Category Archives: UK

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.


The oldest human footprints in Europe

By now I’m sure that the vast majority of readers of this blog, if not all, have already read the news about the Happisburg footprints, of almost one million years age, which are coincident with the earliest known dates for archaic human presence in Europe based on other archaeology (H. ergaster or antecessor) and extend their range quite further northwards. So I just want to post a reference, as the study is freely available online for all to read.

Nick Ashton et al., Hominin Footprints from Early Pleistocene Deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS ONE 2014. Open accessLINK [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.

Figure 8. Vertical image of Area A at Happisburgh.
a. Model of footprint surface generated from photogrammetric survey showing the 12 prints used in the metrical analyses of footprint size; b. Plot of length and width measurements of 12 prints showing possible individuals. Means and standard deviations for foot length and age for modern populations are also shown.
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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in European prehistory, Homo ergaster, Middle Paleolithic, UK


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:

Revisiting the demographics of Northern and Central Europe in the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods

Stimulated by the discussion at another entry, yesterday I made a little graph, almost a mnemonic, on the demographics of Northern European Neolithic and Chalcolithic, based on academic data which I discussed back in 2009.
This is the result:

The very simplified graph is nothing but a version of another one, used in 2009 (and reproduced below), which in turn is an annotated and composite version extracted from two different studies (references also below).
For convenience I have marked the millennia marks at the bottom (meaning 5000, 4000, 3000 and 2000 BCE, from left to right) while the unmarked vertical scale ranks from 0 to 100 (marked by the lowest and highest dots, not the frame, which is actually outside of the graph itself). The dots mark population level at any time as proportion of the maximum (100) in discrete intervals rounded up/down to 10 ppts and taken at intervals of 250 years. Notice that I ignored monuments in the case of Britain, only considering the habitation and other productive sites.
Not sure if it will result useful to you but it did help me to visualize the demographics of Northern Europe in these four millennia of surely dramatic population changes. If you don’t like this version the more detailed original double graph is below, scroll down.
Something quite obvious is that while Danubian Neolithic first caused an important population expansion, it later declined to quite low population levels, maybe because of climatic cooling and the exhaustion of the lands because of poorly developed agricultural techniques. 
This late Danubian collapse lasted for about a millennium, when (1) Funnelbeaker (TRBK) in Denmark, (2) Megalithism in Britain and Denmark especially (later also in parts of Germany) and (3) Kurgan cultures in Poland (later also in Germany and Denmark) seem to have brought with them very notable demographic expansions.
But decline seems to set on again all around at the end of the Chalcolithic period, much more notably in the continent (in Poland the rate of archaeological findings decays to zero!) than in Britain and especially Denmark. 
And now indeed the original “verbose” graph:

And the sources:

Echoes from the past (May-9-2013)

I am getting updated with a rather long backlog, so I will speed things up placing here in nearly telegraphic style the informative snippets that require less work. This does not mean that they are less interesting, not at all, just that I have to adapt to that elusive quality of time…

Middle Paleolithic

Toba supervolcano only had short-term climate effectBBC.
Research on Lake Malawi’s sediments shows that the climate-change effect of the catastrophic eruption was limited. Droughts previously believed to be from that period have been revised to be from at least 10,000 years before, corresponding to the end of the Abbassia Pluvial rather than to Toba super-eruption.

Upper Paleolithic

Altai rock art and early astronomy from 16,000 BPSiberian Times, Daily Mail.
Sunduki (Khakassia), here there are what are surely the oldest rock art of Northern Asia, representing people hunting or interacting among them, which are from just centuries ago, however other petroglyphs are apparently much older like this horse:

Prof. Vitaly Larichev (Institute of Archeology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences) has detected a whole astronomical structure implemented in the landscape.

He claims to have found ‘numerous ancient solar and lunar observatories around Sunduki’.

‘This square pattern of stones on the ground shows you the place’, he
told visiting author Kira Van Deusen. ‘I knew there would be an
orientation point, but we had to search through the grass for a long
time to find it.

‘Now look up to the top of that ridge. You see a place where there is
a crack between the rocks? If you were here on the summer solstice, you
would see the sun rise right there. Or you would if you were here 2,000
years so. Now the timing is slightly differen’.

High on one cliff wall is a rock engraving showing dragon heads in one direction, and snake heads in the other.

‘If the sun were shining, we could tell the time,’ he said. ‘In the
morning the shadow moves along the snake’s body from his head to his
tail, and in the afternoon it comes from the other direction along the

‘From the same observation point you can determine true north and south by sighting along the mountains’.


Vietnam: early cemetery dug in Thahn HoaAustralian National University.
Some 140 human remains of all ages have been unearthed at the site of Con Co Ngua, estimated to be 6-4000 years old. Cemeteries of this size and age were previously unknown in the region. The site has also revealed a dearth of artifacts. 
The people were buried in fetal position with meat cuts of buffalo or deer.


India: 4000 y.o. stone tools unearthed in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh, Narmada river)India Today.
  • Some of them are decorated with aquatic animals.
  • 150×200 m. mound in Birjakhedi
  • Terracotta game pieces
  • Pottery (incl. jars, pots, dishes)
  • Stone and ivory beads
Bell Beaker rich lady’s burial unearthed in Berkshire (England)Wessex Archaeology.
The middle-aged woman wore a necklace of tubular golden beads, amber buttons on her clothes and a possible lignite bracelet. She was accompanied by a bell-shaped beaker of the “corded” type (oldest and roughest variant, of likely Central European inception).
The chemical signature of the gold beads is coherent with deposits from Southern Britain and SE Ireland. 

Giza pyramid construction’s logistics revealed Live Science.

Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?

Bertolt Brecht (A Worker reads History)

Now we know that at the very least the famed early pharaohs Khafra, Khufu and Menkaure, who ordered the massive pyramids of Giza to be built as their tombs did have some cooks in charge of feeding the many workers who actually built them, stone by stone. 
These workers were housed in a village some 400 meters south of the Sphinx, known as Heit el-Ghurab. In this place archaeologists have found a cemetery, a corral with apparent slaughter areas and piles of animal bones. Based on these, researchers estimate that more than 2,000 kilograms of meat were eaten every day during the construction of Menkaure’s pyramid, the last and smallest one of the three geometric mounds. 
The figures estimated for such a logistic operation border disbelief: 22,000 cows, 55,000 sheep and goats, 1200 km² of grazing land (roughly the size of Los Angeles or 5% of the Nile Delta), some 3500 herders (adding up to almost 20,000 people if we include their families). 
A curious detail is that most of the beef was destined to the building of the overseers, while the common workers were mostly fed sheep or goat instead. Another settlement to the East of apparently local farmers ate most of the pork. There were also temporary tent camps closer to the pyramids.

Iron Age

Late Indus Valley Civilization was overcome by violenceNational Geographic.

Harappa (CC by Shephali11011)
The Late Indus Valley Civilization (Cemetery H cultural layer, usually attributed to the Indoeuropean invasions) was, unlike in previous periods, quite violent, new evidence highlights. 
The evidence from the bones also highlights the arrival of many non-local men, who apparently married local women. But the most shocking element is the striking evidence of widespread violence:

The skull of a child between four and six years old was
cracked and crushed by blows from a club-like weapon. An adult woman was
beaten so badly—with extreme force, according to researchers—that her
skull caved in. A middle-aged man had a broken nose as well as damage
to his forehead inflicted by a sharp-edged, heavy implement.
Of the 18 skulls examined from this time period, nearly half showed serious injuries from violence …

Gaming pieces of Melton Mowbray (England)Science Daily.

Excavation of a hillfort at Burrough Hill revealed ancient gaming pieces, among other materials. 

Funerary chamber found near the original location of the Lady of Baza (Andalusia)Paleorama[es].

(CC by P.A. Salguero Quiles)
The tomb has an access gate and is estimated to be from the 5th or 4th centuries BCE (Iberian culture) and, unlike most burials of the time, the corpse was not incinerated. 
The finding highlights the need for further archaeological work in all the hill but the severe budgetary cuts threaten this development. 
Baza (Granada) hosts a dedicated archaeological museum inaugurated in 2011. 

Tocharian mummy buried with marijuana hoardPaleorama[es].

Some 800 grams of the psychedelic plant, including seeds, were found at the burial place of a Tocharian man, presumably a shaman, at Yanghai (Uyghuristan), belonging to the Gushi culture and dated to at least 2700 years ago. The plant belongs to a cultivated variety.
Some of the oldest cannabis evidence are also from that area (Pazyrk culture c. 2500 years ago) and also from Nepal (Mustang, similar dates). Later in Southern Central Asia it was used in combination with opium and ephedra, from where soon migrated to South Asia and many other parts of Eurasia.


New device radically reduces costs and time in DNA extractionScience Daily.
Researchers from the University of Washington and NanoFacture Inc. have developed a device, which looks like a kitchen appliance, able to extract DNA from tissues (like saliva or blood) in minutes at low cost and without using the toxic chemicals habitual in the field.
The prototype is designed for four samples but can be scaled for the lab standard of 96 samples at once.


Spring near Stonehenge occupied since Epipaleolithic

(CC by Jeffrey Pfau)
The spiritual relevance of Amesbury may well stem from a much older time than Neolithic or Chalcolithic. Recent research at a spring not far from Stonehenge has got radiocarbon dates of c. 7500 years ago, some three millennia before the building of the world-famous monument, and up to 4,700 BP, when the megalith was already in use.
The low budget research project led by David Jacques of Open University, who had spotted the site, known as Vespasian’s Camp, just a mile north of Stonehenge, in air photos a decade ago. The site had never been researched before.
The findings imply some sort of continuity between the Epipaleolithic and Late Neolithic (i.e. Chalcolithic), although the details have yet to be systematized. 
Source: BBC News (includes video).

Huge palisade enclosure in Wales

The small village of Walton (Powys, Wales) was, it seems, long ago a ceremonial center for the ancient peoples of Britain between 3800 and 2300 BCE. At the very least it had a huge palisaded enclosure that could have accommodated five buildings of the size of the London Olympic Stadium within its circa 1200 posts, each said to be 4 m. high. 

Digital reconstruction of the ceremonial site
Besides the structure itself, which has been investigated for decades, pottery, flint tools and food remains have been found. Apparently the site hosted some kind of regular festival of unknown characteristics. 
Source: Wales Online.