May 30, 2012

Review of Tropical Neolithic flows

Michael Petraglia at Ancient Indian Ocean Corridors blog draws our attention to a quite interesting review on the Neolithic of the various regions surrounding the Indian Ocean, all them of rather tropical climate:

Dorian K. Fuller et al., Across the Indian Ocean: the prehistoric movement of plants and animals. Antiquity 2012. Freely accessible. [→ updated link]

I strongly recommend full reading as I can only dedicate some space here and the study, while not really long, covers many diverse aspects of plant and animal domestication and translocation around the Indian Ocean. 

South Asia and Africa

First the authors deal with the issue of how the most important tropical crops of South Asia, which are mostly of African origin, arrived there. They conclude that the transfer took place at the very end of the Harappa (IVC) period, rather than earlier, even if it is confirmed that Harappa and the Persian Gulf (but not yet East Africa apparently) kept trading relations since much earlier. These African crops (millet and sorghum specially) were critical, as we know, in enabling the expansion of farming towards Southern India.

In return India gave Africa the zebuine species of cow, which, after hybridization, fueled the expansion of East African pastoralists into Equatorial areas.

This route between East Africa and South Asia is declared to be the precursor of the spice trade of later days:

The first hint of this spice trade comes from the findings of valued black peppercorns that were used to fragrance the nostrils of the deceased Pharaoh Ramses II (c. 1200 BC) (Plu 1985). This spice is endemic only to the wet forests of southern India (Asouti & Fuller 2008: 47), and in all likelihood was supplied by hunter-gatherer groups to coastal groups (Morrison 2002).

Tropical Asian crops

Another section deals with the transfer of diverse crops between South and SE Asia (and even as far as New Guinea).

Indian pulses migrated to the East, while a number of other crops (areca nut, sandalwood, betle leaf and maybe banana) did in the opposite direction. The origin of mangos and lemons is also discussed and seems distributed between both regions. 

Many of these flows may have been from approximately the same time as the African-Indian connection, in the late 2nd millennium BCE.

The Malagasy connection

Finally a third layer of agricultural flows appear to connect SE Asia with Africa, the most notable being the banana, but also yams, taro and chickens. 

This one seems most likely related to Austronesian (Malay) flows in westward direction, leading to the formation of the Malagasy people and the colonization of Madagascar. 

In their journey westwards, the proto-Malagasy appear to have left some maritime vocabulary in Sri Lanka, SW India and the Maldives, where they also left their outrigger technology. A variant of this one, with two outriggers, is also widespread through East Africa, from Somalia to Mozambique and, of course, Madagascar. 

The Austronesians would have spread these crops and the chicken to Africa, bringing also possibly some commensals like the rat, the mouse and the Asian shrew, as well as a weed. Some of these may however been introduced in several episodes.

Claim that Danubian Neolithic people had classes

Or so is what new research has led many to think.

R. Alexander Bentley et al., Community differentiation and kinship among Europe’s first farmers. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (for six months or depending on your world region).


Community differentiation is a fundamental topic of the social sciences, and its prehistoric origins in Europe are typically assumed to lie among the complex, densely populated societies that developed millennia after their Neolithic predecessors. Here we present the earliest, statistically significant evidence for such differentiation among the first farmers of Neolithic Europe. By using strontium isotopic data from more than 300 early Neolithic human skeletons, we find significantly less variance in geographic signatures among males than we find among females, and less variance among burials with ground stone adzes than burials without such adzes. From this, in context with other available evidence, we infer differential land use in early Neolithic central Europe within a patrilocal kinship system.

Many details on the burials are freely available in the supplemental material. The necropolises (many individuals each) are from a diversity of sites between Slovakia and Alsace: Aiterhofen, Ensisheim, Kleinhadersdorf, Nitra, Souffelweyersheim, Schwetzingen and Vedrovice.

The key relevant finding seems to be that most males buried with adze have lower Sr87/Sr86 ratio in their tooth enamel than those buried without grave goods, suggesting that they were more likely be original from the more fertile loess lands than the others, the preferred location of Linear Pottery Culture sites (also Danubian Neolithic or LBK by its German acronym). 

Women overall also had lower Sr87/Sr86 ratio, suggesting that most had come from other less fertile districts. This last also implies patrilocality, surely dismantling the idea of Gimbutas of a matrilocal "Old Europe", which was already very much discredited (notice that this is not important in regard to her most important theory: the Kurgan model of Indoeuropean expansion, which is only very tangentially related to this matter). 

However my first impression is that drawing such radical conclusions from evidence which is only somewhat significant (I see many non-adze men who have below average strontium ratios and also a good number of adze men with high Sr ratios) and not at all absolute, seems a bit risky on first sight.

Whatever the case that is what they claim: that Danubians had classes or castes or some sort of social hierarchy and differentiation since the very beginnings. Sadly they have not researched what could have been a complementary source of information: DNA. 

Sources: Eureka Alert, Science, BBC, Pileta[es].

Western Danubian overlapped with pottery styles
that can be aboriginal or Cardium-derived
(source: Westward Ho!)

May 29, 2012

Climate change dried up the Sarasvati sending Harappans eastward to the Ganges

Before and after
That's what new research seems to claim: before c. 1900 BCE there was a stable moonson on the Thar Desert feeding what is now known as Ghaggar-Hakra River (seasonal) but mythologically referred to as Sarasvati River (a major hub of the Indus Valley Civilization or Harappa culture).

This, according to the researchers of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) caused that people already living in the banks of that river had to emigrate eastwards towards the Ganges, where monsoons were still stable but where the fertility was not good enough to support large cities as in the West.

Source and more details at the press release and at WHOI.

See also: Dispatches from Turtle Island (Andrew has a nice review of some of the wider implications).

Another decorated cave discovered in Ardèche

The Ardèche or Ardacha region, so-named for a tributary of the Rhône, is one of the most important and older districts of modern human presence in SW Europe. Its importance was underlined with the discovery of the Grôte Chauvet, the cave of lions.

Now another discovery has been made in the same area with a decoration of what seems to be a horse head. The finding actually was made in 2011 by some speleologist but kept secret till it was researched preliminarily.

Sources[fr]: Pileta, France 3, Paleos Blog.

May 24, 2012

Neolithic village found at Prague

The Neolithic settlement is found in the northern district of Bubeneč in a bend of the Vltava river that was found to be a good place to live at by those earliest "Czech" farmers. It had good defenses, plenty of water and easy access to fertile lands to work.

According to archaeologist Radek Balý:

We found two longhouses from the Neolithic. One of the big houses was rectangular in shape and was about 7,000 years old. The other was trapezoidal and was about 6,500 years old. The only remnants of the buildings that we found were the holes and grooves left by wooden structures, so we know the circumference and have a few relics of the way the houses were divided. We also found a burial that was composed of big ceramic pottery full of pieces of ashes and bones, standing on a big, flat stone. It was covered by a small bowl and two other flat stones. That find is about 3,000 years old. We found another grave in the research area, but it was very disrupted. We can say that it was much older, but that’s all we can say for now.

Source: Archaeology News Network.

Neolithic culture found in Southern Arabia

Al Magar horse statue
The Al-Magar culture, dated to c. 5500-3500 BCE, belongs to a period more humid than today. It has some very beautiful art but, crucially, raises questions on the time and place of the first domestication of horses. 

Why? Because the art of the culture is full of what can be horses (wild or domestic) and other equids like the onager. Of course, equid skeletal remnants are also abundant.

While the source of this news snippet is very enthusiastic about the possibility that the area may have been home to a parallel horse-domestication event, no specific evidence is provided other than the statues there being thousands of horse remains (hard to drag from hunt site if these would have been wild) and the ability of those early "Arabs" to build large sedentary settlements. Nothing conclusive... but suggestive indeed.

Source: Horsetalk.

Edited on May 25th (new text in red, removed text slashed out).

Neolithic village and ship found underwater in Croatia

The finding has been made offshore the town of Umag-Umago (Istria). The village, established on wooden pillars (probably on shallow water) is dated between the Late Neolithic and the Early Bronze Age. 

The ship, measuring 6m long and 2.4m wide, was made with the technique of plank-sewing (or stitching), known to have been used also in Atlantic Europe. It has been carbon-dated to the first millennium BCE (latest Chalcolithic or early Bronze Age).

Lots of animal bones and pottery fragments have also been found.

Ref. La Vanguardia[es], Parentium[hr].

May 22, 2012

Iberian Chalcolithic and Bell Beaker map

A reader asked me about the actual extension of the Bell Beaker phenomenon "in the Basque Country". I do not have complete data right now for all the historical Basque area but I could provide some for the Iberian Peninsula at least. Notably this map (there seems to be some major confusion about the real presence of BB):

Click to enlarge

I have also provided some more generic info on the Chalcolithic and Bell Beaker, specially in Iberia, in a new dedicated page

The discussion thread for that page is this one.

May 15, 2012

Did dogs contribute decisively to our success vs. Neanderthals?

UP dog with mammoth bone from Predmosti
That's the theory proposed, with some archaeological support, by Pat Shipman at American Scientist (found via Pileta). Not only dog skulls have been found in what appear to be farewell rituals (with a bone between the teeth for example) but these findings always correspond to cultural contexts associated with our kin, such as Aurignacian and never with Neanderthals. 

Being allied with dogs certainly offered some key advantages when hunting, argues Shipman, very specially when finding the prey, a skill for which we are not too well prepared, lacking a fine sense of smell, something demonstrated in modern hunt contexts. 

Domesticating dogs clearly improves humans’ hunting success and efficiency—whether the game (or the dog) is large or small. The same must have been true in the Paleolithic. If Neandertals did not have domestic dogs and anatomically modern humans did, these hunting companions could have made all the difference in the modern human–Neandertal competition. 

A miscellaneous matter that Shipman considers at the end of the essay is whether the well known ability of communicating silently by looking at each others' eyes may have helped to this human-dog cooperation. Apparently dogs are also able to follow the direction of the eyes of a human and infer commands or directions from that. This may have been a product of selective breeding but in any case it is something that it's there and is part of human-dog communication.

See also category: dog in this blog and its predecessor.

Update (May 19): Millán mentions in the comments section that there are some studies from a century ago that claim that Neanderthals might have domesticated dogs first:
It is not clear however if these claims can withstand the passing of time, they are after all from the time of Pitdown Man, when Archaeology was still a bit confused and confusing - but also when the pillars of modern Prehistoric understanding were first laid.

May 10, 2012

Video: visualization of ice sheets and sea level on Europe since LGM

Hat tip to Marnie for this great finding. 

The video-animation has been developed by Adrian Meyer and Karl Rege, from the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.

It begins at 19,000 BCE (or 21,000 years ago and extends several millennia into the future according to predictions). Most of the action is concentrated right after c. 0:50 mins, which corresponds with 10,000 BCE (latest Upper Paleolithic and semi-official beginning of the end of the Ice Age).


May 9, 2012

The Cham People and why the genetic structure of SE Asia is mostly not the product of Austronesian expansion

Cham girls
There's a new interesting paper on the haploid genetics of SE Asians, with some focus on the Cham People, who are an enclave of Austronesian speakers in the middle of pre-Austronesian peoples (Austroasiatic specially).


The Cham people are the major Austronesian speakers of Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA) and the reconstruction of the Cham population history can provide insights into their diffusion. In this study, we analyzed non-recombining region of the Y chromosome markers of 177 unrelated males from four populations in MSEA, including 59 Cham, 76 Kinh, 25 Lao, and 17 Thai individuals. Incorporating published data from mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), our results indicated that, in general, the Chams are an indigenous Southeast Asian population. The origin of the Cham people involves the genetic admixture of the Austronesian immigrants from Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) with the local populations in MSEA. Discordance between the overall patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA in the Chams is evidenced by the presence of some Y chromosome lineages that prevail in South Asians. Our results suggest that male-mediated dispersals via the spread of religions and business trade might play an important role in shaping the patrilineal gene pool of the Cham people.


Fig. 5 (click for the original)
Just some of the Cham patrilineages seem to be attributable to Austronesian origins from Island SE Asia (ISEA). In this regard, I suggest to take a look with due care to figure 5 (click on thumb at the right), which shows the median-joining networks of the relevant Cham lineages in the context of the wider SE Asian context.

Some detail in brief (see also fig. 2 for the details, n(Cham)=59):
  • P(xO) is all actually R and better observed in fig. 6, where it becomes obvious that it's all linked to South Asia (R1a1a and R2a).
  • C is mostly C3-P217 but there is also one individual with C* (C2?). It seems mostly related to Mainland SE Asia (MSEA) rather than ISEA, as seems logical for a lineage with the greatest concentration in far NE Asia. The C* single case is probably of Austronesian origin.
  • F(xK) is found in two Cham individuals and some others. One of them is H, which is surely also of "recent" arrival from South Asia (Hindu and Muslim religion, trade).
  • K(xNO,P) is found in 10% of the surveyed Cham men. It may have arrived from ISEA and most is concentrated in a single haplotype among the Cham (further reinforcing the idea of a possible Austronesian founder effect).
  • O* (P191): found in one Cham and obviously from MSEA
  • O1a (M119): found in 3 Cham and I'd say that related to South China (2) and MSEA (1).
  • O2a1* (M95): this paragroup is way too common in MSEA for all branches to have anything to do with Austronesians (Cham: 30.5%, what is a major component)
  • O2a1a (M88): this lineage is not found at all in ISEA but only MSEA and South China (Cham 8.5%).
  • O3a* (P200): the Cham individuals are clearly haplotypes as their MSEA neighbors (Cham: 6.8%).
  • O3a2b (M7): it also looks very much MSEA (Cham: 5.1%)
  • O3a2c1 (M134): a single Cham man sits on a branch derived from South China.

This leaves the count of male-mediated origin:
  • MSEA & South China: 67.9% (all O and C3)
  • ISEA (likely Austronesian): 13.6% (K*, C* and F*)
  • Taiwan & Philippines (core Austronesian): nothing at all
  • South Asia (Hindu/Muslim historical networks): 18.7% (R, H)

Can we stretch a bit the  Austronesian influence? Maybe but not really much. I am probably as surprised as you may be. It's also quite surprising that almost 20% of the Cham patrilineages are from South Asia. 

Fig. 3 - Principal Component analysis based on Y-DNA haplogroups

Cham apart, it is interesting that, in the above PCA chart, we can see two more clear clusters: (1) Wallaceans (regardless of language) and (2) a core Austronesian group made up of Taiwan, Mentawai and Nias (and to lesser extent Borneo). 

This "Taiwanese Aboriginal" identity in the Y-DNA of the small and peculiar Indonesian islands of Nias and Mentawai (located West of Sumatra) has been observed before and seem to describe these two populations as the only "pure" Austronesian colonies in all ISEA.

However it is also true that Borneo does approach this cluster (although it may depend on the particular samples considered). By contrast, Java and Bali are a whole dimension apart, much closer to MSEA populations than to the "true Austronesians" of Aboriginal Taiwan and their genetic neighborhood. 

Mitochondrial DNA

There is much less emphasis of the paper on mtDNA but at least there is a pie chart of the frequencies among the Cham and the Kinh (from North Vietnam, Austroasiatic speakers):

Fig. 7 - haplogroup apportions in two populations from Vietnam

Something that quickly strikes the eye is that the Cham do not have much more B4 than the Kinh, somewhat dispelling the "myth" of this matrilineage being associated with Austronesian expansion everywhere (a subclade, B4a1a1a, is an important founder effect among Polynesians however: the so-called "Polynesian motif" but that's about it).

Also the Kinh may have a slightly more "Northerner" affinity for some haplogroups: low N9a, high M8. 

I wonder if the R* among the Cham is made up of South Asian clades (like some of the abundant M* maybe) or it hides something else.

Update (may 12): Fig. 7 clearly states that: For mtDNA haplogroups, M* includes M17, M20, M21d, M22, M33c, M50, M51, M71, M72, M73, and M77; N* includes N21 and N23; R* includes R22 and R23. I had not noticed this before (h/t Terry). 

May 4, 2012

Ancient DNA from Chalcolithic Thuringia: R1b and headaches

Note: partly edited hours after first publication - reason: see comments.

New archaeogenetic research for our delight or confusion, we'll see:

This new study (which I could read in full already) has analyzed the DNA of several individuals buried in Kromsdorf (near Weimar, Thuringia, Germany) c. 2600 BCE. The burials are said to belong to the Bell Beaker "culture" (better described as phenomenon in fact) and the results are as follow:

  1. Grave 1 - 18-21 y.o. man - no DNA reported - laying on his left side, w/ cup
  2. Grave 2 - 17-20 y.o. woman - no DNA reported - laying on her left side, w/ bowl and bone needle
  3. Grave 3 - c. 35 y.o. man - mtDNA reported as U2e - laying on his right side, no grave goods
  4. Grave 4 - a couple:
    1. 4a - 21-25 y.o. woman - mtDNA reported as W5a - w/ chert flake.
    2. 4b - a man - no DNA reported - no grave goods
  5. Grave 5 - 35-50 y.o. man - mtDNA reported as I1, Y-DNA reported as R1b1b2 - no grave goods
  6. Grave 6 - 6-12 y.o. child (gender unknown) - no DNA reported - no grave goods
  7. Grave 8 - 21-26 y.o. man - mtDNA reported as K1, Y-DNA reported as R1b - w/ cup and flake
  8. Grave 9 - a couple:
    1. 9a - 25-45 y.o. woman - mtDNA reported as U5a1 - w/ loom weights
    2. 9b - 45-55 y.o. man - mtDNA reported as T1a  - no grave goods reported

Edit: I came to accept the reported mtDNA haplogroups as surely correct

As G. Horvat noticed (see comments) the four dubious haplotypes have the 12705C marker, which indicates that they belong to R.

Actually it looks like someone made an error in the tabulation of the results in fig. S7 and both columns 12705 (defining R) and 10873 (defining N) are identical. Considering the reported results and that it seems that the HVS sequences are common today, the 10873 column seems to be in tabulation error, leading to my mistaken previous critical read.

But... coding region markers say it's not even N!

Hat tip to Gail for the heads up here.

In the supplemental material, table S7, the sequence of several coding region markers is reported for the above individuals who yielded mtDNA. The problem is that all sublineages of macro-haplogroup N (and all lineages reported above are that) carry the 10873 site as T. However the burials number 3, 8, 9a and 9b have it as C instead. 

This implies that they are L(xN), whatever it is. Sadly the typing of the M-defining site 10400 failed for all samples, so we are a bit amiss. Another anomalous site is 12372: while analysis for this locus failed in the case of nos. 3, 9a and 9b, it was typed as A for the resident of grave 8. I could only find this transition among modern samples (out of N) in M12 and M7c1d. However I tried to track the haplogroup using the HVS markers and I failed miserably (it seems not to be L0 however what is not much help).

So the case for the correct adscription of the mtDNA haplotypes, at least in the four aforementioned cases, is extremely confusing and may well be totally wrong. All I can say is that I doubt that they are U2e, K1, U5a1 or T1a as reported because all these are N subclades and the data says L(xN) quite clearly. 

Bell Beaker?

I have been searching for this Kromsdorf site oline and could find almost nothing, sadly enough. However if I know anything about the Bell Beaker phenomenon is that:
  • It began just slightly before these burials, c. 2700 BCE. However it is true that the mainstream theories suggest a very nearby origin in Bohemia. 
  • They used a very standardized set of grave goods which consisted in most cases of: bell beaker, bone ornaments, V-pierced buttons, moon-shaped collars, flint arrow points, archer's bracelet, triangular copper knife and gold spiral (money equivalent possibly).
  • They used to bury their men on their left side and their women on the right side (not 100% predictable but most common), while Corded Ware did the opposite. Burials in fetal position are typical of the region since Neolithic times (this does not change). 

Demographic chronologies of Central and Northern Europe
with Bell Beaker and Corded Ware time-frames annotated.
Lowest graph is Great Britain.
(From a previous entry at Leherensuge).

It's clear to me that not a single burial of those has the grave goods typical of the Bell Beaker phenomenon. Not even the cups are unmistakably described as bell-shaped beakers but then again no arrows, no gold, no knife, no archer's bracelet...

And the chronology overlaps with the Corded Ware period. However the burials of Corded Ware also have standard grave goods, even if less impressive ones: cup, amphora, flint or bone tools and the famous "combat ax" (actually a ritual one) that once described the culture (Corded Ware culture = Combat Ax people in the past, although this name has been dropped nowadays, mostly because it became obvious that the axes were ritual and essentially useless for combat).

So what are they? Can't say but neither one nor the other they seem to me: they are chronologically in the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker time frame but the adscription to either culture seems pretty much not demonstrated to me. Feel free to correct me but here there are some true Bell Beaker grave goods:

Bell Beaker grave goods from Valencian Country (source)
Bell Beaker grave goods from Zamora, Spain (source)

Four Bell Beaker burials from Bohemia (source): 1-fem, 2 male, 3-child, 4-male

The origin of R1b in Europe?

Doubt it. Many are claiming rather happily that these burials represent the origin of R1b in Europe or something like that. But, if anything, these findings are a terminus ante quem (or most recent possible date) and nothing else.

However we do know that some local precursors were of other patrilineages: F*, G2a3 (local Danubian) and R1a1 (from Eulau, right across the Elbe). Al this may tell us something about the Elbe basin but do we dare to extrapolate to all Europe? I wouldn't (but many do without any shame).

Update (May5): Where is the mtDNA H?

A big part of the mystery surrounding ancient DNA is about mtDNA haplogroup H and variants. H today makes up some 40% of Western and Northern European genetic pools, but, excepted Atlantic parts of Iberia (and some arguable cases here and there: Neolithic Alps, Gravettian Russia, Oranian Rif, etc.), it has been reluctant to show up in the research in sufficiently high numbers to account for modern genetic pools.

As I say, Western Iberian and Basque genetic pools appear normalized very early in the Neolithic (or even before), with levels of H above 40%, while in Central Europe getting even 20% is rare and elusive. In this case even such low figures are missing.

This unlike what happens just some journeys downstream the river some 1500 years later at Liechtenstein Cave (Dorste, Low Saxony), when we get a quite modern mtDNA pool with plenty of H and no ultra-rare clades like N1a or U2e. The Y-DNA pool in this case leans heavily towards the regionally important I2a1b but this can be justified on grounds of patrilocality, arguing that the deceased were all close relatives (the haplotypes are actually identical or closely related).

So where is all the H? While this site is more recent than Megalithism in the area, it is also from a non-Megalithic zone. It is possible (but would have to be demonstrated) that genetic pools were already close to normal in Low and High Germany (Megalithic areas) but not in Middle Germany (non-Megalthic), homogenizing only later with Urnfields or something like that. However a lot remains to be clarified and the answer may well be different or more complex.

Update (Nov 8): co-author Johannes Müller has made the paper now available at

Blond hair in Melanesia genetically distinct from that of Europeans calls my attention today to this paper:

Naturally blond hair is rare in humans and found almost exclusively in Europe and Oceania. Here, we identify an arginine-to-cysteine change at a highly conserved residue in tyrosinase-related protein 1 (TYRP1) as a major determinant of blond hair in Solomon Islanders. This missense mutation is predicted to affect catalytic activity of TYRP1 and causes blond hair through a recessive mode of inheritance. The mutation is at a frequency of 26% in the Solomon Islands, is absent outside of Oceania, represents a strong common genetic effect on a complex human phenotype, and highlights the importance of examining genetic associations worldwide. 

Actually natural blond hair is also found in West and Central Asia and North Africa, and red hair even in the Horn of Africa now and then. But I guess that's what the authors mean by "Europe", duh! It's also found occasionally among South Asians, specially the young, and among SE Asians regardless of age.

Whatever the case with the authors ethno-geographic misconceptions, the results are still most interesting: the gene causing blond hair among Melanesians (and some relatives like Fijians) is not the same as those involved in blond hair in Europe. Mind you that it is not clear yet which are these European genes of blondism but it is clear that the Melanesian allele is not it either. 

There is also an article at New Scientist.

Megalith search engine for Gipuzkoa (Basque Country)

From the Andalusian blog Asociación los Dólmenes[es], I learn today that a search engine dedicated to the Megalithic sites of Gipuzkoa (one of several Basque regions or provinces) has been opened by the Aranzadi Society of Sciences. 

The search engine or online encyclopedia is so far only available in Spanish and Basque languages but otherwise it is most interesting.