July 31, 2012

IV Meeting of the European Studies Group at Rennes

St. Denec menhirs

The IVth meeting of an international workgroup will gather together, in Rennes, from 10 to 12 May 2012, several of the leading European specialists on the theme of megalithic monuments (about twenty speakers from some ten different nationalities). Following the international colloquium at Bougon (Deux-Sèvres) which was held in 2002 (Joussaume, Laporte, Scarre, 2006), meetings of the European Megalithic Studies Group took place in Göteborg in Sweden ( 2004 ), in Seville in Spain ( 2008 ) and in Kiel in Germany ( 2010 ). This will be the first time for more than thirty years that the city of Rennes will welcome a high-level scientific meeting specifically dedicated to the study of megalithic monuments. It is organized within the framework of a program entitled " Megalithic monuments of the Atlantic zone and beyond " which is supported in particular by the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme de Bretagne. It will comprise two days of oral communications, open to the general public, in the Auditorium of the Museum of Brittany, in Rennes. They will be accompanied by the presentation of posters about current work on megalithic monuments in France, in Europe and in the World.

The program is as follows:

Thursday 10/05

8h30 – Introduction - Chris Scarre.

9h - Mégalithes au centre de la Péninsule Ibérique - Primitiva Bueno Ramirez.

9h30 - Building forever or just for the time being? A perspective from NW Iberian mounds - Ramón Fábregas Valcarce.

10h – Megalithic architectures of the dolmenic groups of the oriental andévalo (Huelva, spain). Typology, constructive systems and technical traditions - Jose Antonio Linares Catela,

10h30 - Coffee Break

11h00 – Menga: Biography of an outstanding megalithic monument - Leonardo Garcia Sanjuan, José Antonio Lozano Rodríguez.

11h30 - Megalithic Monuments of Northern and Central Portugal. A broad discussion concerning their construction and decoration programs - María de Jesús Sanches, Domingos de Jesus da Cruz.

12h00 – Megalithic hollows: rock-cut tombs between the Tagus and the Guadiana - Leonor Rocha, Pedro Alvim.

12h30 – Lunch time

14h00 – Structural functions and architectural projects within the elongated monuments of Western France - Luc Laporte.

14h30 – Traces d'exploitation du schiste de quelques cairns néolithiques du Massif armoricain - Eric Gaumé,

15h00 – Poster cession

15h30 - Coffee Break

16h00 – Megalithic building archaeology in the north-western part of France - Florian Cousseau,

16h30 – La file de pierres dressées de Groah Dehn à Hoëdic (Morbihan) : un exemple d’architecture évolutive au 5e-4e millénaire av. J.-C. - Jean-Marc Large, Emmanuel Mens.

17h00 – Accident or design? Chambers, cairns and funerary practices in the Neolithic chambered tombs of western Europe - Chris Scarre.

17h30/18h00 – A northern point of view: synthesis and debate - Chairman - Gabriel Cooney, Torben Dehn,

Friday 11/05

9h00 – Economic Impact of the Megalithic Constructions: the Oceanic Case - Nicolas Cauwe.

9h30 - Beyond the individual monument: New Results from the Priority Program "Early Monumentality and Social Differentiation" - Martin Hinz.

10h00 - A monumental task: building the Neolithic megaliths of Britain and Ireland - Vicki Cummings, Colin Richards.

10h30 - Coffee Break

11h00 – Making megalithic monuments: the role of small things - Gabriel Cooney,

11h30 – Building Boom to Bust: A proposed sequence of construction for the Knowth passage tomb cemetery - Kerri Cleary.

12h00 - Going through the motions: using phenomenology and 3-D modelling techniques to explore the reality of construction at Knowth , Co. Meath - Eimear Meegan.

12h30 – Lunch time

14h00 - 25 years among Neolithic builders - Torben Dehn.

14h30 – The clustering of megalithic monuments around the causewayed enclosures at Sarup on Funen, Denmark - Niels H. Andersen.

15h00 – Dolmens without mounds in Denmark - Jørgen Westphal.

15h30 - Coffee Break

16h00 - In the Eye of the Beholder - Palle Eriksen.

16h30 - Lønt: Two types of megaliths and one oddball - Anne Birgitte Gebauer.

17h00 – A southern point of view: synthesis and debate - Chairman - Primitiva Bueno Ramirez, Luc Laporte.

17h30/ 18h00 – Conclusion of the meeting

Saturday 12/05

Excursion reserved to the communicators

Monument of Carn

More information at the official site

See also the many ESMG videos, specially if you are interested but can't go.

Hat tip to Pileta.

July 27, 2012

Sudden major rise of sea levels after last Ice Age

I cannot find the paper right now (the CEREGE research center's website is down?) but several news sites echo that in only 350 years, beginning 14,600 years ago, sea levels rose as much as 14 meters, judging from coral formations near Tahiti (Polynesia).

That means on average 1 meter each 25 years. The actual impact of this kind of change varies depending on the relief of the coast but nowadays one such change of just one meter would swallow about 1/3 of the Netherlands, for example.

Sources: CNRS, Pileta[es].

July 26, 2012

Ancient DNA... of chickens

Sure, why not?

Alice A. Storey, Investigating the Global Dispersal of Chickens in Prehistory Using Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Signatures. PLoS ONE, 2012. Open access ··> LINK [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0039171]

The authors managed to produce more or less reliable mtDNA haplotypes for 48 remains of historical and prehistorical chickens from Thailand, Pacific Islands, Latin America (a pre-Columbian site in Chile but post-Columbian sites elsewhere) and (medieval) Spain.

Excepting the oldest Thai haplotype, all them belonged to haplogroups D and E, as follows:

Fig. 1
In spite of the authors burying most of the relevant data in the supplemental material, I was able to conclude that the ancient haplotypes (ah) above mean in terms of samples:

  • Haplogroup E:
    • cluster 1:
      • ah1 Pacific Is. (n=1)
      • ah2 Pacific Is. (n=4), Thailand (n=1), Chile (n=1)
      • ah6 Peru (n=1)
    • cluster 2:
      • ah3 Pacific Is. (n=10), Chile (n=2), Spain (n=3), Haiti (n=1), Florida (n=1)
      • ah4 Spain (n=1)
      • ah5 Bolivia (n=3)
      • ah7 Spain (n=1)
  • Haplogroup D:
      • ah9 Pacific Is. (n=1), Peru (n=1)
    • cluster 3:
      • ah10 Pacific Is. (n=14)
      • ah11 Pacific Is. (n=1)
  • Haplogroup B (not shown):
      • ah12 Thailand (n=1)
There is no ah8 apparently. 

It must be noted that the ah9 haplotype from Peru is very early post-Columbian, from before 1600 CE, making it another likely evidence of Polynesian introduction of chicken in South America, along with the Chilean sites (which allow for no other explanation). However the Peruvian haplotype is more related to Micronesia than to Hawaii or Rapa Nui.

Other 17th century samples from Bolivia and Peru (ah5 and ah6) have no obvious connection with either plausible origin. Instead Caribbean sites are probably related to Spain.

A simplified geographical distribution is also offered (oddly enough on a pre-WWI map):

Fig. 2

The authors conclude:

As a result of the careful analysis of archaeologically associated, and in some cases directly dated, ancient DNA samples an early global distribution of haplogroup E chickens has been revealed. This dispersal out of Asia began before 3000 years ago and involved the movement of chickens both westwards to Europe and eastwards into the Pacific. The distribution of haplogroup D likely represents a separate dispersal into the Pacific from a distinct Asian domestication centre. The eventual identification of these centers will greatly enrich our understanding of chicken domestication and the history of dispersals from multiple locations. While unambiguous data does not yet exist to trace any of the detected mtDNA signatures back to specific domestication centers, the analysis of ancient DNA sequences presented here is an important first step towards it. Future research needs to focus on markers identified, from both full mtDNA genomes and nuclear genes which are subsequently targeted in ancient specimens, examined within their historical and/or archaeological context.

July 25, 2012

Khoisan autosomal genetics

There is a new major paper at arXiv on Southern African autosomal genetics, with emphasis on pre-Bantu aboriginal peoples (usually known as Khoisan, even if the phylogenetic unity of their languages is not anymore accepted).

Joseph K. Pickrell et al., The genetic prehistory of southern Africa. arXiv 2012. Open access ··> LINK.


The hunter-gatherer populations of southern and eastern Africa are known to harbor some of the most ancient human lineages, but their historical relationships are poorly understood. We report data from 22 populations analyzed at over half a million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), using a genome-wide array designed for studies of history. The southern Africans-here called Khoisan-fall into two groups, loosely corresponding to the northwestern and southeastern Kalahari, which we show separated within the last 30,000 years. All individuals derive at least a few percent of their genomes from admixture with non-Khoisan populations that began 1,200 years ago. In addition, the Hadza, an east African hunter-gatherer population that speaks a language with click consonants, derive about a quarter of their ancestry from admixture with a population related to the Khoisan, implying an ancient genetic link between southern and eastern Africa.  

Unlike most other African (or global) genetic studies, here the Southern African natives are not undersampled and that way a more realistic genetic structure, with Khoisan peoples occupying their distinct position in the overall human structure, is more evident.

Selected images (from the supplementary material):

Locator map and legend for all PCA graphs:

Color code is as follows:
  • Dark grey: non-Khoisan Africans (incl. Hadza)
  • Blue: Khoe-Kwadi
  • Green: Kx'a
  • Red: Tuu
  • Light grey: Eurasians

Global PCA (SF 2):

The PC1 sets apart Khoisan (specially the Kx'a and the Tuu) from Eurasians, while the PC2 defines the non-Khoisan African dimension (including some Khoisan, specially the Damara).

Africa-only PCA (PC1-2) (SF 3):

Excluded Eurasians, the PC1 is taken by the Khoisan-other African dialectics, while the PC2 contrasts the Ju|'hoan versus the Nama specially. 

Africa-only PCA (PC2-3 with the inclusion of the ǂKhomani) (SF 17):

+ ǂKhomani samples (excluded in previous graphs)

Interestingly enough, here the Damara and the Himba contrasting with other Africans, specially the Dinka, take over PC2. Meanwhile PC3 is monopolized by the contrast between Ju|'hoan and the ǂHoan.

Admixture clustering (SF 7):
Click to expand

As in most previous PC analysis (excepted African PCA 2-3) the most neatly distinct Khoisan populations are the Kx'a (green cluster) and Tuu (purple one). At K=6, two other clusters are taken by the two distinct Pygmy populations, while the fifth one describes Eurasians (or West Eurasians). The remainder indistinct African is shown as blue component but it seems to hide important substructure in fact.

Arguably K=5 may be a better description, or at last one we are more familiar with: differentiating between Khoisans (green), Pygmies (orange), Hadza (purple), other Africans (blue) and Eurasians (red). But something of the order of K=13 or 16 is probably a better description in any case for such a varied bunch.

Special thanks to Millán.

Paleolithic ceramic animal figurines of Croatia

One of the ceramic figurine fragments (C1)
While utilitarian pottery wares are now quite clearly determined to be a Chinese invention first of all (c. 20 Ka. ago), Europeans were toying with clay and cooking it even earlier, with terracotta art known to have existed in Dolní Věstonice and other places since the Gravettian period.

The site discussed in this new research is not as old but nevertheless it is interesting to mention because, as the authors say, it is becoming more and more clear that pottery was not a single punctual invention but that it was invented and maybe forgotten once and again in the course of human prehistory.

Rebecca Farbstein et al., First Epigravettian Ceramic Figurines from Europe (Vela Spila, Croatia). PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK [DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0041437]

Vela Spila is just one of several Paleolithic sites with ceramic scattered through the geography of Europe and North Africa, as reflected in fig. 1:

The Croatian site's ceramics begin only c. 17,350 years ago (cal.), even if the occupation of the site is some two millennia older, and continues until some 14,400 years ago, when a tephra layer from the second Campanian Ignibrite eruption seems to mark a major hiatus in human habitation (the cave was later repopulated in the Epipaleolithic, c. 7400 BCE).

The authors think that the Vela Spina figurines are similar to those from Pavlov and Dolní Věstonice in the creation process and most conceptual notions. However there are also some differences like stylized foots, lack of anthropomorphic figures and no direct correlation with hearths, as happens in Gravettian Moravia.

See also: University of Cambridge press release. Hat tip to Pileta.

Amateur revision of the R1b1a2a1a1 (L11) phylogeny suggests Northern origins (?)

Both peer reviewed and 100% online work... maybe more interesting than even the conclusions of this paper is the working method, with authors who have never met each other in person or even talked on the phone and who do not even have in most cases any academic credentials.

Richard A. Rocca et al., Discovery of Western European R1b1a2 Y Chromosome Variants in 1000 Genomes Project Data: An Online Community Approach. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access ··> LINK.

The authors used the data available in the 1000 Genomes project (and FTDNA samples) to refine the phylogeny of the most important Western and Central European patrilineage: haplogroup R1b1a2a1a1 (L11/S127).

The main (validated) result is figure 5:

For the nomenclature, please check ISOGG.

Highlights within R1b1a2a1a1b (P312/S116)

This lineage, the largest subclade of R1b, has, as we know, a Southwestern European distribution mostly with extension to Northwest Europe, specially Ireland and Great Britain.

  • R1b1a2a1a1b1  (DF27): mostly (71%) Iberian and Latin American. The authors think that this clade should account for the majority of previously unclassified S116(xU152,L21) reported in Iberia and some areas of France. 42/49 samples that would previously have been classified as R1b-S116(xU152,L21) fell in this category. Basque-specific M153 and generally sub-Pyrenean SRY2627 have been subsumed in this "Iberian" haplogroup.
  • R1b1a2a1a1b2  (S28/U152) is a sub-Alpine clade found mostly in Eastern France, Northern Italy, Corsica and Swizterland, sometimes confusingly dubbed the "Celtic" clade, although it looks more Ligurian-like to me if anything. 
  • R1b1a2a1a1b3  (L21/M529/S145, L459) is found specially in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. 
  • R1b1a2a1a1b4 (L238/S182) would be a small Nordic haplogroup, found in Scandinavia and one British individual.
  • R1b1a2a1a1b5 (DF19) would be a small British haplogroup, also previously undescribed.

If this structure is to be confirmed, the most parsimonious origin of R1b1a2a1a1b would be possibly around Belgium. We'll see if more academic data can confirm this because over-reliance on commercial testing tends to bias results toward the North, where people seems much more eager to pay for a DNA test. 

It would be however consistent with the other major subclade R1b1a2a1a1a (U106) being totally concentrated in Northern and Central Europe. No major novelties are reported in relation to this other super-lineage.

However I still require that the most important region of Europe: the French state is properly sampled and studied before jumping to any conclusions.  At the very least almost every single subclade of R1b1a2a1a1b (P312/S116) is found in the French geography, allowing for a Franco-Cantabrian refugium origin of this haplogroup. The "asterisk" category should also be revised with due care because it should hold untapped diversity.

"Mostly harmless": the Campanian Ignimbrite supervolcano that could not kill Neanderthals

Or mostly not. Neither Neanderthals nor Homo sapiens in fact: in most affected archaeological sites there is continuity between under and above the tephra layer. The main exception being the Aurignacian site of Serino, just outside the supervolcano.

John Lowe et al., Volcanic ash layers illuminate the resilience of Neanderthals and early modern humans to natural hazards. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (for six months or depending on continent of reader) ··> EP link [DOI:

From Fig. 2
Curved line: area where the tephra layer is preserved
CF: eruption site (Campi Flegrei)
Archaeological and paleolclimatic sites: Fr, Franchthi; GP, Golema Pesht; HF, Haua Fteah; Kl, Klissoura; Ko, Kozarnika; LC-21, EC-MAST2 PALAEO-FLUX cruise 1995, “Long Core 21”; TP, Tenaghi Philippon; TT, Tabula Traiana; 1, Serino; 2, Castelcivita; 3, Cavallo; 4, Uluzzo; 5, Uluzzo C; 6, Bernardini; 7, Crvena Stijina; 8, Oase; 9, Kostenki 14.

The authors argue that the colonization of Europe by Homo sapiens was already clearly under way when the CI eruption happened c. 40 Ka. BP (C14). Many sites surely attributable to Homo sapiens (Aurignacoid industries, which are associated to our species in Palestine since c. 55 Ka. ago) existed in many parts of Europe already, as well as in Libya (Haua Fteah) where the related Dabban industries also pre-date the CI layer.

But regarding any possible direct impact of the supervolcano on human populations of either species, the impact was very limited, at least directly:

With respect to the impacts on humans of the CI eruption, there must have been different outcomes in areas proximal or distal to the volcanic source. Proximal sites such as Serino, for example, located only ∼50 km east of the Campi Flegrei would have felt the full impact, and it is, therefore, likely that populations here were devastated; the early Aurignacian at Serino is capped by a thick CI ash layer, with no evidence of subsequent site reoccupation. Most of our newly identified CI records, however, are from sites considerably more distal from Campania, where the effects are likely to have been less severe; here, we see no evidence of continental-scale, long-term impact on hominin species.
But for Neanderthals, we were much more of a threat than any natural catastrophe, it seems:

Our results indicate that Neanderthal extinction in Europe was not associated with the CI eruption. Furthermore, in view of the continuous records of human occupation over the MP to UP transition preserved at Klissoura, Kozarnika, Tabula Traiana, and Golema Pesht, we also question the posited scale of the impact of HE4 cooling on Neanderthal demise. AMHs also seem to have been widespread throughout much of Europe before the CI eruption; thus, Neanderthal and AMH population interactions must have occurred before 40 ka B.P. Given the spatially complex nature of the Neanderthal and AMH evidence listed here, there may have been considerable variability in the timing of such encounters across Eastern Europe and Italy. Our evidence indicates that, on a continental scale, modern humans were a greater competitive threat to indigenous populations than the largest known volcanic eruption in Europe, even if combined with the deleterious effects of climatic cooling. We propose that small population numbers and high mobility may have initially saved the Neanderthals but that they were ultimately outperformed in this capacity by AMHs.

Special thanks to Eurlologist.

Craters apparent in this satellite image of the Campi Flegrei, near Naples

July 24, 2012

Complex speciation process of polar and brown bears?

Actual modern hybrid
According to new research, polar and brown bears could have diverged as long ago as 4-5 million years but have been hybridizing intermittently since then, specially as ice sheets receded in interglacial periods as today's.

In fact we know that they do it nowadays.

While some clades of brown bear, notably the Admiralty Islands (but also French ones) are more closely related to polar bear by mitochondrial DNA,  by overall nuclear DNA they fall wholly within the brown bear clade. That's because, mtDNA-wise polar bears are a subset of brown bears, while by nuclear DNA they are more clearly distinct.

The authors propose that this implies mtDNA introgression from brown bear into polar bears, up to the point of total displacement of the native polar bear lineages, but of course it may also be that some of their calculations are totally wrong. After all molecular-clock-o-logy is not rocket science, not at all and a total lineage replacement by just occasional inter-breeding seems a most unlikely event with the laws of probability in hand.

My impression is in fact the opposite: that the nuclear differentiation should have happened after that of the mtDNA but that molecular-clock speculations obscure this fact. But whatever. I may also be wrong, of course but I just can't accept molecular-clock-o-logy as evidence of anything - doing that is pseudoscience.

Ref. Webb Miller et al. Polar and brown bear genomes reveal ancient admixture and demographic footprints of past climate change. PNAS 2012. Open access. [Early edition link, DOI:

Buffalo University press release, Science Daily.

Phylogenetic labyrinth... or molecular-clock fanaticism?

Update: PConroy mentions (see comments) a previous study (Current Biology 2011, Science Now article), which states that there is even closer mtDNA affinity between extinct Irish brown bears and modern polar bears than these have with the Alaskan ABC islander ones.

July 19, 2012

Neanderthals as leather-crafters

Fig. 1
A new study finds that some peculiarities of adult Neanderthal skeletons may be the product from repetitive scrapping:


Unique compared with recent and prehistoric Homo sapiens, Neandertal humeri are characterised by a pronounced right-dominant bilateral strength asymmetry and an anteroposteriorly strengthened diaphyseal shape. Remodeling in response to asymmetric forces imposed during regular underhanded spear thrusting is the most influential explanatory hypothesis. The core tenet of the “Spear Thrusting Hypothesis”, that underhand thrusting requires greater muscle activity on the right side of the body compared to the left, remains untested. It is unclear whether alternative subsistence behaviours, such as hide processing, might better explain this morphology. To test this, electromyography was used to measure muscle activity at the primary movers of the humerus (pectoralis major (PM), anterior (AD) and posterior deltoid (PD)) during three distinct spear-thrusting tasks and four separate scraping tasks. Contrary to predictions, maximum muscle activity (MAX) and total muscle activity (TOT) were significantly higher (all values, p<.05) at the left (non-dominant) AD, PD and PM compared to the right side of the body during spear thrusting tasks. Thus, the muscle activity required during underhanded spearing tasks does not lend itself to explaining the pronounced right dominant strength asymmetry found in Neandertal humeri. In contrast, during the performance of all three unimanual scraping tasks, right side MAX and TOT were significantly greater at the AD (all values, p<.01) and PM (all values, p<.02) compared to the left. The consistency of the results provides evidence that scraping activities, such as hide preparation, may be a key behaviour in determining the unusual pattern of Neandertal arm morphology. Overall, these results yield important insight into the Neandertal behavioural repertoire that aided survival throughout Pleistocene Eurasia.

The tasks that experimentally cause the same kind of asymmetry are hacking, pushing and pulling, while actions related to spear thrusting actually seem to reinforce the left side. The authors think that the repetitive nature of the task, which takes a very important work time investment in modern studied populations from Africa and the Arctic, may have been decisive in the development of the deformations.

Scrapers are incidentally the most common tools found in Neanderthal sites all across West Eurasia.

Of course it could well be that Neanderthals were mostly left handed for some odd founder effect of their species or even cultural bias. This possibility is also considered by the authors although it is not their primary hypothesis. 

Some Mousterian scrapers (source)

Iranian Y-DNA

There is a new study on Iranian Y-DNA:


Knowledge of high resolution Y-chromosome haplogroup diversification within Iran provides important geographic context regarding the spread and compartmentalization of male lineages in the Middle East and southwestern Asia. At present, the Iranian population is characterized by an extraordinary mix of different ethnic groups speaking a variety of Indo-Iranian, Semitic and Turkic languages. Despite these features, only few studies have investigated the multiethnic components of the Iranian gene pool. In this survey 938 Iranian male DNAs belonging to 15 ethnic groups from 14 Iranian provinces were analyzed for 84 Y-chromosome biallelic markers and 10 STRs. The results show an autochthonous but non-homogeneous ancient background mainly composed by J2a sub-clades with different external contributions. The phylogeography of the main haplogroups allowed identifying post-glacial and Neolithic expansions toward western Eurasia but also recent movements towards the Iranian region from western Eurasia (R1b-L23), Central Asia (Q-M25), Asia Minor (J2a-M92) and southern Mesopotamia (J1-Page08). In spite of the presence of important geographic barriers (Zagros and Alborz mountain ranges, and the Dasht-e Kavir and Dash-e Lut deserts) which may have limited gene flow, AMOVA analysis revealed that language, in addition to geography, has played an important role in shaping the nowadays Iranian gene pool. Overall, this study provides a portrait of the Y-chromosomal variation in Iran, useful for depicting a more comprehensive history of the peoples of this area as well as for reconstructing ancient migration routes. In addition, our results evidence the important role of the Iranian plateau as source and recipient of gene flow between culturally and genetically distinct populations.

Figure 1. Frequencies of the main Y-chromosome haplogroups in the whole Iranian population (inset pie), in the 14 Iranian provinces under study and in East Turkey [23], Iraq [20], Saudi Arabia [26] and Pakistan [24]).
(a) Azeris and Assyrians, (b) Armenians, Assyrians and Zoroastrians, (c) Persians and Zoroastrians, (d) Bandari and Afro-Iranians. Pie areas are proportional to the population sample size (small pies, N<50; intermediate pies, 50<N<100; large pies, N>100) and the areas of the sectors are proportional to the haplogroup frequencies in the relative population.

See also the table of lineage frequencies inside the Iranian borders (for the rest of the region check supplemental materials).

Some notes:
  • B is found only in Hormozgan province and in Arabia. This is interesting specially in relation to the presence of this African lineage among Hazaras of Afghanistan, probably the Northern and Easternmost extension of this lineage. 
  • E(xE1b) is also concentrated in Hormozgan and Arabia but, unlike B, it is only found in the Bandari community and, in Arabia, in coastal states and not Saudi Arabia. Notice that neither lineage is found among Afroiranians, suggesting that their presence in the area is pre-Modern.
  • E1b comes in several flavors among Iranians:
    • E1b1b1a1 (M78) - particularly common among Tehran Zoroastrians
    • E1b1b1b2a (M123) - most common among Kurds and nearby peoples
    • E1b1b1b2a1b (M2) - concentrated in the South
  • G among Iranians is mostly G2a, mostly G2a* and G2a3b1 (P303).
  • J1 is seldom found above 10%, while J2 is quite common, sometimes even dominant, what locates Iranians among what I call Highland West Asians, dominated by J2. The main exception is Khuzestan (ancient Elam and nowadays Arab-speaking).
  • Both R1a1 (M198) and R1b1a2 (M269) are common in Iran. R1a1 has only been found in its "asterisk" variant (i.e. not belonging to any subhaplogroup known so far). 

The authors suggest an original demic base of mostly J2a people, enriched since Neolithic (???) by Western and Northern gene flows mostly, with less important fluxes from Africa and South Asia. They also propose a post-LGM colonization of much of West Asia from a refuge in or near Kurdistan, specially J1 flows southwards.

I strongly suggest to take these ideas with the proverbial tablespoon of salt and other spices. It is very possible that the suggested flows are much older (for example the J1/J2 split could well be from the original colonization of West Eurasia c. 50 Ka ago in my opinion, while some of the other flows may be also much older than the authors imagine). 

While there are some diversity indicators suggesting that J1 could be original, ultimately, from Iraq maybe... the reality is that Palestinians remain an ill-researched population which may hide many surprises, specially considering their high autosomal diversity and uniqueness. Palestine has been continuously occupied by our species since at least that "Aurignacoid" colonization of some 55,000 years ago (Emirian culture).

Also, excepted the Indoeuropean invasion from the steppes in the Iron Age, that gives the country name and main language, there are no particular reasons to imagine any major gene flows from elsewhere in West Eurasia, excepted maybe some localized ones. Instead the possibility of flows from Europe at the end of the Upper Paleolithic (rock art of Turkey, alleged Epigravettian influences on Zarzian culture) remains open.

Update: IJ* at the Caspian shores!

Waggg makes a couple of interesting remarks in the comments section, one being the high basal diversity of haplogroup Q (not really new but worth underlining because this lineage so important among Native Americans probably coalesced in or near Iran, something that many do not seem to realize). 

[Edited!] But the big hit is the finding of IJ(xI,J) in 1/42 of Fars Persians and 1/74 Mazandarani, what is surely a clue for the origin of the macrohaplogroup IJ or at least one of its offshoots (it could still be J* or I*). It does seem to underline the notion of IJ and its local variant J being originated from that area of Iran or surroundings.

Important: it is clear in the Molecular Analysis section of the paper that the authors tested for both defining SNPs P209 (J) and M170 (I), so it is genuine IJ(xI,J), the first to be found on Earth as far as I know. 

Thanks for noticing to Etyopis (see comments).

July 14, 2012

Yet another Neolithic modeling study

A reader calls my attention to this paper or, more precisely, e-book:

Mathias Currat, Consequences of population expansions on European genetic diversity. De Gruyter, 2012. Open access.

Population movements over space and time played a crucial role in generating the genetic patterns that are observed in the present day. Numerous factors, such as climate changes or cultural innovations, have the potential to induce large-scale movements, such as population expansions (i.e. increases both in density and range) or contractions to refugee areas. It is thus very important to take the spatial dynamic of populations into account when trying to reconstruct their history from genetic data. Computer simulation constitutes a very powerful tool for the study of the combined impacts of biological and demographic factors on the genetic structure of populations. The rapid increase of computer power opens many new possibilities for research in that specific area. A series of recent studies have focused on the consequences of population expansions on their genetic diversity. These studies extensively described one potentially important genetic process which may occur during a range expansion: the “mutation surfing” phenomenon. In this paper, we describe in detail this process and its potential implications for the establishment of the current genetic diversity in Europe. We also discuss the imitations and perspectives of such computer simulation studies in the field, and possible future improvements to them.

I'm generally distrustful of computer simulations for these matters, specially because they oversimplify everything so much that they can be totally wrong, regardless of results. For example they consider demic expansion as continuous and not, as it normally is in fact, intermittent, in irregular bouts followed by stagnation and even occasionally recession. There can be many many other reasons to impugnate or disbelieve them, unless they'd first make a major effort to approximate the real known facts on the ground, what they do not.

The foundations of all these simulations are too simplistic to be convincing:
what happened to all the "green" and "yellow" dots to the right of the wave front?

So take it please with a good dose of salt and assorted spices.

The results, anyhow, depending on what do you understand that the clines to be considered are, can either support or oppose demic Neolithic replacement. The greatest interest may be in results that, because of the assumption of the wavefront founder effect hypothesis, generate counterintuitive clines as result. Hence, according to Currat's simulations, in the context of West Eurasia, a SW-NE cline would be the product of a Neolithic SE->NW colonization, while a SE-NW cline would be rather the result of a Paleolithic expansion from the Franco-Cantabrian region.

I really appreciate the questioning of the apparently obvious, the food for thought, implicit on those findings, however the models, for what I can see, totally fails to incorporate a growing amount of "native" alleles at the wavefront as it advances, making any attempted conclusion meaningless.

July 13, 2012

Homo heidelbergensis spoke fluently

That is the conclusion of the Atapuerca researchers based on the structure of the hyoid bone, a critical part of our sound managing anatomy.


The present study presents new data on the abilities of Homo heidelbergensis to produce and perceive the sounds emitted during modern human spoken language. The pattern of sound power transmission was studied through the outer and middle ears in five individuals from the Sima de los Huesos, four chimpanzees and four modern humans. The results were then used to calculate the occupied bandwidth of the outer and middle ears, an important variable related with communicative capacities. The results demonstrate that the Atapuerca SH hominins were similar to modern humans in this aspect, falling within the lower half of the range of variation, and clearly distinct from chimpanzees. Specifically, the Atapuerca SH hominins show a bandwidth that is slightly displaced and considerably extended to encompass the frequencies that contain relevant acoustic information in human speech, permitting the transmission of a larger amount of information with fewer errors. At the same time, the presence of a complete cervical segment of the spinal column associated with Cranium 5 from the Sima de los Huesos middle Pleistocene site (Sierra de Atapuerca, Spain) makes it possible to estimate the vocal tract proportions in Homo heidelbergensis for the first time. The results demonstrate that it is similar to the reconstructed vocal tract in the La Ferrassie 1 Neandertal individual, which has been suggested to have been capable of producing the full range of sounds emitted during modern human spoken language. These results in the Atapuerca (SH) hominins are consistent with other recent suggestions for an ancient origin for human speech capacity.

Reconstruction of Miguelón, a H. heidelbergensis from Atapuerca, who, according to Manuel Ansede[es], died cursing his luck and the pain caused by the dental infection that killed him

Source: Pileta de Prehistoria[es].

July 12, 2012

The Neolithic site of Leopard Cave (Namibia)

A new interesting open access paper on the Neolithic of Southern Africa has been published:


The origins of herding practices in southern Africa remain controversial. The first appearance of domesticated caprines in the subcontinent is thought to be c. 2000 years BP; however, the origin of this cultural development is still widely debated. Recent genetic analyses support the long-standing hypothesis of herder migration from the north, while other researchers have argued for a cultural diffusion hypothesis where the spread of herding practices took place without necessarily implicating simultaneous and large population movements. Here we document the Later Stone Age (LSA) site of Leopard Cave (Erongo, Namibia), which contains confirmed caprine remains, from which we infer that domesticates were present in the southern African region as early as the end of the first millennium BC. These remains predate the first evidence of domesticates previously recorded for the subcontinent. This discovery sheds new light on the emergence of herding practices in southern Africa, and also on the possible southward routes used by caprines along the western Atlantic coast.

The caprine (sheep) remains are the oldest ones of the whole region, being dated to c. 2270 BP, almost 200 years (est.) before the next oldest one with a good date (Spoegrivier, Western South Africa, dated to c. 2100 BP). Notice however the "uncertain" much older date for the Orowanjo site near the Angolan border (c. 3100 BP) in the map below:

Fig. 4 - Later Stone Age sites of southern Africa with early evidence of caprines

Caprines are a focus of this research but they are only a minority (2) of the animals identified in Leopard Cave, with bovines (cows) being the most important (16) among domesticates and in general if we exclude ostrich eggshells. Unspecified rodents and birds reach similar figures to those of bovine cattle but these belong to diverse species with all likelihood. 

Besides animal remains the cave has also yielded a dearth of stone artifacts and some pottery. 

It is unclear to which modern ethnic group, if any, can the site be associated with but the area has been traditionally inhabited by the Damara people, who speak either Khoekhoe or sometimes Herero languages but who, like their peculiar Northern Neighbors, the Himba people, are generally speculated to be a different ethnic, cultural and probably also genetic stock from both Khoisan and Bantu peoples. Sadly I do not know of any genetic study on either ethnic group, which may be of great interest for ethnographic and prehistoric reconstruction purposes.

Update (Jul 29): for a new study on Khoesan (and also Damara, Himba, etc.) autosomal genetics see HERE.

July 11, 2012

22nd European Championship of Prehistoric Archery

Aitzbitarte caves (source)
It will be this weekend at the Landarbaso fields, near Aitzbitatrte cave (Orereta, Gipuzkoa, Basque Country). 

According to the brief note at Diario Vasco[es], the reception, inscription and team formation will be this Saturday 14th at 11:00. The competition of dart shooting with atlatl  will be that same the afternoon (16:00-19:00), while the bowmanship contest will take place on Sunday at 19:30. In the afternoon of that day prizes will be awarded. 

So if you happen to be at the beach in Donostia or surfing at Donibane, or maybe tired of running before the bulls at Pamplona or bored of the modern art of Bilbao's Guggenheim museum... maybe you could have a different weekend watching or even taking part in this prehistoric archery reenactment. 

Megalithic conservation workshop

One of the dolmens to recover (source)
Not far away several foundations (Kutxa Ekogunea and Cultural Service Zehartzen) have organized a free workshop to help recover and put into value as monuments the dolmens (megalithic tombs) that dot the area of Landarbaso (Donostia-San Sebastian). In spite of the coincidence of name (which means "ancestor field") this is a different area in a different municipality, although just a few kilometers away. 

This workshop is meant for 22 adults, who, in exchange for their collaboration, will get theoretical and direct knowledge of the Megalithic phenomenon and the Copper Age in which it took place. 

It will take place between the 16th and the 31st of July and the end date for inscription is this very friday.

Source: Diario Vasco[es].

Ivano Nasidze is gone

For those with an interest in population genetics, Nasidze was one of the names we found once and again some years ago, as some of the details of the genetic structure of Humankind and, very specially the peoples of the Caucasus, was being unraveled. 

Ivano "Vano" Nasidze died suddenly while at work at the Genetics department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology of Leizpig. He was just 48. 

BMC's Investigative Genetics has published a small obituary (PDF) written by his colleague Manfred Kayser, briefly discussing some of his findings, which are no doubt landmarks in the process of self-rediscovery of Humankind in its own genetic structure.

For what they were... also wants to salute the life and works of this prime quality geneticist.

July 8, 2012

Late Middle Paleolithic industry of Yemen

Yet another South Arabian industry has been researched and described, this time in the mountain range of Western Yemen, which runs parallel to the Red Sea coast.


The recovery at Shi’bat Dihya 1 (SD1) of a dense Middle Paleolithic human occupation dated to 55 ka BP sheds new light on the role of the Arabian Peninsula at the time of the alleged expansion of modern humans out of Africa. SD1 is part of a complex of Middle Paleolithic sites cut by the Wadi Surdud and interstratified within an alluvial sedimentary basin in the foothills that connect the Yemeni highlands with the Tihama coastal plain. A number of environmental proxies indicate arid conditions throughout a sequence that extends between 63 and 42 ka BP. The lithic industry is geared toward the production of a variety of end products: blades, pointed blades, pointed flakes and Levallois-like flakes with long unmodified cutting edges, made from locally available rhyolite. The occasional exploitation of other local raw materials, that fulfill distinct complementary needs, highlights the multi-functional nature of the occupation. The slightly younger Shi’bat Dihya 2 (SD2) site is characterized by a less elaborate production of flakes, together with some elements (blades and pointed flakes) similar to those found at SD1, and may indicate a cultural continuity between the two sites. The technological behaviors of the SD1 toolmakers present similarities with those documented from a number of nearly contemporaneous assemblages from southern Arabia, the Levant, the Horn of Africa and North Africa. However, they do not directly conform to any of the techno-complexes typical of the late Middle Paleolithic or late Middle Stone Age from these regions. This period would have witnessed the development of local Middle Paleolithic traditions in the Arabian Peninsula, which suggests more complex settlement dynamics and possible population interactions than commonly inferred by the current models of modern human expansion out of Africa.

The dates are relatively late, considering we know now of sites in the area since c. 130,000 years ago (in Palestine, Dhofar and Sarjah) but the site is still an interesting addition to the collection of reconstructed stories of the peoples who lived in Arabia early on, whose genetic remnants are still present most probably according to Behar 2008

I find particularly interesting that the peoples of this culture made blade tools, which are previously only common in South Asia. But some "Levallois blades" are known to exist in Mousterian contexts for examples, being different in production from Aurignacoid ones - and this seems to be the case.

In fact the review article I could find at USA Today (h/t Pileta), rather suggests Mousterian affinities in fact:

Most intriguing, the stone tools found at the site fall into the tradition of older Stone Age tools, rather than ones associated with the early modern humans thought to have left Africa roughly 60,000 years ago. They might have belonged to descendants of earlier modern human migrants from Africa who established themselves in Arabia despite its desert conditions. Or maybe they belonged to a sister human species, our Neanderthal cousins, suggest the researchers:

"Our fieldwork at the Wadi Surdud in Yemen demonstrates that during the period of the supposed expansion of modern humans out of Africa (60,000 to 50,000 years ago), and their rapid dispersal toward south-eastern Asia along the western and southern Arabian coastlines, the interior of this region was, in fact, occupied by well-adapted human groups who developed their own local technological tradition, deeply rooted in the Middle Paleolithic. Future research will likely reveal whether the archaeological assemblages recovered from the Wadi Surdud can be associated with the descendents of anatomically modern human groups who occupied the Arabian Peninsula during (this era) or the southernmost expansion of the Neanderthals."

Everything is possible but we should not forget that the Homo sapiens of Palestine did use Mousterian technology, a fact that may be related to Neanderthal genetic introgression among us. 

See also category: Out of Africa in this blog. And specially, besides the links in-text, this entry on the various options for the OoA migration, which are necessarily much older than this group.

July 5, 2012

Oldest known East Asian sculpture

A pottery or terracotta figure (right) from the Hongshan culture has been unearthed in what is now Inner Mongolia. The figure measures 55 cm height and is speculated to represent a sage or prince from the period. 

The Hongshan culture is (rather advanced, 3rd phase) Neolithic and believed to be proto-Koreanic or proto-Altaic by language. The figure is estimated to have an age of c. 5300 years ago.

Sources: People's Daily, Pileta

Higgs boson discovered?

The elusive subatomic particle, dubbed "the God particle", or at least something that looks a lot like it, has been finally found, according to an announcement by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), whose particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), spans many kilometers underground the French-Swiss border near Geneva.

"We observe in our data clear signs of a new particle, at the level of 5 sigma, in the mass region around 126 GeV. The outstanding performance of the LHC and ATLAS and the huge efforts of many people have brought us to this exciting stage", said ATLAS experiment spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti, "but a little more time is needed to prepare these results for publication".

"The results are preliminary but the 5 sigma signal at around 125 GeV we’re seeing is dramatic. This is indeed a new particle. We know it must be a boson and it’s the heaviest boson ever found", said CMS experiment spokesperson Joe Incandela. "The implications are very significant and it is precisely for this reason that we must be extremely diligent in all of our studies and cross-checks".

While the implications of this discovery are yet to be refined there is almost no doubt that it will strongly affect our understanding of nature confirming the theoretical set of the so-called Standard Model of particle physics.

The unification theory or Theory of Everything (ToE), which would fuse particle physics and space-time (and gravity) physics described in Einstein's General Relativity is still out of our immediate reach, however consolidating the Standard Model should provide more solid basis for such efforts.

The Higgs Boson is involved in the Higgs mechanism: the why behind particle mass.