Monday, July 23, 2018

Earliest Evidence of Our Human Ancestors Outside of Africa Found

Artifact excavated from a layer that is 2.1 million years old. The artifact here is a stone from which three flakes were removed.
Credit: Zhaoyu Zhu
In earlier posts I have looked at the origin and spread of modern humans. New discoveries have led to the reappraisal of migration dates and routes as well as a greater understanding of our early ancestors. Undoubtedly, this picture will continue to change and it is difficult keeping pace with the latest thinking on the subject.
A recent article on the website ‘Live Science’ reported that researchers in China had excavated stone tools that were likely made by our human ancestors some 2.12 million years ago. This is the earliest evidence found so far of our human ancestors outside of Africa.
Archaeologists from China and the United Kingdom discovered dozens of quartz and quartzite stones at Shangchen, China, on what is known as the Loess Plateau. The site contains several layers of loess, which is fine, windblown sediment dating from 1.26 million to 2.12 million years ago.
Hominins, which may have originated in Africa up to 6 million years ago, include all the species that emerged after the Homo genus, split from that of chimpanzees. Until now, the earliest evidence of hominins outside of Africa came from a skeleton and artefacts linked to Homo erectus and dating to 1.85 million years ago found in the Republic of Georgia, in 2000. Humans and chimpanzees are very closely related and separated about 7.4 million years ago.  There is only a 1% difference between the chimpanzee genome and our own suggesting that we have a common ancestor.
Among the artefacts excavated was a stone, from which three flakes were removed, found in a layer that is 2.1 million years old. Paleoanthropologists are excited about the finds because you don't often find artefacts in their original context. Researchers noticed how the flaking of the stones was repeated to create lines in various directions.
Robin Dennell, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Exeter, pointing out that the Loess Plateau is a stone-free landscape, states:
"There are no natural processes that could have flaked these items, so you know that any flaked object could only have been flaked by an early human."

The presence of these stone tools suggests that human ancestors left Arica roughly 10,000 generations earlier than previously thought. However, experts don’t know for sure what species of hominin made the tools. It is possible that these ancient stone tools were made by Homo erectus, but they could have been made by an even earlier ancestor.

For further information please see:

Monday, July 16, 2018

Ötzi the Iceman Was a Heart Attack Waiting to Happen

Ötzi the iceman

Some time ago I wrote a post about Ötzi the iceman. The website, Live Science (30th May 2018) recently featured an article updating readers on the iceman’s health based on recent analysis of Ötzi’s mummified body.
Ötzi was murdered about 5,300 years ago high in the Italian Alps. His mummified body was discovered by hikers in 1991 and he is now housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy. He was shot with an arrow, struck on the head, and left to die near a mountain pass high in the Alps.

Ötzi's health
Further analysis of Ötzi’s body reveal that he didn’t ‘enjoy’ good health and had an unhealthy diet. A full-body computed tomography (CT) scan showed that he had three calcifications (hardened plaques) in his heart region, putting him at increased risk for a heart attack. A modern heart doctor would have encouraged him to stop eating fatty meat and to take medication to lower his blood pressure and cholesterol.
He also had calcifications around his carotid artery, which carries blood to the head and neck, and in the arteries at the base of his skull, which carry blood to the brain. These conditions increased the iceman’s risk of a stroke. In an earlier study, researchers found that Ötzi's last meal included the fatty meat of a wild goat, as well as wild deer and grains. Today, Ötzi may have undergone surgery to help prevent a stroke including, perhaps, coronary bypass surgery, to divert blood flow around the blocked artery.
Statue of Ötzi the iceman
The iceman is one of the most studied mummies in the world. Researchers know that he had bad teeth and knees; lactose intolerance; a probable case of Lyme disease; stomach bacteria that causes ulcers; and 61 tattoos inked on his body. The latest findings suggest that if Ötzi hadn't been killed by a blow to the head and an arrow that pierced his shoulder when he was about 46 years old, he might have suffered health problems from these conditions later in life.

Genetic Factors
An earlier study found that Ötzi had a genetic predisposition for atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries from fatty deposits. CT scans done at the time showed signs of disease in some of his arteries. Ötzi wasn't overweight, didn't smoke tobacco, regularly exercised and was unlikely to have had a high-fat diet. Researchers believe that genetic factors, rather than his daily routine, may explain his health condition.
In the new study, the researchers examined a newer CT scan of Ötzi that was done in 2013 using a larger CT scanner. This enabled them to image Ötzi's entire body, including his abdomen and chest, allowing them to pinpoint the hardened plaques.
Timeline of Ötzi's last hours
Ötzi wasn't far from home when he died. Scientists concluded that he didn't live in the Alps as such but spent most of his life in Isack Valley or the lower Puster Valley, in the northernmost part of what is now Italy. He probably spent the last 10 years of his life in an area south and west of his previous home, not far from where he died.

The iceman was murdered high up in the Italian Alps some 5,300 years ago, making his death the oldest unsolved ‘cold case’ crime. Although Ötzi died in his mid-forties, he may not have lived to a ‘ripe old age’. Genetic factors rather than lifestyle may have increased his risk of a heart attack and stroke.
For further information see:


Friday, June 29, 2018

China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors

Terracotta Warriors
                Photo (c) Clare Golden
In 1974, a farmer digging a well in Lintong County, east of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, unexpectedly stumbled upon a terracotta warrior pit adjoining the Mausoleum of Qin Shi huang. Brightly painted and buried in battle formation, the life-sized army would protect for eternity one of the most influential leaders of all time - China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang.
The exhibition, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors, currently running at World Museum in Liverpool features one hundred and twenty-five cultural artefacts. The exhibits include life-sized terracotta figures in various postures and with different facial expressions. It also includes exquisite gold, silver, bronze, ceramic, and jade objects. Incidentally, Liverpool has one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe. Excavations over the last 40 years have revealed 2,000 sculptures. However, it is estimated that there are some 8,000 warriors and horses in total.

Terracotta Warriors
Photo: Clare Golden
The making of the Terracotta Warriors
Each life-size Terracotta Warrior weighed between 110 and 300 kilos and measured about 1.8 metres in height. They are equipped with lethal bronze weapons. Buried in three pits, they include infantry, cavalry, charioteers, archers, and crossbowmen. So far, more than 40,000 bronze weapons have been found including swords, lances, halberds, spears, dagger-axes, hooks, arrows, crossbow triggers and ceremonial weapons.
The Terracotta Warriors bear the stamps or carved names of their makers. Lin and Li, in their book to accompany the Liverpool Exhibition, state:
“Each Terracotta Warrior was built from the ground upwards in a succession of body parts made from thick coils of clay, while its head was made and fired separately, with soft clay used to fill any gaps between the head and body. A considerable amount of sculptural detail, including robes, scale armour, hair and facial features was then added by hand.”
After firing, each Terracotta Warrior was covered in lacquer before various bright pigments were applied.

Warring States and the Rise of the Qin
During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-475 BC), the Zhou territory was formed of 148 small states that were all related to the Zhou royal family. Wars continuously reduced the number of states, and ultimately seven strong states emerged during the late Warring States Period, each competing to unify China: the Han, Zhao, Wei, Chu, Yan, Qi, and Qin.
States’ armies were small in scale at this time, with no more than 30,000 men, and battles usually lasted less than a day.  During the later Warring States Period (475-221 BC), the scale of battles expanded, and military techniques improved. States erected defensive walls along state boundaries. Northern states, such as the Zhao, Yan, and Qin, built walls right along their state borders to defend against invasion by northern nomads. Following the unification of China in 221 BC, the First Emperor connected these walls, to form the original ‘Great Wall’.
The Warring States Period was age of chaos and bloody battles, but it was also a golden age of Chinese philosophy. The Legalist philosophy adopted by the Qin pronounced that human nature was inherently selfish and more disposed to do bad than good, and that the only way to preserve the social order was to impose discipline and strict law enforcement. The ensuing reform of the legal system conceived by the Qin statesman, Shang Yang (c 385-338 BC), which rewarded those who behaved well but punished wrong doers, laid the foundations for the Qin unification of China. However, the concentration of power also accelerated the collapse of the Empire after the death of the First Emperor.
Terracotta Warriors with horses
Photo: Clare Golden
By 230 BC, the Qin’s military campaign and drive to unification was unstoppable. By 221 BC, the remaining kingdoms – Han, Zhao, Wei, Yan, Chu, and Qi – had each been conquered and assimilated. The entire territory of what was then China had been united.  Immediately after the unification of China in 221 BC, Ying Zheng proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang.

The Origins of Ying Zheng
In 246 BC, King Zhuangxiang died, and Ying Zheng became King of the Qin at just 13 years of age.  He too appointed Lu Buwei as his chancellor but given the King’s youth and inexperience, the cunning ex-merchant effectively controlled the kingdom of Qin. When he was aged 22, Ying Zheng finally banished Lu Buwei and replaced him with another advisor, Li Si.
Before unification only aristocrats could hold rank and power, but the Qin created a system of ranks and grades that rewarded all men for success in battle. Success was measured by the number of decapitated heads of enemies taken; one head was rewarded with one rank, two heads with two ranks etc, the officers were given rank depending on the number of heads their subordinates removed.

Standardisation and Innovations
Together with the Great Wall, the road network, the Lingqu canal and the famed mausoleum, the building of the Emperor’s palaces was one of the largest construction projects in the Empire. After several relocations, the Qin capital was finally moved to Xianyang, about 12 miles north-west of present day Xi’an, in 350 BC by Duke Xiao.
To control the rich and powerful families of his conquered kingdoms, the Emperor ordered 120,000 influential families to relocate to Xianyang city. He also ordered the families to recreate the famous halls and palaces of their conquered kingdoms along the north bank of the Wei River. The buildings were linked to one another so that the First Emperor might walk among them and contemplate his many triumphs.

The Death of the Emperor
Between 220 and 210 BC, Qin Shi Huang made five inspection tours of his realm, and had seven inscribed stelae (stone tablets) erected on sacred mountains. The stelae inscription texts are valuable sources of information about Qin literature and ritual. During his third tour in 218 BC, the First Emperor survived an assassination attempt in Wuyang (in present day Guangdong Province). The First Emperor conducted his fifth tour in 210 BC, again to the east, but died on the return journey, aged just 49.
Qin Shi Huang was fearful of death and searched for an elixir that would make him immortal. At the same time, he commissioned the building of his mausoleum at the foot of Li Mountain, 35 kilometres from the modern city of Xi’an. He ordered the palace alchemists to make potions which contained mercury in the hope it would extend his life, little realising that mercury is poisonous.
Terracotta Warrior
Photo: Clare Golden
The Tomb Complex of the First Emperor of China
 In death, as in life, Qin Shi Huang had everything to continue his rule: a Terracotta Army to protect him; bronze chariots for travelling; terracotta acrobats for his entertainment; an arsenal storing stone armour, stables full of horse skeletons, and his concubines buried alive with him.
Those who accompanied the Emperor on his final inspection tour, particularly Zhao Gao and Li Si, concealed the news of his death and instead returned to Xianyang with the intention of naming a new emperor of their choosing. They had the Emperor’s corpse concealed in the imperial chariot, and to mask the putrid stench in the summer heat they loaded a cart with salted fish to accompany the chariot back to the capital.
The First Emperor had many concubines and fathered many sons and daughters. Fu Su, his eldest son and likely heir, had displeased the Emperor by criticising his father’s book burning and had been sent away to the northern border. However, the Emperor had given orders suggesting that Fu Su should become his successor.
Zhao Gao ignored these wishes and through political manipulation engineered the accession of Hu Hai, a younger son of the Emperor with whom he had become friendly. Fu Su was forced to commit suicide and Zhao Gao also contrived the death of General Meng Tian, known for his military abilities and the construction of the Great Wall. Following the suicide of the Second Emperor, Zhao Gao placed his own nominee, Ziying, on the throne.
The Qin Dynasty was short-lived. After Qin Shi Huang died it ended abruptly due to the influence of Zhao Gao and the weakness of the Second Emperor. Within five years of the First Emperor’s death, peasant rebels had stormed Xianyang and one of the leaders, Liu Bang, had taken the throne and established the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220).
The Han Dynasty lasted for more than 400 years and rivalled the almost contemporary but smaller Roman Empire in the west. A census in AD 2 records almost 60 million people in the Chinese Empire.

The Qin and Han Legacies
Modern China retains many of the vestiges of both the Qin Empire and its longer-lived successor, the Han Dynasty. This is evident in the physical structures that remain but also in the beliefs and cultural practices of the Chinese people. Much of Chinese culture can be traced back to the Han Dynasty. It was an era of peace and prosperity that allowed China to expand to become a major world power.
The Han love of jade also continues. The Qin influence is probably best evidenced by the physical structures that remain, The Great Wall of China, the road network, the Lingqu Canal, and of course the First Emperor’s tomb are all prominent relic of the Qin’s extreme ambition and power.

This article is based on the book: China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors by

James CS Lin and Xiuzhen Li – Edited by Karen Miller (2018) which accompanies the exhibition at the World Museum, Liverpool which runs until 28th October 2018.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Corlea Iron Age Trackway

Detail of Corlea Trackway, County Longford, Ireland
Photo: Flickr

Ancient Origins website featured the Corlea Trackway in County Longford on 14th April 2018.  This important archaeological site warrants wider publicity because of its unique nature and the excellent visitor centre built on the site.
The Corlea Trackway, known in Irish as Bóthar Chorr Liath, is a timber trackway dated to the Iron Age. This ancient trackway is located near Keenagh, a village to the south of Longford, in County Longford. It was discovered during the 1980s, when it was exposed during the harvesting of peat. Today, the Corlea Trackway is on permanent display in a specially constructed exhibition centre built at the site of the discovery. 
This trackway is composed of oak planks resting on a foundation of birch rails. Based on tree ring dating (known also as dendrochronology) conducted at Queen’s University Belfast, it was determined that the trees used to build the trackway were felled either in late 148 BC or early 147 BC. 
Largest Wooden Trackway in Europe
Corlea is the largest wooden trackway or togher discovered in Europe, spanning about one kilometre of bogland and is about three and a half meters wide. It is estimated that three hundred large oak trees were felled to create the planks and about the same amount of birch was needed for the rails. This equates to about a thousand wagon-loads of construction material.
The first routes in Ireland were prehistoric trackways, some of which were later developed into roads suitable for wheeled vehicles. Trackways typically date to the early to middle Neolithic period, the Middle and Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age (c. 500-300 BC) and throughout the early medieval and late medieval periods.
Detail of preserved section of Corlea Trackway
Photo: Wikimedia
The Corlea Trackway is unique in Ireland due to its large width and smooth surface, suggesting that it was used for wheeled vehicles such as carts or, perhaps, even chariots. Two massive block-wheels, dating to about 400 BC, which were found in 1968 and 1969 in Doogarymore, Co. Roscommon, are the earliest direct evidence at present known for wheeled transport in Ireland.

Wooden Wheel, Doogarymore, County Roscommon
Further Trackways Discovered
Research carried cut by Dr. Barry Raftery of University College, Dublin, over the five-year period 1985 - 1989, in the Mountdillon complex of bogland, Co. Longford, has done much to increase our knowledge of this hitherto neglected aspect of our history. (Trackways Through Time by Barry Raftery - Headline Publishing). During this time some 57 tracks were excavated, some extensively, and more to a limited degree. Excavations up to 1991 in Corlea bog discovered 59 toghers in an area of around 125 hectares while further work increased the total to 108 with a further 76 revealed in the nearby Derryoghil bog.
Peatland once covered some 16% of the land surface of Ireland. Prior to modern drainage much of central Ireland consisted of soggy marshland interspersed with areas of dry land. This presented enormous problems for the ancient traveller whose existence involved moving about the land. The early inhabitants of Ireland lived on the uplands where they looked after their herds and cultivated the land, which would have been surrounded by large areas of wetland. 
 Theories of Use
It is unclear how the Corlea Trackway was used by the Iron Age people living in the locality. Some archaeologists, for instance, have argued that our ancestors used the trackway to cross the bog. Others, however, believe the trackway allowed people to travel into the bog, where rituals could be carried out.
The life of these ancient roadways would have been short in view of the extremely wet conditions in the continually growing bog. The trackways would quickly sink into the soft peat and become covered in vegetation. Projecting pegs would have marked the route through the bog after the walking surface had become obscured.
Corlea Visitor Centre
              Photo: Longford Tourism
Peat bogs, provide an ideal environment for the preservation of organic remains, including wooden artefacts. The acidic conditions create an environment which is low in oxygen. This prevents the growth of microorganisms, which helps to preserve organic remains, such as wood, leather, and even the soft tissues of humans or animals. 
Hundreds of ancient bog bodies have been discovered in the boglands of Europe over the last few centuries, of which about 130 have been found in Ireland. Most of bog bodies date from the Iron Age. Experts believe that many of the Irish Iron Age bog bodies are the remains of former kings who were sacrificed.
Today, some 18 meters (60 ft) of the Corlea Trackway is on permanent display within the Visitor Centre. A boardwalk, which follows the course of the remaining trackway that is still buried under the bog, was constructed to allow visitors to have a sense of how the Corlea Trackway may have looked during the Iron Age. The Corlea Trackway ended on a small island from which a second trackway, also radiocarbon dated to 148 BC, connected to dry land on the far side of the bog. This second trackway was also around one kilometre long. 
The Corlea Trackway was built from trees felled either in late 148 BC or early 147 BC  giving us a precise date for its construction. It was a major building project for its time requiring a high level of both skill and social organisation. The trackway was preserved by the unique conditions which exist in our boglands. While we cannot say for sure why the Corlea Trackway was built all those years ago, we can marvel at such an achievement. The visitor centre housing the trackway provides a wealth of information on this and other bogland discoveries but do check the opening times if you are planning a visit.
For further information please see:

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Oldest Human DNA from Africa

Map of Morroco showing Grotte des Pigeons
(c) MailOnline/Johny Reading

About 15,000 years ago, in the oldest known cemetery in the world, people buried their dead in sitting positions with beads and animal horns, deep in a cave in what is now Morocco. These people were also buried with small, sophisticated stone arrowheads and points. Archaeologists assumed they were part of an advanced European culture that had migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa.
Recent studies of their ancient DNA show that they had no European ancestry. Instead, they were related to both Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans, suggesting that more people were migrating in and out of North Africa than previously thought.

First Fossil Evidence of Modern Humans

The first fossil evidence for any modern humans outside Africa comes from the Middle East, from the archaeological sites of Skhul and Qafzeh in Israel, dating to around 120,000 years ago. However, this early expansion of modern humans was not maintained. Until recently, the expansion of our own species out of Africa that eventually led to the colonisation of the globe was thought to have occurred after 100,000 years ago.
A re-evaluation of early human remains and artefacts also from Morocco has pushed back the advent of Homo sapiens by 100,000 years. Archaeologists and palaeontologists now think that the oldest of the fossils comes from 300,000 to 350,000 years ago. Skulls, teeth, and long bones of at least five Homo sapiens, along with stone tools and animal bones, have been found at Jebel Irhoud, Morocco.
Teeth from skeletons unearthered at 
Grotte des Pigeons cave revealing extensive
tooth decay. Credit: Isabelle De Groote
Analysis of deposits from the front of the cave revealed the ancient people indulged on snails, pine nuts and, significantly, carbohydrate-rich acorns, which may have contributed to the tooth decay found in these early people. The new findings suggest that the concept of a ‘sweet tooth’ may be much older than believed. Nevertheless, it is estimated that less than 2% of Stone Age foragers had cavities in their teeth in marked contrast to later populations on a diet high in carbohydrates.

Oldest human DNA evidence from Africa

The oldest human DNA evidence yet from Africa has come from the cave known as the Grotte des Pigeons, near the village of Taforalt in northeast Morocco. Humans occupied this cave on and off from at least 80,000 years ago till about 10,000 years ago.  These people lived in the front of the cave and buried their dead in the back.
During recent excavations at Grotte des Pigeons, archaeologists saved the inner-ear petrous bones, which provides an excellent source for ancient DNA. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Jena, Germany, extracted ancient mitochondrial DNA, which is passed on only from mothers to their children, from seven individuals.
The researchers found no genetic tie to ancient Europeans. Known as the Iberomaurusians, they seem to be related to Middle Easterners and other Africans. These people shared about two-thirds of their genetic ancestry with Natufians, hunter-gatherers who lived in the Middle East 14,500 to 11,000 years ago, and one-third with sub-Saharan Africans who were most closely related to today’s West Africans and the Hadza of Tanzania.
Grotte des Pigeons Cave at Taforalt
Photo: Wikipedia
Iberomaurusians and Natufians

Further studies will search for the people who gave rise to both the Iberomaurusians, found throughout North Africa, and the Natufians. The Natufian culture existed in the Levant, a region in the Eastern Mediterranean. The culture was unusual in that it supported a sedentary or semi-sedentary population even before the introduction of agriculture. Natufians founded Jericho which may be the oldest city in the world (Wikipedia).
The theory that Europeans from Sicily or the Iberian Peninsula were buried at Grotte des Pigeons was not supported by DNA analysis. The fact that the Natufian culture existed in the Middle East suggests the Grotte des Pigeons people and the Natufians shared common ancestors from North Africa or the Middle East.
 These findings provide new evidence of early contacts between North Africa and the Near East, and regions south of the Sahara Desert. Further DNA studies on other Iberomaurusian sites will be required to establish whether the evidence from the Grotte des Pigeons is representative of the Iberomaurusian gene pool.


The number of ancient DNA studies has increased dramatically over the past two decades, covering a period of human history going back 40,000 years. The oldest human DNA evidence yet from Africa has come from the cave known as the Grotte des Pigeons, in northeast Morocco. Archaeologists had assumed that these ancient people were part of an advanced European culture that had migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa. Recent studies of the ancient DNA of these people shows that they had no European ancestry. Instead, they were related to both Middle Easterners and sub-Saharan Africans.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Neolithic British Isles Gene Pool Replaced by Beaker Immigrants

Reconstruction of a Beaker Burial (National Archaeological Museum of Spain, Madrid)

The Beaker People
Archaeologists have charted the spread of an ancient culture known as the Beaker people characterised by their bell-shaped pottery. This culture first spread between Iberia and central Europe beginning about 4,700 years ago. It was thought initially that only the ideas and not the people migrated. This was because the genes of the Iberian population remain distinct from those of the central Europeans who adopted the characteristic pots and other artefacts.
However, when the Beaker culture extended to Britain and Ireland 4,500 years ago, it was brought by migrants who almost completely replaced the existing inhabitants within a few hundred years. The assumption that people today are directly descended from the people who always lived in that same area no longer stands. Human populations have been moving and mixing throughout history.
About 5,300 years ago, local hunter-gatherer cultures were replaced in many places by nomadic herders who were able to expand quickly by exploiting horses and the invention of the cart. These highly mobile people left behind big, rich burial sites.  
Nature (c) Bell Beaker Map - 18th May 2017
A research project led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, UCL Institute of Archaeology, looked at Beaker mobility, migration, and diet in Britain in the period 2500-1700 BC. These people have been credited with introducing metalworking to Britain, spreading the Indo-European language group, and building Stonehenge. Scientists found that the beaker pots buried with their dead date from the same time as bronze metalworking and the building of recumbent stone circles.
Beaker Burials
The study analysed 285 Beaker-period burials from England, Scotland and Wales for strontium, oxygen, sulphur, carbon, and nitrogen isotopes to investigate their dietary and mobility histories. The results of the study suggest that Beaker invaders largely replaced Britain’s Neolithic farmers.
Beaker Burial
Beaker burials are distinctive and include Beaker ware or pottery. Male remains were positioned on the left-side facing east, and women on the right-side facing west. Beaker society was the first farming community in Northern Europe, having abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favour of growing wheat, barley, and rearing livestock such as cattle, sheep, and goats.
In 1987, the remains of an 18-22-year-old woman, now known as Ava, were discovered at Achavanich in Caithness in the north of Scotland. The burial was later dated to the Middle Bronze Age – 3,700 years ago. Most burials from the location and period were underneath a cairn or in a pit dug into soil. Most Beaker burials are inhumations, sometimes under round barrows, accompanied by a few grave goods.
Ava’s remains were accompanied by a unique short-necked beaker. The report on this excavation states that the beaker contained “prepared cereal grain, honey, added flowers and fruit (including meadowsweet, bramble & wood sage), and the sap of birch and alder trees.”
Danish archaeologists working on the proposed Femern Belt link tunnel, discovered a 5,500-year-old ceramic vessel imprinted with the fingerprint of the craftsman who made it. The vessel is called a ‘funnel beaker’ because it has a neck shaped like a funnel and a flat bottom. The Funnel Beaker Culture existed in the area between 4000 and 2800 BC and was related to the more well-known Beaker culture (or ‘Beaker People’).
Ancient DNA Analysis
To date, the ancient DNA of 1,336 individuals has been analysed and published compared with just 10 in 2014. DNA analysis shows that people moved all the way from the steppes of Central Asia, north of the Black and Caspian seas, to the Atlantic coast of Europe in the west, to Mongolia in the east and India in the south.
Decorated Beaker from Achavanch Beaker Burial
Caithness, Northern Scotland
Researchers studied more than 1,000 samples from Britain to measure the replacement of the island’s existing gene pool by the steppe-related DNA from the Bell Beaker people more accurately. Some researchers calculate that Britain saw a greater than 90% shift in its genetic make-up. However, this view has been challenged by other scientists who do not see such a huge shift in the archaeological record. The rise of cremation in Bronze Age Britain may have biased the finding.
The analysis of ancient DNA enables scientists to study not only the movements of our distant ancestors, but also the evolution of traits and predispositions to diseases. In one example, scientists at the University of Copenhagen found DNA from plague in the steppe populations. If the groups that migrated to Britain and Ireland after 4,500 years ago brought the disease with them, that could help explain why the existing population shrank so quickly.
The Beaker culture is the name of a cultural phenomenon which occurred in large parts of Western Europe during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age period. The Beaker People introduced ceramics and metalwork into our culture as well as the earliest form of the Celtic language. Their arrival marked the end of the Neolithic tradition of megalithic passage tombs such as Newgrange and Knowth in the east and Carrowmore in the west.
Advances in DNA techniques, including cost reduction and speed, have added greatly to recent developments in tracing the movement of ancient peoples. Human populations have been moving and mixing throughout history. The Beaker culture extended to Britain and Ireland 4,500 years ago, brought by migrants who almost completely replaced the existing inhabitants within a few hundred years.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Streedagh Strand – Spanish Armada Shipwrecks

Streedagh Strand Memorial
Photograph (c) Richard Golden

Streedagh Strand is peaceful and quiet now. The cries of those souls who tragically perished there are no longer heard and over four centuries of tides have washed away their blood.
In September 1588 three ships of the Spanish Armada were wrecked off Streedagh Strand on the coast of Sligo. They were caught in a sudden violent storm that raged over a three-day period, culminating in the destruction of the ships and the loss of over 1,000 lives. The ships were La Lavia, of Venetian origin, Santa Maria de Visóri from Ragusa (Dubrovnik) and La Juliana from Barcelona.
In 1985, a group of English divers - known as the Streedagh Armada Group (SAG) - discovered the wrecks. Following some investigative work at the time, many artefacts were recovered, including three guns from the wrecks of La Juliana and one from La Lavia.
Protracted legal proceedings involving the State and Streedagh Armada Group finally determined that ownership of the three wrecks was vested in the State.

La Juliana
Streedagh Strand
Photograph (c) Richard Golden
In 2015 the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) investigating the wreck of the La Juliana identified five bronze guns and one possible iron gun lying exposed on the seabed. Five carriage wheels and two large anchors were also visible. Four more large gun-carriage wheels were also recorded, bringing the total number to nine, one of which was recovered. A partially buried bronze cauldron was also recovered which contained the remains of pitch indicating that it was used on board for repair work to the ship.
Bronze Canons from the Spanish Armada Wreck La Juliana
Streedagh Strand - photo from Flickr
Nine ornate bronze guns of various calibres were recovered from the wreck site of La Juliana. All these items were in remarkable condition with crests, embossed figures of saints, the date of production, weight details within scroll motifs and makers' symbols perfectly preserved. Seven of the guns recovered show the year of manufacture as 1570. The saints depicted, many martyred, span several centuries, from Roman times through to the medieval period.
The La Juliana was engaged as a transport vessel in several key battles. This ship took part in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, when the coalition of European Christian maritime states brought together by Pope Pius V destroyed the Muslim fleet of the Ottoman Empire off the western coast of Greece. The ship carried 32 guns during the 1588 Armada campaign with a complement of 325 soldiers and a crew of 70 men.

The Spanish Armada
 Phillip 11, the Catholic King of Spain,
In the second half of the sixteenth century many of the countries of Europe were embroiled in wars that had their origins in the religious upheavals which had followed the Reformation. A state of undeclared war existed between England and Spain at the time of the Armada. The assembling of this great fleet by Phillip 11, the Catholic King of Spain, and its purpose appears to have been the worst kept secret in Europe. The situation came to a head with the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in February 1587, and with the attack on Cadiz by Sir Francis Drake in April of the same year. It was then that preparations began for the great Armada of 1588.
The fleet arrived off the Lizard on July 29th. An English fleet of 90 ships sailed south to meet the Armada. On the night of August 7th, the English sent fire ships in amongst the Spanish fleet. This was a dreaded tactic as the ships were filled with explosive and incendiary materials. In panic, the Spaniards were forced to abandon the venture. The Spanish ships were given instructions to sail home via the East coast of England, around the north of Scotland and Ireland before turning southwards for Spain.
Streedagh Strand
Photograph (c) Richard Golden
Of the original fleet of 130, up to 26 ships may have been lost around the coast of Ireland, and possibly as many as 40 in all were lost on the return journey to Spain. The human cost of the expedition was high: some 1,913 soldiers and 1,016 sailors lost their lives.
Captain Francisco De Cuellar, a survivor, wrote a fascinating account of the wrecking of these three ships and the subsequent events. De Cuellar describes the dreadful conditions of the wrecking and the terrible loss of life, one thousand drowned and those survivors who reached the shore being stripped and robbed by the local "savages".
Following the defeat of the Armada, Elizabeth had medals struck with the legend, "God breathed and they were scattered". The devout Phillip was heard to comment on hearing of the failure of the Armada, "I sent my ships to fight against men, not the winds and tides of God".

The wreck of La Juliana is significant for many reasons. It was a Catalan-built ship, which is critical, as we have very little knowledge of ship construction and the Iberian shipbuilding tradition in this period. The La Juliana provide an opportunity to gain further insight into one of the wrecks from Armada campaign. It provides the most complete collection of bronze guns recovered from any Spanish Armada ship to date.
The diversity of the bronze cannon and the details on each one makes them national treasures. The variety and size of cannon shot will provide further information on the types of gun carried on board ships like La Juliana and the type of the munitions supplied for such a campaign.
The use of the fire-ships and the subsequent orders to the Armada to return to Spain were turning points in European history. If the wind had changed direction and blown the fire ships away from the Armada at Calais we might all be speaking Spanish today.

For further information see:
(1) CANNONS, SAINTS AND SUNKEKL SHIPS—AN ARMADA WRECK REVEALED Author(s): Fionnbarr Moore, Karl Brady and Connie Kelleher Source: Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Winter 2015),
(2) The Irish Legacy of the Spanish Armada Author(s): Laurence Flanagan Source: Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Winter, 1988)
(3) Finds of the Spanish Armada Author(s): Cormac F. Lowth Source: Dublin Historical Record, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Spring, 2004)