December 29, 2012

The expansion of Neolithic in Europe (synthetic maps)

This is relatively old material (2009) but the resuscitated Spanish-language blog Neolítico de la Península Ibérica has recently discussed and synthesized it. And I am sure that much of what is said in it is of great interest for readers of this blog, beginning with myself. Hence I'm including here some of the maps discussed there because they truly synthesize very well the big picture of European Neolithic as a discontinuous and highly irregular process.

Reference: Jean Pierre Bocquet-Appel, Detection of diffusion and contact zones of early farming in Europe from the space-time distribution of 14C dates. Journal of Archaeological Sciences, 2009. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.11.004]

Firstly a map of "vectors" of Neolithic influences/flows, showing some eight apparent zones of expansion:

The numbers may be misleading. The actual chronological order is (by oldest referenced C14 date, which must be calibrated BCE):
  1. Initial phase (Balcans essentially, roots in Thessaly):
    1. (1) Thessaly c. 7100 BCE → Sesklo culture
    2. (2) Hungary c. 6800 BCE → transition between Balcanic and Danubian Neolithic
  2. Main explosion (with Balcanic roots for both Danubian and Impressed-Cardial cultures but unclear for Megalithism):
    1. (8) West Iberia c. 5900 BCE → Megalithism (the ref. site, Cha de Carvalhal, is a mamoa or tumulus, cairn, usually with a dolmen inside)
    2. (6) Liguria c. 5800 BCE → Cardial Pottery Neolithic
    3. (5) SE France c. 5700 BCE → Cardial Pottery Neolithic
    4. (3, 4) Bavaria and Luxembourg c. 5400 BCE → Danubian Neolithic
    5. (7) SE Iberia c. 5300 BCE → Cardial Pottery Neolithic
  3. Late Atlantic offshoots (Atlantic, North Sea):
    1. (9) Ireland c. 4600  BCE → Megalithism
    2. (10) Scotland c. 4100 BCE → Megalithism
The exact chronology for Southern European Neolithic, very especially in Iberia, where some dates insist on being pre-Cardial, is yet to be properly determined but whatever the case it is older or contemporary from the more popular Danubian Neolithic of Central Europe.

Many details are obviously not addressed here, so always take this kind of general approaches with some caution: the devil is often in the details, and many details are missing here.

Still I do feel that the overall description of the process is quite realistic, notably when we also consider this other map that provides a much more clear cultural contextualization:

1.- expansion centers
2.- contact zones
3.- ecological/cultural barriers
4.- maritime expansion route from West Asia
5.- Painted Pottery Neolithic (Balcans)
6.- Eastern Lineal Pottery (Tisza)
7.- Western Lineal Pottery (Danubian Neolithic, LBK)
8.- Impressed Pottery (Adriatic)
9.- Cardial Pottery (Western Mediterranean)
10.- Adriatic contact zone
11.- Western contact zone

The maps are very educative if nothing else. However particular caution must be warned, not just about the many highly debatable details but very notably on the nature of Eastern European Neolithic, often not well described in these analysis, whose most representative culture is Dniepr-Don (located in the basins of these two rivers in Ukraine and Russia mostly) and whose genesis seems very locally rooted (what is emphasized by the persistence of hunter-gathering even after farming and herding and pottery have been consolidated). This culture was also very influential in its own way (alone or later with/under the maybe related Samara-Khvalynsk culture: proto-Indoeuropeans, whose ultimate origins remain in wait of archaeological work). 

December 21, 2012

Genetic isolates from Friuli

Just a quick mention of this paper on selected rare populations of Friuli because I totally fail to see the angle of interest in this paper, yet, together with other data may be of interest for European population genetics... potentially.

Tõnu Esko et al., Genetic characterization of northeastern Italian population isolates in the context of broader European genetic diversity. European Journal of Human Genertics, 2012. Open accessLINK [doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2012.229]


Population genetic studies on European populations have highlighted Italy as one of genetically most diverse regions. This is possibly due to the country’s complex demographic history and large variability in terrain throughout the territory. This is the reason why Italy is enriched for population isolates, Sardinia being the best-known example. As the population isolates have a great potential in disease-causing genetic variants identification, we aimed to genetically characterize a region from northeastern Italy, which is known for isolated communities. Total of 1310 samples, collected from six geographically isolated villages, were genotyped at >145 000 single-nucleotide polymorphism positions. Newly genotyped data were analyzed jointly with the available genome-wide data sets of individuals of European descent, including several population isolates. Despite the linguistic differences and geographical isolation the village populations still show the greatest genetic similarity to other Italian samples. The genetic isolation and small effective population size of the village populations is manifested by higher levels of genomic homozygosity and elevated linkage disequilibrium. These estimates become even more striking when the detected substructure is taken into account. The observed level of genetic isolation in Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is more extreme according to several measures of isolation compared with Sardinians, French Basques and northern Finns, thus proving the status of an isolate.

Fig. 2
Model-based mapping convergence with SPA. Label position indicates the (a) specific PC1 and PC2 coordinate values for each individual and (b) the mean PC1 and PC2 coordinate values for each population. For (a, b), the colors have a following meaning: (1) dark blue color: a homogeneous fraction of the FVG population; a blue color: more general fraction of the FVG population; a red color: other Italian samples; a violet color: Basques; an orange color: Slovenians; and green color: all other populations. For (a, b), the following population abbreviation labels are used: AT, Austrians; BA, French Basques; BG, Bulgarians; BO, Borbera; CA, Carlantino; CL, Clauzetto; CH, Swiss; CZ, Czechs; GR, Germans; ER, Erto; ES, Spaniards; FR, French; HU, Hungarians; IL, Illegio; IT, Italians; JW_A, Ashkenazy Jews; JW_S, Sephardic Jews; OR, Orcadians; RE, Resia; RO, Romanians; SA, Sardinians; SA_, Sauris; SMC, San Martino del Carso; SI, Slovenians; TU, Tuscans. The extra abbreviations: N, northern; S, southern; I, a more homogeneous sub-population; G, a more general sub-population.

Mitochondrial DNA haplogroup Q in Oceania

Even if a very specialized detail, this lineage may help to shed light on the colonization of Oceania:

Chris A. Corser et al., The Q2 Mitochondrial Haplogroup in Oceania. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [ doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0052022]


Many details surrounding the origins of the peoples of Oceania remain to be resolved, and as a step towards this we report seven new complete mitochondrial genomes from the Q2a haplogroup, from Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Kiribati. This brings the total to eleven Q2 genomes now available. The Q haplogroup (that includes Q2) is an old and diverse lineage in Near Oceania, and is reasonably common; within our sample set of 430, 97 are of the Q haplogroup. However, only 8 are Q2, and we report 7 here. The tree with all complete Q genomes is proven to be minimal. The dating estimate for the origin of Q2 (around 35 Kya) reinforces the understanding that humans have been in Near Oceania for tens of thousands of years; nevertheless the Polynesian maternal haplogroups remain distinctive. A major focus now, with regard to Polynesian ancestry, is to address the differences and timing of the ‘Melanesian’ contribution to the maternal and paternal lineages as people moved further and further into Remote Oceania. Input from other fields such as anthropology, history and linguistics is required for a better understanding and interpretation of the genetic data.

Figure 2. Overview of the Q haplogroup.
The dataset has 36 mitochondrial genomes including all eight Q3 sequences, 17 Q1, three Q2 genomes from Friedlaender et al. [28], one from Hudjashov et al. [36], together with the seven additional Q2a genomes reported here. The network has been proved the shortest possible (the minimum number of mutations) by using the techniques in Pierson et al. [40]. Differences in branching between the four equally parsimonious trees occur in the Q3 subgroup.

See also in this blog:

Hominid speciation: sudden or gradual?

It depends apparently: bonobos may have diverged quite suddenly while in other cases, including the Pan-Homo split, the process of speciation appears to have been more gradual.

Thomas Mailund et al., A New Isolation with Migration Model along Complete Genomes Infers Very Different Divergence Processes among Closely Related Great Ape Species. PLoS ONE 2012. Open access LINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pgen.1003125]


We present a hidden Markov model (HMM) for inferring gradual isolation between two populations during speciation, modelled as a time interval with restricted gene flow. The HMM describes the history of adjacent nucleotides in two genomic sequences, such that the nucleotides can be separated by recombination, can migrate between populations, or can coalesce at variable time points, all dependent on the parameters of the model, which are the effective population sizes, splitting times, recombination rate, and migration rate. We show by extensive simulations that the HMM can accurately infer all parameters except the recombination rate, which is biased downwards. Inference is robust to variation in the mutation rate and the recombination rate over the sequence and also robust to unknown phase of genomes unless they are very closely related. We provide a test for whether divergence is gradual or instantaneous, and we apply the model to three key divergence processes in great apes: (a) the bonobo and common chimpanzee, (b) the eastern and western gorilla, and (c) the Sumatran and Bornean orang-utan. We find that the bonobo and chimpanzee appear to have undergone a clear split, whereas the divergence processes of the gorilla and orang-utan species occurred over several hundred thousands years with gene flow stopping quite recently. We also apply the model to the Homo/Pan speciation event and find that the most likely scenario involves an extended period of gene flow during speciation.

Iberian Neolithic blog (Spanish language) is back online

Several readers have asked me in this last year about links to the most interesting blog Neolítico de la Península Ibérica (essentially in Spanish language), occasionally mentioned here, which has been down (unaccessible because the author wanted it that way) for many months. 

I am very glad to announce that it is now back with nothing less than three new entries in a row (which I had not time to read yet):

December 20, 2012

Did the human hand evolve for boxing (too)?

That is the intriguing conclusion of a new study:

Michael H. Morgan and David R. Carrier, Protective buttressing of the human fist and the evolution of hominin hands. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 2012. Freely accessibleLINK [doi: 10.1242/​jeb.075713 ]


The derived proportions of the human hand may provide supportive buttressing that protects the hand from injury when striking with a fist. Flexion of digits 2–5 results in buttressing of the pads of the distal phalanges against the central palm and the palmar pads of the proximal phalanges. Additionally, adduction of the thenar eminence to abut the dorsal surface of the distal phalanges of digits 2 and 3 locks these digits into a solid configuration that may allow a transfer of energy through the thenar eminence to the wrist. To test the hypothesis of a performance advantage, we measured: (1) the forces and rate of change of acceleration (jerk) from maximum effort strikes of subjects striking with a fist and an open hand; (2) the static stiffness of the second metacarpo-phalangeal (MCP) joint in buttressed and unbuttressed fist postures; and (3) static force transfer from digits 2 and 3 to digit 1 also in buttressed and unbuttressed fist postures. We found that peak forces, force impulses and peak jerk did not differ between the closed fist and open palm strikes. However, the structure of the human fist provides buttressing that increases the stiffness of the second MCP joint by fourfold and, as a result of force transfer through the thenar eminence, more than doubles the ability of the proximal phalanges to transmit ‘punching’ force. Thus, the proportions of the human hand provide a performance advantage when striking with a fist. We propose that the derived proportions of hominin hands reflect, in part, sexual selection to improve fighting performance.  

I wouldn't dare to comment much but for what I have read in the paper, it looks plausible, notably because it is indeed significantly efficient versus the open hand (as much as 3x) and because chimpanzees can't do it... but australopithecines could. 

However I can also imagine this development as a side-effect of other adaptive uses of the hand, such as grabbing a spear, which is no doubt a much more daunting weapon than a naked fist... in most cases at least.

Fig. 2

Neolithic wooden wells from Germany

Several wooden wells from Germany have been precisely dated by archaeologists, yielding not only very revealing information from the first farmers of that area (and by extension of all Europe) and their construction techniques but also most valuable paleoclimatic information from the reconstructed and precisely dated tree rings.

Figure 1. Wooden well constructions and Neolithization.
LBK wells from (A) Eythra 1, (B) Eythra 2, (C) Brodau 1, and (D) Altscherbitz. (E) Central European loess distribution [20] with the superimposed phases of expansion of the LBK (lines), based on 14C dates [22], and the maximum extension of the LBK (light blue) along with the 12 known early Neolithic wells featuring waterlogged wood preservation.

Willy Tegel et al. Early Neolithic Water Wells Reveal the World's Oldest Wood Architecture. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051374]


The European Neolithization ~6000−4000 BC represents a pivotal change in human history when farming spread and the mobile style of life of the hunter-foragers was superseded by the agrarian culture. Permanent settlement structures and agricultural production systems required fundamental innovations in technology, subsistence, and resource utilization. Motivation, course, and timing of this transformation, however, remain debatable. Here we present annually resolved and absolutely dated dendroarchaeological information from four wooden water wells of the early Neolithic period that were excavated in Eastern Germany. A total of 151 oak timbers preserved in a waterlogged environment were dated between 5469 and 5098 BC and reveal unexpectedly refined carpentry skills. The recently discovered water wells enable for the first time a detailed insight into the earliest wood architecture and display the technological capabilities of humans ~7000 years ago. The timbered well constructions made of old oak trees feature an unopened tree-ring archive from which annually resolved and absolutely dated environmental data can be culled. Our results question the principle of continuous evolutionary development in prehistoric technology, and contradict the common belief that metal was necessary for complex timber constructions. Early Neolithic craftsmanship now suggests that the first farmers were also the first carpenters.

I would not dare to claim as much as they say in the last sentence because we do know of Epipaleolithic carpentry in form of boats and rows as well, and let's not forget what we know of the Neanderthal carpentry including wooden walls and utensils. But it is later revealed in the conclusions that their intention is more to compare with the Metal Ages than with the Paleolithic:

This study demonstrates that the first farmers were also the first carpenters, contradicting the common belief that the invention of metal woodworking tools more than a thousand years later was imperative for complex timber constructions. Settlers of the early Neolithic time were able to build sophisticated corner joints and log constructions, which fulfilled all of the static requirements of massive water well linings. Their technical skills further imply the existence of complex constructions for LBK longhouse architecture [35].

But the wells and their techniques are anyhow interesting, very especially because we do not get to see such well preserved ancient pieces of wood but seldom. Both cogged and mortise-and-tenon unions were used in the construction of the wells. 

Figure 5. Basal frame construction of well A.
(A) Wedged tusk tenon joint. (B) 3D laser rendering of the basal frame.

Well A (Eythra, Saxony) not only displays these innovative mortise-and-tenon (wedged variant) joints but the comparison of the age of its timbers with others used in the surrounding area, indicate a settlement of at least one century, suggesting that the villages of the Danubian Neolithic were anything but provisional.

Chinese elephant species went extinct only 3000 years ago

And not 10,000 as it was believed until now.

Researchers have found that the elephant that existed in North China until c. 3000 years ago was not the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) but another species that was believed extinct much earlier Paleoloxodon sp. or straight tusked elephant. The species or a closely related one went extinct in Europe some 30,000 years ago but survived in East Asia until... now we know that until the Iron Age in fact.

According to the BBC:

To investigate whether these mammals continued to live beyond the Pleistocene epoch and into the Holocene (the current geological epoch), the team re-examined fossilised elephant teeth discovered in Holocene layers of rock in North China during the 1900s.

And found them to be unmistakably Paleoloxodon, not Elephas.

Interestingly, the evidence was also in bronze art from the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties, which depicted elephants with two "fingers" in their trunks, like the African elephants but never the Asian ones.

Ref. Ji Li et al., The latest straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon)? “Wild elephants” lived 3000 years ago in North China. Quaternary International 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.10.039].

December 19, 2012

Alert: Brazilian mining project to destroy dozens of archaeological sites in the Amazon

At least 24 caves, which hold major archaeological relevance for the understanding of the early inhabitation of the Amazon basin, will be destroyed by a gigantic iron mine project in the region of Carajás (Pará, Brazil). 

While the area is a national forest and the Brazilian law demands in principle that archaeological sites be preserved, the government has given Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, what amounts to a blank license for the destruction of whatever stands in their way.

Not just that, but Vale holds control over what ongoing research can disclose of the importance of the caves:

Renato Kipnis, a respected archaeologist in São Paulo whom Vale hired to survey the caves of Carajás, said that Vale had prohibited him from discussing their archaeological significance, because of a confidentiality agreement Vale had required him to sign. Later, a Vale spokeswoman allowed Mr. Kipnis to be interviewed by e-mail, but only if the company was allowed to vet his replies. 

In written replies screened by Vale, he marveled at the importance of the caves. 

Source: New York Times

NASA image of the already existing Carajás mine

December 18, 2012

Videos of the Iruña-Veleia Congress (I)

As you may recall, the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia took place in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Basque Country) earlier this month. The complete written reports can be found at Euskararen Jatorria.

These videos have been published at Iputztar (YouTube user). Some have already been posted in this blog (so I will only include a link) and we can expect that more will be published in the near future (it seems to me that the list is very much incomplete as of now). Most are in Spanish language, with some Basque also, but at least one is in English.

Full playlist of the Congress' videos in sequence (for people with plenty of time).

00 - Sarrera (Introduction) → YouTube link.

01 - Antonio Rodríguez Colmenero (archaeologist, epigraphist) → YouTube link[es], in this blog.

02 - Edward C. Harris (archaeologist) → YouTube link[en], in this blog.

03 - Eliseo Gil (archaeologist, former director of Iruña-Veleia digs, accused of falsification by the most surreal linguists' gang ever, accusations never proven). In Spanish:

04 - Xabier Rentería synthesizes the reports of some of those who claim that the graffiti are false (Julio Núñez, archaeologist, and Joaquín Gorrochategui, linguist), who rejected to go to the congress. In Basque:


05 - Idoia Filloy (archaeologist, member of the Iruña-Veleia team, also accused). In Spanish:

06 - Francisco Javier Santos Arévalo (archaeometrist, physicist) on how to date the shards reliably. In Spanish:

07 -Joaquín Baxarias Tibau (archaeologist) on the very revealing bone artifacts of Iruña-Veleia. In Spanish:

The interventions of linguists Luis Silgo Gauche and Antonio Arnaiz Villena are still not available in video. 

Special thanks to Ostraka Euskalduna[eu] for keeping me updated on the matter.

See label Iruña-Veleia for background in (mostly) English.

December 16, 2012

Evidence of marine exploitation 250,000 years ago in North Africa

Dr. Cantillo in a cave access
According to news reports, Juan Jesús Cantillo the University of Cádiz has argued in his (successful) doctoral thesis that the exploitation of marine resources in Benzú Cave (Ceuta, North Africa) has some 250,000 years of antiquity instead of the mere 100,000 that has been proposed for such kind of economy by other scholars always in search of absolutist dividing lines between what is "modern human" and what is something else. 

99% of the coastal resources exploited by the ancient inhabitants of Benzú are limpets, albeit of a variant quite larger than modern ones. While no bones have been found that could inform us of the human species involved in this economy of coastal exploitation, some artifacts appear to be similar to those used by Neanderthals across the Gibraltar Strait. If confirmed, this would also imply intercontinental navigation, even if across a narrow strait of maybe some 5 km (in the worst of the Ice Ages, today it has 14.3 km).

Source[es]: El Pueblo de Ceuta (h/t Pileta de Prehistoria). I could not find the thesis online yet but it says it was successfully defended earlier this month.

Update: reference of the thesis, incl. abstract (in Spanish), full text does not seem available online.

December 15, 2012

Rodríguez Colmenero on the Iruña-Veleia graffiti (video in Spanish)

The videos of the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia are being gradually released. I recently shared here the conference by Edward C. Harris, and now is time for Antonio Rodríguez Colmenero (renowned Galician archaeologist, historian and epigraphist). Follows video: 45 mins in Spanish language (good quality):

He discusses in some depth, often by contrasting with other Roman era sites, the alphabet, the Christian inscriptions, the errors being product of children education (most of the findings appear to come from a school), the already ongoing Latin→Romance evolution and often also only attributable to mischievous or ignorant misreadings by modern people with limited knowledge but a big mouth (i.e. not errors but in interpretation).

Source: En el Ángulo Oscuro[es].

December 14, 2012

The Paleolithic of the Three Gorges region of China

The controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam served at least to make some extensive and intensive archaeological research in the area, evidencing human presence in much of the last million years. 

Pei Shuwen et al., Middle to Late Pleistocene hominin occupation in the Three Gorges region, South China. Quaternary International (2012). Pre-publication free accessLINK (PDF) [doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2012.04.016]


The contributions of the Chinese Paleolithic record to broader ranging paleoanthropological debates have long been difficult to decipher. The primary problem that hinders many contributions that include or focus on the Chinese record is that relatively few regions outside of the main flagship sites/basins (e.g., Zhoukoudian, Nihewan Basin, Bose Basin) have been intensively researched. Fortunately, systematic archaeological survey and excavations in the Three Gorges region, South China over the past two decades has led to the discovery of a number of important hominin fossils and Paleolithic stone artifact assemblages that have contributed to rethinking of ideas about hominin adaptations in Pleistocene China. This paper provides a detailed review of the results of recent paleoanthropological, particularly Paleolithic archaeological, research from this region.

The Three Gorges region is located in the transitional zone between the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River (Changjiang River). Vertebrate paleontological studies indicate that the faunas from this region belong primarily to the AiluropodaeStegodon faunal complex, a group of taxa representative of a subtropical forest environment. Systematic field surveys identified sixteen Paleolithic sites in caves and along the fluvial terraces of the Yangtze River. Based on geomorphology, biostratigraphy, and geochronology studies, these sites were formed during the Middle to Late Pleistocene. Follow up excavations at these sites led to the discovery of a large number of Paleolithic stone artifacts, Pleistocene mammal fossils, as well as some hominin fossils. Analysis of these materials has provided the opportunity to reconstruct hominin technological and mobility patterning in a restricted spatial point. The Paleolithic technology from the Three Gorges region is essentially an Oldowan-like industry (i.e., Mode 1 core and flake technologies) comprised of casual cores, whole flakes, fragments, and chunks as well as a low percentage of retouched pieces. The utilized stone raw material is primarily high sphericity cobbles and limestone, which were locally available along the ancient river bed and surrounding terraces. Most of the artifacts are fairly large in size. All flaking is by direct hard hammer in a single direction without core preparation. Unifacial choppers are the predominant core category, with fewer bifacial choppers, sporadic discoids, polyhedrons, and bifaces. The flake types demonstrate that the first stage of core reduction is represented by a low percentage of Type III and VI flakes. Some flakes are retouched unifacially by direct hard hammer percussion on the dorsal surface of the blanks. Archaic Homo sapiens and modern H. sapiens identified from some of the cave deposits are likely the hominins responsible for the production of the stone artifacts. Implications for Oldowan-like technological patterning in South China are discussed.

There is rather high detail in this paper in spite of the stone tools of East Asia tending almost invariably to simple flake forms hard to classify, arguably caused by the lack of good quality materials. But I guess that the most relevant of all is this chronology:

Of great interest are no doubt the human (or hominin) fossils found in these and previous digs. If my recollection is correct these are:
  • Xinlong cave (Wushan Co., c. 118-154 Ka): Four hominin permanent teeth were recovered during the 2001 excavation field season (Fig. 2). These hominin fossils have been tentatively assigned to archaic H. sapiens, though more detailed morphometric analysis is warranted.
  • Leiping cave (Wushan Co., middle or late Pleistocene): Hominin fossils including one occipital, some fragments of skull, and a frontal bone of one juvenile, and one upper incisor were collected from the sediments and tentatively assigned to archaic H. sapiens...
  • Migong cave (Wushan Co., c. 13,100 BP): The hominin fossils are two fragments of parietal bones which belong to one individual (Fig. 2) and can be assigned to modern H. sapiens.
  • An archaic jaw bone was also found in the 1950s without context.

It is not clear if by archaic Homo sapiens the authors mean Homo sapiens with debatable archaic features or, using obsolete terminology, other species of Homo such as Homo erectus. I'm guessing that the latter but no idea.

Wanted: volunteer archaeologists to dig Europe's oldest civilization

Tell Yunatsite in Southern Bulgaria was an important settlement of the Chalcolithic, in the context of an advanced culture that was older than Egypt or Troy. The place was settled in the seventh millennium (Neolithic) and destroyed by invaders at the end of the fifth millennium (Chalcolithic, Indoeuropean invasions), briefly resettled only to be evicted once again and left empty for a whole millennium. Later it was reoccupied in the late Bronze Age (Thracians) and continuously inhabited until the Middle Ages (when it may have been evacuated in the context of Slavic invasions). 

In brief: a whole slice of European late prehistory (and a bit of history also). In the words of the researchers:

In the seventh millenium BC the Balkan Peninsula was a gate through which farming, animal husbandry and generally Neolithisation spread to Europe from Anatolia and the Near East. App. 1000 years later in the very beginning of the fifth millennium BC prehistoric population in Central and Eastern Balkans turned known metal-processing technologies into an industry for the first time in human history (The World oldest copper mines are found near Rudna glava, Serbia and Mechi kladenets/Ai bunar near Stara Zagora, Bulgaria). Archaeological evidence shows that in the fifth millennium BC these prehistoric cultures enjoyed a constant raise of population and wealth meanwhile experiencing social stratification due the intensive trade with metal products, salt and other goods with the rest of prehistoric Europe and Asia. These Balkan Copper age cultures had all characteristics of the first civilizations including: the very first urban settlements in Europe (Tell Yunatsite, Durankulak and Provadia in Bulgaria), dense network of settlements, “industrial” proportions of production of goods, esp. metal products and salt, developed trade, distinguished social and professional stratification, pictograms and characters interpreted by some scholars as the World’oldest script (Gradeshnitsa tablet for instance dates back to the sixth or early fifth millennium BC) as well as precious artifacts made of gold, pottery, bone and stone (the World oldest gold treasure found in the Varna Copper age necropolis). This very first civilization in Europe was Pre-Indo-European and emerged for not more a millennium covering large parts of the Balkans, NW Anatolia and Eastern Europe. It collapsed around the end of the fifth millennium under the pressure of both drastic climatic changes and invasion of Early Indo-Europeans. The period of study of this very first civilization in Europe has been quite short - about 40 years have passed, since the excavation of the Varna Copper age necropolis brought to light the first certain evidences about its existence. Nowadays scholars from all over the World are still discovering new facts and adding new data about the “lost” first civilization in Europe.

They are looking for volunteers with an interest in archaeology and decent health for the campaign of summer 2013. Participation provides credits for university students.

More information on the relevant Prehistory and the volunteer program at Balcan Heritage.

Is it music what makes us humans?

Alright, the title is a blunt cliché admittedly. But that is what a new study on rhesus monkeys has found: that our intelligent cousins from India cannot discern the beat, the regularity that makes up a rhythm. Human babies can instead and so is the case of some birds.

Henkjang Honing et al., Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Detect Rhythmic Groups in Music, but Not the Beat. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051369]


It was recently shown that rhythmic entrainment, long considered a human-specific mechanism, can be demonstrated in a selected group of bird species, and, somewhat surprisingly, not in more closely related species such as nonhuman primates. This observation supports the vocal learning hypothesis that suggests rhythmic entrainment to be a by-product of the vocal learning mechanisms that are shared by several bird and mammal species, including humans, but that are only weakly developed, or missing entirely, in nonhuman primates. To test this hypothesis we measured auditory event-related potentials (ERPs) in two rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), probing a well-documented component in humans, the mismatch negativity (MMN) to study rhythmic expectation. We demonstrate for the first time in rhesus monkeys that, in response to infrequent deviants in pitch that were presented in a continuous sound stream using an oddball paradigm, a comparable ERP component can be detected with negative deflections in early latencies (Experiment 1). Subsequently we tested whether rhesus monkeys can detect gaps (omissions at random positions in the sound stream; Experiment 2) and, using more complex stimuli, also the beat (omissions at the first position of a musical unit, i.e. the ‘downbeat’; Experiment 3). In contrast to what has been shown in human adults and newborns (using identical stimuli and experimental paradigm), the results suggest that rhesus monkeys are not able to detect the beat in music. These findings are in support of the hypothesis that beat induction (the cognitive mechanism that supports the perception of a regular pulse from a varying rhythm) is species-specific and absent in nonhuman primates. In addition, the findings support the auditory timing dissociation hypothesis, with rhesus monkeys being sensitive to rhythmic grouping (detecting the start of a rhythmic group), but not to the induced beat (detecting a regularity from a varying rhythm).

Sadly for the enthusiasts of "complex modern behavior", who'd love to draw an absolutist line between before and after of being humans, music leaves no or almost no remains, so their line, even if it might exist in blurry or whatever other state, cannot be identified in the archaeological record.

December 13, 2012

Edward Harris conference (video)

Edward C. Harris, Director of the Bermuda Maritime Museum is best known for his inception, back in the 1970s, of the Harris matrix, today the standard method for archaeological digs.

Along with a host of other reputed scholars he participated in the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia, which took place on November 24 in Vitoria-Gasteiz (Basque Country).

Harris' conference, which is essentially an introduction to modern stratigraphy, has been now been made available in video (good quality, 40 mins., English):

The specific mentions to Iruña-Veleia are at the end of the video.

See also:

Was the first ever cheese from Poland?

Modern oscypki cheese from Poland
(CC by Pawel Swiegoda)
While today it is maybe France the most famed cheese-making and cheese-eating region on Earth*, we knew very little about cheese-making origins... until now.

Melanie Salque et al., Earliest evidence for cheese making in the sixth millennium bc in northern Europe. Nature 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1038/nature11698]


The introduction of dairying was a critical step in early agriculture, with milk products being rapidly adopted as a major component of the diets of prehistoric farmers and pottery-using late hunter-gatherers1, 2, 3, 4, 5. The processing of milk, particularly the production of cheese, would have been a critical development because it not only allowed the preservation of milk products in a non-perishable and transportable form, but also it made milk a more digestible commodity for early prehistoric farmers6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The finding of abundant milk residues in pottery vessels from seventh millennium sites from north-western Anatolia provided the earliest evidence of milk processing, although the exact practice could not be explicitly defined1. Notably, the discovery of potsherds pierced with small holes appear at early Neolithic sites in temperate Europe in the sixth millennium bc and have been interpreted typologically as ‘cheese-strainers’10, although a direct association with milk processing has not yet been demonstrated. Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles, based on the δ13C and Δ13C values of the major fatty acids in milk1, 2, 3, 4. Here we apply the same approach to investigate the function of sieves/strainer vessels, providing direct chemical evidence for their use in milk processing. The presence of abundant milk fat in these specialized vessels, comparable in form to modern cheese strainers11, provides compelling evidence for the vessels having being used to separate fat-rich milk curds from the lactose-containing whey. This new evidence emphasizes the importance of pottery vessels in processing dairy products, particularly in the manufacture of reduced-lactose milk products among lactose-intolerant prehistoric farming communities6, 7.

See also the related article by Niddhi Subamaran at Nature News and the one by Hanna Briggs at BBC News.

The dating for the cheese-making artifacts (holed pots used to press curdled milk, discarding the whey, which is a preliminary step in cheese making) is of similar age as the arrival of Neolithic itself and the first evidences of dairying in Europe and Africa. So I guess that we can conclude that farming arrived to Europe, at least to Central and Northern Europe, together with cattle herding, dairying and cheese-making.

While the potsherds are known to exist elsewhere in Central Europe, the ones analyzed for this paper are specifically from Cuyavia, Poland, which used to be the most Northeastern offshoot of the Danubian Neolithic.

Cuajada or mamia
Just one weak caveat. While Richard Evershed (in the BBC article) asks rhetorically what other milk product could it be? This question is not as trivial as it may look on first sight because there is indeed another such milk product: the cuajada (Spanish name) or mamia (Basque name) which is nothing else but the preliminary product of cheese making (curdled milk) and a much coveted delicatessen when properly made.

But, well, I guess it can be considered a form of cheese... more or less. Also real fully-processed cheese achieves a further purpose: to preserve milk (or rather key parts of it) for delayed consumption and easier transport.


* Actually Greeks eat quite more cheese per capita than the French, but they are the only ones. 

"Megadrought" may have affected NW Australia some 5500 years ago

Depictions of the Wondjina rain spirits
(CC by Whinging Pom)
Researchers have detected an apparent "megadrought" affecting at least the region of Kimberley (NW Australia), which hosts some of the most important collections of Aboriginal rock art and may have been one of the first inhabited regions of the island-continent.

The drought may explain a change in artistic style between the Gwion (or Bradshaw) style and the Wondjina one, more modern. Memory of the drought persists in the legends from the Dream Time of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

Hamish McGowan et al., Evidence of ENSO* mega-drought triggered collapse of prehistory Aboriginal society in northwest Australia. GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 39, 2012. Pay per viewLINK [doi:10.1029/2012GL053916]


The Kimberley region of northwest Australia contains one of the World's largest collections of rock art characterised by two distinct art forms; the fine featured anthropomorphic figures of the Gwion Gwion or Bradshaw paintings, and broad stroke Wandjina figures. Luminescence dating of mud wasp nests overlying Gwion Gwion paintings has confirmed an age of at least 17,000 yrs B.P. with the most recent dates for these paintings from around the mid-Holocene (5000 to 7000 yrs B.P.). Radiocarbon dating indicates that the Wandjina rock art then emerged around 3800 to 4000 yrs B.P. following a hiatus of at least 1200 yrs. Here we show that a mid-Holocene ENSO forced collapse of the Australian summer monsoon and ensuing mega-drought spanning approximately 1500 yrs was the likely catalyst of this change in rock art. The severity of the drought we believe was enhanced through positive feedbacks triggered by change in land surface condition and increased aerosol loading of the atmosphere leading to a weakening or failure of monsoon rains. This confirms that pre-historic aboriginal cultures experienced catastrophic upheaval due to rapid natural climate variability and that current abundant seasonal water supplies may fail again if significant change in ENSO occurs. 

See also article at Past Horizons (h/t Pileta). 


MixMapper: wrong again!

Some of you already know that I'm reluctant to take the results produced by TreeMix seriously because they mostly seem to make very little sense and rather induce to the weirdest of confusions than to provide any useful, reliable info on ancient admixture episodes.

Now a new version with allegedly greater power and ability to detect two-source admixture events is being presented but I hold the same caveats: the results are not consistent with what we already know, so the product can only cause the weirdest of confusions if trusted beyond the level of an experimental toy with no reliability whatsoever.

Mark Lipson et al., Efficient moment-based inference of admixture parameters and sources of gene flow. arXiv 2012 (pre-pub). Freely accessibleLINK [ref: arXiv:1212.2555 [q-bio.PE]]


The recent explosion in available genetic data has led to significant advances in understanding the demographic histories of and relationships among human populations. It is still a challenge, however, to infer reliable parameter values for complicated models involving many populations. Here we present MixMapper, an efficient, interactive method for constructing phylogenetic trees including admixture events using single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) genotype data. MixMapper implements a novel two-phase approach to admixture inference using moment statistics, first building an unadmixed scaffold tree and then adding admixed populations by solving systems of equations that express allele frequency divergences in terms of mixture parameters. Importantly, all features of the tree, including topology, sources of gene flow, branch lengths, and mixture proportions, are optimized automatically from the data and include estimates of statistical uncertainty. MixMapper also uses a new method to express branch lengths in easily interpretable drift units. We apply MixMapper to recently published data for HGDP individuals genotyped on a SNP array designed especially for use in population genetics studies, obtaining confident results for 30 populations, 20 of them admixed. Notably, we confirm a signal of ancient admixture in European populations---including previously undetected admixture in Sardinians and Basques---involving a proportion of 20-40% ancient northern Eurasian ancestry.  

The relevant graph is this one:

Figure 4. Inferred anceint admixture in Europe. (A) Detail of the inferred ancestral admixture for Sardinians (other European populations are similar). One mixing population splits from the unadmixed tree along the common ancestor branch of Americans (“Ancient Northern Eurasian”) and the other along the common ancestor branch of all non-Africans (“Ancient Western Eurasian”). Median parameter values are shown; 95% bootstrap confidence intervals can be found in Table 1. The branch lengths a, b, and c are confounded, so we show a plausible combination.

Who says Sardinians here, says any other European or Highland West Asian (represented only by the Adygei in fig. 3; we know from other studies that North Caucasians cluster rather tightly with Higland West Asians like Turks, Kurds or Iranians, as well as with Western Jews). There are alleged (and expected) minor differences  between Russians, Basques and Sardinians but not in essence.

However we know for a fact that it is Native Americans who display obvious ancient admixture between a West Eurasian source (represented by Y-DNA Q and mtDNA X) and a more dominant East Asian one (represented notably by mtDNA A, B, C and D and also by Y-DNA C3). 

Native Americans are a clear case of ancient admixture between Western and Eastern Eurasians and this MixMapper algorithm is unable to detect that well known, obvious admixture. Instead (and I guess it could be worse) it detects a false admixture in reverse, maybe by conflating these ancient Native American (and some other Siberians') dual origins with recent inflow in Europe from Siberia (Uralic peoples and such, well known also). 

The conclusion can only be that, like its ancestor TreeMix, MixMapper is a mere experimental toy with no practical applications other than laughs. 

Keep trying, guys. 


Note: in preliminary email exchanges on this matter, I was asked why I state so confidently that mtDNA X and Y-DNA Q are West Eurasian by origin. The matter is clear as soon as you look at their phylogenetically structured or basal haplogroup diversity.

This one is concentrated in West Asia for X (with even marked penetration in Africa with the X1 (also known as X1'3) clade, which is probably of Egyptian coalescence) and also for X2, with a more Central Asian tendency and scattered rare clades in Altai and Central Siberia. 

Almost the same is true for Y-DNA Q, the main Amerindian patrilineage, whose basal diversity seems centered around Iran at least until the Q1 and Q1b nodes. Q1a may have a Central Asian center of spread but it is not until the Q1a3 level when we can really speak of Native American lineages specifically. 

Nobody has ever expressed to me any doubts about mtDNA A, B, C and D, or Y-DNA C3, being of East Asian origin, so I won't discuss them here. 

Iruña-Veleia congress: papers and synthesis

The linguistic-cultural association Euskararen Jatorria (The Origin of the Basque Language) has published the reports presented for the International Congress on Iruña-Veleia that took place in late November in Vitoria-Gasteiz. 

All papers have trilingual (Basque, English, Spanish) introductory sections and then each one is in the language chosen by the author. They can all be found HERE.

Among them there is a "conclusions" synthesis (PDF) whose headlines I synthesize here:
  • The dig [by Gil, Filloy et al.] was performed correctly
  • Chain of evidence has been broken - as the judge has not controlled it
  • Iconography and most graffiti are coherent
  • Controlled local digs were not performed to contrast with the findings
  • The archaeometrical datings now being performed in Madrid should have been the first thing to do
  • Graffiti on bone are easy to date [but was not done either]
  • It is only logical that Iberian signs are found among the rest
  • So far 19 reports have declared the graffiti genuine
  • The Advisory Commission did not do anything of what they should have done

Paraphrasing the late linguist Gorka Knörr, the paper concludes that 

If Iruña-Veleia would be a house, datings would be the foundations, controlled digs the first floor, auditions the first floor, history the second, philology the third... Therefore when the Advisory Commission "began building the house by the ceiling" and that is why we are now just as the beginning, because the datings required by Eliseo Gil were never performed.


As you may already know, Iruña-Veleia is a Vasco-Roman city of Antiquity not far from Vitoria-Gasteiz. In 2006 a large number of inscribed graffiti on pottery shards (ostrakas) was found, most of them in ancient Basque and Vulgar Latin. 

The finding had the potential of rewriting linguistic and historical understanding of Basque language and also Romances, what apparently scared to death some popes of linguistics led by Gorrochategui and Lakarra, who, by means of smearing, abuse of power and cronyism, managed to get the archaeologists in charge (Gil, Filloy and their company Lurmen) out and put instead the only archaeologist who was ready to play their game Luis Núñez, whose management of the site has consisted essentially into digging wildly with a caterpillar until popular clamor stopped his misgivings (since then he seems to do nothing at, what is surely good considering what he did when he dared to).

Gil and Filloy have been charged with "falsification" and in this trial is where the hopes of truth being revealed stand now. After many years, a sample of the ostrakas have been sent to researchers in Madrid to perform archeometry tests.

See also: category Iruña-Veleia for further details.

December 12, 2012

Italian haploid genetics (messy paper)

Important update (Feb 9 2014): the paper was formally corrected, after a long bureaucratic struggle, in February 2014. I wrote a new review for the occasion: → HERE.


This study is rather chaotic and poorly presented with potentially interesting but very confusingly reported data Italian paternal and maternal lineages, after we wade through the hyper-obsolete and sometimes sloppy nomenclature they use and the many bugs in the presentation of the data.

Their attempt to say anything of the autosomal genetics is rather useless, confusing and pointless however and will not be discussed here.

Francesca Brisighelli et al., Uniparental Markers of Contemporary Italian Population Reveals Details on Its Pre-Roman Heritage. PLoS ONE 2012. Open accessLINK [doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0050794]



According to archaeological records and historical documentation, Italy has been a melting point for populations of different geographical and ethnic matrices. Although Italy has been a favorite subject for numerous population genetic studies, genetic patterns have never been analyzed comprehensively, including uniparental and autosomal markers throughout the country.

Methods/Principal Findings

A total of 583 individuals were sampled from across the Italian Peninsula, from ten distant (if homogeneous by language) ethnic communities — and from two linguistic isolates (Ladins, Grecani Salentini). All samples were first typed for the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) control region and selected coding region SNPs (mtSNPs). This data was pooled for analysis with 3,778 mtDNA control-region profiles collected from the literature. Secondly, a set of Y-chromosome SNPs and STRs were also analyzed in 479 individuals together with a panel of autosomal ancestry informative markers (AIMs) from 441 samples. The resulting genetic record reveals clines of genetic frequencies laid according to the latitude slant along continental Italy – probably generated by demographical events dating back to the Neolithic. The Ladins showed distinctive, if more recent structure. The Neolithic contribution was estimated for the Y-chromosome as 14.5% and for mtDNA as 10.5%. Y-chromosome data showed larger differentiation between North, Center and South than mtDNA. AIMs detected a minor sub-Saharan component; this is however higher than for other European non-Mediterranean populations. The same signal of sub-Saharan heritage was also evident in uniparental markers.


Italy shows patterns of molecular variation mirroring other European countries, although some heterogeneity exists based on different analysis and molecular markers. From North to South, Italy shows clinal patterns that were most likely modulated during Neolithic times.

As the data is so poorly presented, I decided to rework it all myself. This is the mtDNA map (made recycling figs. 1 and 4 on a map of Italy):

Italian mtDNA - on Brisighella 2012 - click to expand

We can see that the apportions of haplogroups are generally in agreement with what we can find in Western Europe, showing some minor but evident differences in the South: high frequency of J, more T and X than in the North and Center, less W, H and V, presence of rare lineages in the N* and M* categories.

However warning must be made that the Northern and Central pie charts are so exactly identical that it looks like an error was made (and either one was copied twice). I don't have time right now to research this so obvious error, checking the supp. material and what not, but be warned that there is a bug (this bug is reproduced here from fig. 1 as-it-is).

Southern highlight populations (Salentine Greeks and Lucerans, a town where Sicilian Muslims where deported to in the Middle Ages) appear to be very similar to Southern Italians in general. Instead the Ladins appear to retain a more Paleolithic-looking mtDNA pool, dominated by H, U and V. However notice that K (often considered a Neolithic haplogroup) is not mentioned separately from its parent U.

I did the same with Y-DNA, however here the difficulty is in the horribly chosen nomenclature:

Italian Y-DNA - on Brisighella 2012 - click to expand

Before you jump to any conclusion from the map above, you must note that the haplogroups are all poorly described. I checked ISOGG present day nomenclature and annotated fig. 3 (in grey) so we can get a more clear idea of what they are trying to describe:

Fig. 3 of Brisighella 2012
Phylogeny of Y-chromosome SNPs and haplogroup frequencies in different Italian populations.
(annotated by Maju)
- click to expand -

Notice also apparent inconsistencies on the labeling, notably how R1* becomes R1b3 (sic) among Ladins, Lucerans and Salentine Greeks.

In truth it's very difficult to get anything straight from this paper because there is such sloppiness in the presentation of the data that we can only end with a headache and greater confusion than when we started. 

Therefore I must renounce to make any attempt of analysis, sadly enough.