Scientists have long believed that the first humans made it to the Americas by crossing from now-Russia to now-Alaska. When and how they did it–by boat or by foot–remain matters of contentious debate. Did people move quickly through Alaska and into the rest of North America, or did they hover–as the “Bering standstill” hypothesis suggests–in Beringia (or the Aleutian Islands) for thousands of years?
Archaeologists working at the Upward Sun River site (approximately in the middle of Alaska) recently uncovered the burials of three children: a cremated three year old, and beneath it, a 6-12 week old infant and a 30 week, possibly premature or stillborn fetus. The three year old has been dubbed “Upward Sun River Mouth Child,” and the 6 week old “Sun-Rise Girl Child.” Since these aren’t really names, I’m going to dub them Sunny (3 yrs old), Rosy (6 weeks), and Hope (fetus).
They died around 11,500 years ago, making them the oldest burials so far from northern North America. Rosy and Hope were probably girls; cremation rendered Sunny’s gender a mystery. Rosy and Hope were covered in red ocher and buried together, accompanied by four decorated antler rods, two dart points and two stone axes. (Here’s an illustration of their burial.) The site where the children were buried was abandoned soon after Sunny’s death–perhaps their parents were too sad to stay, or perhaps the location was just too harsh.
Rosy and Hope were well enough preserved to yield DNA.
Surprisingly, they weren’t sisters. Rosy’s mother’s mtDNA hailed from haplogroup C1b, which is found only in the Americas (though its ancestral clade, haplogroup C, is found throughout Siberia.) Hope’s mtDNA is from haplogroup B2, which is also only found in the Americas. Oddly, B2’s parent clade, (B), isn’t common in Siberia–it’s much more common in places like Vietnam, Laos, the Philippines, and Saipan. It’s not entirely absent from Siberia, but it got to Alaska without leaving a larger trail remains a mystery.
Since they are found in the Americans but not Asia, we know these lineages most likely evolved over here; the main questions are when and where. If the Bering Standstill hypothesis is correct and the Indians spent 10-20,000 years stranded in Beringia, they would have had plenty of time to evolve new lineages while still in Alaska. By contrast, if they crossed relatively quickly and then dispersed, these new lineages would have had much less time to emerge, and we would expect them to show up as people moved south.
Or there could have been multiple migration waves, with different haplogroups arriving in different waves. (There were multiple migration waves, but the others occurred well after Sunny and the others were buried.)
In fact, there are five mtDNA lineages found only in the Americas (A2, B2, C1, D1, and X2a.) With Hope and Rosy, we have now identified all five mtDNA lineages in North American burials over 8,000 years old, lending support to the Beringian Standstill hypothesis.
But were the Upward Sun River children’s families ancestral to today’s Native Americans? Not quite.
It looks like Sunny’s tribe split off from the rest of the Beringians (or perhaps the others split off from them) around 22-18,000 years ago. Most of the others headed south, while Sunny’s people stayed in Alaska and disappeared (perhaps because all of their children died.) So Sunny’s tribe was less “grandparent” to today’s Indians and more “great aunt and uncle,” but they still hailed from the same, even older ancestors who first set out from Siberia.
I have previously favored the Aleutian or at least a much more rapid Beringian route, but it looks like I was wrong. I find the idea of the Bering Standstill difficult to believe, but that may just be my own biases. Perhaps people really did get stuck there for thousands of years, waiting for the ice to clear. What amazing people they must have been to survive for so long in so harsh an environment.
It took almost 400 years between Columbus’s arrival in the New World and the complete military domination of the USA by the invaders–but it happened.
The Americas before Columbus arrived were a place of amazing contrasts–from the igloo-dwelling, hunter-gathering Eskimo to the literate, city-building, cannibal Aztecs. At the southern tip of of Patagonia lies the Tierra del Fuego–so named because the nearly naked locals opted to cope with their frigid climate by carrying fire everywhere.
The oldest still-occupied towns in the US are the Acoma and Taos Pueblos of New Mexico, built nearly a thousand years ago (though today the vast majority of residents live in newer housing with electricity and running water built nearby the historic pueblos.) But the oldest overall is Cahokia, occupied between 600 and 1400 AD:
Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture that developed advanced societies across much of what is now the central and southeastern United States, beginning more than 1000 years before European contact. Today, Cahokia Mounds is considered the largest and most complex archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico. …
Cahokia became the most important center for the peoples known today as Mississippians. Their settlements ranged across what is now the Midwest, Eastern, and Southeastern United States. Cahokia was located in a strategic position near the confluence of the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers. It maintained trade links with communities as far away as the Great Lakes to the north and the Gulf Coast to the south, trading in such exotic items as copper, Mill Creek chert, and whelk shells.
Mill Creek chert, most notably, was used in the production of hoes, a high demand tool for farmers around Cahokia and other Mississippian centers. Cahokia’s control of the manufacture and distribution of these hand tools was an important economic activity that allowed the city to thrive.Mississippian culture pottery and stone tools in the Cahokian style were found at the Silvernale site near Red Wing, Minnesota, and materials and trade goods from Pennsylvania, the Gulf Coast and Lake Superior have been excavated at Cahokia. Bartering, not money was used in trade. …
Although it was home to only about 1,000 people before c. 1050, its population grew rapidly after that date. According to a 2007 study in Quaternary Science Reviews, “Between AD 1050 and 1100, Cahokia’s population increased from between 1400 and 2800 people to between 10,200 and 15,300 people”. an estimate that applies only to a 1.8 km2 high density central occupation area. Archaeologists estimate the city’s population at between 6,000 and 40,000 at its peak, with more people living in outlying farming villages that supplied the main urban center. … If the highest population estimates are correct, Cahokia was larger than any subsequent city in the United States until the 1780s, when Philadelphia’s population grew beyond 40,000.
Like many early cities, Cahokia has distinctive, flat-topped pyramids, (here called “mounds”)–probably not because pyramids are magical or because the Cahokians were in contact with Egyptians or aliens, but because it’s the easiest large shape to build. The Cahokians lacked good stone build with and draft animals to haul materials over long distance, so Cahokia’s 120 mounds were built largely of compacted earth:
To achieve that, thousands of workers over decades moved more than an “estimated 55 million cubic feet [1,600,000 m3] of earth in woven baskets to create this network of mounds and community plazas. Monks Mound, for example, covers 14 acres (5.7 ha), rises 100 ft (30 m), and was topped by a massive 5,000 sq ft (460 m2) building another 50 ft (15 m) high.” …
Monks Mound is the largest structure and central focus of the city: a massive platform mound with four terraces, 10 stories tall, and the largest man-made earthen mound north of Mexico. Facing south, it is 100 ft (30 m) high, 951 ft (290 m) long, 836 ft (255 m) wide and covers 13.8 acres (5.6 ha). It also contains about 814,000 cu yd (622,000 m3) of earth. The mound was built higher and wider over the course of several centuries through as many as ten separate construction episodes, as the mound was built taller and the terraces and apron were added.
Since the mounds are made of dirt and it rains in Illinois, erosion is an issue.
Excavation on the top of Monks Mound has revealed evidence of a large building, likely a temple or the residence of the paramount chief, which would have been seen throughout the city. This building was about 105 ft (32 m) long and 48 feet (15 m) wide, and could have been as much as 50 ft (15 m) high. It was about 5,000 sq ft (460 m2).
A large flat plaza located adjacent to Monks Mound was a place where games and public rituals took place.
The Cahokians (and Mississippians in general) had mastered the art of copper working, producing fine ritual art like the dancing warrior to the left. Copper can be worked and shaped while still cold; the Mississippians had not learned how to make bronze nor smelt iron.
The Cahokians also built a Stonehenge-style “Woodhenge”:
a ceremonial area with a 412 feet (126 m) in diameter circle of 48 upright wooden posts. Archaeologists date the placement of at least one of the posts to approximately 950 CE. Archaeological research has shown that four of the posts were at the cardinal locations of north, south, east and west, the eastern and western posts marking the position of the equinox sunrise and sunsets. Four other posts in the circle were shown to be at the summer solstice sunrise and sunset and the winter solstice sunrise and sunset positions.
If you make your sundial big enough, it can double as a clock–a useful trick for a society with a priestly class that wants to do special ceremonies on specific dates.
Woodhenge was eventually dismantled (and moved elsewhere), and the site converted to a cemetery. Some of the burials were of wealthy individuals–perhaps rulers–but most appear to be victims of mass human sacrifice:
A large rectangular pit was dug into the southeast corner of the mound and a mass burial of 24 women was made in it….
A small platform was constructed near the southeastern ramp and four young males with their arms interlocked and missing their hands and skulls were laid out on the platform. Some researchers have concluded that the four men may represent the four cardinal directions.
In a pit excavated next to these four men were placed the bodies of a large group of young women. This mass grave contained the remains of 53 females ranging in age between 15–30 years of age, arranged in two layers separated by matting. The young women show evidence of having been strangled before being arranged in neat rows in the pit. Analysis of bones and dental traits of these women have led archaeologists to believe these individuals were not from the same social class and ethnic group as other individuals interred in the mound. …
Next to this mound to the southwest another mass burial was made. This burial is the most grisly found at the site, containing 39 men and women who appear to have been violently killed. … The victims were then killed and thrown over the edge of the pit. These people showed signs of meeting a violent end, including several being incompletely decapitated, some with fractured skulls and others with fractured jawbones. The evidence shows that some of these individuals were buried alive: “From the vertical position of some of the fingers, which appear to have been digging in the sand, it is apparent that not all of the victims were dead when they were interred – that some had been trying to pull themselves out of the mass of bodies.” The presence of arrowheads in the back of some of these victims, coupled with the beheadings and other evidence of violent death, has led some researchers to conclude that these victims show evidence of warfare or were even the losers of a rebellion against the rulers of Cahokia … On top of them were the remains of 15 elite individuals laid out upon litters made from cedar poles and cane matting . Radiocarbon dating of the cedar poles used for the litters in the top layer burials in this pit determined that this burial was made approximately 100 years after the woodhenge circle had been constructed, or in approximately 1030 CE.
Since the Mississippian culture had not entirely disappeared by the time European chronicles arrived in the area, we actually have an account of a royal Mississippian burial accompanied by ritual sacrifice. According to Wikipedia:
Upon the death of “Tattooed Serpent” [of the Natchez,] in 1725, the war chief and younger brother of the “Great Sun” or Chief of the Natchez; two of his wives, one of his sisters… his first warrior, his doctor, his head servant and the servant’s wife, his nurse, and a craftsman of war clubs all chose to die and be interred with him, as well as several old women and an infant who was strangled by his parents. Great honor was associated with such a sacrifice, and their kin was held in high esteem. After a funeral procession with the chiefs body carried on a litter made of cane matting and cedar poles ended at the temple (which was located on top of a low platform mound); the retainers with their faces painted red and accompanied by their relatives dressed up in their finest garments, were drugged with large doses of nicotine and ritually strangled. Tattooed Serpent was then buried in a trench inside the temple floor and the retainers were buried in other locations atop the mound surrounding the temple. …
Cahokia is only one of the Mississippian people’s many settlements–at least 85 similar sites have been discovered, and that’s just the Mississippians. Other cultures also built mounds, such as the Watson Brake site in Louisiana, built around 3500 BC. (Perhaps these were really all the same culture, but archaeologists classify them as different ones.) The Mississippian sites are generally distinguished by:
Earthen pyramids or mounds
The development of large-scale, corn-based agriculture
Large trade network extending from the Rockies to the Atlantic, Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico
Social hierarchy and centralization of political power, with cities like Cahokia dominant over smaller towns
De Soto observed people living in fortified towns with lofty mounds and plazas, and surmised that many of the mounds served as foundations for priestly temples. Near present-day Augusta, Georgia, de Soto encountered a mound-building group ruled by a queen, Cofitachequi. She told him that the mounds within her territory served as the burial places for nobles.
But like Etzanoa, by the time the Europeans returned, the settlements had been abandoned, most likely due to diseases caught from the French and Spanish.
In 1601, conquistador Conquistador Juan de Onate set off from the Spanish colony of Nuevo Mexico in search of Quivira, the “City of Gold.” It seems wherever the Spanish went, they were always promised a city of gold, just over the next hill–a city that never materialized. The golden pueblos turned out to be adobe walls shining in the sun. Coronado trekked nearly a thousand miles into the Great Plains in search of a city where golden cups hung from the trees, before finding the small, thatched huts and cornfields of the Wichita people.
Onate had more success than Coronado–he found the Etzanoa, a city of some 12,000 to 20,000 people, located at the confluence of two rivers. He decided his expedition–which by then contained only 70 soldiers–was sorely outnumbered and decided to head home.
Europeans would not return to the area until 1724, when Etienne Bourgmont led an expedition from the French colony of Fort Orleans. Bourgmont found a city–but no Wichita. They had been driven out by the Apache, cousins of the Navajo who, upon receiving horses from the Spaniards, had become fierce raiders of the Plains. And even they were driven out, in turn, by an even fiercer tribe: the Comanche.
The French had little interest in the area, and by the time American settlers arrived, the city of Etzanoa had long-since disappeared, its entire existence reduced to obscure debate among historians and archaeologists.
Now it has been found, in Arkansas City, Kansas, (there’s a confusingly named town,) at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut Rivers:
Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University, has found evidence of a massive town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers. What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school kid, of a half-inch iron cannon ball.
He even found a still-functional water shrine, depicting communication with the spirit world, carved into a limestone boulder in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard. …
[The people of Etzanoa] and their Wichita cousins in Quivira, in Rice County, built a trade network with ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. They strapped 50-pound packages of dried meat and hides to themselves and their pack dogs, and walked 550 miles to the Pueblos. They’d then walk back, bringing home cotton fabric, obsidian and turquoise.
They had no horses. The women and children likely helped hunt bison, Blakeslee said, forming lines and waving hide blankets while driving bison toward warriors carrying bows and arrows. “Think of the courage that took,” Blakeslee said.
They cultivated beans, maize (corn), pumpkin and squash. They slaughtered bison meat and hides on an industrial scale. The men likely scouted, walking miles a day, shadowing herds.”
According to Wikipedia:
The ancestors of the Wichita have lived in the eastern Great Plains from the Red River north to Nebraska for at least 2,000 years. Early Wichita people were hunters and gatherers who gradually adopted agriculture. Farming villages began to appear about 900 CE on terraces above the Washita and South Canadian Rivers in Oklahoma. These 10th century communities cultivated maize, beans, squash, marsh elder (Iva annua), and tobacco. They also hunted deer, rabbits, turkey, and, increasingly, bison, and caught fish and collected mussels in the rivers. These villagers lived in rectangular, thatched-roof houses. Archaeologists describe the Washita River Phase from 1250 to 1450, when local populations grew and villages of up to 20 houses were spaced every two or so miles along the rivers. These farmers may have had contact with the Panhandle culture villages in the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, Farming villages along the Canadian River. The Panhandle villagers showed signs of adopting cultural characteristics of the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande Valley.
Structures called “council circles” were excavated in prehistoric Wichita sites. Archaeological excavations have suggested they consist of a central patio surrounded by four semi-subterranean structures. The function of the council circles is unclear. Archaeologist Waldo Wedel suggested in 1967 that they may be ceremonial structures, possibly associated with solstice observations. Recent analysis suggests that many non-local artifacts occur exclusively or primarily within council circles, implying the structures were occupied by political or religious leaders of Great Bend aspect peoples. Other archaeologists leave open the possibility that the council circle earthen works served a defensive role.…
Numerous archaeological sites in central Kansas near the Great Bend of the Arkansas River share common traits and are collectively known as the “Great Bend aspect.” Radiocarbon dates from these sites range from 1450 to 1700 CE. Great Bend aspect sites are generally accepted as ancestral to the Wichita peoples described by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and other early European explorers. The discovery of limited quantities of European artifacts, such as chain mail and iron axe heads at several Great Bend sites, suggests contact with early Spanish explorers.
The centuries have not been kind to the Wichita. Decimated by war and disease, they now number only about 2,500 people:
The Wichita had a large population in the time of Coronado and Oñate. One scholar estimates their numbers at 200,000. Certainly they numbered in the tens of thousands. They appeared to be much reduced by the time of the first French contacts with them in 1719, probably due in large part to epidemics of infectious disease to which they had no immunity. In 1790, it was estimated there were about 3,200 total Wichita. By 1868, the population was recorded as being 572 total Wichita. By the time of the census of 1937, there were only 100 Wichita officially left.
Today, there are 2,501 enrolled Wichitas, 1,884 of whom live in the state of Oklahoma. Enrollment in the tribe requires a minimum blood quantum of 1/32.
For nearly 400 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, most–if not most–of the territory in the Americas was still occupied primarily by Indians. There’s a lot of history there, much of it yet to be discovered.
There’s been a lot of controversy and animosity over the years between archaeologists and Native American tribes, but I hope for everyone’s sakes that the lost city of Etzanoa can become a monument to both.
Stonehenge remains one of the world’s enduring mysteries. Who carved these enormous stones, moved them hundreds of miles, and erected them upon Salisbury plain–and why?
Archaeologists estimate that the first major construction began at Stonehenge around 3,100 BC, when workers dug a large, circular ditch around the site and piled up the resulting dirt in a round bank. But the interesting part of this phase of construction is the third circle inside the first two, consisting of 56 graves, atop which bluestones may have once stood. The bones of deer and oxen were also placed in the surrounding ditch.
Were these sacrifices, or was Stonehenge originally just a cemetery, perhaps for the community’s most important members?
The second stage in Stonehenge’s development, from about 3,000 BC to 2,600 BC, involved the building of wooden structures and further burials. Interestingly, Neolithic grooved ware pottery is associated with this stage.
Grooved ware pottery appears to have been developed way off in the remote, cold, wind-swept Orkney Islands at the tip of Scotland. I’ve written about the Orkneys before, because they also have significant Neolithic sites, including–most relevant to our conversation–the Ring of Brodgar:
The Ring of Brodgar… is a Neolithic henge and stone circle in Orkney, Scotland. Most henges do not contain stone circles; Brodgar is a striking exception, ranking with Avebury (and to a lesser extent Stonehenge) among the greatest of such sites. … These are the northernmost examples of circle henges in Britain. Unlike similar structures such as Avebury, there are no obvious stones inside the circle, but since the interior of the circle has never been excavated by archaeologists, the possibility remains that wooden structures, for example, may have been present. The site has resisted attempts at scientific dating and the monument’s age remains uncertain. It is generally thought to have been erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, and was, therefore, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.
The idea that anyone built anything major way off in the Orkneys, which definitely did not support the kind of comfortable, sedentary population that the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Indus, is remarkable enough. That they built something comparable to Stonehenge and Avebury is incredible, and that a pottery style which appears to have begun in Orkney spread to Britain and Ireland almost defies belief. Surely Orkney lacked the population to man the kind of migrations necessary to impose their pots on others, but perhaps Orkney was some kind of Neolithic cultural leader, perhaps a sacred place people journeyed to from across the seas–or perhaps the people of Orkney traded their pots for products not found locally, their style became popular, and folks in different areas began making their own versions.
The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany were constructed as a part of a megalithic tradition that lasted from 3300 to 900 BCE, during the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Ages. It has been estimated that around 4,000 of these monuments were originally constructed in this part of north-western Europe during this period, although only around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.
Around 2,600 BC, Stonehenge entered its 3rd building phase, involving the erection of some 80 large stones in two concentric circles (“Q” and “R”) near the center of the enclosure. These 2-ton stones were transported 150 miles from a quarry in the Preseli Hills, (modern-day Pembrokeshire in Wales.) According to Wikipedia:
This phase tentatively began as early as 2600 BC, although recent radiocarbon dates from samples retrieved from one of the sockets in 2008 during excavations by Darvill and Wainwright suggest a date of around 2400 to 2300 BC. The final report is yet to be published, but some interesting results follow from the partial excavation of Q Hole 13 where ‘associations with Beaker pottery’ were noted.
The Q and R Holes not only represent the foundation cuts for the first central stone construction, but they also were to include several additional stone settings on the northeast. This modified group face the midsummer sunrise with a possible reciprocal stone aligned on the midwinter sunset. This is the first evidence for any unambiguous alignment at Stonehenge (the solstice axis). … the dates suggested from the 2008 excavation (above) implies the Q & R arrays were perhaps no earlier than 2,400 BC, presenting a challenge to the recently accepted Late Neolithic date for the construction of the iconic sarsen monument. …
Now this is really interesting. The original proliferation of these circles is associated with the neolithic Groved Ware Pottery people. They tended to build chambered tombs and to dig large circular ditches and banks accompanied by human burials. They may have marked these graves with large stones.
Then a new kind of pottery shows up, the Beakers. The Bell Beaker pottery arrived in Britain around 2,500 BC, and around that time a new, significant phase in the construction of these sites begins. Large numbers of extremely heavy stones were brought in and the original north-eastern entrance was widened so that it matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset. Additionally, a road appears to have been built Stonehenge and the River Avon between 2600 and 1700 BCE, perhaps a delivery route for supplies that had been floated down the river. The road is partially aligned with the summer solstice, and ends at another stone circle.
So where the Grooved Ware People perhaps had some kind of cult of the dead, or at least put a lot of effort into constructing fancy burial monuments for their dead, the Bell Beaker people appear to have been really interested in solar alignments.
According to BellBeakerBlogger, even Bell Beaker burials reflect this solar interest:
All burials exhibit similarities that are central to Beaker culture or Beaker-ized people. They are usually flexed, individual burials within a plot, cemetery or larger complex. Men and women face the rising Sun, which along with other information, indicates a religious belief with emphasis on a solar deity.
The sequence of events that occurred at Stonehenge also appears to have happened at Avebury:
The chronology of Avebury’s construction is unclear. It was not designed as a single monument, but is the result of various projects that were undertaken at different times during late prehistory.Aubrey Burlsuggests dates of 3000 BC for the central cove, 2900 BC for the inner stone circle, 2600 BC for the outer circle and henge, and around 2400 BC for the avenues.…
Avebury was one of a group of monumental sites that were established in this region during the Neolithic. Its monuments comprise the henge and associated long barrows, stone circles, avenues, and a causewayed enclosure. These monument types are not exclusive to the Avebury area. For example, Stonehenge features the same kinds of monuments, and in Dorset there is a henge on the edge of Dorchester and a causewayed enclosure at nearby Maiden Castle. …
Archaeologist Mike Parker Pearson noted that the addition of the stones to the henge occurred at a similar date to the construction of Silbury Hill and the major building projects at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls. For this reason, he speculated that there may have been a “religious revival” at the time, which led to huge amounts of resources being expended on the construction of ceremonial monuments.
Religious revival, or triumphant victory celebration?
Work continued at Stonehenge over the next two hundred years, from about 2,600 BC through 2,400 BC, during which the monument’s enormous, central stones were erected. These rocks weigh between 25 and 50 tons each. This was an enormous undertaking that must have required hundreds of people just to move each stone and lift it into place.
“Pots, not people,” is one of archaeology’s most famous maxims, an exhortion to regard a change in material artifacts–say, new pots–as simply a result of local cultural change, trade, or diffusion, rather than the arrival of an entirely new people. The Pots not People reading of the transition from Neolithic Grooved Ware to Copper Age Bell Beakers is simply that people invented new pots (and the technology to work metals.)
In the case of the Corded Ware people, this turned out to be wrong–the Corded Ware People turned out to be the Yamnaya, AKA the Indo-Europeans, who boiled out of the Ukrainian steppe around 4,000 BC, and by 500 BChad conquered almost all of Europe, Iran, Turkey, India, etc. They contributed significantly to the modern European gene pool, especially in eastern Europe.
Arout 3,000 BC, the Bell Beaker culture, named for its distinctively bell-shaped pots, began appearing in Western Europe. The pots didn’t spread smoothly across the continent, but were concentrated along Atlantic and Mediterranean river valleys:
Radiocarbon dating seems to support that the earliest “Maritime” Bell Beaker design style is encountered in Iberia, specifically in the vibrant copper-using communities of the Tagus estuary in Portugal around 2800-2700 BC and spread from there to many parts of western Europe.…
The initial moves from the Tagus estuary were maritime. A southern move led to the Mediterranean where ‘enclaves’ were established in south-western Spain and southern France around the Golfe du Lion and into the Po valley in Italy, probably via ancient western Alpine trade routes used to distribute jadeite axes. A northern move incorporated the southern coast of Armorica. The enclave established in southern Brittany was linked closely to the riverine and landward route, via the Loire, and across the Gâtinais valley to the Seine valley, and thence to the lower Rhine. This was a long-established route reflected in early stone axe distributions and it was via this network that Maritime Bell Beakers first reached the Lower Rhine in about 2600 BC.
Another pulse had brought Bell Beaker to Csepel Island in Hungary by about 2500 BC. … From the Carpathian Basin Bell Beaker spread down the Rhine and eastwards into what is now Germany and Poland. By this time the Rhine was on the western edge of the vast Corded Ware zone. … A review in 2014 revealed that single burial, communal burial and reuse of Neolithic burial sites are found throughout the Bell Beaker zone.
… The earliest copper production in Ireland, identified at Ross Island in the period 2400-2200 BC, was associated with early Beaker pottery. …The same technologies were used in the Tagus region and in the west and south of France. The evidence is sufficient to support the suggestion that the initial spread of Maritime Bell Beakers along the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean, using sea routes that had long been in operation, was directly associated with the quest for copper and other rare raw materials.
The Bell Beakers reached Britain around 2,500 BC.
Unfortunately, the Bell Beaker people didn’t leave any written records, so we don’t know what language they spoke. Were they Indo-Europeans? Moroccans? Did they conquer river valleys across Western Europe, or just tried exchange their pots for local goods along long-established trade routs?
And are they responsible for the menhirs found across western Europe?:
A menhir … is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found solely as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably, but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. … they are most numerous in Western Europe; in particular in Ireland, Great Britain and Brittany. There are about 50,000 megaliths in these areas, while there are 1,200 menhirs in northwest France alone. Standing stones are usually difficult to date, but pottery, and/or pottery shards found underneath some in Atlantic Europe connects them with the Beaker people. They were constructed during many different periods across pre-history as part of a larger megalithic culture that flourished in Europe and beyond.
Almost nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. There is not even any trace of these people’s language; however we do know that they buried their dead and had the skills to grow cereal, farm and make pottery, stone tools and jewelry. Identifying their uses remains speculative. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age — later third millennium BC, ca. 2800 – 1800 BC. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.
Of the Beaker Culture of Ireland, Wikipedia states, in classic archaeologist style:
The ‘bronze halberd’ (not to be confused with the medieval halberd) was a weapon in use in Ireland from around 2400-2000 BC They are essentially broad blades that were mounted horizontally on a meter long handle, giving greater reach and impact than any known contemporary weapon (O’Flaherty 2007). They were subsequently widely adopted in other parts of Europe (Schuhmacher 2002), possibly showing a change in the technology of warfare.
Just a change in technology, definitely not evidence of people getting conquered.
We present new genome-wide ancient DNA data from 170 Neolithic, Copper Age and Bronze Age Europeans, including 100 Beaker-associated individuals. In contrast to the Corded Ware Complex, which has previously been identified as arriving in central Europe following migration from the east, we observe limited genetic affinity between Iberian and central European Beaker Complex-associated individuals, and thus exclude migration as a significant mechanism of spread between these two regions.
In other words, the initial spread of Bell Beakers from Iberia to central Europe was primarily cultural–the people involved are not closely related.
However, human migration did have an important role in the further dissemination of the Beaker Complex, which we document most clearly in Britain using data from 80 newly reported individuals dating to 3900-1200 BCE. British Neolithic farmers were genetically similar to contemporary populations in continental Europe and in particular to Neolithic Iberians, suggesting that a portion of the farmer ancestry in Britain came from the Mediterranean rather than the Danubian route of farming expansion.
Stone-age Britons were genetically similar to stone-age Iberians.
Beginning with the Beaker period, and continuing through the Bronze Age, all British individuals harboured high proportions of Steppe ancestry and were genetically closely related to Beaker-associated individuals from the Lower Rhine area. We use these observations to show that the spread of the Beaker Complex to Britain was mediated by migration from the continent that replaced >90% of Britain’s Neolithic gene pool within a few hundred years, continuing the process that brought Steppe ancestry into central and northern Europe 400 years earlier.
In other words: Bell Beaker pots s originally diffused culturally to the Rhine, where they were adopted by people with Indo-European steppe ancestry. These steppe people then conquered Britain, killing 90% of the stone-age inhabitants.
The victors appear to have gone on a building spree, repurposing neolithic monuments and dedicating them to their own deities, much as the Christian Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque following the Islamic conquest of Constantinople.
Between 2004 and 2006, excavations on the site by a team led by the University of Sheffield revealed seven houses. It has been suggested that the settlement may have originally had up to 1000 houses and perhaps 4,000 people, if the entire enclosed area was used. The period of settlement was probably short, between 15 and 45 years starting sometime between 2525 and 2470 BC.
It may have been the largest village in northern Europe for a brief period. At 500 metres (1,600 ft) in diameter, the henge is the largest in Britain and recent evidence suggests that it was a complementary monument to Stonehenge.
Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance at Durrington Walls. Why this sudden concentration of Neolithic pottery around the time of the Beaker invasion and rebuilding of Stonehenge? Were they captives brought to the area to work on the henge? Or a fortified refuge holding out against the invaders?
By the Iron Age, circa 1,600 BC, Stonehenge had largely fallen out of use, or at least new construction had halted. This was long before the arrival of the Celts in Britain, around 500 BC, so whether the Druids ever made use of Stonehenge as a sacred site or not, they certainly didn’t build it.
The Norte Chico civilization (also Caral or Caral-Supe civilization) was a complex pre-Columbian society around 3500BC-1800BC that included as many as 30 major population centers in what is now the Norte Chico region of north-central coastal Peru. Since the early 21st century, it has been established as the oldest known civilization in the Americas.
We can debate about whether or not Egypt, Mesopotamia, and even the Indus Valley culture really arose independently of each other, but there’s no doubt that Norte Chico, the first known civilization in the Americas, arose all on its own.
Norte Chico is a pre-ceramic culture of the pre-Columbian Late Archaic; it completely lacked ceramics and apparently had almost no visual art. The most impressive achievement of the civilization was its monumental architecture, including large earthworkplatform mounds and sunken circular plazas. Archaeological evidence suggests use of textile technology and, possibly, the worship of common god symbols, both of which recur in pre-Columbian Andean cultures. Sophisticated government is assumed to have been required to manage the ancient Norte Chico.
Norte Chico is located in a north-central area of the coast, approximately 150 to 200 km north of Lima, … It comprises four coastal valleys: the Huaura, Supe, Pativilca, and Fortaleza; known sites are concentrated in the latter three, which share a common coastal plain.
Unfortunately for me, Wikipedia doesn’t have much on Norte Chico; it looks like a lot of the discoveries are relatively recent and so haven’t yet made it into the article. This means I’ve had to dig through other sources, some more reliable (Peru Reports) than others (“dolphin space aliens built ancient pyramids in Peru!”)
I’m doing my best to get information from the more reliable sites, but forgive me if I mis-remember some speculation as fact.
Like Egypt and Sumer–but unlike the Indus Valley–the people of Norte Chico built monumental architecture (notably, pyramids, in much the style that you’d expect if you’ve ever seen a picture of a Mesoamerican pyramid, though their great age has rather reduced their grandeur.)
The Norte Chicoans built their pyramids by creating a large square wall of mortared stones, and then filling in the center with rocks transported in woven bags. (Given the state of the Norte Chicoan pyramids, despite the lack of inclement weather in the area, I suspect the Egyptian methods stand up better over the millennia.)
I suspect that early civilizations tended to build pyramids not because they were all secretly in contact with each other, but because if you want to add a second, third, or fourth story to a building, everything is less likely to fall down if you move each layer in a step. This results in the famous “step pyramid,” like those of the Mayans, Aztecs, early Egyptians, and Norte Chicoans. (Only the Egyptians, to my knowledge, went on to build real pyramids–ie, pyramids with smooth sides.) In other words, pyramids are just the easiest way to make a big building out of stone.
The Norte Chicoans used irrigation to raise corn, sweet potatoes, and other crops, plus they fished for anchovies. They also raised cotton, which appears to have been domesticated almost simultaneously in both the Indus Valley and Norte Chico.
I have also seen references to these intriguing stones–the huancas?–but not much in the way of explanations. (I don’t think the Wikipedia page mentions them.) If I were to hazard a guess, though, I’d suspect they were a sundial.
Unlike Egypt and Sumer–and only somewhat like the IVC–we’ve uncovered no evidence of Norte Chicoan math or writing, and virtually no art. They did not make pots (no ceramics) so they had no pots to decorate (and their textiles have disintegrated greatly over the years.)
In front of the pyramids of Caral lie large, round, sunken pits–amphitheaters, from the looks of them. Unlike the Aztecs, however, archaeologists have so far uncovered no traces of sacrifice in the pyramids or amphitheaters–nor evidence of defensive walls or any sort of warfare. It could be that Norte Chico just didn’t have the population density to allow for warfare or the execution of captured enemies. However, since the whole excavation was only recently begun and archaeologists often seem to have a bias for proclaiming the civilization they’re studying peaceful until proven otherwise, I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be incorrect.)
Archaeologists have found a bunch of flutes with engraved decorations, (proving the Norte Chicoans had both a musical tradition and a sense of humor,) and a few pieces of art have turned up, eg, a decorated gourd shell that archaeologists are claiming represents a local deity (the link is to one of the more questionable sites, so I am not 100% certain of its veracity–if someone finds this photo in an archaeological source, I’d be grateful to know about it.)
Archaeologists recently found three small statues, possibly offerings left at the Vichama site. One of the archaeologists claimed:
“…the position in which the statues were found as well as the larger size of the priestess, who has 28 fingers and toes and whose face is covered in red dots, demonstrate the importance women played in the pre-Hispanic cultures of Peru.”
Personally, I think archaeologists are over-confident when they make statements like this. How do we know she doesn’t have 28 fingers because the artist messed up, or that they aren’t toys?
Wikipedia also claims that they have found a quipu in the ruins. Quipus are sets of knotted strings used by the Inca empire (among others, probably,) to keep track of numerical matters like “number of soldiers captured in battle” or “bushels of corn owed in taxes.” Think of an abacus made of string; 5 knots on string one = 5 bushels of corn; 5 knots further down on the string = 50 bushels of corn, etc. Different colors of string could represent different items.
Interestingly, the Incas, 5,000 years after the Norte Chicoan society began, still did not have written language. I don’t know how you run an empire without written language, but they managed.
(There is some question of whether quipus could have been used to encode more complicated data, like language, but I have tried this and found the medium limiting. You can make a code in which phonemes correspond to a certain number of knots, [similar to codes where A=1, B=2, c=3, etc.] but this becomes unwieldy very quickly. I count 28 phonemes in the Incan language, [English has, IIRC, 40,] which means that just to encode a simple word like “quipu,” with four phonemes, [kh-i-p-u.] Just giving each phoneme a value based on its order in the chart, kh=15, i=2, p=7 [probably] and u=3, or 27 knots just to make one word.
Using different kinds of knots obviously improves the situation, but it still takes a fair amount of string to encode more than a few words. So while I find it reasonable that words like “corn” or “soldiers” might be spelled out in the knots, I doubt many people bothered to write down entire stories this way.)
Since 4,000 year old quipus look a lot like piles of disintegrated, tangled string, I’m holding off on declaring that the Norte Chicoans definitely had quipus until I at least find a picture of the thing.
(The Incas didn’t really use quipus for math, but they had some interesting abacus-like boxes.)
Some more pictures:
To be honest, while it’s a fine start for a people moving from hunter-gathering to agriculture, I’m not all that impressed. Maybe someday we’ll find out more about these people and discover they had something really interesting going on, but right now, they don’t seem all that distinct from a lot of other groups.
The Bronze Age is difficult to study because written language was a lot less widespread back then, and all of the artifacts have had a lot longer to be destroyed than more recent ones. We tend to think, therefore, about the “start” of European history as the rise of the Greek city states of Athens and Sparta with their flowering of philosophy, mathematics, and literature. (In short, the Iron Age.) If we think back before Homer’s day, our focus shifts, from the edge of Europe to the edges of Asia and Africa–Egypt, Anatolia, and Judea. (Indeed, our notion that “continents” are important units by which people are defined is probably faulty in this context, where bodies of water are probably equally important.)
But there were fortified towns of +5,000 people in Greece a good 6,000 years before Homer composed his epics, way back in the neolithic. By the Bronze Age, Greece had cities and palaces with aqueducts, sewers, tons of art, writing, and international trade. (The Greek Bronze Age began around 3,200 BC.)
Egypt in the Bronze Age built its famous pyramids; across the Mediterranean, in Spain, we find the pre-bronze fortified town of Los Millares (population +1,000), the many towns of El Agar, and the impressive city of La Bastida.
A few locations excepted (for reasons that will become clear in a moment,) the Bronze Age required long-term navigation, trade, and techno-social complexity.
Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin. Copper is abundant and relatively easy to find, but too soft to make good tools. Mixing it with tin makes it harder and more functional, but tin is much rarer and harder to find–and tends not to be located anywhere near the copper ores. Bronze Age peoples, therefore, had to engage in long-distance trade to make their bronze.
Spain was one of the Mediterranean’s major sources of tin; Cornwall (southern Britain) and the Ore Mountains (Erzgebirge,) in southern Germany were the others.
The Nebra Sky Disk, c. 1600 BC Germany, contains Cornish tin, Austrian copper, and Cornish or Carpathian gold. Trade in Cornish tin was long believed to be controlled by the the Phoenician Empire of North Africa. While it may be that the Phoenicians only controlled the Mediterranean end of the tin trade, a great many Phoenician coins have been found in southern Britain.
Another major trade item was amber, probably used primarily for jewelry but also sometimes burned as incense. Amber hails from northern Europe/Scandinavia, whose trade routes I wrote about back in Elsewhere in the Baltic: Gotland; the “Amber Road” stretches from the southern shores of the Baltic to northern Italy. From there it was traded to Carthage, Egypt, and Syria. (King Tut was interred with ornaments made of Baltic amber.) If amber made it to the Silk Road, it could have traveled even further afield.
So I wonder: How advanced were things circa 1,000 BC? Certainly most people were subsistence farmers, but then again, most people today are still farmers. Did the Europe of 1,000 or 6,000 BC look much like the Europe of 1,000 AD, but with fewer cathedrals? Did the Roman and Greek eras introduce major changes in the level of organization and the general shape of European daily life (even allowing for the massive collapse that followed in the western half of the Roman Empire,) or was this more or less the road Europe was already on? Would the culture of bronze age Europe be remotely familiar to us, or was it totally different? And how much of an effect (if any) did all of this trade have on the lives of ordinary people?
Herodotus’s world (You don’t want to travel to the land of the Androphagi, that’s for sure.)
The civilization of Greece and Rome make such an impact upon the pages of history that everything before and after is cast in shadow. Despite this, history since the fall of the Roman Empire has been fairly well documented–but European history before Herodotus laid quill to parchment is known almost solely through archaeology (and, increasingly, genetics.)
What was Europe like before the Romans conquered it? Was it rather like Europe after the Fall of Rome, but with less Christianity and fewer scribes? Had Europe already started down the path to technological development and innovation, or was it still a barbarian backwater that only became significant later–perhaps because of the Romans, Christianity, or trade routes to other, more developed parts of the world?
Oddly, some of the world’s oldest still-standing houses are found on a tiny island off the far northern tip of Scotland, at a site named Skara Brae, (occupied between 3180 and 2500 BC):
Or perhaps this isn’t so odd–not because people on windswept islands in the middle of the North Atlantic developed house-building skills before anyone else, but because they had to work in stone because they had so few trees. Most people–especially folks living in hot places–build houses out of materials like wood and reeds, which biodegrade over the course of a few thousand years. Skara Brae, built in a nearly treeless, cold, windy island, looks an igloo made of stone instead of ice and surrounded for insulation with turf instead of snow.
Skara Brae’s isolation has probably also helped preserve it–there haven’t been a bunch of people wandering around the Orkneys, plowing up the land, building hotels, and generally obliterating ancient sites.
Likewise, those footprints on the moon are likely to be there for a very long time.
The Orkney islands boast some even older houses, at the Knap of Howar (occupied between 3,700 and 2,800 BC):
Most of the other structures we have from this time period appear to be tombs or stone circles. The Great Pyramid of Giza, for example, is a giant tomb (and since it was built in 2,560 BC, it’s younger than Skara Brae.) Stonehenge was built sometime between 3,000 and 2,000 BC and serves no obvious purpose, but given the 100+ people interred there, it probably also began as a fancy graveyard.
The preservation of houses and other structures on the Orkney islands may be an accident of geography, but it is a lucky one, for it allows us a rare glimpse into how these people lived.
(Sorry these pictures are oriented in different directions, and the map shows a different stage in the excavation than the photos.)
For orientation, Structure 10 is in the lower right on the map, the lower left in the overview photo, and oriented toward the top of the second, close-up photo. For comparison, there is a modern house in the lower-left hand corner of the overview photo, which does not appear much bigger than the excavated structures.
Wikipedia gives us some more detailed descriptions of the site:
There are the remains of a large stone wall (the “Great Wall of Brodgar”) that may have been 100 metres (330 ft) long and 4 metres (13 ft) or more wide. It appears to traverse the entire peninsula the site is on …
The temple-like structure, which was discovered in 2008, has walls 4 metres (13 ft) thick and the shape and size of the building are visible, with the walls still standing to a height of more 1 metre (3.3 ft). The structure is 25 metres (82 ft) long and 20 metres (66 ft) wide … The archaeological team believe it is the largest structure of its kind anywhere in the north of Britain…
In July 2010, a remarkable rock coloured red, orange, and yellow was unearthed. This is the first discovery in Britain of evidence that Neolithic peoples used paint to decorate their buildings … Only a week later a stone with a zigzag chevron pattern painted with a red pigment was discovered nearby.
A baked clay artefact known as the “Brodgar Boy”, and thought to be a figurine with a head, body, and two eyes, was also unearthed in the rubble of one structure in 2011… archaeologists discovered a carved stone ball, a very rare find of such an object in situ in “a modern archaeological context”.
Prehistoric roof tiles were used in Ness of Brodgar. The archaeologists at the ongoing Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA) excavations have found Orkney’s first real evidence of a Neolithic roof. In most reconstructions of prehistoric buildings, one will often see the roof made of turf, animal skins or thatch. But on the Ness, the builders used stone slates for at least one of their buildings the remains of which have been uncovered within the side recesses along the interior walls of Structure Eight.
The Wikipedia page on Prehistoric Scotland gives a quick description of the Knap of Howar and Skara Brae :
At the wonderfully well preserved stone house at Knap of Howar on the Orkney island of Papa Westray (occupied from 3500 BC to 3100 BC) the walls stand to a low eaves height, and the stone furniture is intact. Evidence from middens shows that the inhabitants were keeping cattle, sheep and pigs, farming barley and wheat and gathering shellfish as well as fishing for species which have to be line caught using boats. …
The houses at Skara Brae on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands are very similar, but grouped into a village linked by low passageways. This settlement was occupied from about 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Pottery found here is of the grooved ware style which is found across Britain as far away as Wessex.
On average, the houses measure 40 square metres (430 sq ft) in size with a large square room containing a stone hearth used for heating and cooking. Given the number of homes, it seems likely that no more than fifty people lived in Skara Brae at any given time. …
The dwellings contain a number of stone-built pieces of furniture, including cupboards, dressers, seats, and storage boxes. Each dwelling was entered through a low doorway that had a stone slab door that could be closed “by a bar that slid in bar-holes cut in the stone door jambs”. A sophisticated drainage system was incorporated into the village’s design. It included a primitive form of toilet in each dwelling.
Seven of the houses have similar furniture, with the beds and dresser in the same places in each house. The dresser stands against the wall opposite the door… Each of these houses had the larger bed on the right side of the doorway and the smaller on the left. Lloyd Laing noted that this pattern accorded with Hebridean custom up to the early 20th century suggesting that the husband’s bed was the larger and the wife’s was the smaller. The discovery of beads and paint-pots in some of the smaller beds may support this interpretation. …
One house, called House 8, has no storage boxes or dresser. It has been divided into something resembling small cubicles. When this house was excavated, fragments of stone, bone and antler were found. It is possible that this building was used as a house to make simple tools such as bone needles or flint axes.
Other artefacts excavated on site made of animal, fish, bird, and whalebone, whale and walrusivory, and killer whale teeth included awls, needles, knives, beads, adzes, shovels, small bowls and, most remarkably, ivory pins up to 10 inches (25 cm) long. These pins are very similar to examples found in passage graves in the Boyne Valley, another piece of evidence suggesting a linkage between the two cultures. So-called Skaill knives were commonly used tools in Skara Brae; these consist of large flakes knocked off sandstone cobbles. Skaill knives have been found throughout Orkney and Shetland.
“…the Ness of Brodgar, an elaborate ceremonial complex the size of four US football fields, is reshaping our understanding of the people who lived more than 5,000 years ago. …
To appreciate the Ness, though, you also have to visit the Ring of Brodgar: … Each of the stones, measuring up to 4.5m tall, was dragged from quarries as far as 10 miles away. (The earliest example of a wheel in Britain dates to about 1100 BC, some 600 years later.) The surrounding ditch was cut 9m wide and 3m deep through bedrock – all without the use of metal. Including the ditch and bank … the Ring of Brodgar’s diameter is 130m… Among Neolithic structures in Britain, its size is exceeded only by Avebury and Stanton Drew; it edges out Stonehenge, whose ditch and bank measure 100m. In all, the Ring of Brodgar is estimated to have taken as many as 80,000 man hours to complete.
The Ness of Brodgar underscores that even further. Both the size and intricacy of the complex are unlike anything that’s been found in Europe before. The main building, nicknamed the “cathedral”, had an area of some 465sqm, including a forecourt; the entire Ness was surrounded by a wall more than 365m long…
All of that opulence was for something likely never meant to be a permanent settlement. Instead, the Ness was used periodically for more than 1,300 years. Around 2300 BC, near the end of its life, shinbones from some 400 cattle were deposited on the site – likely the remains of a very large feast, when you consider that a single cow could feed about 200 people.
… that final ceremony – along with the rest of the finds, and the size and design of the buildings themselves – has led archaeologists to believe that its purpose was largely ritual, with people gathering here from many miles away. … It’s also adding evidence to what might be the most surprising takeaway of all: that this corner of Scotland wasn’t just a centre of Neolithic civilisation in Britain. It may have been the centre.
Today, the remote location of the archipelago’s 70 islands means that it is widely ignored by all but the savviest of history- (or prehistory-) loving travellers. But once, it was this very location made them a centre of civilisation. The islands were along the North Sea route that prehistoric people would have taken from northern Europe to Britain and back. Archaeologists have already found, for example, that Orkney invented grooved-ware pottery some 5,100 to 5,300 years ago – a development that later made its way across the rest of Britain, probably accompanied by other types of technology, art and ideas.
The grooved ware pottery point is interesting. According to Wikipedia:
Unlike the later Beaker ware, Grooved culture was not an import from the continent but seems to have developed in Orkney, early in the 3rd millennium BC, and was soon adopted in Britain and Ireland.…
Since many Grooved ware pots have been found at henge sites and in burials, it is possible that they may have had a ritual purpose as well as a functional one. …
The earliest examples have been found in Orkney and may have evolved from earlier Unstan ware bowls. … The style soon spread and it was used by the builders of the first phase of Stonehenge. Grooved ware pottery has been found in abundance in recent excavations at Durrington Walls and Marden Henge in Wiltshire. …
Since the invention of the wheel, the road, and the internal combustion engine, I suspect that we moderns have begun defaulting to thinking about trade routes in terms of places you can get to by car (or train.) But these sites were constructed before the wheel reached Britain–in the days when burdens taken overland had to be carried on one’s back or loaded onto an animal.
It was likely far easier to trade by water than by land–simply load all of your goods into a boat, shove off, and row. The close association between “Greek” cities and “Turkish” cities in Hellenic times exemplifies this–it makes more sense to think of ancient Greek civilization as an island-hopping Aegean-based people than to think of them as a land-based people. Even today, human settlements cluster around ports–the easiest places to load and unload shipped goods.
Just as the Aegean was to Greece, the Mediterranean to Rome, the Nile to Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates to Babylon, and the monsoon trade routes to the Indian ocean, so may the Baltic have been to northern Europe:
This map doesn’t show Scotland, but it is rather to the West of the southern tip of Norway. It is not a coastal-hugging route, but if you just aim your boat due West, you’ll probably hit it.
But due to the big chunk of hard-to traverse European land in between the Baltic and the Mediterranean, none of these potential trade routes connect with Herodotus’s world.
This is really tentative! And I am not a geneticist, so at this point, I’m just crossing my fingers and hoping I didn’t read any graphs backwards.
This map shows Neanderthal DNA admixture in modern human groups (solid color) and Denisovan DNA (polka dots.) The Denisovan estimates are less exact than the Neanderthal estimates. (Also, the guys with Denisovan DNA also have Neanderthal DNA; I just don’t know how much.)
The biggest problem I ran up against was a total lack of numbers. Seriously, everyone likes quoting that “1-4% of non-African DNA is Neanderthal” stat, but no one likes breaking it down by individual country or group.
Some of the sources contradict each other–first we have papers claiming that Europeans have more Neanderthal DNA than Asians, then papers claiming that Asians have more. I went with the Asians have more estimates, since they were more recent. Also, we now think that many African groups also have some Neanderthal DNA, due to more recent back-migration of Eurasians into Africa.
Most of this map is still completely blank, even though I’m sure the data is out there somewhere. I would really appreciate if any of my readers can point me toward a good old list of Neanderthal (or Denisovan) DNA %s by country or group.
Alternatively, if you’ve had your DNA analyzed and know your Neanderthal and/or Denisovan %s, feel free to share in the comments.
Humans–Homo Sapiens or Anatomically Modern Humans–have been around for about 200,000 years. We have only recently–for the past few thousand years or so–begun making a serious effort at recording human history and figuring out what happened before our own times.
Most of what we know about major migrations and changes among human populations come from three major sources: written records, archaeology, and genetics.
Written records are (usually) the easiest to work with. We know when the Spaniards discovered Cuba because we have written records of the event, for example. Unfortunately, written records go back only a few thousand years–covering a teeny portion of human history–and can be highly unreliable. After all, we thought the entire world was only 6 thousand years old for a while because a book that seemed to say so.
Archaeology lets us peer much further back than written records, but with much less detail. We don’t know a lot, for example, about the folks who made Aurignacian tools–what they called themselves, what sort of rituals they had, what they hoped or dreamed of. Without those details, it’s hard to care much about one culture or another. After a while, pots blend into pots, stone tools into stone tools.
Can you tell which one is Aurignacian, and which is Gravettian?
(Oh, I threw in a Mousterian tool, as well. Those were made by Neanderthals, not H. sapiens.)
I can’t, either.
It is difficult to tell whether a change in artifacts between one layer and the next reflects a change in people or a change in technology. The proliferation of steel artifacts in the archaeological record in Mexico circa 1500 reflects an influx of new people, but the proliferation of television sets in the future-archaeological record of my area merely reflects a technological development. Finding a lot of mass graves in an area is, of course, a tip-off that invasion and replacement happened, but invasions aren’t always accompanied by easily identified mass-internments.
This is where genetics comes in. If we can find some skeletons and sequence their DNA, and then find some later or earlier skeletons in the same area and sequence their DNA, then we can get a pretty good idea of whether or not the later people are descended from the earlier people. This probably doesn’t always work (if the people in question are under some kind of selective pressure–which we all are–then their descendants might look genetically different from their ancestors simply due to evolution rather than replacement,) but it is a pretty darn good tool.
As I discussed back in “Oops, Looks Like it was People, not Pots,” archaeologists have fiercely debated over the decades whether the replacement of Narva Pots with Corded Ware Pots circa 3750 ago represented a population replacement or just a change in pot-making preferences:
Luckily for us, genetics has now figured out that the Corded Ware people are actually the Yamnaya, aka the Proto-Indo-Europeans, and that they expanded out of the Eurasian Steppe about 4,000 years ago, replacing much of the native population as they went.
So it’s starting to look like there were quite a few conquering events of this sort.
In general, if you see a lot of mtDNA and only a little Y-DNA, that means there were a lot of women around and only a few men. And that generally means those men just killed all of the other men and raped their wives and children.
Which appears to have happened on a massive scale throughout much of the world around 10,000-4,000 years ago.
Just off the top of my head, recent large-scale migrations and at least partial replacements include the arrival of Indians in Australia around 4,230 years ago; replacement of the Thule people by the Inuit (aka Dorset aka Eskimo) around 1,000 ago; successive waves of steppe peoples like the Turks and Mongols invading their neighbors; the Great Bantu Migration that began about 3,500 years ago; the spread of Polynesians through areas formerly controlled by Melanesians starting around 3,000 BC; displacement of the Ainu by the Japanese over the past couple thousand years; etc.
And of course, we know of many more recent migrations, like the one kicked off by Columbus.
So it looks like people have moved around a lot over the past 10,000 years.
Terms like “bronze age” are a little problematic because people adopted different technologies at different times. So the “bronze age” began around 5,300 years ago in the Middle East, 4,000 years ago in Ireland, and skipped the Inuit entirely (they basically went straight from stone and bone tools to guns.)
Agriculture emerged in the Middle East circa 11,500 years ago; followed by the wheel, 8,500 years ago; carts, 6,500 years ago; and domesticated horses about 6,000 years ago. These technologies made the world ripe for warfare–riders on horseback or in chariots were great at conquering, and agricultural settlements, with their large population centers and piles of food, were great for conquering.
Our conventional views of prehistory are tainted, I suspect, by a mis-perception of time. This is probably basically a quirk of perception–since we remember yesterday better than the day before yesterday, and that day better than last week, and last week better than last year, we tend to think of more recent time periods as longer than they really are, and older time periods as relatively shorter. Children are most prone to this; ask a child to make a numberline showing events like “Last week, my last birthday, the year I was born, and the year mommy was born,” and you’ll tend to get a very distorted number line. Grown ups are much better at this task (we can count the time-distance between these events,) but we’re not perfect.
We show this same tendency when thinking about human history. Our written documents barely go back past 3,000 years, and as far as most people are concerned, this is the beginning of “history”. Nevermind that humans have been around for 200,000 years–that’s 197,000 years of human history that we tend to condense down to: humans evolved, left Africa, and invented agriculture–then came us. We tend to mentally assign approximately equal chunks of time to each phase, which leads to things like people thinking that the Basques–who speak a language isolate–are an ancient, archaic people who hail directly from the first humans, or Neanderthals, or somesuch. Neanderthals disappeared around 40,000 years, and the Indo-European language expansion probably cut the Basques off from their fellow-language speakers about 3,000 years ago. Of course, the Basques could have been cut off since the Neanderthal age, but that’s a jump of 37,000 years (or more) on very little evidence. Likewise, we tend to assume that people just spread out from their original African homeland, got to where they were going, sat down, and never moved again. With the exception of Columbus and his European co-ethnics, everyone is sort of assumed to have gotten where they are now about 100,000-40,000 years ago. (Or the equivalent time period for people who think humanity is much younger or older than it is.)
But the emerging picture is one of conquering–lots of conquering, at least in the time periods we’ve been able to get details on. But go back more than 10,000 years or so, and the records start petering out. We’ve got no writing, far fewer artifacts, and even the DNA breaks down. The technology we’ve developed for extracting and sequencing ancient DNA is amazing, but I suspect we’ll have a devil of a time trying to find any well-preserved 40,000 year old DNA in the rainforest.
So what did the human story look like between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago? Have humans been conquering and re-conquering each other from the beginning? Is it ethnic group after ethnic group, all the way down? Or did lower population density in the pre-agricultural era make it easier to spread out and avoid one’s neighbors than to bother fighting with them? Certainly armies would have spread much less slowly before the domestication of the horse and invention of the chariot. (Not to mention that they require quite a bit of food, which is a tough sort of thing to get in large, easily-transportable form if you’re a hunter-gatherer.)
Certainly prehistoric peoples slaughtered (or slaughter) each other with great frequency–we can tell that:
It doesn’t take a lot of technology to go put a spear into your neighbor’s chest. Even bands of chimps go smash other bands of chimps to bits with rocks.
The authors propose that a genetic component found in Horn of Africa populations back-migrated to Africa from Eurasia ~23 thousand years ago. … For a time, there was a taboo against imagining back-migration into Africa; in a sense this was reasonable on parsimony grounds: Africans have most autosomal genetic diversity and the basal clades of mtDNA and Y-chromosomes; a model with Out-of-Africa is simpler than one with both Out-of and Into-Africa. However, we now know that pretty much all Africans have Eurasian ancestry, ranging from at least traces in theYoruba and Pygmies (to account for the Neandertal admixture) to intermediate values in East Africans, to quite a lot in North Africans.
Eurasian admixture in Africa seems to be general, variable, and to have occurred at different time scales. It’s still the best hypothesis that modern humans originated in Africa initially and migrated into Eurasia. However, it is no longer clear that Africa was always the pump and never the destination of human migrations.
Whether this was “conquering” or just wandering remains to be discovered.
As for me, my money’s on horses and agriculture making warfare and dispersal faster and more efficient, not fundamentally changing our human proclivities toward our neighbors.
There’s an exciting new study on Bronze Age genetics that you’ve probably already heard about but I’m gonna post about anyway because stuff like this is kind of like our core competency around here.
Summary: Scientist people sequenced genomes (did fancy lab things with genetics) on 101 dead Europeans/Asians from a few thousand years ago, to try to figure out who they were and where they came from.
One of the big anthro/archeology debates over the past 70 years or so has been whether the different layers of cultural artifacts (eg, pots) represent things being traded while people stay put, or people invading and bringing their new stuff with them.
To put it in a modern context, if you saw a picture of people from Papua New Guinea taken in 1900, wearing traditional tribal clothes, and then saw a picture taken a few decades later of people from Papua New Guinea wearing Levi’s and T-shirts, you might wonder if the people of PNG had gotten some new clothes, or if some people wearing Levi’s had gone to PNG.
The archaeological assumption pre-1940 or so was generally that different layers of cultural artifacts represented actually different groups of people, who had probably invaded and slaughtered the previous group of people. For a variety of reasons that you can probably figure out on your own, this view fell into disrepute around the mid 1940s, and so was replaced with the peaceful assumption that new cultural artifacts probably spread primarily through trade, not warfare. This is expressed through the phrase, “Pots, not people,” meaning that the pots were moving around, not the people.
So now we can sequence ancient genomes and shit, so we can actually take a look at the people in ancient burials and try to figure out if people in Layer of Pots A are related to people in Layer of Pots B, or if they are a totally different group of people. This is like squinting at the photographs of Papua New Guineans and trying to figure out if the people wearing the clothes look like they come from the same group, but with lab tools and science.
From an archaeology/anthropology perspective, this is big stuff people have been debating about for over a century.
Conclusions: The Yamnaya are the Indo-Europeans (or proto-Indo-Europeans.) They started out around the Ukraine, then about 4,000 years ago, they spread out (cause they had horses and wagons and chariots and such with wheels,) toward the west and east. In Europe they became the Corded Ware Culture. The Corded Ware may have headed toward the Urals and became some of the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians, but that’s still fuzzy.
The Yamnaya had high (relatively) rates of lactose tolerance, so they probably helped spread that gene/the gene helped spread them. Blond hair and blue eyes are not Yamnaya traits–those came from elsewhere. They probably had pale skins, but so did most of the people already in Europe, so they didn’t change that.
I had already figured the Yamnaya were the PIEs (along with a bunch of other people paying even vague attention to the field,) but apparently my rough mental estimate of the time frame was off. 4,000 years ago is not that long–we have quite abundant records of life 2,000 years ago, so imagine what sorts of records or rumors those Greeks and Romans had about life 2,000 years before themselves.
There is much that we once naively took as fact, then skeptically decided was myth, then decided was fact again, like the existence of Troy. (Of course, there is also much that has turned out to be actually false. Like Herodotus’s dog-sized ants.) Perhaps some more of what seems mere myth in the Greek and Roman accounts will turn out to have some basis in history.
On the eastern end of the geographic range they surveyed, the steppe-folks out there were later replaced with a more Asian population that looks more closely related to the Native Americans (possibly descended from a population ancestral to both them and the Native Americans.)
I don’t know yet just how violent the invasion was–the existing European population was not wiped out, a la the Dorset. The groups mixed; modern Europeans (and many Asians) are a mixture of many population waves. But we do know now that these were people, not just their pots.