DNA antico Caraibi

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

Ancient DNA retells story of Caribbean’s first people

DNA antico Caraibi
Long Journey's End, (c) Merald Clark, for SIBA: Stone Interchanges in the Bahama Archipelago

The history of the Caribbean’s original islanders comes into sharper focus in a new Nature study that combines decades of archaeological work with advancements in genetic technology.

An international team led by Harvard Medical School’s David Reich analyzed the genomes of 263 individuals in the largest study of ancient human DNA in the Americas to date. The genetics trace two major migratory waves in the Caribbean by two distinct groups, thousands of years apart, revealing an archipelago settled by highly mobile people, with distant relatives often living on different islands.

Reich’s lab also developed a new genetic technique for estimating past population size, showing the number of people living in the Caribbean when Europeans arrived was far smaller than previously thought – likely in the tens of thousands, rather than the million or more reported by Columbus and his successors.

For archaeologist William Keegan, whose work in the Caribbean spans more than 40 years, ancient DNA offers a powerful new tool to help resolve longstanding debates, confirm hypotheses and spotlight remaining mysteries.

This “moves our understanding of the Caribbean forward dramatically in one fell swoop,” said Keegan, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History and co-senior author of the study. “The methods David’s team developed helped address questions I didn’t even know we could address.”

Archaeologists often rely on the remnants of domestic life – pottery, tools, bone and shell discards – to piece together the past. Now, technological breakthroughs in the study of ancient DNA are shedding new light on the movement of animals and humans, particularly in the Caribbean where each island can be a unique microcosm of life.

While the heat and humidity of the tropics can quickly break down organic matter, the human body contains a lockbox of genetic material: a small, unusually dense part of the bone protecting the inner ear. Primarily using this structure, researchers extracted and analyzed DNA from 174 people who lived in the Caribbean and Venezuela between 400 and 3,100 years ago, combining the data with 89 previously sequenced individuals.

The team, which includes Caribbean-based scholars, received permission to carry out the genetic analysis from local governments and cultural institutions that acted as caretakers for the human remains. The authors also engaged representatives of Caribbean Indigenous communities in a discussion of their findings.

Two waves of people, thousands of years apart

The genetic evidence offers new insights into the peopling of the Caribbean. The islands’ first inhabitants, a group of stone tool-users, boated to Cuba about 6,000 years ago, gradually expanding eastward to other islands during the region’s Archaic Age. Where they came from remains unclear – while they are more closely related to Central and South Americans than to North Americans, their genetics do not match any particular Indigenous group. However, similar artifacts found in Belize and Cuba may suggest a Central American origin, Keegan said.

About 2,500-3,000 years ago, farmers and potters related to the Arawak-speakers of northeast South America established a second pathway into the Caribbean. Using the fingers of South America’s Orinoco River Basin like highways, they travelled from the interior to coastal Venezuela and pushed north into the Caribbean Sea, settling Puerto Rico and eventually moving westward. Their arrival ushered in the region’s Ceramic Age, marked by agriculture and the widespread production and use of pottery.

Over time, nearly all genetic traces of Archaic Age people vanished, except for a holdout community in western Cuba that persisted as late as European arrival. Intermarriage between the two groups was rare, with only three individuals in the study showing mixed ancestry.

Many present-day Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans are the descendants of Ceramic Age people, as well as European immigrants and enslaved Africans. But researchers noted only marginal evidence of Archaic Age ancestry in modern individuals.

“That’s a big mystery,” Keegan said. “For Cuba, it’s especially curious that we don’t see more Archaic ancestry.”

Changes in pottery styles not linked to new migrations

Some archaeologists pointed to dramatic shifts in Caribbean pottery styles as evidence of new migrations. But genetics show all of the styles were created by one group of people over time. These effigy vessels belong to the Saladoid pottery type, ornate and difficult to shape. Credits: Corinne Hofman and Menno Hoogland

During the Ceramic Age, Caribbean pottery underwent at least five marked shifts in style over 2,000 years. Ornate red pottery decorated with white painted designs gave way to simple, buff-colored vessels, while other pots were punctuated with tiny dots and incisions or bore sculpted animal faces that likely doubled as handles.

Some archaeologists pointed to these transitions as evidence for new migrations to the islands. But DNA tells a different story, suggesting all of the styles were developed by descendants of the people who arrived in the Caribbean 2,500-3,000 years ago, though they may have interacted with and taken inspiration from outsiders.

“That was a question we might not have known to ask had we not had an archaeological expert on our team,” said co-first author Kendra Sirak, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab. “We document this remarkable genetic continuity across changes in ceramic style. We talk about ‘pots vs. people,’ and to our knowledge, it’s just pots.”

Ancient DNA Caribbean Caribbeans
Archaeological research and ancient DNA technology can work hand in hand to illuminate past history in the Caribbean. This vessel, made between AD 1200-1500 in present-day Dominican Republic, shows a frog figure, associated with the goddess of fertility in Taino culture. Credits: Kristen Grace/Florida Museum

Genetics reveal family connections across islands

Highlighting the region’s interconnectivity, a study of male X chromosomes uncovered 19 pairs of “genetic cousins” living on different islands – people who share the same amount of DNA as biological cousins but may be separated by generations. In the most striking example, one man was buried in the Bahamas while his relative was laid to rest about 600 miles away in the Dominican Republic.

“Showing relationships across different islands is really an amazing step forward,” said Keegan, who added that shifting winds and currents can make passage between islands difficult. “I was really surprised to see these cousin pairings between islands.”

Uncovering such a high proportion of genetic cousins in a sample of fewer than 100 men is another indicator that the region’s total population size was small, said Reich, professor of genetics in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard.

“When you sample two modern individuals, you don’t often find that they’re close relatives,” he said. “Here, we’re finding relatives all over the place.”

Revising estimates of Caribbean population size

A technique developed by study co-author Harald Ringbauer, a postdoctoral fellow in the Reich Lab, used shared segments of DNA to estimate past population size, a method that could also be applied to future studies of ancient people. Ringbauer’s technique showed about 10,000 to 50,000 people were living on two of the Caribbean’s largest islands, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, shortly before European arrival. This falls far short of the million inhabitants Columbus described to his patrons, likely to impress them, Keegan said.

 

Later, 16th-century historian Bartolomé de las Casas claimed the region had been home to 3 million people before being decimated by European enslavement and disease. While this, too, was an exaggeration, the number of people who died as a result of colonization remains an atrocity, Reich said.

“This was a systematic program of cultural erasure. The fact that the number was not 1 million or millions of people, but rather tens of thousands, does not make that erasure any less significant,” he said.

For Keegan, collaborating with geneticists gave him the ability to prove some hypotheses he has argued for years – while upending others.

“At this point, I don’t care if I’m wrong or right,” he said. “It’s just exciting to have a firmer basis for reevaluating how we look at the past in the Caribbean. One of the most significant outcomes of this study is that it demonstrates just how important culture is in understanding human societies. Genes may be discrete, measurable units, but the human genome is culturally created.”


Daniel Fernandes of the University of Vienna and the University of Coimbra in Portugal was also co-first author of the study. Other co-senior authors are Alfredo Coppa of the Sapienza University of Rome, Mark Lipson of HMS and Harvard and Ron Pinhasi of the University of Vienna.

This work was funded by the National Geographic Society, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences, Paul Allen Foundation, John Templeton Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

 

Press release by Natalie van Hoose, from the Florida Museum of Natural History on ancient DNA shedding light on the first people in the Caribbean.


Augsburg Art Cabinet games

Parlour games 400 years ago – almost like today

In a new thesis from Uppsala University, art historian Greger Sundin studied 16th and 17th century games that have been preserved in princely collections for example. Right at the end of his work on the thesis, he and a colleague were able to solve an over 300 year old riddle about a game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
Carved chess pieces on a board of ebony, mother-of-pearl and inlaid silver in Philipp Hainhofer’s Pomeranian Art Cabinet (Berlin). Photo: Greger Sundin

In these times of self-isolation, as people spend a lot of time indoors with only a few others, many Monopoly games and Ludo sets have probably seen the light after many years lying forgotten in a drawer. There is nothing modern about playing board games and parlour games for entertainment and to pass the time. Many of the games we play today go back to at least the latter part of the 16th century. Chess is an example of a game that has been around for a very long time. The same is true of draughts and backgammon. Various forms of the Game of the Goose, in which players move their pieces along a track according to the total number shown on dice, also have a long history.

Everyone played these games, in every social class. Often the same types of game too, although chess was fairly expensive given all the pieces that needed to be carved. Card games, on the other hand, were easy to come by after the introduction of the printing press, and their use exploded in the 16th century (at the expense of games of dice).

“Studying games is a way of really getting close to the people who came before us. The frustration of unco-operative dice would have been as strong in 1620 as in 2020,” says Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
The Augsburg Art Cabinet at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Mikael Wallerstedt

The collections of the University Museum include the Augsburg Art Cabinet, which was finished in 1631. It is the best preserved, most famous art cabinet commissioned by the Augsburg merchant and art dealer Philipp Hainhofer (1578–1647). He filled his art cabinets with objects from around the world – everything from shells, minerals and animal parts to scientific instruments, relics and art objects. And games.

The Augsburg Art Cabinet was a gift to King Gustavus Adolphus from the City of Augsburg in 1632 and it contains a large number of games and pastimes. In his thesis, Greger Sundin used these games as a springboard for exploring what various board and card games looked like and how they were used in princely collecting in the early 17th century. Were they used as games in the same way as today? Were games in art cabinets intended to be used or were they intended to represent games instead, in a context in which so much was just for show?

After having closely studied the games preserved from Hainhofer’s cabinets around Europe, Greger Sundin drew the conclusion that the games were not only viewed. They were also used, presumably by the owners of the cabinets and their guests. He also noted that all the games were very accessible in the cabinets so that they could easily be taken out and played.

Gilded balls to roll through the arcades in a Tafelspiel. The points you score are shown in Roman numerals above each arcade. Games from the Augsburg Art Cabinet in Uppsala. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

After having studied hundreds of games, Greger Sundin was able to reconstruct both how they were used and how contemporary attitudes affected their design, materials and rules. He was also able to deduce from the games included in the art cabinets that Hainhofer not only listened to his clients but also chose them based on his own great interest in games.

In the very last weeks before the thesis was to go to print, Greger Sundin and a colleague in Germany were able to solve a riddle about a mysterious game in the Augsburg Art Cabinet, the name and rules of which had already been forgotten when it was first described in Sweden in 1694.

Augsburg Art Cabinet games
‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

They established that the imaginatively decorated game was ‘Unfaithful neighbours’ or perhaps ‘Go to Hell’ (Höllfahren in German). The board was used for moving pieces while the players played cards. Depending on where you landed, different rules applied. For example, you had to be quiet or address someone in a specific way. If you failed to follow the rules, you moved a step closer to the centre, where people were being cooked in a pot. If you ended up there, you lost. The last player left was the winner and took all the money. Hainhofer, the creator of the art cabinets, used to play this type of game on his travels.

Dr Greger Sundin, curator at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum. Credit: Frida Klang

Full bibliographic information

Greger Sundin (2020) A Matter of Amusement: The Material Culture of Philipp Hainhofer’s Games in Early Modern Princely Collections, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 2020.

Press release from the Uppsala University on games in princely collections and the Augsburg Art Cabinet.


Egypt gynaeocological

Scientists find evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago

Scientists find evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed in ancient Egypt 4,000 years ago

Scientists from the Universities of Granada and Jaén are studying the physical evidence found in the mummified remains of a woman who suffered severe trauma to the pelvis in 1878–1797 BC, linking them to a medical treatment described in various Egyptian medical papyri of the time

Egypt gynaeocological
Important damage to the pubis

During the Qubbet el-Hawa Project, led by the University of Jaén (UJA) in Aswan (Egypt), in which scientists from the University of Granada (UGR) are participating, researchers have found evidence of the oldest gynaecological treatment on record, performed on a woman who lived in Ancient Egypt some 4,000 years ago and died in 1878–1797 BC.

During the 2017 archaeological dig organised in Qubbet el-Hawa, on the western bank of the River Nile, Andalusian researchers found a vertical shaft dug into the rock in tomb QH34, leading to a burial chamber with ten intact skeletons.

Mummification techniques were not very effective at that time, at least at this site in Upper Egypt. However, the individuals buried there generally belonged to the upper classes of society meaning that they would have been given special care. These particular mummies are very well-preserved and are wrapped in thick layers of linen strips, sometimes bearing remnants of dried soft tissue.

“The mummies had grave goods (usually necklaces of different types); in some cases, their faces were covered with cartonnage masks; and they were preserved inside two rectangular sarcophagi, one inside the other. These featured hieroglyphic inscriptions and were typically badly damaged due to termite infestation,” explains Miguel Botella, forensic anthropologist and Emeritus Professor at the UGR, who conducted the analyses.

The last mummy buried

One of the mummies excavated by the team of anthropologists was perhaps the last to be buried in the chamber. It belonged to a woman of high social class, whose name, Sattjeni, has been preserved in the remains of the outer coffin. That name must have been common among the upper classes of the region, perhaps explaining why she was named Sattjeni A.

Between her bandaged legs, in the lower part of the pelvis and beneath the linen wrappings, the researchers found a ceramic bowl with signs of use, containing charred organic remains. The analysis of the skeletal remains was carried out by a team of anthropologists from the UGR (coordinated by Professor Botella) and it confirmed that the woman had survived a serious fracture in her pelvis, perhaps caused by a fall, which must have caused severe pain.

It is highly likely that, to alleviate these pains, the woman was treated with fumigations, as described in medical papyri of the time describing solutions to gynaecological problems.

“The most interesting feature of the discovery made by the researchers from the University of Jaén is not only the documentation of a palliative gynaecological treatment, something that is quite unique in Egyptian archaeology, but also the fact that this type of treatment by fumigation was described in contemporary medical papyri. But, until now, there had been no evidence found to prove that such treatment was actually carried out,” explains the UJA’s Dr. Alejandro Jimenez, an expert in Egyptology and director of the Qubbet el-Hawa Project. This work has now been published by one of the most prestigious academic journals in EgyptologyZeitschrift für Ägyptische Spracheund Altertumskunde.

The project was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Research, Fundación Gaselec, Fundación Palarq, the Calderón Group, and the Spanish Association of Egyptology.

 

Press release from the University of Granada on the mummified remains of a woman in Aswan (Egypt) who suffered severe trauma to the pelvis and received gynaecological treatment.


Archaeologists unearth huge Phoenician defensive moat

Archaeologists unearth huge Phoenician defensive moat

Wide and intact, it helped fortify the defensive nature of the area, noticeably increasing its ability to resist attacks.

Cabezo Pequeño del Estaño phoenician

With a depth of three meters and over eight meters tall, the discovery of a defensive moat in the walled Phoenician site of Cabezo Pequeño del Estaño, located at the Alicante province town of Guardamar del Segura, strengthened the defensive capabilities of the village. The new archaeological dig, which is being conducted these days at the site, is framed within the General Research Plan of the Education, Culture and Sport Council of the Valencia Region government, promoted by the town hall of Guardamar del Segura and by the INAPH archaeological research institute of the University of Alicante (UA).

One of its head archaeologists from the INAPH, Fernando Prados, has classified the outstanding finding of the moat at this Phoenician walled site as “enormous and intact”. Works are being directed by Prados; also partaking are Antonio García, director of the Archaeological Museum of Guardamar Segura; José Gambín, architect at the same town and doctor Helena Jiménez, lecturer of Ancient History at the University of Murcia. The work team is rounded out with the participation of researchers in training and technicians from the UA.

Finding the defensive moat

Excavating the fortification is making it possible to obtain a comprehensive view of the defensive structure, obscured until now by sedimentary accumulation and the harmful effects of erosion and the quarry, which destroyed 75% of the village in the 90s (20th century). An aerial photo preserved prior to this destruction revealed the potential existence of a defensive moat that traversed the hill parallel to the lines of the wall. The excavation has confirmed this fact by revealing the moat, which was handmade; one can see marks of chisels in the rocky substrate.

With a depth of around three meters and a width of over eight at its tallest part, this device strengthens the defensive nature of the village, providing heightened defence in the event of attacks. Together with the existing one in the Castillo de Doña Blanca, in Cádiz, it is the only one with these attributes preserved in the western Mediterranean area from its time.

Once more, as happens with the spectacular wall of this site, the closest known parallels are found in the Near East, in Phoenician cities such as Tell Dor or Beirut (today the capital of Lebanon).

The exceptional nature of this finding confirms the essential role of Cabezo Pequeño del Estaño as the spearhead of the Phoenician colonial policies between the 9th and 8th Century BC. The uncertainty and hostility that these settlers experienced upon arriving at the Iberian coast led them to erect a fortification large enough to fulfil their interests at the mouth of the Segura river: to harness the resources, mainly metallurgic.

 

Press release from Asociación RUVID


Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Stephen Fry, the 100th Lego Classicist

Yet another great announcement for the classicists who love LEGO. The well-known Australian historical archivist Liam D. Jensen, AKA The Lego Classicist, is informing us about the revealing of the 100th entry in this rich and precious collection of classicists.

This time, the coveted acknowledgment will go to the world-famous British star Stephen Fry.

Fry has starred in theatre plays, full length pictures and TV series; besides, all throughout his career he's been a film director and scriptwriter, a TV host, a journalist and a book author.

An important part of his writing activities is indeed focused on the subject of mythology; we had the honour of interviewing Stephen Fry on this occasion.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

You wrote many books on the subject of myth. Where does this interest start, and what inspires you?

Mythology, but specifically Greek myth, gripped me from the first. I had liked fairy stories well enough when young, as most children do, but I sensed straight away that myths were somehow different, they came from a different place, they could be “taken to be true” in a certain kind of way that was stronger than fantasy. I think it was the personalities in Greek myth that so beguiled me. Without being conscious in any way of what myth is – where it comes from, who thought the stories up – I think it was clear to me that they had a truth and a depth too them that was more imperishable and somehow more important than, for example, Snow White and Rapunzel on the one hand, or the Hobbit and Narnia on the other. I have no wild objection to author-created fantasy worlds, but they could never reach me the way stories of myth could and still do.

What does it mean for Stephen Fry to popularize and/or retell a subject?

Goodness, I am not sure. I suppose in my wildest moments of self-belief and optimism I might hope that I combined enough of an ability to animate and entertain with enough authority and knowledge too - such a combination allowing people simultaneously to enjoy what I write but also to feel in some sense enriched by the confidence that they were (perhaps for the first time, or at least for a long time) drawing from the same narrative waters that so many generations of our ancestors had drawn. I get such pleasure when people tell me that they finally felt able to connect dots between — for example — Apollo and Hermes or the Titans and the Olympians, or that they feel familiar with characters whose names had often seemed remote and forbidding, Clytemnestra, say or Antigone. What once had been rather academic sounding names were at last knowable. Most of all, I hope to have taken away the scent of chalk dust and the stuffy school room...

 

The cover of the book Troy: Our Greatest Story Retold - Stephen Fry's Greek Myth, Penguin Books (2020)

How have your studies on English literature influenced your choices and your activities?

It’s impossible to say: I suspect that the traces of a lifetime’s love of reading will have left their mark in all kinds of ways that I cannot necessarily know or define. I think that a sense of irony (by which I mean something more than mocking irony, sarcasm or a sense of cosmic irony) is crucial to full human social development. An ironic mind is one that understand how to adopt another point of view, how to substitute (like a kind of social algebra) different ways of thinking, how to lay the patterns from one form of discourse on another (I know that doesn’t sound very clear, but I hope you get what I mean). The opposite of a ironising mind is a literalist mind, a dangerous and all too common presence in our world as larger and larger proportions of society rise in the world in new generations, sadly it seems unequipped with the ability to think ironically (such an ability presupposes the gift to think logically and imaginatively for you cannot be an ironist without a rigid sense of logic coupled with the ability to penetrate the knowledge and experience of others). My friend Matt D’Ancona put it very well when writing about another friend, the late Christopher Hitchens: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind … unlike rigid ideology and fundamentalism, irony – saying one thing while meaning another – helps us to recognise complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity.” And nothing, I would suggest, allows for this facility more than an exposure to literature and drama.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Stephen Fry, the 100th LEGO Classicist

In your book Heroes: Mortal and Monsters, Quests and Adventures, you wrote again about classical mythology, and of vices and virtues of the Gods. How do you imagine a fictitious Olympus?

Well, I am sorry to have to break it to you, but an Olympus peopled by quarrelling and fractious gods is a fiction. When you climb Mount Olympus in Greece you will find nothing but a very cold, damp, cloudy and rocky empty space. No gods there at all. The idea that there ever were gods there is … well, if not fictitious then mythical. We can think about what we mean by the difference. A fiction is fabricated by an individual mind, or occasionally a group of collaborating minds. A myth is fabricated by a whole society. Myths can be called, as Joseph Campbell did, “public dreams” or, if you prefer Carl Jung’s phrase, they are expressions of a “collective unconscious”. The collective unconscious of the Greeks, in my view, is so appealing because it understands that if the world is majestic, beautiful, awe-inspiring, noble and beautiful (as it clearly is) then the gods must be all those things …. BUT, the Greeks also knew that if the world is brutal, cruel, capricious, unjust, ugly and savage then the gods must be all those things too. Therefore, for the first time in human story-telling, the Greek pantheon is presented as one of personalities who are several things at once: mean but beautiful, cruel but fair, noble but capricious, etc etc etc. In other words, unlike so many other mythic cycles, the Greek one is filled with the ambiguities, inconsistencies and multiplicities of character that we find in our real lives. The very complexity, paradox, nuance and absurdity that I mentioned earlier. They are the first mythic cycle in our human history to have been shaped and reshaped by poets and dramatists to become a perfect blend of the religious, the literary, the dramatic, the visionary, the comic and the symbolic. They are, I think one can say therefore, a work of art.

The cover of the book Heroes. The myths of the Ancient Greek heroes retold, by Stephen Fry, Penguin Books (2019)

Stephen Fry will be the 100th Lego Classicist, did you know the project already?

I had heard of it, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I might be the Lego Centenarian.

Stephen Fry LEGO Classicist
Liam D. Jensen and Alessandra Randazzo talking about the 100th LEGO Classicist

All Lego Classicist pictures courtesy Liam D. Jensen, The Lego Classicist.