Category Archives: Syria

Are ancient mtDNA sequences from Syria of Indian origin?

Honestly, I have all kind of doubts but that’s what a new study claims on the basis of just a few hypervariable sequence markers:
Henry W. Witas, mtDNA from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman Period Suggests a Genetic Link between the Indian Subcontinent and Mesopotamian Cradle of Civilization. PLoS ONE 2013. Open accessLINK [doi:doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073682]
The authors sequenced the HVS-I (and nothing else!) of the mtDNA of four individuals from Tell Ashara and Tell Ashaik sites of ancient Terqa and Kar-Assurnasirpal (Syria, Euphrates river). And then they proceded to establish a bit unlikely comparisons with East and South Asian M sublineages, of which only one is present today in the region.
The sequences are (supp table 3, all numbers +16,000 and counting from the CRS, i.e. H2a1 underived, GenBank: NC_012920):
  • TQ28F112: 223-234
  • MK13G117: 223-234-311
  • TQ28F256: 223-234-270
  • MK11G107: 223-266-289
The first two are attributed to M9, the third one to M61 (a quite rare haplogroup) and the last one to M4b (the only one to be found in West Asia nowadays, specifically in Arabia Peninsula).
Now what do the markers actually say? All are highly variable sites and independently can be found in many lineages, however most typically:
  • 223 describes R, hence counting from the CRS, it should mean L(xR).
  • 311 describes L3, hence counting from the CRS it should mean L(xL3).

So all four should be L(xR) and MK13G117 looks like L(xL3).
Exceptions for 311 (consistent with the sequence above): L3b1a3, M4’65’67, M10, M29’Q, M31a1, M56, M57 and M74. However M9 does not make it because to begin with it needs a transition at the 362 site. 
The authors got carried away by their own pre-conceptions and the marker 234, shared by three of the four sequences. However, while that marker is found in M9a, it also needs the 362 marker, which they both lack. So they are not M9 but something else. 

More plausible candidates could be, at least for TQ28F112, M30d/e or M49.
As for the rest, there are no modern sequences, at least via PhyloTree (but neither within the study’s own comparisons), that are good correlates. All we can say with certainty is that they are L3(xR), except in the case of MK13G117, which can only be described as  L(xR). 
Maybe if they had tried sequencing the coding region, as in my understanding, they MUST (destroying or damaging valuable ancient bones to do this mediocre research is not anymore justified, if it ever was), they would have got useful and informative results. Now we just have again another frustrating set of nearly useless HVS-I sequences, which can only be ambiguous in the vast majority of cases.
Ah, by the way, there’s no obvious correlation between these Metal Ages’ sites and ancient Sumerians, of course. Even if the lineages are South Asian by origin or affinity, which is possible but by no means demonstrated, they would at most suggest a relation between the Mid-Upper Euphrates and that area. The region was under intermittent Sumerian, Amorite, Babylonian, Kassite and Assyrian control but mostly is a distinct country within the greater Mesopotamian area.
Notice that previous research (ref.) in the same area but from the Neolithic (PPNB) period has found (also HVS-I) large amounts of mtDNA K, some H and also some L3(xR).

[Note: edited because some ethnographic assumptions I made initially seem to be quite wrong].


Posted by on September 12, 2013 in aDNA, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Kurdistan, mtDNA, Syria, West Asia


Smashed faces of Neolithic Syrian skulls

Don’t ask me how can archaeologists work in Syria with all the ongoing war. I can only presume that it is just publication of last years’ research.
Whatever the case, it has been known these days that a number of skulls in burials from the Southern Syrian Neolithic site of Tell Qarassa, contextualized in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB), show the strange feature of having their faced smashed, probably upon reburial of the skulls separated from the bodies, years after the first burial.
Of the 12 skulls, all belonging to young males, one was smashed to pieces, one (of a child) was intact and the other 10 had their faces smashed through.
The exact meaning of this post-mortem performance is unknown but researchers speculate that it may be related to fear of the ghosts of the dead ones: some kind of exorcism.
J. Santana et al., Crania with mutilated facial skeletons: A new ritual treatment in an early Pre-Pottery Neolithic B cranial cache at Tell Qarassa North (South Syria). American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2012. Pay per view ··> LINK [doi:10.1002/ajpa.22111]
Source and more details at New Scientist and Pileta.

Posted by on August 17, 2012 in archaeology, Neolithic, Syria, West Asia


Claim first known lighters from Palestine Neolithic

A new study claims that cilindro-conic artifacts and holed items found in Yarmukian Pottery Neolithic sites (6th millennium BCE) are the first known fire-making artifacts and not, as had been argued previously, ritual or cultural objects such as idols or game boards.
Naama Goren-Inbar et al., The Earliest Matches. PLoS ONE, 2012. Open access ··> LINK [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042213]


Cylindrical objects made usually of fired clay but sometimes of stone were found at the Yarmukian Pottery Neolithic sites of Sha‘ar HaGolan and Munhata (first half of the 8th millennium BP) in the Jordan Valley. Similar objects have been reported from other Near Eastern Pottery Neolithic sites. Most scholars have interpreted them as cultic objects in the shape of phalli, while others have referred to them in more general terms as “clay pestles,” “clay rods,” and “cylindrical clay objects.” Re-examination of these artifacts leads us to present a new interpretation of their function and to suggest a reconstruction of their technology and mode of use. We suggest that these objects were components of fire drills and consider them the earliest evidence of a complex technology of fire ignition, which incorporates the cylindrical objects in the role of matches.

Rather than matches I would use the analogy of lighters if any because matches by definition have a chemical head that burns with friction, while lighters can have many designs and traditionally often used, like these, friction to ignite a wick or tinder (example). 

The kind of fire-making the authors suggest resemble more the style used by Bushmen and other peoples in which a stick is energetically rolled inside a small plank, until it achieves enough heat by friction to set some tinder alight. 
Often friction is generated just using the hands but in other cases the string of a bow is used instead (right). 
This last seems to be what the authors suggest to have been the case with the strange artifacts:

Fig.3 – Fired-clay cylindrical artifacts

Fig. 6 – Kfar HaHoresh limestone artifacts interpreted as fire boards
In support for their case the mention that the Egyptian hieroglyph for fire is a fire drill with the bow method, precisely their suggested method, based on some grooves arguably made by strings, however I could not confirm this extreme because the Internet is full of all things pseudo-Egyptian and basic introductory pages to the most complex Egyptian hieroglyph writing system (similar in the general concept to Chinese script, for instance) do not go that far. 

I would not anyhow discard the game board notion myself but your call.

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Posted by on August 4, 2012 in fire, Neolithic, Palestine, Syria, West Asia


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


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).

Origin of Neolithic crops

There is a new and quite interesting paper the reviews the domestication of the key Neolithic crops:
Worth a good read but I’ll mention here the most relevant conclusions:



Wheat close-up
Einkorn wheat (Triticum monococcum) is native as wild from Anatolia or the Zagros area, most probably it was domesticated in modern Kurdistan (aka SE Turkey), in Çayönü or Cafer Höyük. Frome there it spread, along with PPNB to Syria and Palestine.
Emmer and Durum wheat (Triticum turgidum) is native from the Levant and the Zagros but not Anatolia peninsula. It was also domesticated (most probably) in the early PPNB of Kurdistan (Çayönü), spreading soon after the Damascus basin of Syria, where the Emmer variant may have been selected for (Tell Aswad). Cypriot evidence is declared unconvincing by the authors but not totally rejected.
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a sturdier cereal even if also less valued than wheat. In its wild form it has a similar principal distribution as T. turgidum (Levant and Zagros but not Anatolia), although it also scatters through the Iranian plateau. The earliest clear domesticated variants are from Syria (Tell Aswad) and Cyprus, but soon also expanded to Southern Kurdistan (Jarmo), Iraq (Ali Kosh) and Palestine (Jericho).
Bitter vecht (Vicia ervilia): it is not really studied in this paper. It has an ample wild origin area and was maybe domesticated in Anatolia or Levant.
Lentil (Lens culinaris): the wild variant is scattered through much of West Asia but it is relatively rare with preference for stony and disturbed soils. It appears along with early cereals in wild form but the first clearly domesticated case is from Yiftah’el, North Palestine (aka Israel), within a middle PPNB context.
Pea (Pisum sativum): there are two wild forms, one scattered through the Mediterranean and the other more specific of West Asia. This one (P. humile) is the one proposed here to be the main ancestor of cultivated peas (but with weak support). The earliest finds are from Syria, Kurdistan and Palestine but the first large amounts are from Southern Anatolia: Çatalhöyük and Erbaba. The discerning of wild and domesticated type is no easy in this case but the available evidence seems to support Çatalhöyük or nearby areas for the domestication of this pulse in the middle or late PPNB.

Potaje de garbanzos y collejas5
Chickpea soup Castilian style
Chickpea (Cicer arietinum): ever wanted to know what Cicero means? It mens chickpea indeed. Anecdotes apart, the wild chickpea is almost exclusive of the Northern Kurdistan (SE Turkey). Naturally the first consumption findings are also from that area (Çayönü, Tell Abu Hureyra, Aşıklı Höyük – all from early PPNB). It is however impossible to tell from sure if theyw were already domesticated of wild. Contemporary remains from Jerciho however must be domesticated (as the wild form is not found in the region).

Other early crops:

Flax flowers
Flax flowers
Flax (Linum usitatissimum): flax can be used for fibers (surely at the origin of textile crafts) and for oil. Wild flax is widespread across the Mediterranean basin and even as far North as South England or Crimea.
Genetic data indicates that the first agricultural use of flax was not fiber but oil, even if flax fibers were already used before Neolithic (30 Ka. ago in Georgia). The earliest finds come from Çanönü and Tell Aswad. However the earliest reasonably safe case of a domesticated variant is from Jericho, just a few centuries later. Some time later (9th millennium BP) the first known fiber clothes are known (Nahal Hemar cave, Palestine), however this kind of evidence is highly subject to climatic conditions (extreme dryness here).

Discussion notes:

PPNA people did not make pottery but stone vessels (source)
It is interesting that no evidence of early domestication is found for PPNA. Does this suggest that this culture of Palestine and Syria was maybe not Neolithic after all? The main attribute of this culture of the Levant is their granaries but what did they store in them if all the crops were domesticated further North or in a later date? Only barley and maybe peas are from the Levant first according to this paper but from PPNB dates anyhow. So, are we missing something or were PPNA “farmers” actually mere large-scale semisedentary gatherers, i.e. Mesolithic instead of truly Neolithic? Your call.
On the other hand it is also interesting that nearly all early domesticates seem to be from the area of Kurdistan, which in my understanding, illuminates the mystery of Göbekli Tepe, which looks like the spiritual center of early Neolithic or at least the consolidated Neolithic of PPNB (notice that while the early village is from PPNA, the enclosure is from PPNB dates).

Göbekli Tepe – I always see a plow here – call me crazy if you wish

Stone rings from Syria

This is interesting news (hat tip to Tim again) but caution is obliged because they are talking as of now of a mere visual survey by an archaeologist, Dr. Mason, who is not an expert in Neolithic (but was studying some Medieval frescoes instead).
All the information I have is in this article from The Independent.
The dates provided are just a mere hunch and even the role of the structures as tombs is as of yet mere speculation. 
It is also rather shallow the comparison with Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge is found. 
Corbeled structures
Two types of structures seem to co-exist side by side: the corbeled structures and the stone rings.
The closest I can think to corbeled structures in West Europe are the tholoi or beehive tombs (a “Neo-Megalithic” tomb style found primarily in Southern Iberia since the the 3rd millennium BCE) and related. This architecture has precedents in Cyprus and Tell Halaf but then they were not used as tombs yet but as habitations or chapels. The first use of tholoi for burial is with all likelihood from South Iberia in the said 3rd millennium (early Chalcolithic by local chronology, Middle Chalcolithic by pan-European one). Architecturally related buildings are the nuraghe of Sardinia and the motillas of La Mancha, which are forts instead and belong to later periods (Bronze Age).
However corbeled arch buildings properly speaking do not appear in West Europe until the navetas of Majorca, which are from Iron Age (very late). 
So in this sense the comparison with Western Megalithism is misleading. If it has no dolmens (trilithons) there is no Megalithism as in Western Europe, which is best defined as Dolmenic Megalithism and in which stone circles, alignments, cairns, tholoi, artificial caves, silo tombs, etc. are rather epi-phenomena and not the defining characteristic of Western Megalithism. 
Stone circles
More intriguing (but still unrelated to Western Megalithism) are the stone circles. These are small ones, with a diamater of c. 2 m. and made up of small stones. Nothing to do with the great stone circles of Egypt, Morocco or Britain, which seem to have an astronomical purpose primarily. 
However there are two phenomenons in Europe that did build similar stone circles on totally different time frames:
  1. The Boleráz group of the central Danubian Plain, c. 3500 BCE, built such stone rings (1-3 m. diameter) as cremation tombs. The ashes were accompanied with some grave goods: jar and cup, stone axes and shell beads. This group is sometimes considered important in kick-starting the Baden culture (the last important one of the Danubian Neolithic), but these, unlike the Boleráz group, followed traditional Balcano-Danubian burial customs (fetal position, no cremation and no stone ring). 
  2. Pyrenean Iron Age also includes such stone rings (restricted to a mountain area) some 3000 years after Boleráz. The coincidences are size of the rings and cremation burial but there were normally no grave goods and the time-frame is so distant that it feels almost ridiculous to make a comparison. 
Other sites
The article also mentions (Prof. Banning) that other such sites are known to exist (from satellite imaging) in the Palestinian and Jordan deserts.
We will have to await further research.

Posted by on December 15, 2010 in Chalcolithic, Megalithism, Neolithic, Syria, West Asia


Some Archaeo News from many millennia ago

A couple of snippets from the latest Archaeo News newsletter from Stone Pages:

Epipaleolithic findings in Monmouth, Wales

They show that the river Wye, at the Welsh-English border, was used for food and transport by Epipaleolithic Britons, some 6500 to 7500 years ago.

Source: BBC

Early Neolithic art form Tal al-Abar, Syrian Kurdistan

Dated to c. 10,000 years ago, they include some nice artwork on chloritis, a greenish semiprecious stone. The artwork includes several panels on this material and some smaller objects.

Source: SANA

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Posted by on November 17, 2010 in archaeology, Epipaleolithic, Kurdistan, Neolithic, Syria, UK, Wales