Reconstruction drawing: Tom Björklund.
The above is a reconstruction of a Mesolithic girl who lived in what is now Denmark. It is a very unique and creative reconstruction, because nothing physical of this girl nicknamed Lola survives into our archaeological record! She is only known by her DNA (and that of recently eaten food) that she left on a lump of birch tree pitch that she had chewed as a gum some 5,700 years ago. But I really like this reconstruction. I think that she makes a beautiful wild child. Straight out of the lines of a novel that I'm trying to write.
Analysis of her DNA strongly suggests brown toned skin, if not dark brown. Her hair dark brown. The DNA supports that her eyes were light coloured. Perhaps blue, blue-green or hazel? I'll return to Lola, but first these features correspond to those suggested by the genomes of other Mesolithic remains scattered around Europe.
Cheddar Man who lived in South West Britain around 10,000 years ago is the best known. The revelation several years ago that the DNA sequenced from his genome, suggests both dark skin and blue eyes caused quite a commotion. A lot of people didn't like it, and accused the geneticists of woke.
We always knew that the earliest modern humans were likely to have plenty of melanin. Subsisting on a hunter-gatherer diet that was rich in dietary Vitamin D meant that there was little adaptive pressure for them to lose this dark skin in a hurry. Just as some hunters in the far north and far south have retained dark skins into recent times. The emphasis to reduce melanin may not have arrived until following major shifts to a poor, agricultural diet in northern zones. The DNA associated with very light skin of modern Western Europeans may not have arrived until quite recently (prehistorically speaking).
We also had Villabruna Man in Northern Italy. His presence and DNA is less known to the general public. But even before the controversy of the Cheddar Man reconstruction, we knew from Villabruna and other remains that he lacked certain genetic indicators of light skin and:
Additional evidence of an early link between west and east comes from the HERC2 locus, where a derived allele that is the primary driver of light eye color in Europeans appears nearly simultaneously in specimens from Italy and the Caucasus ~14,000-13,000 years ago.
But one recent study proposes that there were at least two distinct clusters of hunter-gatherers around Europe at the close of the last Ice Age:
On the basis of the genetic variation of present-day Europeans, this could imply phenotypic differences between post-14 ka hunter-gatherer populations across Europe, with individuals in the Oberkassel cluster possibly exhibiting darker skin and lighter eyes, and individuals in the Sidelkino cluster possibly lighter skin and darker eye colour.
I think that may be close to the truth, that there was most likely a variation in skin tones and eye colours across Europe during late prehistory.
Then we met 'Elba the Shepherdess' from Galicia, Spain. She dates to around 9,300 years ago. Analysis of Elba's ancient DNA suggests that she was dark-skinned and haired, and brown-eyed. Her remains had spectacularly been excavated along with three aurochs (wild cattle). Her relationship to these aurochs has raised extremely controversial questions about possible domestication. I do like the aurochs. I might make them the a subject of a later post.
Below we have a reconstruction of a woman (called the Shaman) who lived in what is now Sweden, circa 7000 years ago. She was excavated from a burial, where she had been laid between red deer antlers. But she left no recoverable ancient DNA.
The reconstruction of the Shaman's dark skin and blue eyes has been based only on the findings of the above examples, and that could be a wrong assumption to make. All of these reconstructions will have a level of creativity applied to them. They are far from any perfect science, but the temptation to sometimes put a face to bones can sometimes be too much to resist. It helps us imagine a past that might have been. I'm personally also very guilty of this. I'm writing a novel set in Britain at the transition of the Mesolithic to Neolithic. I shamelessly apply my own prejudices when I create their culture, characters and way of life.
The Shaman of Sweden
British Archaeology has long been going through a struggle where it tries to lose its roots within the Arts, and relocate itself within the (social) sciences. Clinging vigorously to data, they fear telling any stories (which is what hi-story does). In my own creative writing, I have my British hunter-gatherers at the close of the Mesolithic as shameless animists, who see themselves very much as a part of Nature. Mine are trapped into nations or tribes, divided into semi-nomadic bands who wander a larger region that I call a wilderness. In the background (but no longer in the novel) from their own golden age, they look back through folklore to an earlier time when they were more free, to wander further, one nation, following herds of steppe and forest bison.
In their own contemporary wilds 6000 years ago, I have them hunting red deer, roe deer, wild pig, aurochs (wild cattle), red squirrel, martens, seal, porpoise, whales, beaver, fox, waterfowl (ducks/geese), bustards, cranes, wood pigeon, woodcock, fishing/trapping eel, salmon, trout, chub, pike. Foraging for hazelnut, acorns (which they need to process to reduce tannin), cat-tails, wild garlic, pig-nuts, harvesting wild grass seeds, tubers, roots, tree sap, flower buds, lichens, sea lettuce, samphire, berries (blackberry, raspberry, elderberry, hawthorn), black bee honeycomb (yes they make berry mead and alcoholic birch sap), greens (including some springtime tree leaves), tree inner bark (in desperation or to chew), fungi (bollettes, blewitts, ceps, chanterelle, puffballs, chicken-of-the-woods and many more), mussels, sea molluscs /shellfish, crustaceans. I did also include beechnuts, but then found that the beech may have only just arrived with the Neolithic. Ugh!
One thing that this creative writing has helped me understand about the British Late Mesolithic, is that the forests at that time lacked a wealth of biodiversity. Britain had parted from the European Continent too soon following the glaciers - Ireland more so. Few tree species had made it here. The temperate wild-woods (I don't think all of those in the south-east could have been classed as rain-forests) could be very mean with any calories between early winter and mid spring. I emphasise that in the story, the need to gather in late summer and through the autumn, and to process and store what they could. Acorns and hazel nuts could be roasted and even ground into a flour to make breads. Wild grass seeds may have been added. The game would have been fatter at that time of year, and the salmon would run. Oh, I dare to suggest that my hunter-foragers are also gardeners of their wilds, encouraging hazel and birch to spread and survive.
Late winter may have been comparatively miserable, where the bands would laze close to hearths. Conserving valuable calories of their energy.
I enjoy imagining the wild-woods of SE Britain 4000 BCE. Perhaps not all temperate rain-forest, but neither anything like a modern day woods. Deadwood, flooding, saplings, rot, deep ferns and mosses. They would have been difficult to pass through by foot. Waterway would have been preferred. Trees with mosses and octopus boughs. Lime (linden) trees, elm, wych elm, oak, birch, alder, willow, ash, pine. Wolves, lynx, brown bear. Eagles, black woodpeckers, and goshawks. But I don't imagine it all as wild-wood. I have opted in my imagined Britain 4000 BCE, for lots of small glades, and larger open plains that in the story, I call prairies. Here herds of aurochs join those of red and roe deer, to keep this scrub and grassland opened up. Bustards parade by orchids, while the cuckoo calls.
But all in my imagination. Not fact.
Returning to Lola in Denmark. The gum also revealed that she was lactose intolerant, and this has also been found in other genetic remains of this period. The DNA of hazel and mallard duck was also on the gum, and it is thought that hazelnut and duck may have been her recent meals. I think it is incredible archaeology that a lump of birch pitch could produce such a result. The 5,700 ybp was based on radio carbon dating of the lump of Mesolithic chewing gum.
When I was a voluntary archaeologist and field walker, I would treasure any microliths, microlith waste cores (I had a few), and a tranchet axe head (below) that I found from the Mesolithic. It was always my favourite period of prehistory. When people would have related to other species as a part of the Natural World to which they belonged. Innate animism that I strongly relate to as an autistic biophilliac. Or did they? Next post I will look at Gobekli Tepe and other sites of this same period across Anatolia. Have we simplified the savage?
So for all of their imperfections and inaccuracies, here are the faces of the Mesolithic. The last truly free wild people of European Nature. The last savages of Europe. Before we started to screw it all up. Lola is my favourite.