Stonehenge

The most recent discovery about Stonehenge. From the National Post:

Stonehenge bluestones were dragged 240 km over land from quarry in Wales, study finds

‘You could actually see the hole left from where the stone pillar had been removed. Just amazing’

Stonehenge: one of the wonders of the ancient world, but also the elusive megalith that leaves scientists and people ruminating on its purpose. Discoveries by a team of archeologists and geologists suggest the transportation of the bluestones from the Preseli hills in Wales to Stonehenge in England was an effort to unify tribes of prehistoric Britain.

In the team’s excavations, they pinpointed the exact origins of the bluestones that line the inner and outer perimeter of the sarsen trilithons — the tall, three-stoned structure that people usually envision when thinking of Stonehenge.

The location of the quarries, where the bluestones originate, now nullifies a pre-existing theory that suggested they were transported by sea from Milford Haven to the Salisbury Plains. Nearly 5,000 years ago, the Neolithic humans dragged the bluestones 240 km over land, according to the study published in Antiquity.

More at the link.

The Origins of Inequality

New Humanist magazine asks, “Are we city dwellers or hunter-gatherers? New research suggests that the familiar story of early human society is wrong – and the consequences are profound.” The authors take issue with the familiar story about how the members of hunter-gatherer bands enjoyed a certain social and political equality, but the invention of agriculture, and especially the rise of cities, represented a fall from Edenic grace. Essentially, the existence of surpluses allowed some people to exploit them, and set themselves up as kings (this is the kleptocratic theory of the origins of the state). 

But archaeological evidence throughout Europe keeps turning up graves of Paleolithic people who were clearly richer than everyone else, including one from 15000 BC showing “stunning signs of honor: bracelets of polished mammoth-ivory, a diadem or cap of fox’s teeth, and nearly 3,000 laboriously carved and polished ivory beads.” So it looks like hunter-gatherers had hierarchies too. Yet we do not find “fortifications, storehouses, palaces – all the usual trappings of emergent states.” The authors note that:

A wider look at the archaeological evidence suggests a key to resolving the dilemma. It lies in the seasonal rhythms of prehistoric social life. Most of the Palaeolithic sites discussed so far are associated with evidence for annual or biennial periods of aggregation, linked to the migrations of game herds – whether woolly mammoth, steppe bison, reindeer or (in the case of Göbekli Tepe) gazelle – as well as cyclical fish-runs and nut harvests. At less favourable times of year, at least some of our Ice Age ancestors no doubt really did live and forage in tiny bands. But there is overwhelming evidence to show that at others they congregated en masse within the kind of “micro-cities” found at Dolní Věstonice, in the Moravian basin south of Brno, Czech Republic, feasting on a superabundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals and ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells and animal pelts over striking distances.

The authors note that Plains Indians and arctic Inuit also practiced this sort of seasonal state construction, and that:

archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable….

Rather than idling in some primordial innocence, until the genie of inequality was somehow uncorked, our prehistoric ancestors seem to have successfully opened and shut the bottle on a regular basis, confining inequality to ritual costume dramas, constructing gods and kingdoms as they did their monuments, then cheerfully disassembling them once again.

Thus might Stonehenge* or Newgrange have gotten constructed without a permanent kingship, priesthood, and bureaucracy to commandeer all the surplus food and direct all the surplus labor. This issue came up this year in class. I mentioned the ziggurat of Ur and the Giza pyramids as evidence of the power of the state. I then showed Stonehenge and suggested that it too must point to the existence of powerful kingship. One student asked, “How do you know they didn’t just get together and build it because they wanted to?” – and I had to admit that she had a point! If some king directed its building, surely we would have the remains of a neolithic palace somewhere. So I had to modify my position – not all monumental architecture points to kingship. I would say that it does indicate economic surplus and (probably) religious motivation. And I’m sure that someone had to be in charge of the actual construction.

* From the article (emphasis added):

Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.

A Plague of Plague

From Science News, courtesy my friend William Campbell:

A 5,000-year-old mass grave harbors the oldest plague bacteria ever found

A long-dead Scandinavian woman has yielded bacterial DNA showing that she contracted the earliest known case of the plague in humans.

DNA extracted from the woman’s teeth comes from a newly identified ancient strain of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes plague, the oldest ever found. The woman’s bones, which date from 5,040 to 4,867 years ago, were found nearly 20 years ago in a mass grave at an ancient farming site in Sweden.

Teeth from an adult male in the same grave contain traces of the same plague variant, say evolutionary geneticist Simon Rasmussen of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues. But plague DNA from the woman is better preserved, the team reports online December 6 in Cell.

Comparisons of the newly found Y. pestis strain with other ancient and modern strains suggest that a plague epidemic emerged more than 5,000 years ago in densely populated farming communities in southeastern Europe. Then the plague spread elsewhere, including to Scandinavia, via trade routes, Rasmussen’s team concludes. That ancient epidemic apparently contributed to sharp population declines in Europe that began as early as 8,000 years ago.

In particular, the scientists suspect that an early form of plague developed among southeastern Europe’s Trypillia culture between 6,100 and 5,400 years ago. Trypillia settlements were the first to bring enough people into close contact to enable the evolution of a highly infectious version of Y. pestis, the team suggests. Trading networks then transmitted the plague from Trypillia population centers, home to as many as 10,000 to 20,000 people, to West Asian herders known as the Yamnaya, the researchers argue. In this scenario, herders infected by the Trypillia people probably spread what had become a new strain of the plague both eastward to Siberia and westward to the rest of Europe, including Scandinavia. Yamnaya migrations to Europe roughly coincided with the rapid abandonment and burning of large Trypillia settlements, which probably occurred as a result of plague outbreaks, the scientists say.

More at the link.

Farley Mowat

My hometown of Port Hope, Ontario has had a number of notable residents, among them Joseph Scriven (author of the hymn “What a Friend we have in Jesus”), artist David Blackwood, impresario and explorer William Leonard Hunt (the Great Farini), and author Farley Mowat, who died in 2014. I remember seeing Mowat around town, and everyone knew the story about him mooning the guests at a banquet, by means of illustrating that no underclothes were worn under a kilt. Now Chris Robert, a high school teacher of mine, sends me images of a monument constructed to honor Mowat and moved this past weekend to its current site on the east bank of the Ganaraska River. You can see Port Hope’s town hall in the background.

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Photo: Chris Robert

Why an upside-down boat, you ask? Well, this is a reference to Mowat’s book The Farfarers (1998), which impressed the Port Hope Friends of Farley Mowat. From the plinth:

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Photo: Chris Robert

I had never heard of this before, and I confess that the passive-voice construction “are believed” in the first paragraph made me suspicious (Wikipedians will automatically insert a superscripted [by whom?] whenever they find stuff like this). Moreover, there is a long tradition of imagining the arrival of pre-Columbian explorers to the Americas for various reasons – is this just the latest example? Who were these people, and what exactly did Thomas Lee discover on the Ungava Peninsula?

I do not have a copy of The Farfarers to hand, although you can look inside the book at Amazon. According to the summary at Wikipedia, Mowat claims that even before the Vikings, settlers from the island of Orkney, chasing walrus ivory, reached Iceland, then Greenland, and then arctic Canada. Mowat calls these settlers Albans, after “Alba,” a Gaelic name for Scotland, and believes they were the descendants of the prehistoric inhabitants of the British Isles, pushed to the fringes by Celts and then Romans. Thomas Lee was an archaeologist at Laval University; his excavations on the Ungava Peninsula uncovered stone building foundations that Lee thought were temporary shelters built by Vikings around the year 1000, the same time as their settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Lee also found a stone landmark that he dubbed the Hammer of Thor on the assumption that it too was Viking, although it could simply have been an Inuit inukshuk. So it seems that Mowat was reinterpreting Lee’s data – Lee did not originate the theory of the Albans.

Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that the editors of Canadian Geographic designated The Farfarers as “highly speculative” and noted that “no professional archeologists are known to share Mowat’s theories.” Stuart Brown of Memorial University noted the “small problem” of a complete lack of “reasonably compelling evidence,” with the book being “entertaining as fiction, [but] far from convincing as fact.” As much as I hate to run down a hometown hero, these assessments are probably accurate. Mowat did indeed have a reputation of never letting the facts ruin a good story. I recall a 1996 cover story in (the now sadly defunct) Saturday Night magazine, with Farley Mowat as Pinocchio.

farleymowatsatniteReporter John Goddard investigated the research and composition of Mowat’s bestselling book Never Cry Wolf, and discovered quite a few things that he simply made up.

As a historian, I confess that I cannot approve of this schtick….

Links

From some googling: the French Ministry of Culture has produced an animated tour of the caves at Lascaux, which date back to 17,000 BC. (For an English version, click “Accessibilité” and then “English” on the left hand side. You might want to turn the sound [“son”] off too.)

From Kelley DeVries: a slideshow of the ten oldest man-made structures still standing on earth. The pyramids don’t even appear!

Number one is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which has apparently been under excavation since 1994 but is only just getting widespread publicity now. It’s monumental, but c. 11 500 years old, i.e. very old indeed, predating sedentism, agriculture, the wheel, animal husbandry, etc. The archaeologist’s thesis is that religion impelled civilization, and not the other way around, that paleolithic people came together to build a major cult center to negotiate with the supernatural, and that the need to tend this site gave rise to intentional crop cultivation, etc. It will be most interesting to see if this idea pans out (less than 5% of the site has been excavated and the dig could go on for another fifty years). I was first apprised of this structure by an interesting article in Smithsonian Magazine, which also had an amusing comment thread: some people are concerned how this discovery vindicates biblical history, while another one wants to know how archaeologists like Gimbutas and Eisler would fit it into the “sacred Earth mother” narrative. But the most of all the Armenians would like you to know that this site is not Turkish, it is Armenian, and proves the antiquity of the Armenian people.

Travels

Photos of things historical, from a short jaunt to St. Augustine, Florida:

1. On the way down, we stopped at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia. This is run by the National Parks Service and features a WPA-built visitor center.

The site itself is quite large and boasts “17000 years of continuous settlement” in successive waves (Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, and colonial).

One major site is a reconstructed council chamber, designated the “earth lodge,” with a circle of seats around the outside, each one larger and higher until one reaches a platform across from the door, with three seats on it for the leaders. There was a fire pit in the middle and four oak trunk pillars holding up the roof. Unfortunately, the interior was too dark for good photographs.

In common with the Etowah, Cahokia, and Kolomoki sites, Ocmulgee has a large temple mound, built up over many years, one basketful of soil at a time. The parking lot in the front is actually a former railway cutting which destroyed two-thirds of another mound in the nineteenth century. To think that people used to do this!

2. We then headed on to St. Augustine, Florida, which we had been wanting to see for some time. Like Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., it is a coastal settlement from the early days of European contact; unlike those cities, it is significantly older, having been founded by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Unfortunately, today it is also a lot more touristy, since it it within the orbit of Disney World and possesses a nice beach. But the Castillo de San Marcos remains a well-run historical site.

The fort itself dates from 1672. It was transferred to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War, and back to Spain in 1783 after the American War of Independence. It became American after the United States annexed Florida in 1821 (and was briefly Confederate in 1861-62). It was last used for military purposes during the Spanish-American war, when it served as a prison for deserters. These and other aspects of the fort’s history are detailed in signage and presented by uniformed guides, some of whom will demonstrate firing a canon at set times.

From Wikipedia, an arial view of the place, showing the early modern star-fort design:

Neanderthals

This is prehistory, not history as such, but interesting all the same: they’ve managed to decode Neanderthal genes, and discover that there was indeed gene transfer between homo sapiens and homo neanderthalis, in Europe and in Asia. From NPR:

***

Neanderthals died out long ago, but their genes live on in us. Scientists studying human chromosomes say they’ve discovered a surprising amount of Neanderthal DNA in our genes. And these aren’t just random fragments; they help shape what we look like today, including our hair and skin.

These genes crept into our DNA tens of thousands of years ago, during occasional sexual encounters between Neanderthals and human ancestors who lived in Europe at the time. They show up today in their descendants, people of European and Asian descent.

The snippets that come from Neanderthals can be identified because a few years ago, scientists were able to extract DNA from Neanderthal remains and read out their genetic blueprint.

A startling 20 percent of Neanderthal genes live on in us today, according to a reportpublished Wednesday in Science magazine. Researchers found that out by combing through the genes of more than 600 living people.

“We previously knew that about 1 to 3 percent of non-African genomes were inherited from Neanderthal ancestors, but the key point is that my 1 percent might be different from the 1 percent Neanderthal sequence that you carry,” says Josh Akey, an associate professor of genome sciences at the University of Washington and a coauthor of the study.

Some of the Neanderthal genes may have been more beneficial for our fully human ancestors than they genes they had. Those Neanderthal genes came to dominate certain human traits, including a gene related to keratin, a protein in hair and skin.

“We don’t know exactly … which trait they were influencing, but they likely have something to do with skin or hair biology,” Akey says.

Africans didn’t pick up those traits, since Neanderthals originated in Europe. But this crossbreeding may affect how Europeans and Asians look today.

Another research group, this one at Harvard, also has been combing through human genes looking for Neanderthal leftovers. That group’s results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature and are remarkably similar to the Science study.

“My guess is there must have been a small population of Neanderthals with which modern humans would have interbred,” says Sriram Sankararaman, a postdoctoral researcher on the Harvard team.

The Harvard team found some Neanderthal DNA in modern-day genes associated with diseases including Type 2 diabetes, lupus, biliary cirrhosis and Crohn’s disease. But they don’t know if those Neanderthal genes affect human health today.

And they found very little Neanderthal DNA on the X chromosome. That suggests that Neanderthals and our human ancestors were barely compatible, and that many of their male offspring may have been sterile hybrids, like mules.

“So this suggests that the male hybrids might not have been fertile, whereas the females might have been fully fertile,” says Svante Paabo, director of the department of genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, who is a coauthor of theNature study. “[Neanderthal genes] it might have been passed on particularly through females.”

The story is still hazy, but very provocative.

“I think it’s fascinating that the Neanderthals live on today, so to say, a little bit in us,” Paabo says, “and not just in the form of anonymous DNA fragments that we pass on to the next generation, but also in the part of our genome that actually influences how we look, or how we behave or what diseases we have.”

Reading these genes tells us more about our mysterious Neanderthal relatives. But Akey says it also can tell us a lot about ourselves.

By studying where the Neanderthal DNA is missing in our genes, Akey says, we may identify genetic passages that make humans uniquely human.

Bring me my Chariot of Fire

From History of the Ancient World (pictures at the link):

A team from the University of Leicester has unearthed a hoard of rare bronze fittings from a 2nd or 3rd century BC chariot which appears to have been buried as a religious offering. The archaeologists found the remains during their ongoing excavation of the Burrough Hill Iron Age hillfort, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire.

This project began in 2010, giving students and volunteers valuable experience of archaeological excavations. Burrough Hill is owned by the education charity, the Ernest Cook Trust, which has also funded site tours and school visits to the excavation.

While digging a large, deep pit near the remains of a house within the hillfort, a group of four students found a piece of bronze in the ground – before uncovering a concentration of further parts very nearby.

Taken together, the pieces are easily recognisable as a matching set of bronze fittings from a mid to late Iron Age chariot. As a group of two or more base metal prehistoric artefacts this assemblage is covered under the Treasure Act. After careful cleaning, decorative patterns are clearly visible in the metalwork – including a triskele motif showing three waving lines, similar to the flag of the Isle of Man.

Nora Battermann from University of Leicester was one of the students who made the discovery. She said: “Realising that I was actually uncovering a hoard that was carefully placed there hundreds of years ago made it the find of a lifetime. Looking at the objects now they have been cleaned makes me even more proud, and I can’t wait for them to go on display.”

The pieces appear to have been gathered in a box, before being planted in the ground upon a layer of cereal chaff and burnt as part of a religious ritual. The chaff might have doubled as a “cushion” for the box and also the fuel for the fire. After the burning, the entire deposit was covered by a layer of burnt cinder and slag – where it lay undisturbed for more than 2200 years until the team uncovered it.

The archaeologists believe the chariot would have belonged to a high-status individual, such as a “noble” or “warrior”. they add that the burial may have taken place to mark a new season, or the final closure or dismantling of a house at the fort.

Dr Jeremy Taylor, Lecturer in Landscape Archaeology at the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History and co-director of the Burrough Hill field project, commented, “This is a matching set of highly-decorated bronze fittings from an Iron Age chariot – probably from the 2nd or 3rd century BC. This is the most remarkable discovery of material we made at Burrough Hill in the five years we worked on the site. This is a very rare discovery, and a strong sign of the prestige of the site. The atmosphere at the dig on the day was a mix of ‘tremendously excited’ and ‘slightly shell-shocked’. I have been excavating for 25 years and I have never found one of these pieces – let alone a whole set. It is a once-in-a-career discovery.”

John Thomas, co-director of the project, added: “It looks like it was a matching set of parts that was collected and placed in a box as an offering, before being placed in the ground. Iron tools were placed around the box before it was then burnt, and covered in a thick layer of cinder and slag. The function of the iron tools is a bit of a mystery, but given the equestrian nature of the hoard, it is possible that they were associated with horse grooming. One piece in particular has characteristics of a modern curry comb, while two curved blades may have been used to maintain horses hooves or manufacture harness parts.”

Archaeology

• It has been confirmed that the human remains found in a two-chambered royal tomb at Vergina are indeed those of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

• Cave paintings on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (a.k.a. Celebes) may be 40,000 years old, rivaling those found in El Castillo in Spain. Interestingly, they are the same hand print stencil design familiar to us from Lascaux and other paleolithic European sites.

• The Roman shipwreck that gave us the Antikythera Mechanism continues to be explored.