Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Archaeological findings of Levänluhta in the Finnish National Museum's exhibition. In the front arm rings and necklaces found from the burial site, made out of copper alloy. Credit: Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä

The Levänluhta water burial site, dating back to the Iron Age (300-800 CE), is one of Finland's most famous archaeological sites. Nearly one hundred individuals, mainly women or children, were buried in a lake located at Isokyrö in SW Finland, during the Iron Age. Some of the deceased were accompanied by arm rings and necklaces made out of copper alloy, bronze or brass.

Style of jewellery domestic but material from abroad

"The origin of the metals used in these pieces of jewellery was determined on the basis of the objects' geochemical and lead isotope compositions. The jewellery of the deceased is stylistically typical Finnish Iron Age jewellery, making it probable that they were cast in local workshops. However, the metals used to make these objects are unlikely to be originally from the region, since copper ores had not yet been discovered here during the Iron Age," says Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, a postdoctoral researcher.

Up to now, archaeologists have assumed that copper used in the Iron Age came mainly from the copper ores discovered in southern Scandinavia. However, this interpretation has in recent years been called into question, since the copper found in archaeological metal discoveries in Sweden has also been determined to be imported.

In a study conducted in collaboration between archaeologists at the University of Helsinki and the Geological Survey of Finland, the origin of the bronze and brass jewellery found at Levänluhta was investigated by comparing their geochemical composition and lead isotope ratios to known copper ores in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe. The study was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Copper tracks lead to southern Europe

"The results demonstrate that the copper used in the objects was not from Finland or the nearby regions; rather, it has travelled to Finland along extensive exchange networks, most likely from southern Europe," says Holmqvist-Sipilä.

Based on the lead isotope ratios, the copper in the objects has its origins in the copper ores found in Greece and Bulgaria. These regions produced a large quantity of copper in the Bronze and Iron Age, which spread around Europe as various object forms, distributed as presents, loot and merchandise. Metals were also recycled by melting old objects into raw material for new casts. It may be possible that metals that ended up in Finland during the Bronze Age were recycled in the Levänluhta region.

The findings of this project, funded by the Emil Aaltonen Foundation, demonstrate that products of the copper exchange network of continental Europe also reached Finland across the Baltic Sea, thus making it possible to link the region with the extensive copper exchange system known to have extended throughout Europe. The results also illustrate the temporally and technologically multi-layered nature of prehistoric metal artefacts: raw materials found their way here through a number of hands, most likely over a long period of time and across very great distances. In domestic artisan workshops, these metals of international origin were manufactured into pieces of jewellery in domestic Iron Age fashion, perhaps embodying the local identity and place of residence of the bearer.


Press release from the University of Helsinki

giant ostrich Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

Bird three times larger than ostrich discovered in Crimean cave

First evidence that giant ostrich-like birds once roamed Europe

giant ostrich Crimean cave
PaleoArt of the bird discovered in a Crimean cave. It weighed three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich. Credit: Andrey Atuchin

A surprise discovery in a Crimean cave suggests that early Europeans lived alongside some of the largest ever known birds, according to new research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

It was previously thought that such gigantism in birds only ever existed on the islands of Madagascar and New Zealand as well as Australia. The newly-discovered specimen, discovered in the Taurida Cave on the northern coast of the Black Sea, suggests a bird as giant as the Madagascan elephant bird or New Zealand moa. It may have been a source of meat, bones, feathers and eggshell for early humans.

"When I first felt the weight of the bird whose thigh bone I was holding in my hand, I thought it must be a Malagasy elephant bird fossil because no birds of this size have ever been reported from Europe. However, the structure of the bone unexpectedly told a different story," says lead author Dr Nikita Zelenkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"We don't have enough data yet to say whether it was most closely related to ostriches or to other birds, but we estimate it weighed about 450kg. This formidable weight is nearly double the largest moa, three times the largest living bird, the common ostrich, and nearly as much as an adult polar bear."

It is the first time a bird of such size has been reported from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Although the species was previously known, no one ever tried to calculate the size of this animal. The flightless bird, attributed to the species Pachystruthio dmanisensis, was probably at least 3.5 metres tall and would have towered above early humans. It may have been flightless but it was also fast.

While elephant birds were hampered by their great size when it came to speed, the femur of the current bird was relatively long and slim, suggesting it was a better runner. The femur is comparable to modern ostriches as well as smaller species of moa and terror birds. Speed may have been essential to the bird's survival. Alongside its bones, palaeontologists found fossils of highly-specialised, massive carnivores from the Ice Age. They included giant cheetah, giant hyenas and sabre-toothed cats, which were able to prey on mammoths.

Other fossils discovered alongside the specimen, such as bison, help date it to 1.5 to 2 million years ago. A similar range of fossils was discovered at an archaeological site in the town of Dmanisi in Georgia, the oldest hominin site outside Africa. Although previously neglected by science, this suggests the giant bird may have been typical of the animals found at the time when the first hominins arrived in Europe. The authors suggest it reached the Black Sea region via the Southern Caucasus and Turkey.

The body mass of the bird was reconstructed using calculations from several formulae, based on measurements from the femur bone. Applying these formulae, the body mass of the bird was estimated to be around 450kg. Such gigantism may have originally evolved in response to the environment, which was increasingly arid as the Pleistocene epoch approached. Animals with a larger body mass have lower metabolic demands and can therefore make use of less nutritious food growing in open steppes.

"The Taurida cave network was only discovered last summer when a new motorway was being built. Last year, mammoth remains were unearthed and there may be much more to that the site will teach us about Europe's distant past," says Zelenkov.

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The ancient history of Neandertals in Europe

The ancient history of Neandertals in Europe

Early ancestors of the last Neandertals lived in Europe already 120,000 years ago

This is the femur of a male Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany. Credit: © Oleg Kuchar, Museum Ulm

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have retrieved nuclear genome sequences from the femur of a male Neandertal discovered in 1937 in Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Germany, and from the maxillary bone of a Neandertal girl found in 1993 in Scladina Cave, Belgium. Both Neandertals lived around 120,000 years ago, and therefore predate most of the Neandertals whose genomes have been sequenced to date.

Neandertals Europe
This is the Maxillary bone of a Neandertal girl from Scladina Cave, Belgium. Credit: © J. Eloy, AWEM, Archéologie andennaise

By examining the nuclear genomes of these two individuals, the researchers could show that these early Neandertals in Western Europe were more closely related to the last Neandertals who lived in the same region as much as 80,000 years later, than they were to contemporaneous Neandertals living in Siberia. "The result is truly extraordinary and a stark contrast to the turbulent history of replacements, large-scale admixtures and extinctions that is seen in modern human history", says Kay Prüfer who supervised the study.

Intriguingly, unlike the nuclear genome, the mitochondrial genome of the Neandertal from Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave in Germany is quite different from that of later Neandertals - a previous report showed that more than 70 mutations distinguish it from the mitochondrial genomes of other Neandertals. The researchers suggest that early European Neandertals may have inherited DNA from a yet undescribed population. "This unknown population could represent an isolated Neandertal population yet to be discovered, or may be from a potentially larger population in Africa related to modern humans", explains Stéphane Peyrégne who led the analysis.


Press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology / Max-Planck-Institut für evolutionäre Anthropologie

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Details of first historically recorded plague pandemic revealed by ancient genomes

Analysis of 8 new plague genomes from the first plague pandemic reveals previously unknown levels of plague diversity, and provides the first genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles

Justinianic Plague Yersinia pestis
Map and phylogenetic tree showing the newly published (yellow) and previously published (turquoise) genomes. Shaded areas and dots represent historically recorded outbreaks of the First Pandemic. Credit: Marcel Keller

An international team of researchers has analyzed human remains from 21 archaeological sites to learn more about the impact and evolution of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis during the first plague pandemic (541-750 AD). In a study published in PNAS, the researchers reconstructed 8 plague genomes from Britain, Germany, France and Spain and uncovered a previously unknown level of diversity in Y. pestis strains. Additionally, they found the first direct genetic evidence of the Justinianic Plague in the British Isles.

The Justinianic Plague began in 541 in the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled at the time by the Emperor Justinian I, and recurrent outbreaks ravaged Europe and the Mediterranean basin for approximately 200 years. Contemporaneous records describe the extent of the pandemic, estimated to have wiped out up to 25% of the population of the Roman world at the time. Recent genetic studies revealed that the bacterium Yersinia pestis was the cause of the disease, but how it had spread and how the strains that appeared over the course of the pandemic were related to each other was previously unknown.

In the current study, an international team of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History analyzed human remains from 21 sites with multiple burials in Austria, Britain, Germany, France and Spain. They were able to reconstruct 8 new Y. pestis genomes, allowing them to compare these strains to previously published ancient and modern genomes. Additionally, the team found the earliest genetic evidence of plague in Britain, from the Anglo-Saxon site of Edix Hill. By using a combination of archaeological dating and the position of this strain of Y. pestis in its evolutionary tree, the researchers concluded that the genome is likely related to an ambiguously described pestilence in the British Isles in 544 AD.

High diversity of Y. pestis strains during the First Pandemic

The researchers found that there was a previously unknown diversity of strains of Y. pestis circulating in Europe between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. The 8 new genomes came from Britain, France, Germany and Spain. "The retrieval of genomes that span a wide geographic and temporal scope gives us the opportunity to assess Y. pestis' microdiversity present in Europe during the First Pandemic," explains co-first author Marcel Keller, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, now working at the University of Tartu. The newly discovered genomes revealed that there were multiple, closely related strains of Y. pestis circulating during the 200 years of the First Pandemic, some possibly at the same times and in the same regions.

Despite the greatly increased number of genomes now available, the researchers were not able to clarify the onset of the Justinianic Plague. "The lineage likely emerged in Central Asia several hundred years before the First Pandemic, but we interpret the current data as insufficient to resolve the origin of the Justinianic Plague as a human epidemic, before it was first reported in Egypt in 541 AD. However, the fact that all genomes belong to the same lineage is indicative of a persistence of plague in Europe or the Mediterranean basin over this time period, instead of multiple reintroductions."

Sampling of a tooth from a suspected plague burial. Credit: Evelyn Guevara

Possible evidence of convergent evolution in strains from two independent historical pandemics

Another interesting finding of the study was that plague genomes appearing towards the end of the First Pandemic showed a big deletion in their genetic code that included two virulence factors. Plague genomes from the late stages of the Second Pandemic some 800-1000 years later show a similar deletion covering the same region of the genomes. "This is a possible example of convergent evolution, meaning that these Y. pestis strains independently evolved similar characteristics. Such changes may reflect an adaptation to a distinct ecological niche in Western Eurasia where the plague was circulating during both pandemics," explains co-first author Maria Spyrou of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

The current study offers new insights into the first historically documented plague pandemic, and provides additional clues alongside historical, archaeological, and palaeoepidemiological evidence, helping to answer outstanding questions. "This study shows the potential of palaeogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia," explains senior author Johannes Krause of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. "With more extensive sampling of possible plague burials, we hope to contribute to the understanding of Y. pestis' microevolution and its impact on humans during the course of past and present pandemics."

Lunel-Viel (Languedoc-Southern France). Victim of the plague thrown into a demolition trench of a Gallo-Roman house; end of the 6th-early 7th century. Credit: 1990; CNRS - Claude Raynaud

Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Instituts für Menschheitsgeschichte

East Africa

Ancient DNA tells the story of the first herders and farmers in east Africa

Ancient DNA tells the story of the first herders and farmers in east Africa

A collaborative study that includes a SLU-Madrid archaeologist provides new insights on early human interaction

East Africa
Herders move goats through the Engaruka Basin in northern Tanzania's Rift Valley. Ancient DNA shows that this way of life spread to East Africa through multiple population movements. Credit: Katherine Grillo

ST. LOUIS, MO (May 30, 2019) - A collaborative study led by archaeologists, geneticists and museum curators is providing answers to previously unsolved questions about life in sub-Saharan Africa thousands of years ago. The results were published online in the journal Science Thursday, May 30.

Researchers from North American, European and African institutions analyzed ancient DNA from 41 human skeletons curated in the National Museums of Kenya and Tanzania, and the Livingstone Museum in Zambia.

"The origins of food producers in East Africa have remained elusive because of gaps in the archaeological record," said co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University's campus in Madrid, Spain.

"This study uses DNA to answer previously unresolvable questions about how people were moving and interacting," added Prendergast.

The research provides a look at the origins and movements of early African food producers.

The first form of food production to spread through most of Africa was the herding of cattle, sheep and goats. This way of life continues to support millions of people living on the arid grasslands that cover much of sub-Saharan Africa.

"Today, East Africa is one of the most genetically, linguistically, and culturally diverse places in the world," explains Elizabeth Sawchuk, Ph.D., a bioarchaeologist at Stony Brook University and co-first author of the study. "Our findings trace the roots of this mosaic back several millennia. Distinct peoples have coexisted in the Rift Valley for a very long time."

Previous archaeological research shows that the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania was a key site for the transition from foraging to herding. Herders of livestock first appeared in northern Kenya around 5000 years ago, associated with elaborate monumental cemeteries, and then spread south into the Rift Valley, where Pastoral Neolithic cultures developed.

The new genetic results reveal that this spread of herding into Kenya and Tanzania involved groups with ancestry derived from northeast Africa, who appeared in East Africa and mixed with local foragers there between about 4500-3500 years ago. Previously, the origins and timing of these population shifts were unclear, and some archaeologists hypothesized that domestic animals spread through exchange networks, rather than by movement of people.

After around 3500 years ago, herders and foragers became genetically isolated in East Africa, even though they continued to live side by side. Archaeologists have hypothesized substantial interaction among foraging and herding groups, but the new results reveal that there were strong and persistent social barriers that lasted long after the initial encounters.

Another major genetic shift occurred during the Iron Age around 1200 years ago, with movement into the region of additional peoples from both northeastern and western Africa. These groups contributed to ancient ancestry profiles similar to those of many East Africans today. This genetic shift parallels two major cultural changes: farming and iron-working.

The study provided insight into the history of East Africa as an independent center of evolution of lactase persistence, which enables people to digest milk into adulthood. This genetic adaptation is found in high proportions among Kenyan and Tanzanian herders today.

Co-first author Mary Prendergast, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology and chair of humanities at Saint Louis University's campus in Madrid, Spain. Credit: Mary Prendergast

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Exploring the origins of the apple

Exploring the origins of the apple

Apples originally evolved in the wild to entice ancient megafauna to disperse their seeds; more recently, humans began spreading the trees along the Silk Road with other familiar crops; dispersing the apple trees led to their domestication

wild horses apple
Horses eating wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains. These domesticated horses demonstrate the process of seed dispersal that wild apple trees evolved to support millions of years ago, when large monogastric mammals such as these were prominent across Eurasia. Credit: Artur Stroscherer

Recent archaeological finds of ancient preserved apple seeds across Europe and West Asia combined with historical, paleontological, and recently published genetic data are presenting a fascinating new narrative for one of our most familiar fruits. In this study, Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History traces the history of the apple from its wild origins, noting that it was originally spread by ancient megafauna and later as a process of trade along the Silk Road. These processes allowed for the development of the varieties that we know today.

The apple is, arguably, the most familiar fruit in the world. It is grown in temperate environments around the globe and its history is deeply intertwined with humanity. Depictions of large red fruits in Classical art demonstrate that domesticated apples were present in southern Europe over two millennia ago, and ancient seeds from archaeological sites attest to the fact that people have been collecting wild apples across Europe and West Asia for more than ten thousand years. While it is clear that people have closely maintained wild apple populations for millennia, the process of domestication, or evolutionary change under human cultivation, in these trees is not clear.

Several recent genetic studies have demonstrated that the modern apple is a hybrid of at least four wild apple populations, and researchers have hypothesized that the Silk Road trade routes were responsible for bringing these fruits together and causing their hybridization. Archaeological remains of apples in the form of preserved seeds have been recovered from sites across Eurasia, and these discoveries support the idea that fruit and nut trees were among the commodities that moved on these early trade routes. Spengler recently summarized the archaeobotanical and historical evidence for cultivated crops on the Silk Road in a book titled Fruit from the Sands, published with the University of California Press. The apple holds a deep connection with the Silk Road - much of the genetic material for the modern apple originated at the heart of the ancient trade routes in the Tien Shan Mountains of Kazakhstan. Furthermore, the process of exchange caused the hybridization events that gave rise to the large red sweet fruits in our produce markets.

Understanding how and when apple trees evolved to produce larger fruits is an important question for researchers, because fruit trees do not appear to have followed the same path towards domestication as other, better-understood crops, such as cereals or legumes. Many different wild and anthropogenic forces apply selective pressure on the crops in our fields, it is not always easy to reconstruct what pressures caused which evolutionary changes. Therefore, looking at evolutionary processing in modern and fossil plants can help scholars interpret the process of domestication. Fleshy sweet fruits evolve to attract animals to eat then and spread their seeds; large fruits specifically evolve to attract large animals to disperse them.

The wild apples in the Tien Shan Mountains represent the main ancestral population for our modern apple. These trees produce large fruits, which are often red when ripe and have a varying array of flavors. These were the ancestors of the trees that people first started to cultivate and spread along the Silk Road. Credit: Prof. Dr. Martin R. Stuchtey

Large fruits evolved to attract ancient megafauna

While most scholars studying domestication focus on the period when humans first start cultivating a plant, in this study Spengler explores the processes in the wild that set the stage for domestication. Spengler suggests that understanding the process of evolution of large fruits in the wild will help us understand the process of their domestication. "Seeing that fruits are evolutionary adaptations for seed dispersal, the key to understanding fruit evolution rests in understanding what animals were eating the fruits in the past," he explains.

Many fruiting plants in the apple family (Rosaceae) have small fruits, such as cherries, raspberries, and roses. These small fruits are easily swallowed by birds, which then disperse their seeds. However, certain trees in the family, such as apples, pears, quince, and peaches, evolved in the wild to be too large for a bird to disperse their seeds. Fossil and genetic evidence demonstrate that these large fruits evolved several million years before humans started cultivating them. So who did these large fruits evolve to attract?

The evidence suggests that large fruits are an evolutionary adaptation to attract large animals that can eat the fruits and spread the seeds. Certain large mammals, such as bears and domesticated horses, eat apples and spread the seeds today. However, prior to the end of the last Ice Age, there were many more large mammals on the European landscape, such as wild horses and large deer. Evidence suggests that seed dispersal in the large-fruiting wild relatives of the apple has been weak during the past ten thousand years, since many of these animals went extinct. The fact that wild apple populations appear to map over glacial refugial zones of the Ice Age further suggests that these plants have not been moving over long distances or colonizing new areas in the absence of their original seed-spreaders.

Trade along the Silk Road likely enabled the development of the apple we know today

Silk Road apple
Venders in every Central Asian bazaar sell a diverse array of apples. This women in the Bukhara bazaar is selling a variety of small sweet yellow apples, which she locally cultivated in Uzbekistan. Some of the fruits sold in these markets today travel great distances, similar to how they would have during the peak of the Silk Road. Credit: Robert Spengler

Wild apple tree populations were isolated after the end of the last Ice Age, until humans started moving the fruits across Eurasia, in particular along the Silk Road. Once humans brought these tree lineages back into contact with each other again, bees and other pollinators did the rest of the work. The resulting hybrid offspring had larger fruits, a common result of hybridization. Humans noticed the larger fruiting trees and fixed this trait in place through grafting and by planting cuttings of the most favored trees. Thus, the apples we know today were primarily not developed through a long process of the selection and propagation of seeds from the most favored trees, but rather through hybridization and grafting. This process may have been relatively rapid and parts of it were likely unintentional. The fact that apple trees are hybrids and not "properly" domesticated is why we often end up with a crabapple tree when we plant an apple seed.

This study challenges the definition of "domestication"' and demonstrates that there is no one-shoe-fits-all model to explain plant evolution under human cultivation. For some plants, domestication took millennia of cultivation and human-induced selective pressure - for other plants, hybridization caused rapid morphological change. "The domestication process is not the same for all plants, and we still do not know much about the process in long-generation trees," notes Spengler. "It is important that we look past annual grasses, such as wheat and rice, when we study plant domestication. There are hundreds of other domesticated plants on the planet, many of which took different pathways toward domestication." Ultimately, the apple in your kitchen appears to owe its existence to extinct megafaunal browsers and Silk Road merchants.



Press release from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History / Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte

Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago

Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago

Neanderthals and modern humans diverged at least 800,000 years ago, substantially earlier than indicated by most DNA-based estimates, according to new research by a UCL academic.

Neanderthals diverged teeth
Dental morphology. Credit: Aida Gómez-Robles

The research, published in Science Advances, analysed dental evolutionary rates across different hominin species, focusing on early Neanderthals. It shows that the teeth of hominins from Sima de los Huesos, Spain - ancestors of the Neanderthals - diverged from the modern human lineage earlier than previously assumed.

Sima de los Huesos is a cave site in Atapuerca Mountains, Spain, where archaeologists have recovered fossils of almost 30 people. Previous studies date the site to around 430,000 years ago (Middle Pleistocene), making it one of the oldest and largest collections of human remains discovered to date.

Dr Aida Gomez-Robles (UCL Anthropology), said: "Any divergence time between Neanderthals and modern humans younger than 800,000 years ago would have entailed an unexpectedly fast dental evolution in the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos."

"There are different factors that could potentially explain these results, including strong selection to change the teeth of these hominins or their isolation from other Neanderthals found in mainland Europe. However, the simplest explanation is that the divergence between Neanderthals and modern humans was older than 800,000 years. This would make the evolutionary rates of the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos roughly comparable to those found in other species."

Modern humans share a common ancestor with Neanderthals, the extinct species that were our closest prehistoric relatives. However, the details on when and how they diverged are a matter of intense debate within the anthropological community.

Ancient DNA analyses have generally indicated that both lineages diverged around 300,000 to 500,000 years ago, which has strongly influenced the interpretation of the hominin fossil record.

This divergence time, however, is not compatible with the anatomical and genetic Neanderthal similarities observed in the hominins from Sima de los Huesos. The Sima fossils are considered likely Neanderthal ancestors based on both anatomical features and DNA analysis.

Dr Gomez-Robles said: "Sima de los Huesos hominins are characterised by very small posterior teeth (premolars and molars) that show multiple similarities with classic Neanderthals. It is likely that the small and Neanderthal-looking teeth of these hominins evolved from the larger and more primitive teeth present in the last common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans."

Dental shape has evolved at very similar rates across all hominin species, including those with very expanded and very reduced teeth. This new study examined the time at which Neanderthals and modern humans should have diverged to make the evolutionary rate of the early Neanderthals from Sima de los Huesos similar to those observed in other hominins.

The research used quantitative data to measure the evolution of dental shape across hominin species assuming different divergent times between Neanderthals and modern humans, and accounting for the uncertainty about the evolutionary relationships between different hominin species.

"The Sima people's teeth are very different from those that we would expect to find in their last common ancestral species with modern humans, suggesting that they evolved separately over a long period of time to develop such stark differences."

The study has significant implications for the identification of Homo sapiens last common ancestral species with Neanderthals, as it allows ruling out all the groups postdating 800,000 year ago.

Neanderthals diverged teeth
Hominin teeth. Credit: Aida Gómez-Robles

Press release from University College London

Uralic languages Siberia

Ancient DNA suggests that some Northern Europeans got their languages from Siberia

Ancient DNA suggests that some Northern Europeans got their languages from Siberia

Uralic languages Siberia
Estonian Grammar by Heinrich Stahl, published 1637 in Reval (Tallinn). Public Domain

Most Europeans descend from a combination of European hunter-gatherers, Anatolian early farmers, and Steppe herders. But only European speakers of Uralic languages like Estonian and Finnish also have DNA from ancient Siberians. Now, with the help of ancient DNA samples, researchers reporting in Current Biology on May 9 suggest that these languages may have arrived from Siberia by the beginning of the Iron Age, about 2,500 years ago, rather than evolving in Northern Europe.

The findings highlight the way in which a combination of genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data can converge to tell the same story about what happened in particular areas in the distant past.

"Since the transition from Bronze to Iron Age coincides with the diversification and arrival time of Finnic languages in the Eastern Baltic proposed by linguists, it is plausible that the people who brought Siberian ancestry to the region also brought Uralic languages with them," says Lehti Saag of University of Tartu, Estonia.

Although researchers knew that the Uralic-speaking people share common Siberian ancestry, its arrival time in the Eastern Baltic had remained uncertain. To characterize the genetic ancestry of people from the as-yet-unstudied cultural layers, Saag along with Kristiina Tambets and colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth roots of 56 individuals, 33 of which yielded enough DNA to include in the analysis.

"Studying ancient DNA makes it possible to pinpoint the moment in time when the genetic components that we see in modern populations reached the area since, instead of predicting past events based on modern genomes, we are analyzing the DNA of individuals who actually lived in a particular time in the past," Saag explains.

Their data suggest that the Siberian ancestry reached the coasts of the Baltic Sea no later than the mid-first millennium BC--around the time of the diversification of west Uralic/Finnic languages. It also indicates an influx of people from regions with strong Western hunter-gatherer characteristics in the Bronze Age, including many traits we now associate with modern Northern Europeans, like pale skins, blue eyes, and lactose tolerance.

"The Bronze Age individuals from the Eastern Baltic show an increase in hunter-gatherer ancestry compared to Late Neolithic people and also in the frequency of light eyes, hair, and skin and lactose tolerance," Tambets says, noting that those characteristics continue amongst present-day Northern Europeans.

The researchers are now expanding their study to better understand the Iron Age migration processes in Europe. They say they will also "move forward in time and focus on the genetic structure of the medieval time period."

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pollution Roman era

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

Traces of Roman-era pollution stored in the ice of Mont Blanc

pollution Roman era
Simulations to assess the sensitivity of lead deposits in the Col du Dôme (yellow) to the geographical location of the emission. This map also indicates the location of major mines known to have existed in Roman antiquity. In the approximately 500-km region around the Alps, in blue, mines believed to have been active in the Republican period, and in red, those active later. Outside this radius, all other mines are indicated in red (all eras combined). Alpine ice is therefore representative of the high altitude atmosphere which receives emissions from France, Spain, Italy, islands in the Mediterranean Basin, and, to a lesser degree, Germany and England. Credit: Preunkert et al./CNRS Photo library

The deepest layers of carbon-14 dated ice found in the Col du Dôme of the Mont Blanc glacier in the French Alps provide a record of atmospheric conditions in the ancient Roman era. Published in Geophysical Research Letters, the study, led by an international team and coordinated by a CNRS scientist at the Institute for Geosciences and Environmental Research (IGE)(CNRS/IRD/UGA/Grenoble INP)*, reveals significant atmospheric pollution from heavy metals: the presence of lead and antimony (detected in ancient alpine ice for the first time here) is linked to mining activity and lead and silver production by the ancient Romans, well before the industrial age, in fact.

Though less well dated than in Greenland, the Alpine record traces the major periods of prosperity in Roman antiquity (see figure 1), with two very distinct peaks in lead emissions noted during the Republican period (between 350 and 100 B.C.) and Imperial period (between 0 and 200 A.D.) Romans extracted lead ore (containing silver) to produce the lead needed to make plumbing and silver for coins. The silver was extracted from the lead by heating the ore to a temperature of 1200°C, releasing significant amounts of lead into the atmosphere. While this was already documented in continental peat records, obtaining global data at the European level was difficult. This first-ever study of Ancient-era pollution using Alpine ice provides better insight into the impact of these ancient emissions on the present-day environment in Europe, as well as a comparison with more recent pollution linked to the use of lead petrol between 1950 and 1985.

pollution Roman era
(a) Lead concentrations in ice in Greenland (blue) and in the Col du Dôme (CDD, red). (b) Lead (red) and antimony (green) concentrations in ice from the CDD. On the bottom scale, age is indicated in years, from 1 A.D. onwards). Phases of increasing lead emissions were accompanied by a simultaneous rise in the presence of antimony - another toxic metal - in the alpine ice. Credit: Preunkert et al./CNRS Photo library


This research received support from the CNRS, ADEME and the European Alpclim and Carbosol projects.

*- This laboratory is part of the Observatoire de sciences of the Université de Grenoble.



Lead and antimony in basal ice from Col du Dome (French 1 Alps) dated with radiocarbon: A record of pollution during Antiquity Susanne Preunkert, Joseph R. McConnell, Helene Hoffmann, Michel Legrand, Andrew Wilson, Sabine Eckhardt, Andreas Stoh, Nathan Chellman, Monica Arienzo and Ronny Friedrich, Geophysical Research Letters, 7 May 2019. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019GL082641


Press release from CNRS

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

Freshwater mussel shells were material of choice for prehistoric craftsmen

A new study suggests that 6000-years-ago people across Europe shared a cultural tradition of using freshwater mussel shells to craft ornaments.

freshwater mussel shells mother-of-pearl
These are prehistoric shell ornaments made with freshwater mother-of-pearl. Credit: Jérôme Thomas (UMR CNRS 6282 Biogeosciences, University of Burgundy-Franche-Comté)

An international team of researchers, including academics from the University of York, extracted ancient proteins from prehistoric shell ornaments - which look remarkably similar despite being found at distant locations in Denmark, Romania and Germany - and discovered they were all made using the mother-of-pearl of freshwater mussels.

The ornaments were made between 4200 and 3800 BC and were even found in areas on the coast where plenty of other shells would have been available.

Archaeological evidence suggests the ornaments, known as "double-buttons", may have been pressed into leather to decorate armbands or belts.

Cross-cultural tradition

Senior author of the study, Dr Beatrice Demarchi, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the University of Turin (Italy), said: "We were surprised to discover that the ornaments were all made from freshwater mussels because it implies that this material was highly regarded by prehistoric craftsmen, wherever they were in Europe and whatever cultural group they belonged to. Our study suggests the existence of a European-wide cross-cultural tradition for the manufacture of these double-buttons".

Freshwater molluscs have often been overlooked as a source of raw material in prehistory (despite the strength and resilience of mother-of-pearl) because many archaeologists believed that their local origin made them less "prestigious" than exotic marine shells.

Co-author of the paper, Dr André Colonese, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: "The ornaments are associated with the Late Mesolithic, Late Neolithic and Copper Age cultures. Some of these groups were still living as hunter gatherers, but in the south they were farmers with switching to a more settled lifestyle.

"The fact that these ornaments look consistently similar and are made from the same material suggests there may have been some kind of interaction between these distinct groups of people at this time.

"They may have had a shared knowledge or tradition for how to manufacture these ornaments and clearly had a sophisticated understanding of the natural environment and which resources to use."


Mollusc shells contain a very small proportion of proteins compared to other bio-mineralised tissues, such as bone, making them difficult to analyse.

The researchers are now working on extracting proteins from fossilised molluscs, a method which they have dubbed "palaeoshellomics". These new techniques could offer fresh insights into some of the earliest forms of life on earth, enhancing our knowledge of evolution.

Dr Demarchi added: "This is the first time researchers have been able to retrieve ancient protein sequences from prehistoric shell ornaments in order to identify the type of mollusc they are made from.

"This research is an important step towards understanding how molluscs and other invertebrates evolved. We hope that using these techniques we will eventually be able to track an evolutionary process which began at least 550 million years ago."


"Palaeoshellomics" reveals the use of freshwater mother-of-pearl in prehistory is published in the journal eLife.

The research was carried out by researchers at the University of York, University of Turin and Ca' Foscari University (Italy), Universities of Burgundy-Franche-Comté and Lille (France), the University of Bradford (UK), the Moesgaard Museum (Denmark), the Landesamt für Denkmalpflege im Regierungspräsidium Stuttgart and the Niedersächsisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege (Germany).


Press release from University of York