The title of this post is also a title of a book by Noel Ignatiev, referenced earlier on this blog. Razib Khan (on UnHerd) has resurrected it to describe the time around 4500 BC, when Neolithic farmers invaded Ireland and displaced an earlier hunter-gatherer culture. According to Khan, genetic analysis reveals these hunter-gatherers were “dark skinned and light-eyed” (like the Cheddar Man) while the invaders were “light-skinned and dark-eyed.” Apparently the “light” genes for both skin and eyes ultimately triumphed in the Irish phenotype, although many subsequent invasions contributed.
From the Guardian:
End of Neanderthals linked to flip of Earth’s magnetic poles, study suggests
Event 42,000 years ago combined with fall in solar activity potentially cataclysmic, researchers say
The flipping of the Earth’s magnetic poles together with a drop in solar activity 42,000 years ago could have generated an apocalyptic environment that may have played a role in a major events ranging from the extinction of megafauna to the end of the Neanderthals, researchers say.
The Earth’s magnetic field acts as a protective shield against damaging cosmic radiation, but when the poles switch, as has occurred many times in the past, the protective shield weakens dramatically and leaves the planet exposed to high energy particles.
One temporary flip of the poles, known as the Laschamps excursion, happened 42,000 years ago and lasted for about 1,000 years. Previous work found little evidence that the event had a profound impact on the planet, possibly because the focus had not been on the period during which the poles were actually shifting, researchers say.
Nowscientists say the flip, together with a period of low solar activity, could have been behind a vast array of climatic and environmental phenomena with dramatic ramifications. “It probably would have seemed like the end of days,” said Prof Chris Turney of the University of New South Wales and co-author of the study.
The team have collectively termed this period “the Adams event”, a nod to Douglas Adams, the author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which 42 was said to be the “answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything”.
Read the whole thing.
UPDATE: From AAAS’s Science magazine: (hat tip: Robert Black):
Several years ago, workers breaking ground for a power plant in New Zealand unearthed a record of a lost time: a 60-ton trunk from a kauri tree, the largest tree species in New Zealand. The tree, which grew 42,000 years ago, was preserved in a bog and its rings spanned 1700 years, capturing a tumultuous time when the world was turned upside down—at least magnetically speaking.
Radiocarbon levels in this and several other pieces of wood chart a surge in radiation from space, as Earth’s protective magnetic field weakened and its poles flipped, a team of scientists reports today in Science. By modeling the effect of this radiation on the atmosphere, the team suggests Earth’s climate briefly shifted, perhaps contributing to the disappearance of large mammals in Australia and Neanderthals in Europe. “We’re only scratching the surface of what geomagnetic change has done,” says Alan Cooper, an ancient DNA researcher at the South Australian Museum and one of the lead authors of the study.
The study not only nails in fine detail the timing and magnitude of the magnetic swap, the most recent in Earth’s history, but is also among the first to make a credible, though speculative, case that these flips can affect the global climate, says Quentin Simon, a paleomagnetist at the European Center for Research and Teaching in Environmental Geoscience in Aix-en-Provence, France. But some paleoclimate scientists are skeptical of the team’s broader claims, saying other records show few traces of climate upheaval.
More at the link.
From Literary Hub (hat tip: David Winter), an interesting proposition, excerpted from The Golden Thread by Karissa St. Clair:
What If We Called It the ‘Flax Age’ Instead of the ‘Iron Age’? Correcting the Historical Bias Against Domestic Materials
Archaeology has traditionally had a fundamental bias against fabric. Fabrics are after all highly perishable, withering away within months or years, and only rarely leaving traces behind for those coming millennia later to find. Archaeologists—predominantly male—gave ancient ages names like “Iron” and “Bronze,” rather than “Pottery” or “Flax.” This implies that metal objects were the principal features of these times, when they are simply often the most visible and long-lasting remnants. Technologies using perishable materials, such as wood and textiles, may well have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has, for the most part, been absorbed back into the earth.
There are exceptions, of course, and traces can and do survive, usually thanks to an unusual climate: freezing, damp anaerobic conditions or extremely dry ones. The climate in Egypt, for example, is ideal for preserving all manner of usually perishable things and we subsequently know far more about ancient Egyptian textiles than those from most other regions. As archaeology has matured and diversified, scholars have increasingly looked for—and found—evidence of fine, complex textiles stretching farther back than anyone would have guessed. Their beauty and the skill needed to make them suggest a very different image of our earliest forebears than the club-wielding, simpleminded thugs of popular imagination.
Read the whole thing.
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.
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.
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.
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 are worn with 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.
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:
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 inuksuk. 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.
Reporter 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….
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.