The Mesolithic Western Europeans. The last free people of Europe.

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

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.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4943878/

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.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-05726-0

 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

Imagination


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.

The Sleeve Tattoo Project - Progress.

Black and grey realism work by Ross Lee of Ink Addiction tattoo studio in Norwich.  This is a partial phase of a full sleeve project on my right arm and shoulder.  Hopefully complete by Autumn 2019. If you can't see it - then you're not a NW European prehistorian.  It's a British landscape scene, with boulder rocks in the foreground.  On those rocks are a series of carvings pecked into rock, during the Later Neolithic and Earlier Bronze Age.  They consist of a class of Rock Art markings known as cups and rings, or cup and ring markings.

No-one really knows what they symbolised.  I can't think of a more worthy tattoo for a time traveller.

My right arm will eventually be covered with a series of panels displaying cup and ring marks in British landscapes.

Time Travelling back through my ancestry timeline - Super Family History

The Dance of Cogul, tracing by Henri Breuil.

A Timeline for my ancestry based on current evidences.

3,000,000 years ago.

In Africa.  Eastern and / or maybe Southern Africa.  Hominids.  We call them Australopithecines, and in some ways, they resembled modern chimpanzees but that were adapting to walking upright bipedally, in open environments.  They made stone tools.  They had an omnivorous diet.  They were my ancestors three million years ago.  As they were for all of us.  Natural Selection was the big, very slow kicker for prehistory.  Things changed very, very slowly,

200,000 years ago.

The first hominids that are regarded rather loosely as Anatomically Modern Human emerging in Africa.

At this time, most of my ancestors still lived in Africa, but some of my non-anatomically modern ancestors had already migrated out of Africa, and had dispersed across Eurasia for some time.  They included those archaic humans that anthropologists presently call Neanderthals and Denisovans. 

50,000 years ago.

Most likely by now, most of my hunter-forager ancestors had left Africa.  An early out-of-Africa base appears to have been Arabia and the Middle East.  Some of my ancestors had met now, after long family separations (I have 328 Neanderthal variants in my DNA, according to 23andMe), it was the birth of the Eurasians.  The last Ice Age encroached.

14,000 years ago.

People had been learning to live with the climatic fluctuations of the last Ice Age.  Each hardening of climatic conditions had frozen Eurasian human populations into isolated conditions that increased genetic drift.

Where were my hunter-forager ancestors 14,000 years ago?  Most likely in pockets dispersed across Western Eurasia, from South-West Europe, across to Central Asia, and from Arabia up to Siberia.  My direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor at this time, most likely lived somewhere between what today is Syria, and Pakistan.  He could for example, have been an ibex hunter in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.  My direct maternal ancestor (mtDNA line) most likely lived in another pocket of hunter-foragers somewhere in Central Asia, such as what is now Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, the Siberian Plain, or nearby.  Some of her, or other of my ancestors at this time, had shared ancestry with a Siberian tribe of mammoth hunters, that archaeologists now call the Mal'ta–Buret' culture.  Other of my ancestors of this time may have most likely lived in the Caucasus, Southern Europe, Middle East, and Arabia.

5,600 years ago.

Many people in Western Eurasia were adapting to a new way of living, where farming and agriculture, with a range of domesticated species of animal and plant were spreading, often carried along in waves that are marked in our DNA.  The Neolithic Revolution that had affected my ancestors had occurred a few thousand years earlier in South-West Asia, in an area that we call the Fertile Crescent - the Levant, and down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. Some of my ancestors may have been early pioneers of this new way of life in the Middle East.

My direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor may have lived in one of the Uruk farming settlements in Babylonia, or could have been a Neolithic farmer in a number of cultures spread across what is now Iraq, Iran, or Pakistan.  He alternatively could be one of a number of specialists that early civilisation was generating - a potter, a weaver, or a miner.

My direct maternal line had drifted out of Central Asia, and onto the Eurasian Steppe Corridor.  My mtDNA ancestor was most likely living now on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes - what is now Ukraine, Southern Russia, or Kazakhistan.  Her people would have most likely herded domestic livestock including horses, cattle, goats and sheep.  They were mastering the horse and using the first wheeled wagons. On the Steppe corridor, they had access not only to trade with the civilisations south of the Caucasus, but to other cultures, and their materials.  They were experimenting with some of the earliest metallurgy including copper working.

Asides from her, I most likely had a number of other ancestors living in these pastoralist cultures on the Steppes at this time. Perhaps around 28% of my ancestors 5,500 years ago, lived there.

Other ancestors of mine at this time, were dispersed across Europe.  They include the Neolithic European farmers.  They had descended largely from populations that had previously lived in the Levant and Anatolia (what is now Turkey and the Middle East).  Some of my Neolithic European Farmer ancestors could have even lived in Megalithic Britain, but most likely, many of my European Neolithic ancestors lived elsewhere on the Continent, in for example, the Rhine valley, Danube valley, Italy, or Iberia.  Many of them had ancestry that had hopped westwards along the Mediterranean, the first farmers from Anatolia and the Levant (50% of my ancient admixture), but with a smaller admixture of hunter-gatherer ancestors that had previously lived in Europe (12% of my ancient admixture). Did this 12% admixture include the surviving DNA of any of the last Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of the British Isles?  I'd like to think so, but possibly not.

4,600 years ago.

My Copper Age, horse riding Steppe ancestors had migrated westwards into Europe.  There they had admixed with the earlier European Neolithic people.  Their DNA appeared in a Copper Age fusion culture across Central Europe (Poland, Germany, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, etc) that we call the Corded Ware Culture.  My direct maternal ancestors (mtDNA line) were most likely of that culture for a time.  Their mtDNA markers turn up associated with it.

Aside from her, some of my other ancestors would have been in the Corded Ware Culture.  However, the westward movement of DNA from the Steppes didn't end there.  In Western Europe, it triggered the birth of another culture, that archaeologists call Bell Beaker Culture.  Much of the Y-DNA of the Steppes, was carried into the Rhineland Bell Beaker men.  Some of my ancestors could have belonged to the Bell Beaker culture in Iberia, or Western France.  However, what is more likely is that at least some of them belonged to the Bell Beaker culture that had settled in the Lower Rhine Valley (The Netherlands and NW Germany).

Many of my ancestors at this time may have played a part in the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures of Europe.  mtDNA (H6a1 and H6a1a) very close to my direct maternal line has been found in both cultures, including in a Bell Beaker context in the Netherlands.

My direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor was an exception.  He most likely was living somewhere around what is now Iran, possibly as a farmer in the Bronze Age civilisations there.  Ancestors in Southern Europe were less affected by the Copper Age Steppe migration event (mainly in their Y-DNA), and continued to carry mainly Neolithic European Farmer DNA in their autosomes.

3,600 years ago.

I want to just stop here, to record that some of my Bell Beaker Culture ancestors had crossed the North Sea from the Lower Rhine (Netherlands) to settle in South East Britain.  Their descendants were living in Bronze Age Britain.  I can't say with any degree of certainty, if my direct maternal (mtDNA line) ancestor was a part of this migration, or whether her line was still on the European Continent, and crossed later.  Either are equally feasible.   I would have had other ancestors, perhaps the majority at this time, scattered across the European Continent, but most likely, some in what is now Germany, France, Scandinavia, and Southern Europe.

My direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor was most likely still in the area of Iraq, or Iran. Perhaps for example, he was an Assyrian.

2,600 years ago.

I'd estimate that perhaps around 38% of my ancestors were now living in Iron Age Britain.  My Iron Age British ancestors would have lived in the round houses and would have farmed the land.    Some people refer to the culture of the British Isles at this time as Celtic.  Some of my ancestors may well have belonged to a tribal federation, that was later known as the Iceni.

This may or may not have included my direct maternal (mtDNA line) ancestor, who could have been a Briton, but may have equally lived along with many of my other ancestors - in an Iron Age Germanic culture in the Netherlands, Northern Germany, or Denmark. Others may have lived further to the south and west in Europe in other cultures  such as the Gauls.  I have a great great great grandparent from Switzerland.  His ancestors at this time, could have been dispersed through a number of tribes across Central and Southern Europe.

My direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor was most likely still in the area of the Middle East, or Iran. Perhaps for example, he was a subject of the Persian Empire.

1,700 years ago.

Lets stop here a moment.  Roman Britain.  Perhaps 40% of my ancient ancestors living here at the time.  Britain had been occupied by the Western Roman Empire for some time.  My ancestors in Britannia would have very much identified as Romans, although they largely descended from the Iron Age Britons. However, there were traders, soldiers, and merchants from further afield here.  That might have even included my direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor, that could for example, have traveled to Southern Britannia from Assyria or Persia, or perhaps even from the Eastern Roman Empire in Anatolia and the Levant.

Meanwhile many of my ancestors were living in Germanic pagan tribes across the North Sea in what is now the Netherlands, Northern Germany, and Denmark.  Others may have been living in Roman Gaul, Tuscany, or elsewhere on the Continent.

1,000 years ago.

I believe that the majority of my ancestors now lived in early medieval southern Britain, although some may have still lived further to the south in places such as Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Spain, or Italy.  If he didn't arrive earlier, perhaps my direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor arrived in Wessex about now, as for example, a specialist from the Middle East, working for the Roman church.  Many of my ancestors in South-East Britain had arrived from across the North Sea over the preceding centuries, with Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Frisians, Danes and Saxons.   Archaeological artifacts in Norfolk correlate best with some sites in Northern Germany, towards the border with Denmark.

This would have included Anglo-Saxon ancestors of my mother, that most likely rowed past the decommissioned Roman shore fort at Burgh, and perhaps moored at Reedham.  It may have included Danish ancestors of her that a few centuries later settled the district of Flegg in East Norfolk.  DNA shared on the Continent in places such as modern day Germany, Netherlands, France, Belgium, and Denmark reflects strongly in my ancestral DNA tests.  Much of it may have arrived during these early medieval immigration events.

My direct maternal (mtDNA line) would most likely be in East Anglia or nearby by now.

500 years ago.

Exchange between South East Britain and the European Continent didn't end.  It is possible that I had more ancestors arrive here from Normandy, Medieval France, and the Spanish Netherlands.  However by 500 years ago, It is possible that most of my ancestors now lived in Tudor England.  There would most likely still been a minority of later ancestors migrating from elsewhere, although I so far only see one great great great grandparent from Switzerland, in my genealogical record.  It is likely that my direct paternal (Y-DNA line) ancestor was living in Southern England, and that my direct maternal (mtDNA line) ancestor was living in East Anglia.   I trace his line back to the Oxfordshire / Berkshire border, and her line back 300 years ago to the village of Bunwell in Norfolk.

It is likely that the majority of my Tudor ancestors were living in East Anglia by now, particularly in the County of Norfolk.  Many of the men would be transitioning from medieval peasant status to that of free rural labourers or some into farmers or tradesmen.

300 years ago.

It is highly likely that by now, all of my ancestors (except the Swiss line at Generation 6, arriving 160 years ago), lived in South-East England.  The majority in Norfolk, East Anglia, perhaps as high as 77% East Anglian, also a cluster in the Thames Valley of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and a smaller cluster around Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire.

Their trades included agricultural labourerers, shepherds, horsemen, marshmen, smallhold farmers, watermen, carpenters, inn keepers, hawkers, etc. They were the English rural working classes of the 18th Century.

Their recorded surnames included:

Moore, Gunton, Mar, Mollett, Portar, Beck, Breeze, Cruchfield, Lewell, Mingay, Wittham, Thurkettle, Gardiner, Ursul, Upcroft, Neale, Neville, Hammond, Bennett, Read, Bradfield, Aimes, Sniss, Wick, Bligh, Frances, Rippon, Saunderson, Goodram, Seymore, Waine, Blaxhall, Jacobs, Yallop Brucker, Gregory, Hardiment, Hardyman, Briting, Hill, Harrison, Brown, Harding, Creess, Tovel, Osborne, Nichols, Bond, Bowes, Daynes, Brooker, Curtis, Smith, Baxter, Shawers, Edney, Tovell, Key, Tammas-Tovell, Thacker, Lawn, Tammas, Hagon, Hewitt, Springall, Porter, Rose, Larke, Annison, Barker, Brooks, Ling, Rowland, Gorll, Dingle, Marsh, Symonds, Dawes, Goffen, Waters, Briggs, Nicholls, Shepherd, Maye, Morrison, Merrison, Norton, Cossey, Harrington, Barber, Peach, Dennis, Durran, Freeman, Hedges, Crutchfield, Quantrill, Page, Dove, Rix, Sales, Britiff, Goffin, Coleman, Tibnum, Mitchells, Ellis, Beckett, Riches, Snelling, Ransby, Nicholes, Harris, Shilling, Wymer, Moll, Ginby, Gynby, Gaul, Edwards, and Gall.

50 years ago.

I was a small child in Norfolk.  Born English, to a local East Anglian family.  Yet look back at my ancestral timeline.  My ancestry is from all over Europe, and even from across Western Asia, and before that from Africa.  We are all cousins in one large global family.  Much of my family timeline, will also be your timeline.


That's time travelling through my own ancestry.

Day Trip to Grimes Graves, Norfolk

Dog-sitting duties yesterday for this old fellah:

12 years old, and with a large out of control tumour on his back, it was awesome to take him into the forest again, even though he ran away - just like he would as a young dog.  He had me running around this monument looking for him:

Thetford Warren Lodge, the handsome ruin of a medieval rabbit warrener's fortified house.  Possibly commissioned by the nearby Prior of Thetford Cluniac Priory.

After our little adventure, I dropped the dogs off to keep cool during the mid day, and then took the opportunity to revisit an awesome prehistoric site in the Thetford Forest area, the Neolithic flint mines at Grimes Graves.  It use to be a regular haunt of mine.

This is an aerial view of the site.  An almost Martian landscape of craters and earthworks.  Surveys have recorded a total of at least 430 shafts sunk into the ground.  Each reaches down to a seam of black flint known as floor-stone, about 10 meters down from the surface.  Shallow galleries then radiate along this layer of floor-stone flint in all directions.

Until excavations revealed the nature of these craters during the 19th Century AD, no one knew what this landscape represented.  The Anglo-Saxons named it Grimes Graves, after the god Woden (Grim). They set all of the local parish boundaries to meet at the site, where they erected a moot hill, a meeting place for the hundred.  Later antiquarians suggested that it was the site of Danish encampments.

We now know that these craters are the scars of a remarkable flint mine complex, that was in use during the Neolithic period between 4,675 and 4,200 years ago.  Each year, an average of one shaft was mined.  The tools that they used appear to have consisted largely of picks made from red deer antlers, stone axes, and tools made from wood and basketry.  So many red deer antlers appear to have been used, that it has been estimated that they will have needed to manage a population of 120 red deer in order to supply them!

One shaft is presently open to the general public, but there are plans to reopen another shaft later this year.  The English Heritage site has a small museum and presentation on the site:

From there, you can walk over to Pit 1, the shaft open to the public.

Descent to the floorstone level is via a sturdy 30 feet ladder.

The galleries themselves are not open to public access, for reasons of safety.  However, you can enter some of them a short distance before reaching barriers.

It is a little bit of a mystery as to why they were going to such dramatic and exhaustive efforts to mine this flint over a 475 year period.  There is plenty of good flint much closer to the surface, even on the surface.  However, the floor-stone flint has a particular fresh looking, black colour and quality.  It may have even had a ritual value, for coming so far deep out of the earth, and even for being so difficult to mine.  Here's a reconstructed Neolithic axe that I could play with, made of local black flint.

I got a little dirty crawling through the galleries.  Notice the exposed chalky spoil on the surface.  Moved there thousands of years ago by the Neolithic miners.

It's a beautiful place, the Martian looking craters, spoil heaps, often grazed by sheep, and nested on by larks.

I thought it was also recording that Anglo-Saxon moot-hill on the edge of the site.

Discussion - Population Genetics

Okay, so where does this site sit in with the latest news in population genetics?  The population that mined this site for so many years, was most likely (based on ancient DNA from other British Neolithic sites) largely descended from farming immigrants from the South, that arrived in Britain some 6,100 years ago.  The men most likely had I2a Y-DNA haplogroups, and the population today that most resembles them today are the Sardinians.  Their ancestors may have migrated from Iberia, but ultimately, some of their ancestors at earlier dates, had moved along the Mediterranean from an origin in Anatolia and the Levant.  They brought with them, the technologies, livestock, and seeds of the Neolithic Revolution, that had exploded in the Fertile Crescent of the Levant, and the Tigris / Euphrates valleys some 10,000 years ago.

The mining stops around 2,800 years ago.  This corresponds well with what we now believe to be the arrival of a new people - the Bell Beaker People, that had crossed the North Sea from the Lower Rhine area around what is now the Netherlands.  They most likely brought with them, the first horses, and the first metallurgy of copper, bronze, and gold.  What happened to the Neolithic community that had mined for so many years here?  There is some evidence that their economy was falling into trouble, and that forest was returning to many farmed areas.  They may have had their population and social structure depleted by a suspect plague that had reached Western Europe from Asia.  The latest evidence, as presented in my last post, The Beaker phenomenon and genetic transformation of Northwest Europe 2017suggests an almost complete displacement of the British Neolithic farmers by this new population of Bell Beaker.

Thetford Forest Archaeology

The value of the floor-stone flint appears to have fell.  However, it is a fallacy to believe that people stopped using flint.  The new metals were precious, but flint continued to have an importance through the Beaker, and into the Bronze and even Iron Ages.  It has been speculated that the majority of struck flint in the district actually dates to the Beaker and Bronze Ages, rather than to the Neolithic.  Thousands of tonnes of flakes, hammer-stones, piercers, awls, scrapers, notched flakes, and waste cores can be found in the soils to the south and west of Grimes Graves - down to the northern banks of the Little Ouse, and across the Brecks district, and the Fen Edge.  Many years ago, I found a barbed and tanged flint arrowhead very, very close to the Grimes Graves site.  This class of arrowhead belongs to Bell Beaker assemblage.  They were here, salvaging the tonnes of discarded flint on or close to the surface of the site.  They carried it down to the river valley, where I can say from my old surface collection surveys, that they struck and worked that flint like never before nor since.

Link to a post about my old Thetford Forest Archaeology Survey.

Some of the worked flint that I recorded in the area.

Indeed, the excavation of one of the shafts at Grimes Graves revealed that the site was being used during the Middle Bronze Age, where a nearby settlement were depositing their rubbish into a midden in a disused shaft.  The archaeology of the midden suggested that the people living there then were most likely dairy cattle farmers.

That's Grimes Graves done.

The Beaker phenomenon and genetic transformation of Northwest Europe 2017. A layman's take.

They say that you cannot write prehistory, but here in Britain, prehistory is currently being rewritten, and it's thanks to DNA.  A new study , "The Beaker Phenomenon, And The Genomic Transformation Of Northwest Europe" has been published on BioRxyv.  A new study that recently analysed the DNA of 170 ancient human remains in Europe.

A little background...

1. British Archaeology and the Bell Beaker

British archaeologists have long been aware of a late prehistoric artifact culture found across the British Isles, and across large areas of Western Europe.  It bridged the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age periods around 4,400 to 3,800 years ago.  It was characterised by the use of fine bell-shaped beaker pots, usually red ceramic fabric, heavily decorated with simple motifs.  These motifs were characteristically impressed with a fine toothed comb or dentated spatula.  Many Bell beaker burial rituals have been excavated and studied.  The inhumed body would usually be crouched on the side, roughly on a north to south alignment.  A bell beaker would often be stood near to the body, at the feet, or near the head.  Other grave goods often included barbed and tanged flint arrowheads, flint flakes and blades, antler picks, sometimes one or two more beakers, amber beads, copper awls, and gold earrings / hair rings.  64% of British Beaker burials were flat graves, but sometimes a barrow or cist would be erected above it (Beaker Pottery of Great Britain & Ireland. DL Clarke.  CUP 1970).

Above, a flint barbed & tanged arrowhead of the Beaker Culture, that I found and recorded during a surface collection survey some years ago.

Archaeologists studying the artifact culture in Britain, compared the British finds to those on the Continent in order to try to find an origin for these people.  They suggested either Brittany in North West France, or the Lower Rhine Valley, in the Netherlands and Northern Germany.  Some alternatively promoted Iberia as the origin.

Then British Archaeology entered an intellectual phase where it became fashionable to dismiss migration or invasions of people, in favour of cultural exchange.  Pots not People.  Rather like today, we British wear denim, t-shirts, listen to R&B, and drink coke.  However, we have not been displaced by North Americans - we just absorbed the artifacts of another culture.  From the 1970s on, many late prehistoric migrations were dismissed by British archaeologists as cultural exchanges rather than representing population displacement.

2. The New Population Genetics and the Steppe Pastoralists.

A new field of study has been gathering pace with the arrival of the 21st Century, that uses genetic evidence, to explore past migrations, movements, admixtures, and origins of peoples.  The earliest pioneers used blood types, then mitochondrial DNA mutations, followed by STR of Y-DNA.  Some of the early conclusions supported the new orthodoxy of British Archaeology.  Stephen Oppenheimer's infamous publication "The Origins of the British" championed that there had been little change in British populations since the Ice Age.  They were to be proven wrong.  Early conclusions, based on little evidence, misunderstandings that were later corrected with more data, seriously damaged the reputation of population genetics in British prehistoric studies.

The most common Y-DNA haplogroup of Western Europe, particularly of Ireland and Britain was R1b.  Early mistakes gave this male haplogroup an Ice Age origin of the Basque Region in Southwest Europe.  As more data gathered, and debate developed, it became apparent that the origin was not the Basque region, but the Pontic and Caspian Steppes of Eurasia!  It became associated with an archaeological culture in Southern Russia called the Yamna.  The R1b and R1a haplogroups appeared to have spilled off the Steppes into Europe during the Copper Age during a significant migration event around 4,900 - 4,600 years ago.  In Eastern and Central Europe, this migration of pastoralists appears to be responsible for the fused artifact culture known as the Corded Ware (again, after a prehistoric pottery style).

A few lectures on Youtube to watch:

Havard lecture by David Reich 2015.

CARTA lecture by Johannes Krause 2016

That brings us up to date.  In summary, population geneticists have discovered a movement of people, not just pots, from the Steppes into Europe.  Modern Europeans descend from an admixture of three major founder populations: 1) the Western Eurasian hunter-gatherers, then a layer of 2) Early Neolithic farmers (that originated in Anatolia and the Middle East), and finally, 3) the Steppe Pastoralists.  The actual mix varies not only from person to person, but also regionally across Europe.

So how does the Bell Beaker Culture of Britain and Western Europe fit into all of this?  The strong assumption over the past couple of years was that the diffusion of R1b Y-DNA haplogroups occurred then, so therefore, it was a simple extension of this westward drift across Europe that originated on the Pontic and Caspian Steppes.  It first spawned the Corded Ware Culture in Central Europe, but then when it met Western Europe, spawned the Bell Beaker Culture.  However, until now, this hypothesis hadn't been tested.

The Beaker phenomenon and genetic transformation of Northwest Europe 2017

Has now examined some of these questions, through the examination of an unprecedented scale of ancient DNA sampling. The link to their published document (which is still awaiting peer review) is at the top of this post, and I'd invite others to read it for themselves.  An article covering the document can also be read on the Scientific American.  However, I personally with my layman head take five suggestions from the study.

  1. They found that the DNA of human remains on Continental Europe did not suggest one cohesive or homogeneous population.  There was in this case, evidence of cultural diffusion.  Different peoples were taking on the Bell Beaker artifact assemblage in Western Europe.  Pots rather more than people.  This was a great surprise, as we still know from the earlier study, that much of our DNA and Y-DNA in particular, originated around 400 years earlier from the Eurasian Steppes.  However, although the Central European Corded Ware Culture does still appear to have been a response to that great influx of new people from the Steppes, the picture with the Western European Bell Beaker is more complex.
  2. An exception was Britain.  Here, the remains associated with Bell Beaker Culture were all one population, and they were very different to the earlier Neolithic population of Britain.  It appears to have been a case of population displacement.  They suggest at least 90% displacement!  It means that very few or none of our Neolithic ancestors built the amazing monuments of Neolithic Britain.  They were built by earlier peoples, that our ancestors displaced.
  3. They confirm a Lower Rhine origin as most likely for the British Beaker People.  The ancient DNA that most closely matched British Beaker DNA, came from Beaker human remains in the Netherlands and Northern Germany.  This correlates nicely with the 1970 archaeological study mentioned above.
  4. It's confirmed.  Previous to their entry into the British Isles, there is no evidence of any Steppe ancestry, no Steppe autosomal DNA, no Steppe Y haplogroups such as R1b-L21 here.  (Nor any mtDNA haplogroup H6a1).  The Beaker people from the Lower Rhine, brought the initial layers of this DNA to Britain.  The founder population were admixed, but with significant percentages of Steppe ancestry, particularly on Y lines.
  5. The previous Neolithic Farmer population were mainly Y haplogroup I2, and appear to have descended mainly from populations in the South, from Iberia, rather than from the Danube, although before that from Anatolia.  The modern population that is closest to them today are Sardinians.

Also as a layman, I guess that this suggests that most, or even any "Neolithic Farmer" DNA suggested by our ancient ancestry calculators, was most likely picked up elsewhere than Britain, and brought here by later migrants (descended through that mixture of cultural diffusion and admixture), rather than directly from the British Neolithic population.

I also notice a correlation with an Irish study last year ("Neolithic and Bronze Age migration to Ireland and establishment of the insular Atlantic genome" Cassidy etal.  Queens University Belfast 2016), that again, suggested major displacement of earlier peoples in Ireland, at the end of the Neolithic, by a population with largely Steppes origins.