June 30, 2012

Oldest Neolithic bow of Europe found in Catalonia

One of the oldest preserved bows of Europe and, so far, the oldest one found in a Neolithic context, has been unearthed in the lacustrine site of La Draga (Banyoles, Catalonia). The bow is made of yew wood (an all-time favorite material for archery) and measures 108 cm and is dated to c. 7400-7200 years ago from context, being among the earliest dates for Neolithic in Western Europe. 

Older bows are known in Europe, specifically Denmark, but are from the Epipaleolithic period, some 9000 years ago. What could be arrow points are known from c. 64,000 years ago in South Africa.

June 29, 2012

Oldest pottery is 20,000 years old from SE China

No wonder they call it "china"!
Xianrendong cave, near the city of Shangrao (Jiangxi, SE China), has now the curious honor of hosting the oldest known specimens of pottery on Earth.

The pottery shards from that cave were known since the 1960s (and later digs) but had not been properly dated yet. The result of such dating is the oldest known pottery on Earth, dating to the Last Glacial Maximum, that even in a subtropical region like Jiangxi must have caused some discomfort.


The invention of pottery introduced fundamental shifts in human subsistence practices and sociosymbolic behaviors. Here, we describe the dating of the early pottery from Xianrendong Cave, Jiangxi Province, China, and the micromorphology of the stratigraphic contexts of the pottery sherds and radiocarbon samples. The radiocarbon ages of the archaeological contexts of the earliest sherds are 20,000 to 19,000 calendar years before the present, 2000 to 3000 years older than other pottery found in East Asia and elsewhere. The occupations in the cave demonstrate that pottery was produced by mobile foragers who hunted and gathered during the Late Glacial Maximum. These vessels may have served as cooking devices. The early date shows that pottery was first made and used 10 millennia or more before the emergence of agriculture.

We already knew that the oldest pottery was from China (albeit from the North) and that it pre-dated agriculture... but we did not know it was so old. 

Reliability of Greenland ice cores questioned for Younger Dryas only

It seems now that the main proxy to understand Northern Hemisphere glaciation, the Greenland ice cores, is not as straightforward as scientists used to think. At least that is what a new study claims in relation to the Younger Dryas (only):

Zhengyu Liu, Younger Dryas cooling and the Greenland climate response to CO2. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (6-month embargo or depending on world region).


Greenland ice-core δ18O-temperature reconstructions suggest a dramatic cooling during the Younger Dryas (YD; 12.9–11.7 ka), with temperatures being as cold as the earlier Oldest Dryas (OD; 18.0–14.6 ka) despite an approximately 50 ppm rise in atmospheric CO2. Such YD cooling implies a muted Greenland climate response to atmospheric CO2, contrary to physical predictions of an enhanced high-latitude response to future increases in CO2. Here we show that North Atlantic sea surface temperature reconstructions as well as transient climate model simulations suggest that the YD over Greenland should be substantially warmer than the OD by approximately 5 °C in response to increased atmospheric CO2. Additional experiments with an isotope-enabled model suggest that the apparent YD temperature reconstruction derived from the ice-core δ18O record is likely an artifact of an altered temperature-δ18O relationship due to changing deglacial atmospheric circulation. Our results thus suggest that Greenland climate was warmer during the YD relative to the OD in response to rising atmospheric CO2, consistent with sea surface temperature reconstructions and physical predictions, and has a sensitivity approximately twice that found in climate models for current climate due to an enhanced albedo feedback during the last deglaciation.

The problem is that, when compared with other records, the Greenland Ice cores' oxygen isotope ration does not hold. The explanation is complex and related to CO2 levels, the North American Ice Sheet (which was already in retreat) and the different composition of oxygen isotopes when they arrived from the Pacific Ocean.

From the Archaeology News Network:

Working with UW-Madison climatologist Zhengyu Liu, collaborators at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and others, Carlson found their computer climate model breaking down on the Younger Dryas.

While it could reliably recreate temperatures in the Oldest Dryas -- a similar cooling period about 18,000 years ago -- they just couldn't find a lever in the model that would simulate a Younger Dryas that matched the Greenland ice cores.

"You can totally turn off ocean circulation, have Arctic sea ice advance all the way across the North Atlantic, and you still will have a warmer climate during the Younger Dryas than the Oldest Dryas because of the carbon dioxide," Carlson says.

By the time the Younger Dryas rolled around, there was more carbon dioxide in the air -- about 50 parts per million more. The warming effects of that much CO2 overwhelmed the rest of the conditions that make the Oldest and Younger Dryas so alike, and demonstrates a heightened sensitivity for Arctic temperatures to rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The researchers zeroed in on the Northern Hemisphere's temperature outlier, Greenland ice cores, and found that the conversion of oxygen isotope ratio to temperature typically used on the ice cores did not account for the sort of crash climate change occurring during the Younger Dryas. It assumes prevailing winds and jet streams and storm tracks are providing the moisture for Greenland precipitation from the Atlantic Ocean.

"The Laurentide ice sheet, which covered much of North America down into the northern United States, is getting smaller as the Younger Dryas approaches," Carlson says. "That's like taking out a mountain of ice three kilometers high. As that melts, it allows more Pacific Ocean moisture to cross the continent and hit the Greenland ice sheet." The two oceans have distinctly different ratios of oxygen isotopes, allowing for a different isotope ratio where the water falls as snow.

Hat tip: Pileta.

Some temperature proxies for the Younger Dryas

More North Iberian Epipaleolithic mtDNA (and first Epipaleolithic nuclear DNA)

[Scroll down for updates]

In this case two individuals (right) from La Braña-Arintero site in Valdelugueros (León province near the Asturian border), dated to 7000 years ago, borderline with Neolithic arrival but, according to the paper, still "Mesolithic" (i.e. Epipaleolithic).

The two individuals carried haplogroup U5b2c1 (I guess that they were relatives, maybe siblings). The mtDNA sequence was retrieved in full. 

It is worth mentioning that there have been other recent studies of Northern Iberian pre-Neolithic mtDNA:
Previously,  conference materials by Chandler, Sykes and Zilhao (2005) and by Kéfi (also 2005) had reported lots of likely mtDNA H and, less commonly, U5 and other lineages, in Epiplaeolithic Portugal and Late Upper Paleolithic (Oranian) Northern Morocco (Taforalt cave) respectively. Other studies in Upper Paleolithic Andalusia are also consistent with the presence of both main European grand lineages in the Iberian peninsula since Solutrean (U5 plus what?) and Magdalenian times (H with great likelihood).

Pre-Neolithic mtDNA lineages found in Northern Iberia to date (all quite unquestionable)

Update (revised): on the nuclear DNA sequences

Interestingly the study includes a large SNP sequence of the nuclear DNA of both individuals. When compared with several modern European populations (overloaded of Finnish and Tuscans, who hijack the analysis, the result is as follows:

Figure S3
PCA with 1KGPomni Chip Data (European Populations) and La Braña 1 (left) and La Braña 2 (right)
click to expand to original resolution (still not enough to discern Iberians by subpopulation easily)

As we can see the dimension 1 is hijacked by the Tuscan-Finnish duality, while the dimension 2 seems almost private, extending inside all populations with minor variations. This render the PCA essentially useless and meaningless. However it would seem that the La Braña individuals cluster best with some British and some of their creole cousins from Utah (CEU).

However when global tripolar comparison is made (after removing the noisy Finns), the result is:

Figure S2. PCA with the Shotgun Data from La Braña 1 (Left) and La Braña 2 (Right) and the Worldwide Data Set from 1,000 Genomes Project,

Interestingly the La Braña individuals not just cluster separately from Modern Europeans but they actually look "more Asian" than these. In fact, would we superimpose these PCA plots on any global one with more samples (which always takes an L shape with vortex at or near the European cluster) like this one (from Etyo Helix), the La Braña people would overlap Afghans and Gujaratis, roughly.

So it's like the analysis performed is more perplexing than informative. Not really helpful. We can only hope that the sequences are soon released to the public domain so independent researchers can perform contrasting analysis. These PCAs alone are almost useless.

Update (Jun 29): details of the La Braña-Arintero findings:

Close-up of Braña 1 (source)
The cave was only excavated since 2006. Braña 1 was found in flexed position with ochre and a delimitation of the niche by rocks (but there is evidence that no earth was disposed on top of it). Braña 2 was found in non-anatomical disposal (possibly because of post burial alterations by water or people), at the bottom of a natural hole 4 m. deep, just beside the other one and with indications of being also a primary burial.

Braña 1 had no caries but erosion of some teeth in what is suggested to have been caused by the use of teeth tool. There is a serious injury in the upper jaw by piercing artifact (spear?), which healed.

Associated to Braña 2, there were found 24 perforated deer canines, possibly part of a necklace or other decoration originally.

The two burials are from almost exactly 7000 years ago. The ages are:
  • Braña 1: 6980±50 calBP (5990-5740 BP - raw C14)
  • Braña 2: 7030±50 calBP (6010-5800 BP - raw C14)
The assigning of the burials to 'Mesolithic' (Epipaleolithic) is based 100% on the datings and not on cultural elements (other than the deer canines) that are absent in this site. The 'Mesolithic' comparison dates from further North (Asturias) are from the 7th or 6th millennium uncalibrated but none of them is more recent than the ones from La Braña-Arintero (in fact they look as quite older):
  • El Espertín (Burón): 7080±40 BP and 7790±120 BP (not calibrated)
  • Los Canes: unspecified dates from the 6th millennium BP (not calibrated), where similar deer canine decorations were found also in burial context




    Update (Jul 1):

    Even if I do not often see eye-to-eye with Dienekes, he is the one providing the first known independent analysis of the La Braña people. He has done so in two successive updates of the entry on these interesting, yet perplexing, sequences.

    As you may know, he uses two main sets of zombie components (deduced from his own analysis, sometimes a bit questionably but well...), which he calls K7 and K12. They are Eurocentric in concept, what is convenient for this purpose.

    K7 has three West Eurasian components that he labels West Asian, Southern and Atlantic-Baltic. Where Atlantic-Baltic is the main European component, being strongest towards the West and the North, the top population being Lithuanians and the 50% isocline going through the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Northern Appenines, the Greek-Bulgarian border and the ethnic border between Russians and others in the North Caucasus. In other words: Europeans are generally high in this component, with very few exceptions, all them Mediterranean or Caucasian.

    For the K7 analysis, Dienekes got:
    9.3% African and 90.7% Atlantic_Baltic

    No modern Europeans are so high in the Atlantic-Baltic component (Lithuanians are 84-88%) but more notably none have such high levels of (simplified) African component, the closest being modern Portuguese with 2.5%. In fact Portuguese-D are in Dienekes' K7 analysis: 60% Atlantic-Baltic, 2.5% African and the rest belonging to components that we can safely consider Neolithic or post-Neolithic arrivals:
    • 30% Southern (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean South or Arabia)
    • 7% West Asian (i.e. Eastern Mediterranean North or Caucasus)
    • 1% South Asian

    After removal of these likely Neolithic-arrival components and apportioning, the "reformed" Portuguese sample would end up being 96% Atlantic-Baltic and 4% African, what leads me to think that some extra Atlantic-Baltic may also have arrived with the Neolithic-specific components, assuming that the La Braña pre-Neolithic substrate can be extrapolated to Portugal (what may be but is not necessarily the case).

    As for K12, it may shed even more light. According to Dienekes, the La Braña people produce:
    45% Atlantic_Med, 41.6% North_European, 10.3% East_African, 1% Sub_Saharan

    Basically the Atlantic-Baltic has split in two European subcomponents and the African one in two as well (with a tiny 3 points displacement from the European to the African components as these become more refined). Remember that they are zombies (pre-determined components) and not the product of any direct comparison with actual populations. However for this purpose it is probably the best thing to do initially.

    For reference the Atlantic-Mediterranean component is highest in SW Europe (Basques and Sardinians notably), while the North European is highest in NE Europe, in spite of the misleading name (former USSR, Finland). British (or the CEU HapMap sample or the Irish) are almost half-and-half for both components, just like the La Braña people, what explains why they cluster best with them... if we ignore the African part.

    Like the La Braña people, British also have c. 10% "other stuff", in their case it is however the "Gedrosia" component, strongest in Pakistan and Caucasus and which is suspected to be informative of Indoeuropean (Kurgan) ancestry (along with uncertain amounts of the Northeastern, "North European", component).

    But the big mystery is the  East African component, which is distinct from the North West African (Moorish or Berber) one, which we might all have expected on first look. This East African component is highest among the Sandawe (68%), Somali (69%), Ethiopians (55%) and that's about it. North Africans have some but not at all at such levels and certainly not without the NW African or other components absent in the La Braña pair.

    This is extremely hard to explain because modern Portuguese's African component is nearly all NW African (7.7%), with some minor Sub-Saharan (0.7%) and nearly no East African (0.1%). So the illusion maybe generated at K7 of these people's genomes being explainable by means of revising modern Iberians... seems to collapse.

    So the results remain perplexing (I have received criticisms for using this and similar words but that's the truth and if you look online, nobody seems to have good answers - it's not just me).

    But the results are still informative. Regardless of whatever the East African component means (what obviously demands further analysis), it seems obvious now that both European-specific components (North European and Atlantic-Med in Dienekes' slang) are pre-Neolithic.

    And that is important because it opposes the most common and simplistic Neolithic replacement  models. It would seem that, whatever the intra-European genetic shaking and re-scattering and the arrival of minority genetic components from the Neolithic onwards (mostly from West Asia), the bulk of European ancestry is Paleolithic European after all.

    Update (Jul 1 - II):

    (From Dienekes' blog - fair use of copyrighted work)
    Dienekes is even providing us with a nice visual comparison (right), using his K12 zombies, of five prehistoric Europeans.

    Notice that the two so-called hunter-gatherers from Götland (an island off Sweden) are actually Neolithic hunter-gatherers at the best and Neolithic mixed-economy people most likely. They belong to the Pitted Ware culture, which is derived from the Neolithic of Ukraine and nearby parts of Russia: the Dniepr-Don culture. Derived from this, eventually some people with characteristic pottery, possibly some domestic animals such as pigs, but a largely gatherer economy (hunt and fish) spread towards the Baltic and in some cases crossed it towards Sweden.

    That would explain their high levels of NE European (aka North European) component.

    The South (or rather SW) Swedish farmer belonged instead to the Megalithic phenomenon and the Funnelbeaker (TRB) culture of Denmark and nearby areas. His affinities are mostly Sardo-Basque (Atlantic-Med), with a bit of Neolithic and NE European elements.

    The North Italian farmer (or rather Alpine pastoralist)  is the famous Ötzi "the iceman". His affinities are also Sardo-Basque (to a lesser extent than the Nordic farmer) and also has a good deal of West Asian affinities (Caucasus and SW Asian) and even some North African affinities.

    Finally the Northwes Spanish hunter-gatherer is a combo of both La Braña genomes (very similar and quite incomplete), whose meaning (in my opinion always) I have discussed in the previous update section, a few lines above.

    Updates (Jul 3): strange ritual for 'Mesolithic' and some other DNA comparisons

    The latest zombie comparison (different set of zombies) by Dienekes (scroll for updates in the already provided link) is similar to the previous (i.e. c. 90% like modern Europeans, specifically NW ones without the "Neolithic" stuff) but instead of being anomalous towards Africa it is towards East Asia. Not sure what to think other than it seems to point to some unchartered component with deep roots.

    Maybe more interesting but still in the hmmmm zone is the comment at Diario de León[es] by Pablo Arias, Director of the Prehistoric Research Institute of Cantabria. Among other less important details,he argues that the burial or rather lack of it thereof (as the corpses were placed in the cave without earth covering, even if Braña 1 does display signs of intentional funerary disposition) is most anomalous, actually unique, among 'Mesolithic' burial practices which always included proper burial and not just disposition. My translation:

    Nevertheless, he details that there are some peculiarities making it unique: like the kind of necklace found along individual number 2 and very specially the characteristic of the funerary space: corpses deposited on the floor of a selected hypogeum. "From another point of view, La Braña-Arintero provides another evidence of the spectacular increase in the number of burials in the 7th millennium a.C. and that may relfect an intensification of the territoriality in these societies".

    Pablo Arias precises that the more striking characteristic of the funerary context of La Braña-Arintero resides in the sepulchral space itself, detailing that it is an exclusively funerary site, with no link to settlements of that age. We see that a remote cavity, apparently not suited for habitation, and the corpses have been placed there in peculiar spaces, well delimited by natural space in the way of niches.

    And this, as he defends in the article, is a funerary behavior that has no clear precedents in other peninsular contexts and rather reminds to behaviors more common in later periods instead.

    And... what we just needed, so to say: Bushman affinities! In his latest comparison, using the DIY Harappa World calculator, Dienekes finds that the Braña composite is stubbornly >80% European (in this case 55% NE Euro and 27% Mediterranean) and some 17% (the highest figure so far!) non-European, mostly 7% Siberian and 6% Bushman (San).

    June 27, 2012

    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.

    Iberian pine forest is 6000 years old

    Pines from Tierra de Pinares (source)
    Another curious snippet: the Castilian forest district of Tierra de Pinares (Land of Pine Forests), located at the border of the provinces of Segovia and Valladolid, happens to be at least 6000 years old, questioning the notion that it was a human creation. 

    Since time immemorial the villages and towns of the area have lived with an economy largely centered on the exploitation of the resources of the pine tree (wood, resin, pine nut), what led many to suspect it was in fact a human design. However a new study of paleosoils has found that the maritime or resin pine (P. pinaster) has been there in large amounts since at least the Neolithic period, some 6000 years ago. 

    The forest is an island of sorts among the wheat and sunflower fields that dominate the Castilian landscape, long ago probably more dedicated to cattle herding however. 

    Cuéllar, above the "sea of pines" (green area behind).

    Sources[es]: Pileta, SINC.

    Copper metallurgy in Iberia began c. 3100 BCE

    The dating, established at the site of Cabezo Juré, Alosno (Huelva province, Andalusia), pushes back the beginnings of soft metallurgy in the area by some 350 years, grosso modo. It is the oldest known metallurgy of Western Europe. 

    Source: Pileta[es].

    June 20, 2012

    Dairying in Africa some 7000 years ago

    At least.


    In the prehistoric green Sahara of Holocene North Africa—in contrast to the Neolithic of Europe and Eurasia—a reliance on cattle, sheep and goats emerged as a stable and widespread way of life, long before the first evidence for domesticated plants or settled village farming communities1, 2, 3. The remarkable rock art found widely across the region depicts cattle herding among early Saharan pastoral groups, and includes rare scenes of milking; however, these images can rarely be reliably dated4. Although the faunal evidence provides further confirmation of the importance of cattle and other domesticates5, the scarcity of cattle bones makes it impossible to ascertain herd structures via kill-off patterns, thereby precluding interpretations of whether dairying was practiced. Because pottery production begins early in northern Africa6 the potential exists to investigate diet and subsistence practices using molecular and isotopic analyses of absorbed food residues7. This approach has been successful in determining the chronology of dairying beginning in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of the Near East and its spread across Europe8, 9, 10, 11. Here we report the first unequivocal chemical evidence, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major alkanoic acids of milk fat, for the adoption of dairying practices by prehistoric Saharan African people in the fifth millennium bc. Interpretations are supported by a new database of modern ruminant animal fats collected from Africa. These findings confirm the importance of ‘lifetime products’, such as milk, in early Saharan pastoralism, and provide an evolutionary context for the emergence of lactase persistence in Africa.

    While there are some related articles (different author) that propose yogurt instead of milk as being the actual consumed product, this seems mostly a molecular-clock-o-logic wild speculation. Otherwise, the invention of yogurt is generally attributed to the steppe peoples (or Indians maybe) and arrived to the West only in the Middle Ages. There is no classical source discussing it at all (cheese or butter however are mentioned, as is raw milk) and instead Medieval Arab sources consider it a typical Turkish product. 

    No African tradition exists of yogurt, unlike the case of butter or diverse ways of drinking raw milk, be it alone or mixed with blood.

    Most likely, as in Europe and elsewhere, the relevant alleles pre-dated Neolithic changes (after all there's no advantage in lactose intolerance, so no reason why it would have been fixated other than random drift) although they may have been somewhat favored by the development of Neolithic dairying, specially in areas where other foodstuffs were not easily available.

    The archaeological site of Tadrar Acacus is at the in the Central Sahara, Fezzan region of Lybia, bordering the lands assigned to Algeria and Niger. Its chronology is illustrated in the supplemental figure 2:

    click to expand

    Equivalent evidence of dairying in Europe is from similar dates (or somewhat earlier in the Balcans and West Asia).

    June 19, 2012

    Firefighter discovers Neolithic rock art at the Spanish-Portuguese border

    Destiny seems obsessed with rock-art these days. Juan Carlos Jiménez, forest firefighter at Valencia de Alcántara at the Spanish-Portuguese border, in Extremadura, discovered several Neolithic rock art weeks ago at San Roque pass and other mountain locations (Sierras of San Pedro and Santa Catalina).

    Archaeological experts from the regional government estimate the age of these paintings on 3500 to 2250 years BCE. 

    Examples of the findings:

    Source: Pileta[es].

    Conference on funerary practices in recent prehistory (Lisbon - November)

    Dr. Antonio C. Valera, who writes the always interesting blog Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures, is organizing and promoting a conference on the matter of funerary practices in relation to Megalithism and enclosures to be held on November 6-7 (plus an optional field trip on Nov-8) in the quite impressive frame of the Calouste-Gulbenkian Foundation. The fees seem quite accessible.

    Program of the conference (click to expand)

    Sources: Portuguese Prehistoric Enclosures, ERA-Arqueologia.

    Clottes questions the dates of Iberian rock art

    Highly respected archaeologist and prehistorian Jean Clottes has raised a question mark on the AMD datings of the Iberian rock art, recently claimed to be older than 40,000 years in some cases. He essentially questions the method of dating, frontally clashing with João Zilhão, who in the press conference[es] defended the high reliability of the Uranium series method, which he says has not yet been fully demonstrated in its efficiency. 

    In my opinion one should be very cautious about the sensational results announced, because:
    1. that method is new and certainly needs to be tested and refined (see below);
    2. they compare Useries dates with radiocarbon dates which were obtained with a different method: it would be necessary to date the same artefact with both methods and see if they concur; this is what Valladas and her team tried to do in 2003 in Borneo and they encountered problems;
    3. finally, the relation to Neandertal is pure speculation: there has never been portable art discovered in Neandertal occupation sites and there is no relationship ever established between the Neandertals and a painted rock art site. Until there is, such speculation is entirely gratuitous.'

    Another highly reputed expert questioning the dating is Hellene Valladas, who dated Grotte Chauvet.

    I feel unqualified to judge the merit of these objections but certainly if C14 and U-series datings of the same object are inconsistent, it means that either method (or both) must be refined. 

    Red dots from El Castillo, one of which is claimed to be older than 40,000 years

    June 18, 2012

    Denisovan and Neanderthal proviral DNA

    A provirus is a strand of autosomal DNA that was inserted by a virus once upon a time and got lost in our genome as junk DNA, not being anymore active (would it remain active it'd be a retrovirus). Such insertions are thought to be unique phylogenetic events. 

    New research has identified a provirus* (HERV-K-Ne1 = HERV-K-De6, inserted in Chromosome 5) shared by Neanderthals and Denisovans but not Homo sapiens. This is consistent with the previous data that placed their autosomal DNA closer to each other than to Homo sapiens.

    Lorenzo Agoni et al., Neandertal and Denisovan retroviruses. Current Biology, 2012. Freely accessible (letter with supplementary material) at the time of writing this.

    It must be noted however the mitochondrial DNA, inherited by pure matrilineage, is much closer among our species and Neanderthals than either one with Denisovans, what to me suggest that Denisovans are no new species but a hybrid of Neanderthal and Homo erectus. A theory not yet fully testable for lack of DNA from Asian Homo erectus.

    Interestingly Denisovans have also several proviruses not found in Neanderthals, what could well support my theory of hybridization. The detected provirus could hence have migrated from Neanderthals to Denisovans in the hybridization episode (along with lots of other autosomal DNA), while the rest could have been retained from the H. erectus ancestors by the maternal line. 

    However as the article is both very technical and succinct, I can't be sure right now of how strongly or weakly can this info support the hybridization model (founded opinions welcome). 

    In total the researchers detected three Neanderthal proviruses and 12 Denisovan ones, one of which is shared between both nominal species. It is convenient to remind that while the Denisovan genome was very well preserved and sequenced almost completely, the Neanderthal genome is only known in fragmentary form, amounting to about 60% of the actual genome.

    Chalcolithic rock art dated in Iberia

    This is less impacting than the recent spat of Paleolithic rock art datings but it is still interesting. Rock art from Cuenca province (Spain) of schematic style has been dated to the Chalcolithic period... as expected.

    Why "as expected", because the motifs are very similar to others known from mobile art such as bone idols or pottery found in stratigraphic contexts in Southern Iberia in that same period. The so-called "oculados" (eyed) motifs are widespread.

    However the range of possible dates obtained is wide: between the middle of the 4th millenium and the early 1st millennium BCE. It includes all the Chalcolithic but also the Bronze Age and even the beginnings of the Iron Age.
    One of the dated sites

    Orange: areas of "oculado" idols in SW Iberia

    An "oculado" pot from Los Millares.

    It is often thought that the "oculados" represent some sort of deity of the age.

    Sources[es]: Pileta, La Cerca.

    Ref. Juan F. Ruiz et al. Calcium oxalate AMS 14C dating and chronology of post-Palaeolithic rock paintings in the Iberian Peninsula. Two dates from Abrigo de los Oculados (Henarejos, Cuenca, Spain). Journal of Archaeological Science 2012. Pay per view.

    Australian rock art gets oldest radiocarbon dating: 28,000 years

    In relation with the previous entry, where I mentioned again, among many other things, that Australia probably hosts the oldest rock art of all Earth because of the depiction of the giant duck Genyornis, which went extinct c. 40,000 years ago, now it has been known that an Australian rock art site has produced the oldest radiocarbon date on Earth for such kind of material. 

    The site, in Arnhem Land (Northern Territory), is known as Nawarla Gabarnmang.

    The 28,000 years old site of Nawarla Gabarnmang

    Notice that radiocarbon can only be measured on charcoal or other organic materials, and therefore it has some practical limitations: only drawings in black (usually made with charcoal dust) can be measured and there are limitations of persistence of the materials, which tend to degrade because of their very organic nature. 

    That's why radiocarbon dating of rock art can't give many answers. Still worth mentioning in the context of the heating debate about the earliest rock art (Iberia, Australia? Neanderthal, Sapiens?) and dating methods. 

    Source and some more details (in English): Pileta (originally from an Australian PPV newspaper).

    June 14, 2012

    Cantabrian rock art competes for the title of earliest on Earth

    Latest dating of calcite layers on top of rock art from several caves from Cantabria (Northern Iberia) suggest that they could host the oldest rock art on Earth and that this one is extremely old, almost from the earliest possible presence of Homo sapiens (anatomically modern humans) in the area.


    Paleolithic cave art is an exceptional archive of early human symbolic behavior, but because obtaining reliable dates has been difficult, its chronology is still poorly understood after more than a century of study. We present uranium-series disequilibrium dates of calcite deposits overlying or underlying art found in 11 caves, including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites of Altamira, El Castillo, and Tito Bustillo, Spain. The results demonstrate that the tradition of decorating caves extends back at least to the Early Aurignacian period, with minimum ages of 40.8 thousand years for a red disk, 37.3 thousand years for a hand stencil, and 35.6 thousand years for a claviform-like symbol. These minimum ages reveal either that cave art was a part of the cultural repertoire of the first anatomically modern humans in Europe or that perhaps Neandertals also engaged in painting caves. 

    I have been checking a database (direct download) recommended by John Hawks and Millán Mozota and the dates I find are all Archaic Aurignacian and not anymore Mousterian for the relevant dates, at least for El Castillo cave:

    • Latest Mousterian: 45.5 Ka calBP (42.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14)
    • Earliest Aurignacian: 44.7 Ka calBP (41.1 Ka BP, uncalibrated C14) [but see comments on the nature of this "Aurignacian"]

    They really leave the Neanderthal possiblity in the unlikely zone... unless you think that Archaic Aurignacian or even Aurignacian in general is the creation of Homo neanderthalensis. 

    The also mentioned Altamira and Tito Bustillo caves do not seem to have any date before Solutrean or Magdalenian respectively, nor evidence of Mousterian presence either (I checked other sources as the database only reaches back o c. 50 Ka).

    El Castillo rock art (several periods) - source

    It is worth reminding however that rock art from Australia depicting the long-gone Genyornis giant duck is probably older than this European art and without any reasonable doubt was made by Homo sapiens.

    However there is rock art from Nerja (Andalusia, Southern Iberia) that is dated to c. 43 Ka BP, being in fact older than the mural art from Cantabria. In this case the likelihood of it being Neanderthal-made is quite greater because there is no evidence for Aurignacian in the area until c. 29 Ka BP (raw C14) and no dates from Nerja (unspecific culture but probably Aurignacian from regional context) until c. 25.6 Ka BP (raw C14) or c. 29.6 Ka BP calibrated.

    These contradictions between quite older rock art ages than occupations documented from digs should be of some concern but no idea how the contradiction may be solved.

    The famous ochre bisons of Altamira are still from the Magdalenian period anyhow, even if much of the rock has been revised towards older dates in the area.

    Update (Jun 15): Pileta includes now a video of the presentation of the study in Spanish language (scroll down).

    Update (Jun 16): I strongly recommend any interested reader to take a look at the comments section. Prehistorian and Neanderfan Millán Mozota makes many most interesting comments on the chronology and arguable Transitional Aurignacian nature of layer 18 from El Castillo cave.

    Update (Jun 19): Jean Clottes and others question the certainty of the dating method.

    Bonobo genome sequenced

    Ulundi (source)
    The last great ape* to be sequenced has been the bonobo, it complements the Homo sapiens, Neanderthal, Denisovan (probably a hybrid), chimpanzee, gorilla and orangutan genomes:

    The reference genome was sequenced from a female bonobo captive at Leizpig Zoo, known as Ulundi.

    The genome will, hopefully, help understand better the genetic basis of our being as humans and, maybe also get some inferences on our prehistory. 

    Stubbornly under-estimating divergence times by almost 100%

    In this sense I want to emphasize that the paper insists in producing Pan-Homo and internal Pan divergence times that are irrationally low. The cause of this systematic error that persists through some literature seems to be rooted on the Homo-Pongo divergence estimate, which I do not know the details about but seems from context to be an extreme under-estimate. 

    The matter was already debated in 2008 by Jenniffer L. Caswell, who explained that the Bonobo-Chimpanzee split cannot be more recent than 1.5 to 2.0 million years because it was then when the Congo River was formed separating the two populations radically (allopatric speciation). This is quite apparent in the distribution of bonobos and chimpanzees:

    fig. 1a

    So unless the geology is wrong, bonobos and chimpanzees diverged 1.5 to 2 million years ago, and not a mere million years ago, as this paper claims.

    This has important implications for the Homo-Pan divergence age, as I have discussed again and again. Assuming that the 4.5:1 ration estimated in this paper is correct, then the actual Homo-Pan divergence age ranges between 6.8 to 9.0 million years ago (and not a mere 4.5 Ma), with a median of 7.9 Ma, quite similar to the 8 Ma estimate I have been defending since the Caswell paper was published in 2008.

    See also


    * Note: I know someone will say that Homo sp. are not "apes" but I say Homo are a subset of the great apes clade (Hominidae) phylogenetically and therefore great apes ourselves - something to be irrationally proud of, of course.

    June 12, 2012

    Concern for the use of genetic tests for Nazi purposes

    As Van Ardsdale explains purity is not a genetic reality, first of all because each time a new person is conceived (by the enjoyable but quite impure act of sex) admixture takes place (and if mum and dad are genetically too similar, then inbreeding happens what is generally bad). So whoever would wish to imagine themselves as pure should not look into genetics but into Platonic solids or something.

    But the right tools in the wrong hands typically has the wrong results. And the tool of genetic analysis in the hands of Hitler* or the like could be used to entice racist discrimination. 

    Nature reports that a Hungarian genetic testing company, Nagy Gén, has issued a certificate by which a person, a Hungarian Nazi member of the criminal Jobbik party, was said to have no Jewish nor Roma ancestry. 

    Nagy Gén scanned 18 positions in the MP’s genome for variants that it says are characteristic of Roma and Jewish ethnic groups; its report concludes that Roma and Jewish ancestry can be ruled out.

    It's difficult to imagine how the company could certify that because there are no absolute lines defining such ethnic categories, not in the genetic aspect either, just clinal trends.

    I understand from the context (18 positions) that the test is one of those biometric AIM-based tests that police uses sometimes to attempt to guess (without any certainty) the ancestry of suspects.

    The scandalous certificate was first posted at a Nazi site, which praised the intent but (correctly) dismissed the scientific quality of the test. It was later republished at a Magyar-language news blog

    The affair underlines the dangers of all kind of biometrics, be them genetic or anthropometric, when used for reasons that are not pure science. That's a reason why I do not generally favor private, commercial genetic testing but rather academic studies of populations with prehistory reconstruction intent. 

    Personally I have never got myself tested nor I really care much because what matter for me is not "my" private ancestry but, if anything, the ancestry of the diverse peoples and communities, what can tell us something about their history and prehistory.


    * Incidentally, I suspect that Hitler would have got serious problems promoting his racist ideas if he would have got access to genetic analysis because his paternal lineage was quite Mediterranean and ultimately rooted in Africa (it could even be Jewish, although hard to tell ultimately). He would have had to lie even to himself, abandon his racism or maybe kill himself (mostly good results).

    More evidence in support of the Younger Dryas impact theory

    Some 12,800 years ago, when the climate was warming very fast and temperatures had almost reached present day levels... they suddenly plumetted again in a matter of months and remained at Ice Age levels for more than a thousand years before warming again. That period is known as the Younger Dryas.

    The Younger Dryas is the last cold gorge by the left

    There used to be several explanations but since some time ago, the meteorite impact theory has been gaining weight. This evidence would seem to consolidate it.

    It was already quite consolidated as a theory because, while some had questioned the earliest evidence, further data had been collected from around the world that reinforced the model by about the same time.

    The new evidence comes in form of melted glass (siliceous scoria like objects, SLOs) mineral inclusions from Pennsylvania (USA), which appears to require such an impact to have been produced. This kind of product requires temperatures similar to those of a nuclear explosion. 

    The glass-like grains at two different imaging resolutions

    These remains have been found so far in North and South America, Europe and West Asia, suggesting several impacts from an already fragmented meteorite. It is unclear if there could be more such findings elsewhere on Earth. 

    One of the places directly affected by the impact was the site of Abu Hureyra, at the Mid-Upper Euphrates (Syria), where a layer of ashes followed by an archaeological hiatus mark the boundary between an Epipaleolithic and the more important Neolithic settlement. 

    The impact and the subsequent sudden cooling probably was a major influence in the extinction of some subarctic megafauna in North America and Northern Eurasia such as the mammoths. 

    Source: Science Daily.

    Should the Parthenon Marbles be returned to Greece?

    I'm all for it, it is not just "classy" as Stephen Fry said recently in a TV debate but actually it was since the very beginning an act of imperialist looting that would be frowned upon also today (and was already back in the day considered quite questionable). 

    By all accounts, the marbles were looted by the British ambassador in Constantinople Thomas Bruce (alias "Lord Elgin") without any sort of authorization by even the imperial authorities of the Ottoman Empire, then occupying power of Greece. 

    The marbles, which date from Classical Greece, exposed since the early 19th century in the British Museum, suffered from the brutal pollution of London in much of all this time and have been damaged by primitive restorers.

    Meanwhile the Parthenon in Greece stands as a naked ruin, largely deprived from its original fullness.

    Timeline of the conquest of Navarre by Castile 1512-21

    About these days some 500 years ago, the Kingdom of Castile decided to put to use the silver robbed to the Native Americans into a new military campaign. This time it was Navarre, the state of the Basques.

    Navarre and associated states c. 1512

    The Castilian-Aragonese conquest

    In mid-June, a huge army under the command of the always infamous Duke of Alba, was concentrated at Vitoria, conquered in 1200. Meanwhile the English, then allied with Castile, had posted troops at Bayonne to curtail any French attempt of aid. The Castilian army marched without difficulties through Burunda and Arakil and on July 23rd, camped outside Pamplona, at Arazuri.

    Unable to defend the city against such an oversized conquest force, the Navarrese monarchs went to their northern possessions in Gascony (Bearn). The city surrendered and on July 25th the invaders took possession with all the religious paraphernalia they styled.

    After conquering Pamplona, a second invading army from Aragon (in dynastic union with Castile already) commanded by the Archbishop of Zaragoza, Alfonso, illegitimate son of King Ferdinand, occupied the Ribera (Erribera) and put siege to Tudela (Tutera) on August 14th. The city resisted for a month and only surrendered, on September 9th,upon oath that the traditional charters (fueros, laws) would be honored by the invaders.

    Reconstruction of the historical walls of Tudela on a modern photo

    First liberation attempt

    John of Albret (King consort) finally mustered a diverse army made up of Navarrese, Gascons and Albanian and German mercenaries, which set up march at Pau (Bearn, part of the lands of the crown back then) on October 15th, commanded by Francis, Dauphin of France and Duke of Angouleme, with King Jean as sub-commander. They expelled the Duke of Alba from Donibane Garazi (St. Jean Pie-de-Port) and arrived to Pamplona on October 26th but could not capture the city.

    When the winter set on, the liberation army retreated before the snow would close the passes.

    The formal annexation

    The Court (Parliament) of Navarre was called by the invader on March 23rd and, under obvious pressure, they swore loyalty to the invader.

    Meanwhile the Castilians occupied again the Low Navarre (now under French rule) taking hostages and calling district Court to force the county to also swear loyalty to the occupant.

    There was some hope of a peaceful resolution with a generational change among the monarchs: Francis I, who had personally commanded the Navarrese liberation army, became new King of France, while Charles of Burgundy (would-be Emperor Charles V) also showed signs of not being too interested in holding Navarre by force.

    This pushed Ferdinand of Aragon (regent of Castile) to take the decision of annexing Navarre to Castile, formally suppressing its distinctiveness as independent kingdom. The formal ratification of this matter was done in the city of Burgos, Castile, before the Court of Castile on June 11th 1515. Navarre as such was not even asked.

    However the Navarrese Kingdom retained all formal and legal distinctions, including parliament and tribunals, as had been allowed previously to the provinces formed from Western Navarre in 1200. It is at this point when Navarre is (forcibly) made a semi-autonomous part of Castile (Spain since the 18th century).

    Second liberation attempt

    Upon the death of Ferdinand of Aragon (January 23rd 1516), there were uprisings in is domains, circumstance that fueled a new attempt of liberation by John of Albret. The invasion attempt crossing the Pyrenees was ambushed at Isaba however and the commander, Marshall Peter of Navarre, made prisoner. He would die in strange circumstancesTM in 1522, still a prisoner.

    Castile was then under transitional control of the strongman cardinal-regent Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, who decided to punish the separatist feelings of the Navarrese people by means of political persecution. The most visible element was the dismantling of all kind of fortifications, leaving towns and villages undefended.

    The very walls of Pamplona were reconstructed anew with the Machiavellan detail of making them clearly separate from the homes, so the citizens could not take them again from inside. More than a fortified city, Pamplona was now a prison, with walls conceived more for defense against the citizens than against any possible invader.

    Wall of Pamplona

    Third liberation attempt

    Andrew of Foix, Lord of Asparrot
    Meanwhile in Bearn, Henry II Zangotzarra became king of an occupied realm. Spanish historians, always so partial, treat him as "French" and "Prince of Bearn", even if he was not just the legitimate monarch but also born in Sangüesa (Zangoza), and his campaigns as "French invasions".

    Castile was then (1521) under the popular revolt of the Comuneros, who demanded from Charles V respect to the traditional law and freedoms, making the occasion ideal for an attempt of liberation of Navarre.

    Henry mustered an army of mostly Navarrese and Gascons, which was put under the command of Andrew of Foix, Lord of Asparrot (also known as Asparrós). The Comuneros had just been defeated at Villalar (April 23rd) when the campaign began (May 10th).

    Upon the arrival of the liberation army, Pamplona surrendered and proclaimed Henry II as true monarch. Only a castle outside the walls resisted and was bombed. Among those inside was Iñigo of Loiola (later known as Ignatius) a Gipuzkoan professional soldier working for Castile... before and after the injury.

    The liberation march was welcomed everywhere in Navarre but then Asparrot committed what is considered a key error: licensed much of the infantry and marched against Logroño (which had been Navarrese centuries earlier). The Castilian counter-attack pushed the Navarrese army towards Pamplona, with the final showdown happening at Noain on June 30th. 6000 people lost their lives in that battle.

    There was still some resistance, notably in Baztan, where a Navarrese garrison resisted bravely in the castle of Amaiur, now a ruin with a monolith.

    Monolith of Amaiur

    The Northern tip of Navarre, known as Low Navarre, remained independent. Lacking any cities however, the Court installed itself in Pau, Bearn, where it would be a center of the Huguenot camp, eventually leading Henry III to the throne of Paris (where is known as Henry IV).

    It was also a center of Basque and Gascon literature, making of a military defeat the seed of a long ethno-cultural and political resistance with the more than occasional popular and military uprising. Up to this day.

    500 years of occupation, 500 years of resistance.

    See also: A history of the Basque Wars: chapter I and chapter II (still have to write the 3rd part)

    June 8, 2012

    Cow lineages in Europe, Africa and creole America

    Another paper on bovine mtDNA adds important information to better understand the major matrilineage of domestic bovine cattle: haplogroup T1.

    Importantly, Bonfiglio made a significant effort in sampling Egyptian and Ethiopian cattle, as well as some Latin American breeds. Not a single haplogroup outside of T1 was found, unlike in Europe where P, Q and R lineages do exist, suggesting some level of hybridization with wild aurochsen. There is however some uncertainty as for the exact phylogeny of haplogroups T1e (European) and T1f (Euro-Egyptian), which could also be branches of T1'2'3, as illustrated in fig. 1:

    click to expand
    The authors conclude that, soon after domestication in West Asia, bovine cattle spread to both Europe and Africa, where experienced secondary expansions, as evidenced by at least one lineage (T1d) looking East African by origin. 

    That is also probably the case of T1c (Euro-Egyptian but more diverse in Egypt) and T1b (also most basally diverse in Egypt), which is the origin of the African-derived American "AA" haplotype of Paraguayan cattle, which is within this lineage.

    Dated to 15,000 BP or older (source)
    Update(Jun 10): There is abundant evidence in form of rock art and some remains at Jebel Uweinat, Qurta and Wadi Qubaniya supporting presence of wild taurine cattle in NE Africa since at least 15,000 BP. This allows for a possible semi-independent domestication event in Africa for bovids (h/t to Marnie).