disjunct distribution of Western European species or, in this case, subclades of a single species is nothing new and has been startling biologists for almost two centuries already, with particular interest of Irish-Iberian, Breton-Iberian or just general Irish-continental disjunct relationships of various species (the so called Lusitanian distribution). Among them is the iconic strawberry tree (madroño in Spanish, found in Ireland but not Great Britain) but also a number of small land animals: the Kerry slug (found in NW Iberia and SW Ireland only), the Quimper snail (found in NW Iberia and Western Brittany) or the Pyrenean glass snail (found in the Pyrenees and Ireland).
There are also cases of subclades within an otherwise widespread species which show a similar pattern. In 2003, Masheretti et al. demonstrated that the Irish variant of the pygmy shrew had its greatest affinity with populations of Andorra, in the Eastern Pyrenees, from which they are descended.
This study illustrates a similar case but affecting the snail species Cepaea nemoralis (grove snail or brown lipped snail), whose Irish lineages are mostly derived from Iberian ones and in most cases from the Eastern Pyrenean haplogroup C.
Adele J. Grindon & Angus Davison, Irish Cepaea nemoralis Land Snails Have a Cryptic Franco-Iberian Origin That Is Most Easily Explained by the Movements of Mesolithic Humans. PLoS Genetics 2013. Open access LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065792]


The origins of flora and fauna that are only found in Ireland and Iberia, but which are absent from intervening countries, is one of the enduring questions of biogeography. As Southern French, Iberian and Irish populations of the land snail Cepaea nemoralis sometimes have a similar shell character, we used mitochondrial phylogenies to begin to understand if there is a shared “Lusitanian” history. Although much of Europe contains snails with A and D lineages, by far the majority of Irish individuals have a lineage, C, that in mainland Europe was only found in a restricted region of the Eastern Pyrenees. A past extinction of lineage C in the rest of Europe cannot be ruled out, but as there is a more than 8000 year continuous record of Cepaea fossils in Ireland, the species has long been a food source in the Pyrenees, and the Garonne river that flanks the Pyrenees is an ancient human route to the Atlantic, then we suggest that the unusual distribution of the C lineage is most easily explained by the movements of Mesolithic humans. If other Irish species have a similarly cryptic Lusitanian element, then this raises the possibility of a more widespread and significant pattern.

The evidence gathered by this study is most readily visible in fig. 2:

While it is not the focus of this study, we see here two other cases of probable disjunct distribution:
  • Hg D is found in Iberia, Ireland, small pockets in Britain and SW France but also in North and Central Europe.
  • Hg F shows also disjunct presence in Cornwall, far away from the main cluster around the Bay of Biscay.
The authors of this and previous studies have suggested that this distribution may have to do with intentional transport (as livestock) in the process of the colonization of the Atlantic Islands in the Epipaleolithic. In support of this claim, there is enough fossil evidence of the snail in the island:

Fossil material indicates that this species has been continuously present in Ireland for at least 8000 years (Newlands Cross, Co. Dublin: 7600+/−500 BP Cartronmacmanus, Co. Mayo: 8207+/−165) [7], [8].

In other cases, such as the inedible Kerry slug, we may suspect unintentional transport and therefore we would be justified to imagine a later time frame for their arrival to Ireland, possibly in the Chalcolithic-Megalithic period, but the evidence for C. nemoralis is highly suggestive of intentional transport in the Epipaleolithic. We can therefore say that the humble grove snail was one of the first domestic animals of Europe, possibly second after the dog.

Echoes from the past (May 17 2013)

Some interesting news I cannot dedicate much effort to:

Human intelligence not really linked to frontal lobe.

New research highlights that the human frontal lobe is not oversized in comparison with other animals. Instead the human intelligence seems to be distributed through all the brain, being the network what really matters → Science Daily

Ref. Robert A. Barton and
Chris Venditti. Human frontal lobes are not relatively large. PNAS, May 13, 2013 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1215723110

Early hominin ear bones found together in South Africa.

The three bones, dated to c. 1.9 Ma show intermediate features between modern humans and apes → PhysOrg.

New hominin site in Hunan (China).

The sediments of Fuyan cave, in which five human teeth (Homo erectus?) were found, along with plenty of animal ones, are dated to 141,700 (±12,100) years ago. → IVPP – Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The five human teeth

Neanderthal workshop found in Poland.

In Pietrowice Wielkie (Silesia), which is at the end of a major natural corridor from the Danubian basin → PAP.

Ancient Eastern Europeans ritually killed their pets to become warriors.

In the Bronze Age site of Krasnosamarkskoe (Volga region, Russia) more than 50 ritually pieced skulls of dogs have puzzled archaeologists, who have reached the conclusion, after researching Indoeuropean accounts from India, that the animals may have been killed in adulthood rituals: the boys who were to become warriors had to kill their most beloved pet in order to be accepted as such, and did so in a precise and macabre ritual → National Geographic.

Ancient log boat found in Ireland.

In the Boyne river, which was in the past a major artery of the island. Not yet dated: it could be from prehistoric times or the 18th century. → Irish Times.


Echoes from the Past (Feb 17)

And again a quick look to many things which have been showing up around the Net these last few days:

Neanderthal society

Bryan Hayden has a very interesting (and freely accessible!) paper at the Oxford Journal of Archaeology on reconstructing Neanderthals society, which was apparently much like ours for similar conditions (small operative bands of 12-30 people linked in larger ethnic and/or clannic groups through seasonal meetings and general social networks). M. Mozota has a quite interesting review at his blog as well for those who can read in Spanish.

Natufian Mesolithic Syrian site dug

The site of As-Suwayda (or Sweida), dated to c. 14-9 thousand years ago, had 12 circular huts, two of which were more complex, suggesting to some the beginnings of social stratification (or could be communal buildings?)  The two more complex (not larger) huts were located to the south of the village and show, one, inner divisions and an internal elevated platform, and, the other, external platforms and a trench. All huts are 4-5m. round.
The Natufian culture is one of the beginnings of sedentarism, as their members lived largely on recollection of wild cereals, although it is generally understood that there was no productive agriculture yet.

Neolithic driven by aridification in South Asia

D. Fuller at Indian Ocean Corridors discusses how an increasingly drier climate may have aided the expansion of agriculture in the Indian subcontinent:

The significant aridification recorded after ca. 4,000 years ago may have spurred the widespread adoption of sedentary agriculture in central and south India capable of providing surplus food in a less secure hydroclimate.

Relevant paper: Holocene aridification of India (C. Ponton et al. 2012, PPV)

Chalcolithic oxen traction in Iberia

A very interesting article in Spanish language by J.M. Arévalo discusses the use of animal traction in the Chalcolithic of Mucientes in the Northern Iberian Plateau during the 3rd millennium BCE (c. 2830-2290 BCE). Article available at Periodista Digital[es] and Asociación los Dólmenes[es].
The production, use and export of threshing teeth, made on flintstone at Cantalejo, emphasizes the almost necessary use of ox traction (horse domestication is unclear for the period while oxen remains are consistent with such kind of work). Interestingly the article is accompanied by an image of what may well be the oldest preserved wheel in Europe (Ljubljana, 4th millennium BCE, many centuries before Indoeuropean arrival, pictured).
Other archaeology/prehistory
Nerja rock art will be directly dated: the calcite layer over them will be dated so the doubts on authorship may be clarified. ··> Pileta[es].

East Asturian Magdalenian cave sites Tito Bustillo and El Buxu were used by the same group ··> Pileta[es].

Rock art found at Paleoindian site in Clarke Co., Virginia (USA) ··> Clarke Daily News.

England’s Neolithic submerged town had market street ··> BBC

The IVC seal represents a goat

Rare Indus Valley Civilization seal found at Cholistan (Punjab) ··> Dawn.

20 megalithic cairn circles and an apparent fortification from the Iron Age found at Andrah Pradesh, India ··> Firstpost.

Conservation plan to protect the Hill of Tara (Ireland) ··> The Meath Chronicle.

Spanish language specialized open access e-magazine Trabajos de Prehistoria vol. 68, no. 2 is available.

Human genetics

You may want to take a look at the latest exploration of Northern Europe’s autosomal genetics by Fennoscandia Biographic Project, using the most advanced analysis tools available (it seems): as always Scandinavians are somewhat distinct within Western Europe but Finnic peoples are a world on their own.

Other genetics

Rice varieties indica and japonica may have been independently domesticated (paper): Independent Domestication of Asian Rice Followed by Gene Flow from japonica to indica (Chin-chia Yang et al. at MBE, PPV).

Echoes from the Past (Dec 26)

Before the year is over, here there is a bunch of stuff I wanted to mention:
Lower and Middle Paleolithic

Humans may have originated near rivers – Technology & science – Science – LiveScience – – neither savanna nor jungle, beach (river banks) was the favored ecosystem even for old good Ardi, it seems.
Pileta de Prehistoria: 180 prehistoric sites located around Atapuerca[es] – not just Neanderthal ones: a bit of everything (located just outside Burgos city, Atapuerca is a key pass between the Upper Ebro basin and the Northern Iberian Plateau, which must have played an ecological and socio-political role always, and hence attracted people towards it).
Upper Paleolithic and Epipaleolithic 

The boulders at lake Huron were to trap the reindeer (caribou)
Remains found of the culture which inhabited Northern Chile 11,000 years ago – Terrae Antiqvae[es] – they exploited a quartz deposit for their tools in the middle of Atacama desert, which then was probably quite milder.
Simultaneous ice melt in Antarctic and Arctic at the end of the last Ice Age.
Neolithic and Chalcolithic
El Neolítico en Europa: una simulación del proceso | Neolítico de la Península Ibérica – Iberian Neolithic – exposition and criticism in Spanish language of yet another paper simulating the Neolithic ‘colonization’ (Lemmen 2011).

Metal Ages and Historical periods

Iruina blog: doubts about the ability of the Basque Autonomous Police to  analyze the Iruña-Veleia pieces[es] – the Spanish Guardia Civil police force already declared themselves unable to do the tests. The defense asks to send the remains to one of the few international laboratories able to do the tests and has even offered to pay the cost of it. Also at Diario de Noticias de Alava[es].
An intimate look at ancient Rome – – a journey through the hygienic practices of Ancient Rome.
Scientists unlock the mystery surrounding a tale of shaggy dogs – Native Americans used dog hair for textiles (among other components).
The Archaeology News Network: Real Mayan apocalypse may have been their own fault -overexploitation of the jungle biome caused desertification.

Some of these open access papers surely deserved a deeper look at… I did not have time or energies for that however.

BBC News – Liking a lie-in in people’s genes, researchers say – long sleeping is a genetic need: tell your boss next time you are late. I am among those who need to sleep 9-10 hours per day (normally) though I have also met people who only sleep 4-5 hours.
The Spittoon » Find Your Inner Neanderthal (I retract what I said before: the results are coherent, even if Africans still get too much too often I guess that’s part of the margin of error. However there is another “free online” genetic test that is misleading).

Biology and psychology
Of mice and men, a common cortical connection – a nice comparison to better understand brain regions. To the right: F/M: frontal/motor cortex, S1: primary somatosensory cortex, A1: primary audtive cortex and V1: primary visual cortex. Mice have a much more developed somatosensory cortex (surely related to whiskers, smell, etc.) but a much less developed frontal/motor cortex (related to willpower and rationality).
Brain Scans Reveal Difference Between Neanderthals and Us | LiveScience – something about the sense of smell, not too clear.

Primates are more resilient than other animals to environmental ups and downs – diversification and flexibility is the key to long-term success.

Some curious archaeology news from the Atlantic Islands

Found via Archaeology in Europe and quite worth a mention here, I believe:

A Chalcolithic Age (late Neolithic by British standards) handbag preserved in bog. The piece of basketry to the left was part of a very extended design used by people, usually women, through the World since at least Neolithic times. The first such design is claimed to be from West Asia c. 4800 BCE, while this Irish specimen (from Tyford, Wesmeath) seems to have “only” 5000 years of age.
Full story at Irish Times.
Of similar age, 5500 years, is the first complete Neolithic (Chalcolithic by pan-European chronology) pot  found in Britain. The site of Didcot in Oxfordshire has also yielded well preserved Iron Age housing and other materials. 
Full story at BBC
Finally big myths are being shaken: Romans may not have built “Roman roads” after all. Iron Age Britons were already building them long before the Romans arrived. If that was the case in the then rather remote island, I presume it’s probably also in other parts of Europe.
The Independent wonders, quite legitimately, what did the Romans do for us (if they did not build our roads)? In truth the notion of the Roman Empire as a force of culture and civilization may well be very much misplaced, after all, Romans learned everything but war from their Etruscan neighbors.

Posted by on March 12, 2011 in Chalcolithic, Ireland, Iron Age, Neolithic, UK