Blue-Eyed Hunter-Gatherers Roamed Prehistoric Europe, Gene Map Reveals

Some ancient peoples in Spain 7,000 years ago had blue eyes and dark skin.

Dan Vergano

National Geographic



Apologies to Frank Sinatra, but the real Ol' Blue Eyes has been found—a 7,000-year-old Spaniard whose fossil genes reveal that early Europeans sported blue eyes and dark skin.


Mapping the blue-eyed boy's genes is part of ongoing effort to uncover the DNA of ancient humans. The new study in the journal Nature, led by Inigo Olalde of Spain's Institut de Biología Evolutiva in Barcelona, reports the genetic map of a skeleton found in a Spanish cave.


Scholars had suspected that blue eyes arrived as an import into Europe, brought by late-arriving farmers who invaded the continent more than 5,000 years ago. Contrary to the conventional picture of a blue-eyed, fair-haired northern European, the study suggests that blue eyes were already common among the continent's early hunter-gatherers, along with darker skin.


But those aren't the only results that matter from the study. The researchers also discovered that a number of disease-resistance genes seen in modern Europeans were active in the ancient Spaniard's gene map. And the study adds genetic support to archaeological findings that hint that a widespread hunter-gatherer culture cut continuously across Europe in prehistory.


The researchers extracted DNA from a tooth found with the skeleton of man, dubbed La Brana 1, uncovered in a cave near León, Spain, in 2006.


In the lab, they compared the DNA from the man with DNA from other Stone Age Europeans, such as Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old "Iceman" of the Alps (whose people were farmers), and older, partial samples of genes recovered from hunter-gatherer burials in Sweden, Finland, and Siberia.


They also compared the results against the DNA of 35 modern-day Europeans.


Around 7,000 years ago, a Stone Age culture spread across Europe, made famous by discoveries of small, rotund "Venus" figurines found in their burials. The study results suggest those people were genetically connected—one thin population of dark-haired hunter-gatherers whose domain reached from Spain to Siberia. They were also partly the ancestors of many of today's northern Europeans.


Moreover, the ancient Spaniard had multiple genes linked to disease immunity, resistance to bacteria, and risks for musculoskeletal ailments, ones seen in people today. Understanding the origin of these genes can help better explain their function, which could aid medical studies, for example.


For fans of the "Paleo Diet" and other get-back-to-nature notions, the study brings some good news, suggesting that people carry around plenty of genes left over from their primeval forebears. The survival of some disease-resistance genes that mattered greatly in antiquity, as shown by their continuity in modern humans, also can help show how evolution worked its magic on us, and is still working today.



Love thy neighbour: Neanderthal inbreeding could be a factor in their demise

19 December 2013


High-quality Neanderthal genetic code reveals interbreeding between small populations of early humans.


Looking at the complete genetic code (the genome) of a Neanderthal woman about 65,000 years old, an international team of researchers discovered that her parents were closely-related, possibly half-siblings. Her genome shows a lack of genetic diversity, meaning there was little mixing of DNA for many generations.


This suggests she lived in a small population, where there was a lot of inbreeding between family members. ‘Despite the fact that her ancestors had ranged widely in Eurasia for tens of millennia, her genomic diversity was less than that found in a small population of hunter-gatherers living in the Amazonian rainforest today,’ said Prof Chris Stringer, Museum human origins expert.


Link to extinction

From tests on humans living today, we know that our ancestors had much larger genetic diversity, suggesting a higher population size.


Small population sizes and inbreeding in Neanderthal populations could be one reason why they died out while ancestral modern humans thrived. ‘Very low levels of diversity are known to be risk factors in extinctions today,’ Prof Stringer said.


Other early humans

The new Neanderthal genome comes from the foot bone of a woman found in a cave in Siberia. Previously, researchers had discovered a completely different early group of humans in the cave, known as Denisovans, from two teeth and the finger bone of a girl who lived around 50,000 years ago.


The new discovery of a Neanderthal woman at the same site, albeit at an earlier time, suggests the two populations may have met and interbred. This is backed up by evidence of shared genetic information between the two groups. There are also other sources of DNA in the Denisovan genome thought to be from a separate interbreeding event with yet another group of ancient humans.


Searching the genome

The new Neanderthal genome is the best quality version yet, and will allow comparison with our own genome. With this information, researchers can see what changes became fixed in us after we split from the other early human groups. This may reveal more reasons why we survived and thrived while the others perished.



300,000-year-old hearth found: Microscopic evidence shows repeated fire use in one spot over time

Date: January 27, 2014

Source: Weizmann Institute of Science



When did humans really begin to control fire and use it for their daily needs? Scientists discovered in the Qesem Cave, an archaeological site near present-day Rosh Ha'ayin, the earliest evidence -- dating to around 300,000 years ago -- of unequivocal repeated fire building over a continuous period. These findings help answer the question and hint that those prehistoric humans already had a highly advanced social structure and intellectual capacity.


Humans, by most estimates, discovered fire over a million years ago. But when did they really begin to control fire and use it for their daily needs? That question -- one which is central to the subject of the rise of human culture -- is still hotly debated. A team of Israeli scientists recently discovered in the Qesem Cave, an archaeological site near present-day Rosh Ha'ayin, the earliest evidence -- dating to around 300,000 years ago -- of unequivocal repeated fire building over a continuous period. These findings not only help answer the question, they hint that those prehistoric humans already had a highly advanced social structure and intellectual capacity.


Excavations in Qesem Cave have been ongoing since 2000. The team is headed by Profs. Avi Gopher and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University. Dr. Ruth Shahack-Gross of the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science at the Weizmann Institute has been involved in this archaeological research since excavations began, and she collects samples on-site for later detailed analysis in the lab. Shahack-Gross, whose expertise is in the identification of archaeological materials, identified a thick deposit of wood ash in the center of the cave. Using infrared spectroscopy, she and her colleagues were able to determine that mixed in with the ash were bits of bone and soil that had been heated to very high temperatures. This was conclusive proof that the area had been the site of a large hearth.

Next, Shahack-Gross tested the micro-morphology of the ash. To do this, she extracted a cubic chunk of sediment from the hearth and hardened it in the lab. Then she sliced it into extremely thin slices -- so thin they could be placed under a microscope to observe the exact composition of the materials in the deposit and reveal how they were formed. With this method, she was able to distinguish a great many micro-strata in the ash -- evidence for a hearth that was used repeatedly over time. These findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Around the hearth area, as well as inside it, the archaeologists found large numbers of flint tools that were clearly used for cutting meat. In contrast, the flint tools found just a few meters away had a different shape, designed for other activities. Also in and around the area were large numbers of burnt animal bones -- further evidence for repeated fire use for cooking meat. Shahack-Gross and her colleagues have shown that this organization of various "household" activities into different parts of the cave points to an organization of space -- and a thus kind of social order -- that is typical of modern humans. This suggests that the cave was a sort of base camp that prehistoric humans returned to again and again.

"These findings help us to fix an important turning point in the development of human culture -- that in which humans first began to regularly use fire both for cooking meat and as a focal point -- a sort of campfire -- for social gatherings," she says. "They also tell us something about the impressive levels of social and cognitive development of humans living some 300,000 years ago." The researchers think that these findings, along with others, are signs of substantial changes in human behavior and biology that commenced with the appearance in the region of new forms of culture -- and indeed a new human species -- about 400,000 years ago.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Weizmann Institute of Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

R. Shahack-Gross, F. Berna, P. Karkanas, C. Lemorini, A. Gopher, R. Barkai. Evidence for the repeated use of a central hearth at Middle Pleistocene (300 ky ago) Qesem Cave, Israel. Journal of Archaeological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2013.11.015

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Weizmann Institute of Science. "300,000-year-old hearth found: Microscopic evidence shows repeated fire use in one spot over time." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 January 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140127101236.htm>.



Stone Age harpoon found on Pacific island

Carved bone points to ancient, complex hunting weapons near Indonesia



A 35,000-year-old piece of carved bone found on Timor, an island between Java and Papua New Guinea, indicates that complex hunting weapons were manufactured much earlier than previously thought in Australasia.


A team led by archaeologist Sue O’Connor of Australian National University in Canberra has unearthed, in a project that began in 2000, what it regards as the broken butt of a bone harpoon point. Three closely spaced notches were carved on each side of the artifact, above a shaft that tapers to a rounded bottom.


Wear on the notches and residue of a sticky substance close to the bottom suggest the point was tied and glued to a slot on the side of a wooden handle or inserted into a split hollow shaft, the researchers report January 15 in the Journal of Human Evolution.


Stone Age islanders threw spears from boats at large fish and other sea prey, O’Connor proposes.


Until now, comparably complex hunting weapons made on islands near Timor dated to no more than several hundred years ago. Curiously, 80,000- to 90,000-year-old African bone spear points display notches similar to those on the Timor find, O’Connor says.



S. O’Connor et al. Are osseous artefacts a window to perishable material culture? Implications of an unusually complex bone tool from the Late Pleistocene of East Timor. Journal of Human Evolution. Published January 15, 2014. Doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2013.12.002.



Carthaginians sacrificed own children, archaeologists say

Graves holding tiny cremated bones confirm accounts dismissed as Greek or Roman black propaganda, study shows

Maev Kennedy

The Guardian, Tuesday 21 January 2014 18.19 GMT


Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.


"This is something dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn't want to believe it," said Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford, who is behind the study, with international colleagues, of one of the most bitterly debated questions in classical archaeology.


"But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made.


"This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community."


Argument has raged on the subject since cemeteries known as tophets – after the biblical account of a place of sacrifice – were excavated in the early 20th century on the outskirts of Carthage in modern Tunisia, and then at other Carthaginian sites in Sicily and Sardinia. The graves held tiny cremated bones carefully packed into urns, buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods. One has a carving which has been interpreted as a priest carrying the body of a small child. Some archaeologists and historians saw the finds as proving ancient accounts of child sacrifice; others insisted they showed tender respect for cherished children who died before or soon after birth.


Quinn and her colleagues, a group of Punic archaeologists and historians from Italy and the Netherlands, who publish their findings in the journal Antiquity – where the argument has been rumbling on for several years – completely reject the latter theory.


"The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods 'heard my voice and blessed me'. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering – and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you're already worried about the gods rejecting it."


"Then there is the fact that the animals from the sites, which were beyond question sacrificial offerings, are buried in exactly the same way, sometimes in the same urns with the bones of the children."


Although hundreds of remains were found, there were far too few to represent all the stillbirth and infant deaths of Carthage. According to Quinn, there were perhaps 25 such burials a year, for a city of perhaps 500,000 people.


The Roman historian Diodorus and other ancient historians gave graphic accounts of Carthaginian child sacrifice: "There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping towards the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire."


Diodorus even said that some citizens who bought children from poor people and reared them specially for sacrifice believed misfortunes had resulted because they had not sacrificed their own offspring.


The argument has been passionate for years, with scientists often reaching opposed conclusions from the same bone fragments: four years ago a group of scientists published a paper saying the cremated remains did not indicate infant sacrifice.


Now in the same issue as Quinn's research, Antiquity is publishing a new paper on the same bones, insisting that the earlier study got the science of burnt infant bones wrong, and therefore greatly overestimated the number who died before birth rather than being murdered in infancy.


Quinn said many of her academic colleagues were appalled by her conclusions.


"The feeling that some ultimate taboo is being broken is very strong. It was striking how often colleagues, when they asked what I was working on, reacted in horror and said, 'Oh no, that's simply not possible, you must have got it wrong.'"


"We like to think that we're quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us – the truth is, I'm afraid, that they really weren't."



New excavations take place at Ilkley's Roman fort

4:55pm Wednesday 22nd January 2014 in Ilkley


An archaeological dig aims to uncover new information about Ilkley’s ancient Roman fort and the lives of the soldiers who once lived there.


Archaeologists are digging trial trenches on Castle Hill - close to the Manor House Museum and All Saints Parish Church.


The site was opened up for members of the public to visit today and find out more about the explorations unde way.


The investigation has been instructed by property developer, Burley Developments, in consultation with English Heritage and West Yorkshire Archaeological Advisory Service.



Burley Developments is hoping to develop the plot, which is on the site of former Glovers Garage land, for housing - but first needs to find out if Roman remains lie beneath.


On-Site Archaeology Ltd of York is undertaking trial trenching on Castle Hill just outside the west gate of the fort.


The history of the Roman fort at Ilkley - said by some to be named Olicana - is based largely on early 20th Century excavations in the north-western quadrant and a single trench through the defences excavated in 1962.


The fort is thought to have been established in the late first century AD, on a knoll overlooking the River Wharfe, as part of the Governor Agricola’s campaigns of conquest in the Pennine region.




Article created on Monday, May 14, 2012

By Maggie Struckmeier


During the late Iron-Age, Lofoten chiefdoms were actively increasing their wealth through tribute and trade. These chieftains owned large farms, built fine boats and longhouses, and surrounded themselves with exotic items brought back from trading expeditions.

A glimpse into this dynamic Norwegian world was helped by a chance discovery in 1981 on the Island of Vestvågøy which contained the largest longhouse ever found in Scandinavia. The results from the excavation led to such a wealth of information that a replica of the hall was built nearby allowing visitors to experience the life of a Lofoten chieftain.


Three Lofoten chiefdoms

It is estimated that there may have been three Lofoten chiefdoms; two of them on Vestvågøy and the third on the neighbouring Island of Gimsøy. This way of life was already established by the early centuries AD, with fishing and small-scale farming the main subsistence activities. However, towards the late Iron Age larger farms with a more centralised function began to appear, indicating a shift in fortunes and a concentration of power.

At that point the Lofoten islands were densely populated putting pressure on the scarce arable land found mainly along the coastal areas.  Borg, located in the northeast of  Vestvågøy, still forms one of these habitable spots. This tiny community had been identified by archaeologists as exhibiting most of the hallmarks of a possible chieftain’s farm with its boathouse remains, barrows and vestiges of long-houses. However, with no evidence of a great hall there was no conclusive proof.


This was set to change when, in the Autumn of 1981, Frikk Harald Bjerkli, a local farmer out ploughing his land, noticed some unusual pottery and glass coming up in the soil. Fortunately, he retrieved the items which proved to be a turning point for Borg history. The fragments represented high status European wares, rarely seen in Scandinavia let alone in Northern Norway.

In response to this discovery test trenching began in the farmer’s field in 1983 and recovered more of the distinctive Rhineland pottery known as Tating ware, along with a wide variety of European glass fragments. In the same location the remains of at least five buildings were identified with radiocarbon dating indicating a span of 650 years, leaning towards late Iron Age. However, the range of artefacts found, including the imported wares, were mainly dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries.

Major excavations

The exciting results obtained from the test trenching clearly warranted more action. Major excavations got underway in 1986 in the form of a combined research project involving participation from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the United Kingdom.

After three years the archaeological team had succeeded in excavating the remains of the largest longhouse ever found in Scandinavia, and was interpreted as a chieftain’s hall. The excavations revealed that a 67-metre-long building had first been erected as early as the sixth century and was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged at the beginning of the 8th century to a length of 83 metres.

The remains of the hall itself were preserved to the extent that traces of the turf outer walls, entrances, partitioning walls, floors, hearths and internal roof supports could be understood. The structure had been divided into five main areas consisting of the living quarters, banqueting hall and storage room, vestibule, and animal shed.

The function of each room was determined mainly by the distribution of finds. Although modern farming methods had destroyed the stratigraphical sequence the objects did not appear to have migrated very far from their original locations within the confines of the building itself.

Enough evidence to re-construct the long-house

After three years, archaeologists had amassed enough evidence to re-construct the long-house as it would have looked in its final phase. Several alternative roof constructions were discussed based around the two options of shingle or turf. Shingle, such as is found, for instance, on Norwegian stave churches, was eventually decided upon. Shingle makes the building visible from a great distance, whereas a turf roof would have made the hall quite inconspicuous within the landscape. Poles mounted in pairs bear the weight of the roof which sits 9 metres from ground level and relieves the turf outer walls of any strain. The long-house was completed in 1995 and is now known as the Lofotr Museum.

The remains of three boathouses at Borg have never been examined archaeologically. The largest is estimated to be around 26 metres long.  Based on information from excavations at Rennesøy in Rogaland, a 30-metre-long boathouse has been reconstructed at Borg to house ‘Lofotr’, a copy of the Gokstad ship from the 9th century found during excavations near the Oslo fjord.

At this time, boat building had become much more accomplished and navigation was extremely precise. A warming climate also meant that travelling became easier and the Atlantic Ocean was crossed on trips to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland (part of North America). Norwegian merchants  travelled to the east, by way of the Russian rivers, to the Caspian Sea and through the Black Sea to Constantinople (Byzantium).

Ottar from Hålogaland

One Norwegian chieftain from the 9th century who went on such expeditions was Ottar from Hålogaland, to the north of Lofoten. In his travelogue from the 9th century he describes travelling to the frozen wastelands along the White Sea, dealing with groups such as the Sami, then onto the trading towns of southern Scandinavia and across to England where he visited King Alfred of Wessex.

Ottar brought back to his homeland luxury articles such as fine textiles, glass vessels, precious metals, wheat, honey and wine. In return he could offer black fox and white marten fur, soapstone vessels, whetstones made of shale, and a variety of iron goods. Walrus tusk ivory was very much in demand and so valuable that when Ottar visited the Court in Wessex he brought two as a gift to King Alfred.

Ottar may have seemed particularly adventurous to the likes of the English, but due to the limitations of the land in supplying their needs it was expected of men from these Norwegian communities to travel in search of wealth and opportunity. This, of course, meant leaving behind a family and slaves to continue the year-round farming activities.

Strict demarcation of roles

Life on an Iron Age farm involved a strict demarcation of roles. The women were responsible for milking the cows, baking the bread, brewing  beer, preparing meals, spinning, weaving and raising the children. When young, boys and girls had a similar upbringing. They played together and were expected to take part in day-to-day chores where they acquired the skills needed to run a successful farm and maintain the community; to keep the society going.

The women went straight from childhood to marriage and were equipped with a personal dowry. This was their first contribution to the wealth of the farm to which they moved, and in many ways a woman was as valued and respected as a man. She might own her own land, and with very few exceptions would inherit on an equal footing with a man. To symbolise her authority and power, she would wear the keys to chests, cupboards and storerooms on her belt. In certain situations she would take over the functions of her husband and was often effectively in charge of the farm.

At the age of 15, young men were entitled to decide how to use their inherited property and to bear responsibility for their actions. They were given public tasks that included participation in defence and acts of vengeance, and were expected to win honour and wealth for themselves and their families.

Although these people seemed to enjoy status and wealth, events or circumstance appeared to have driven them from their settlements. Iceland was fast becoming a popular destination for Norwegians, being first settled around the late 9th century by a chieftain called Ingólfur Arnarson. Many chieftains quickly followed suit, accompanied by their families and slaves, most probably driven by political upheaval and land pressures.

Towards the end of the 10th century the farm and long-house at Borg were abandoned. The precise reasons for his departure from the shores of Lofoten may never be known, but it is likely that this chieftain, in search of more security and better opportunities, had boarded his ship and in the traditional Norwegian way sought greater fortunes overseas.



Cardigan Castle: 9,500 artefacts found in archaeological dig

25 January 2014 Last updated at 09:59


Part of a dolphin skull and a medieval arrowhead are among more than 9,500 artefacts uncovered by an archaeological dig at Cardigan Castle.


The 18-month project to uncover the 800-year history of the site has been conducted by NPS Archaeology.


Excavation work has also revealed a new part of the original castle which dates back to the 1170s.


It is part of an £11m renovation project which aims to re-open part of the site this year.


NPS Archaeology project manager Nigel Page said the dig had recovered more than 9,500 objects ranging from medieval pottery and animal bones to a NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute) mug from World War II.


"They give a small window on the people who have lived and worked at the castle," he said.


The building is regarded as the first stone castle built by the Welsh princes and was the stronghold of Rhys ap Gruffydd, prince of the medieval kingdom of Deheubarth.


It is also said to have hosted what is regarded to be Wales' first eisteddfod, but for years it stood crumbling at the riverside gateway to the town centre.


"The most exciting discovery is a three square metre stone structure made from pitch stone which dates back to the earliest stone castle which was built in 1171.


"It was a completely unexpected discovery lying just below the soil in the castle's garden."


Mr Page said the dolphin's skull also dated back to the medieval period before the 15th Century.


"It is not uncommon to find dolphin remains in castles near the coast because they would have been eaten by people at medieval feasts along with swans and other large animals," he added.


Cardigan Castle had a turbulent early history and was captured and lost several times by Llywelyn the Great before it returned to Norman hands after his death in 1240.


"Interestingly the rusted remains of a medieval iron arrowhead is the only evidence for warfare found during the works other than the thick castle walls," said Mr Page.


For the past 15 years the Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust has campaigned to save the site and it still needs to raise over £20,000 by 2015 to ensure the project can be completed.


Cardigan Castle exterior

Cardigan Castle's £11m renovation project started in February 2013

When work on the castle is finished it will have educational facilities, including for Welsh language, cultural, environmental and horticultural studies.


There will also be luxury accommodation for hire, a restaurant and an eisteddfod garden.


The aim is to increase visitor numbers from 3,000 to 30,000 a year.


The project has received funding from the lottery and the European Regional Development Fund, through the Welsh government, along with other organisations.