Category Archives: Portugal

SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic

A new study gives us the opportunity to learn about the mysterious SW Iberian plaques from the Chalcolithic period.
Daniel García Rivero & Daniel J. O’Brien, Phylogenetic Analysis Shows That Neolithic Slate Plaques from the Southwestern Iberian Peninsula Are Not Genealogical Recording Systems. PLoS ONE 2014. Open access LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088296]


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.

Figure 1. Engraved plaques from the Iberian Peninsula.
Valencina de la Concepción, Sevilla, Spain (Museo Arqueológico de
Sevilla [MAS]); b, S. Geraldo, Montemor-o-Novo, Évora, Portugal (Museo
Nacional de Arqueologia de Portugal [MNAP]); c, Monsaraz, Reguengos de
Monsaraz, Évora (MNAP); d, Mora, Évora (MNAP); e, Jabugo, Aracena,
Huelva, Spain (MAS); f, Ciborro, Monte-o-Novo, Évora (MNAP); g, Marvão,
Portalegre, Portugal (MNAP); h, Estremoz, Évora (MNAP); and I, Pavia,
Mora, Évora (MNAP).

Rather than dwelling in the central discussion of the study, which is to empirically discard the genealogical hypothesis (for which it is surely best to read the paper as such), my main interest is to share this not often seldom discussed Chalcolithic phenomenon which is limited to SW Iberia (i.e. Southern Portugal and nearby areas of Spain). This study gives us the opportunity of not just knowing it but also contemplate its unity and diversity from a large number of specimens. 

Fig. 2 –  General design of the plaques.
The dates of the “plaque idols”, as they are often known in the literature, range from c. 2650 to c. 2100 BCE[see note below], corresponding to the development of the first Iberian (and West European) civilizations (fortified towns) in the area, which began c. 2600 BCE, with two main centers around modern Lisbon (Zambujal) and Almería (Los Millares) but that also knew of other such towns especially in Southern Portugal. All that in the context of dolmenic Megalithism, with the introduction of new burial designs such as the tholos (beehive tomb) or the artificial cave, innovations that may have been restricted for some elites. 

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)

The plaques’ phenomenon is anyhow found through all the Southern half of Portugal, with limited penetration into Spanish Extremadura. Another important region was the Lisbon Peninsula, which was almost certainly a more important civilization and geopolitical center, with notable urban development in this period and becoming a major center of Bell Beaker.
Its main city, Zambujal (Torres Vedras) still barely researched was connected to the Atlantic Ocean by a 10-14 km long marine branch that was silted (tsunami?) at the end of its occupation (end of Bronze Age?) Hence we are talking of a major city (for the standards of the time at least) which lasted for more than a thousand years and whose influence encompassed once at the very least much of Southwestern Europe (and, if we accept that it was at the origins of the Bell Beaker, then all Western Europe and parts of North Africa).

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)
So I would think that all or at least many may well represent the same kind of divinity, possibly related to the origins of several more historical deities such as Athena (Greece) or Mari (Basque Country). 

Basque and other European origins according to ancient mtDNA

This is a (partly shortened) version of an article I wrote recently in Spanish language for Ama Ata.
For reasons of the variegated methodology used by the various researchers this comparison across time and space has to be simplified. Still it is a valuable insight on the demographic changes produced in the Neolithic and later on in three European regions: Germany, Portugal and the Basque Country. 
As you surely know already, the results of archaeogenetic sequencing in Central Europe have produced quite perplexing results: not just the Neolithic wave seems to have caused major changes but also this one was victim of similarly radical later changes in the demography. Visually:

The first period when we see an mtDNA pool similar to the modern one is already in the Late Bronze Age. However we lack data for all the early and middle Bronze Age and the data of the late Chalcolithic already points to the components of this modern pool being present, albeit in a very fragmented form. If anything there was still excess of L(xR), i.e. N(xR). 
This late Chalcolithic and Bronze Age knot of Central European demographic history is still to be solved. But something we can already say for sure: the Neolithic wave was of dramatic consequences in this region but itself was wiped out by later, still ill understood, secondary waves.
This area is not so well documented, however the data we do have still provide a very interesting sequence of the demographic history of SW or West Iberia. Visually again:

One of the problems here is, quite evidently, that sequencing only the HVS-I region is not at all enough to identify some very important haplogroups, particularly H. We can reasonably think however that most or even all of the R* sequences are actually H.
We see some but not-so-radical changes with the arrival of Neolithic: some apparent decrease of U (halved) and L(xR), a +33% growth of H and first detection of HV0 (probably V). However these changes seem to have been partly countered by Chalcolithic, plausibly by means of blending between first farmers and more purely aboriginal populations. Overall I am very much tempted to think that the arrival of Neolithic to (South and Central) Portugal only caused mild demic changes. 
This fact, together with the extremely high frequencies of haplogroup H and the key role played by SW Iberia in the formation of Dolmenic Megalithism, as well as their pivotal role in Bell Beaker, including the existence of a major civilization (Zambujal, VNSP), the first one ever in Atlantic Europe, makes this area highly suspect as a possible origin for the spread of mtDNA H in Western Europe to the frequencies that we find today (c. 40-50%).
However we have only very limited archaeogenetic data from other Atlantic Megalithic regions and in general from Megalithic burials and it is at least possible that Armorica (Brittany, West France) or Denmark and the nearby Low Germany regions played important roles in this spread, which we see so dramatically exemplified in the German Bell Beaker sample. 
When the finger points to the Moon, the fool looks at the finger. Portugal could be the Moon but it may just be the finger, so I will remain cautious at this stage of research. Whatever the case it does seem to me that Megalithism is a likely source of that excess H (Bell Beaker being just the finger here, almost for sure).
I must add that there seem to be some important demic changes since Chalcolithic in Portugal. Tentatively I will attribute them to the intrusive SW Iberian “horizons” (proto-Tartessian?) and/or the Luso-Celtic invasions of the Iron Age. 
Basque Country
My main aim in all this compilation was, as in a sense in all my diving into prehistoric research for so many years now, to find an answer to the mystery of the origin of Basques and Basque language. 
In the last few years we have been blessed with some important and revealing archaeogenetic research in this area, and therefore I could build also an informative graph for the Basque Country:

Very synthetically, I think that we can see here, much as in Portugal, some not too radical changes with the Neolithic arrival, and then relative stability until present day. This is coherent with the Basque Country not having suffered effective Indoeuropean invasions, unlike Portugal.
However I strongly feel the need to look at the fine detail in the Basque Neolithic transition, because it has some interesting question marks:

Seen as that, it would seem like the Neolithic-induced demic change was more important in Navarre and less in the Western Basque Country. However the two Ebro basin sequences (both Fuente Hoz and Los Cascajos) are very high in U* and low in U5, which is so far the only U subclade sequenced in the Paleolithic of the Basque-Cantabrian area. At this point I do not really know how to interpret this fact nor even what kind of U sublineage is that one.
What I do know is that, on one side, the Biscay-Gipuzkoan area seems to have been initially unaffected by Neolithic demic waves and that the Paternabidea sequence is very very similar to modern day Basque average (and even more in its own sub-region).
It is very possible that the Basque periphery, notably the Ebro banks, suffered more intense demic changes than the core Basque areas of the piedmont. However, when compared with other European regions (very especially Central Europe) the Basque genetic pool seems quite stable since Neolithic times. 
Is Basque language Neolithic?
Even if genetics and language need not to be tightly related, of course, the question of the origin of Basque language and the proposed Vasconic language family, believed to have been spoken in much of Europe at some point in Prehistory, are indeed related to the genetic origin of the Basque people. 
There are four main models for the origin of Basque and Vasconic:
  1. Magdalenian (Paleolithic) origin in the Franco-Cantabrian region some 17-15,000 years ago (incl. possible sub-waves like Tardenoisian/geometric Epipaleolithic).
  2. Neolithic origin.
  3. Megalithic origin.
  4. More or less recent (Iron Age?) arrival, defended by mostly by the fanatics of Indoeuropean continuity. 
We can safely discard #4 only based on archaeology but the genetic aspect seems to add even more weight to this dismissal, after all it is Indoeuropean speaking peoples the ones which show obvious signs of demic change, sometimes very dramatic, not Basques.
Personally, and with due caution, I would also cast doubt on #1, partly because the Vasconic substrate area seems to include strongly many parts of Italy like Sardinia, in principle unaffected by the Magdalenian expansion, and I would also include at least to some extent parts of the Balcans (for example the Ibar river in Kosovo). 
So I am rather inclined for model #2, i.e. that Vasconic was the language family spoken by European Neolithic peoples with roots in Thessaly (pre-Sesklo→Mediterranean Neolithic, proto-Sesklo→Balcano-Danubian Neolithic). I cannot of course exclude a possible re-expansion of some of those languages within the Atlantic Megalithic phenomenon, which I would deem responsible of the expansion of much of mtDNA H up to modern frequencies, however I doubt this one is the source because it is difficult to explain the presence of Vasconic in many pockets in which Megalithism was at best very secondary or did not exist at all (for example most of the Ancient Iberian area, Sardinia, the Balcans, etc.)
So my tentative proposal is that there was a root Vasconic spoken some 9000 years ago in Thessaly (Northern Greece), which split (as per archaeology) in two branches:
  • Southern or Western Vasconic (Impressed-Cardium Pottery and related cultures, including the Megalithic urheimat in Portugal). 
  • Northern or Eastern Vasconic (Red-White Painted Ware in the Balcans and later Linear Pottery in Central Europe).
Basque, ancient Sardinian, Iberian and the hypothetical lingua franca associated to Megalithism would belong to Southern Vasconic. Danubian Neolithic peoples would have spoken Northern Vasconic instead but, as we can see, they were eventually all but wiped out by secondary arrivals from West and East. Even the very Balcanic core areas of Thessaly, Macedonia and Serbia also suffered an invasion early on by peoples with Beige-Black pottery (Vinca-Dimini) surely related to Tell Halaf. So the main survivor to the Metal Ages was Southern (Western) Vasconic, which was then wiped out (excepted Basque) by the Indoeuropean invasions of Celtic and Italic peoples. 
We can still see fossils however. One of my favorite examples is the Latin particle bi- (as in bilateral, bilingual, etc.), which seems derived from Vasconic bi (two, at least in modern Basque) and unrelated to PIE *dwos. Also the English words kill and ill, which seem related to Basque verb hil(-du) (pronounced /hill/ or /ill/ and meaning to die or to kill, depending on how you conjugate it). Again both English terms do not have any apparent PIE origins, although they may derive from proto-Germanic. These are just examples, of course, there seems to be much more to be researched.
Appendix: detail of the data and bibliography: LINK.

Portugal: ‘austerity’ may close Côa Park

Côa engravings (CC by Henrique Matos)
Côa Valley is not just a fantastic natural park in the NE of Portugal but also one of the key areas of European Prehistory, hosting the famous mural engravings the Upper Paleolithic.
The Portuguese government decided on Tuesday (Sep. 25) to suspend its existence and is considering its complete dismantling, as part of the austerity efforts imposed by the IMF and the EU. 
The cost of the park is 1.4 million euros yearly.
No cuts are known to affect the Armed Forces for example, even if Portugal has not known enemies anymore and could do with just some patrol ships. 
Source: RTP Noticias[por] (via Pileta).

Bronze Age rock art in Azores

The claim, even if very unexpected, seems legitimate enough to have been made by the President of the Portuguese Association of Archaelogical Research (APIA), Dr. Nuno Ribeiro, within a conference titled “pre-Portuguese human presence in Azores, myth or reality?”
Among the findings cataloged in the last few years Ribeiro mentioned building remains that seem prehistorical, a Roman era inscription, a rock art site in Terceira island and several megalithic structures. Only in the last year, five tombs of the hypogeum kind and three sanctuaries also dug in the rock were located. All the findings are still pending radiocarbon dating however but the style of the rock art is similar to Bronze Age ones from Iberia. 
However red tape by the regional government is blocking further research: in 2011 for lack of financing and in 2012 for not being withing the frame of a legal decree.  The archaeologist denounced that all these extraordinary findings are therefore in state of abandonment. In one case, works in the local airport, carried without the corresponding archaeological survey, may have damage a site.
These findings strongly suggest that the navigation skills of Bronze Age peoples of the Eastern North Atlantic (Western Europe, NW Africa) were much more advanced than we usually admit.
Source: RTP[por] (h/t Pileta).
See also these articles in English language at the Portuguese American Journal: art1, art2.

Azores are located far away into the North Atlantic Ocean (CC by Tyk)

Posted by on August 28, 2012 in Azores, Bronze Age, Megalithism, navigation, Portugal, rock art, sea


Thousands of engraved plates found in Northern Portugal

The engraved schist plates have been found concentrated at a dig site at Meirinhos[pt] (Mogadouro, Alto Trás-os-Montes), where they seem to have accumulated by the action of natural forces back in the day. Their motifs are mostly figurative, although some are zoomorphic (horses, aurochsen). They are believed to be from the Upper Paleolithic and are among the most important artistic sets of NW Iberia (also Côa open air sanctuary and Asturian cave art).
Sources[pt]: Correio del Manha, Pileta,

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.


‘Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures’ blog: what a great find!

I just stumbled, lead by a note at Pileta, with a most fascinating archaeological blog that goes by the name of Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures. Where the term enclosure may be a cattle pen… but it may well mean a big city or more commonly a walled village of some size.
I’m almost drooling like a Pavlov’s dog before the huge amount of information that this Portuguese archaeologist, A.C. Valera, is sharing with the World… and in English! As he mentions in his post #13, the phenomenon of enclosures in the Iberian peninsula has remained largely a local concern having almost no international projection.
Just yesterday, he produced a wonderful map of the known enclosures of Portugal, which is located in a separate page (and will be updated as needed).
I will probably use that blog in the future as source for my own posts but by the moment I am overwhelmed by the large amount of information that has been published and that I knew nothing or almost nothing about until now. So I’ll just list by the moment some eye candy for you to follow the corresponding link (in the caption) if that’s what you wish:

004 – Fraga da Pena walled enclosure

008 – Santa Vitória ditched enclosure

009 – Leceia walled enclosure
016 – Castro de Santiago walled enclosure
030 – A long way from home (imports)
039 – Burning rituals
044 – Enclosures and funerary context: Perdigões recent evidence

049 – The first wood henges in Iberia
050 – Castelo Velho walled enclosure: a milestone
054 – Santa Justa walled enclosure

057 – Beaker and ditched enclosures
068 – Plurality of funerary practices in ditched enclosures

070 – Neolithic ditches and rectangular houses
072 – Águas Frias ditched enclosure
Also very interesting (although in Spanish language) is this video on the archaeological findings of Marroquíes Bajos, Jaén (from 028 – Going public on large enclosures):

Remember: Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures blog.