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


Cremation in the Middle East dates as far back as 7,000 B.C.

The gender of the human remains found inside a cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel remains unknown. What is known is that the individual was a young adult injured by a flint projectile several months prior to their death in spring some 9,000 years ago. Preserved due to it being buried, the pit represents the oldest proof of direct (1) cremation in the Middle East.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun
Flint point thrust inside a burnt shoulder blade
© mission Beisamoun

An international team lead by CNRS archaeo-anthropologist Fanny Bocquentin (2)with aid from PhD candidate Marie Anton and several experts in animal, plant, and mineral remains, discovered and studied the bones found inside the pyre. An analysis of the clay used to coat the inside of the pit showed the 355 bone fragments, some of which were burnt, were exposed to temperatures reaching 700°C. The position of the bones and the preserved joints seem to indicate the body was placed seated onto the pyre and was not moved during or after cremation.

Excavations of the pyre pit.
© mission Beisamoun

Whether used as fuel, as ornamentation, or as a scent, siliceous traces indicated the presence of flowering plants, which made it possible to identify the season the person died. In addition to the exceptional pyre pit, the cremated remains of five other adults were discovered at the site. They dated back to the same period as burials whose traces were discovered among the ruins of abandoned dwellings.

cremation Middle East Beisamoun Israel
Archaeological site at Beisamoun, Israel. © mission Beisamoun

The use of cremation indicates an evolution of the relationship to death in the region. The veneration of ancestors and lengthy funerary practices seem to have given way to shorter rituals. This could be evidence of a transition phase because, some two to three centuries later, the dead were no longer buried inside or near villages and their traces are much more difficult to find.

The study is based on joint archaeological digs completed between 2007-2016 by the CNRS, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

A section of the Beisamoun site (Israel) where the pyre pit is visible.
© mission Beisamoun
Bibliography

Emergence of corpse cremation during the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: A multidisciplinary study of a pyre-pit burial, Fanny Bocquentin, Marie Anton, Francesco Berna, Arlene Rosen, Hamoudi Khalaily, Harris Greenberg, Thomas C. Hart, Omri Lernau, Liora Kolska Horwitz. PLOS ONE, 12 August 2020. DOI : 10.1371/journal.pone.0235386

Notes

(1) The body was cremated directly, as opposed to other practices where dried exhumed bones were burnt.

(2) Member of the Prehistoric ethnology team at the Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité laboratory (CNRS/Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne/Université Paris Nanterre/French Ministry of Culture). This study also involved a PhD candidate from the Eco-anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Museum national d’Histoire naturelle) with support from the Centre de recherche français à Jérusalem (CNRS/French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs/Aix-Marseille Université).

Press release from CNRS on the cremation pyre pit in Beisamoun, Israel, Middle East.


Tell es-Sin

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

New findings on the Byzantine necropolis Tell es-Sin in Syria

A study published in the journal Bioarchaeology of the Near East reveals the features of the population that was buried in the necropolis of Tell es-Sin in Syria, a Byzantine archaeological site dating from the 5th to 7th centuries AC. located in the left side of the Euphrates River. The principal researchers of the new anthropological study on Tell es-Sin -in the middle of a transit area for the ancient Byzantine forces and the Persian Sassanids- are Laura Martínez, from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Barcelona, and Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez, from the Faculty of Biosciences of the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Other participants are the researcher Juan Luis Montero-Fenollós, lecturer from the University of la Coruña and director of the excavation project in the site of Tell es-Sin, and other experts from Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée (France), the Yarmouk University (Jordan) and the Mykolas Romeris University (Lithuania).

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East

Ancient Syria’s Hill of Teeth

The site of Tell es-Sin -from Arabic “Hill of Teeth”- covers an area of twenty-five hectares is divided into the acropolis, the lower town, and necropolis -which covers seven hecctares. It is in the south-eastern of the current city of Deir ez-Zor -frontier between Syria and Iraq- and it is considered a kastron, that is, a place with administrative and military functions. Both the size and urban structure of the site and its fortified nature suggest it would have been an ancient polis whose ancient name is still unknown.

Tell es-Sin represents one of the most important necropolis from the Fertile Crescent to the Near East, but authors say “it is still very much unknown”. The new study wants to focus on the knowledge of frontier populations in the Byzantine Empire during the 6th-7th centuries, a period in which necropolis and skeleton remains are not abundant.

A fortification in the middle of the military Near East

“Mesopotamia was a strategic defensive area regarding the entrances and invasions from the Persians and the Arabians. In this context, Tell es-Sin could have been affected by the territorial and military reorganization by the emperor Justinian, who promoted fortifications of lime populations in the middle of the 6th century”, notes Laura Martínez, lecturer at the Department of Evolutionary Biology, Ecology and Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Biology, and first author of the study.

The first archaeological excavations of the Byzantine necropolis of Tell es-Sin date from 1978 and were led by Asad Mahmoud, general director of Antiquities and Museums in Deir ez-Zor at the moment. In 2005, the study of the first Syrian-Spanish archaeological mission -coordinated by the University of la Coruña- highlighted the relevance of the necropolis of Tell es-Sin, which was part of the Eastern limes Diocletianus together with Tell es-Kasra and Circesium (current Buseira). The experts identified a total of 170 hypogea in a necropolis that could have about one thousand tombs.
Tombs and Byzantine archaeology in Syrian territory

As Ferran Estebaranz-Sánchez notes, “samples from Tell es-Sin represent an heterogeneous and biased series of skeleton remains corresponding to tombs that were sacked during the years. This anthropological study wanted to provide information on the sex, age of death, height and other morphological variables of the excavated individuals in the site using traditional biometrics”.

The analysed sample -only a small part out of the total burials in Tell es-Sin -includes human remains from ten excavated hypogea in the Syrian-Spanish mission. A total of 71 individuals were analysed (at least, eighteen would correspond to men, and twelve to women).

According to the experts, they did not observe bias regarding sex or age in the studied remains, and they highlight the lack of children compared to other areas (they could have been buried in other niches in the entrance of the tomb). Likewise, there is at least between one and five individuals buried inside every niche (the average is three bodies per niche, including sub-adults and adults), according to the model of collective burial typical from ancient Syria.

Despite the fragmented state of the remains, the team could estimate the height of most individuals. “The average height we estimate considering the upper long bones is 174.5 for men and 159.1 for women. These figures are similar to those estimated with the diameter of the femur head: 176.1 cm for males and 164.5 for females”, notes Estebaranz Sánchez.

“In conclusion -he continues-, the estimated height for the Byzantine population in Tell es-Sin is similar to other contemporary Byzantine populations”.

About 25% of the individuals presented cribra orbitalia and 8.5% of porotic hyperostosis, alterations in brain bones associated to anaemia or lack of iron or vitamins,  rickets, infection and other inflammatory conditions.

The prevalence of degenerative joint diseases was low, according to the study. Regarding dental samples, about 2.8% of teeth presented caries, lower figures compared to other contemporary byzantine sites in the area that could be related to a low sample analysed in Tell es-Sin.

Tell es-Sin: the end of a site with the arrival of Islam

The end of the site of Tell es-Sin -in the first quarter of the 7th century AC- coincided with the wars against the Persian Sassanids and Islamic Arabian tribes. Despite the conditions of the site of Tell es-Sin and the current situation -after the ISIS occupation- the discovery and excavation of graves that were not sacked is essential to study the knowledge of this population.

“This is why we are now analysing the buccal microstriations to infer the diet of the population and therefore complete the biocultural model of frontier populations with great ancient empires”, conclude Laura Martínez and Ferran Estebaranz Sánchez.

Article reference: 

Martínez, L. M.; Estebaranz-Sánchez, F.;  Khawam, R.; Anfruns, J.;  Alrousan, M.;  Pereira, P.; Pérez-Pérez, A.; Montero-Fenollós, J. L. “Human remains from Tell es-Sin, Syria, 2006-2007”Bioarchaeology of the Near East, April, 2020.

Press release from the University of Barcelona


Neo-Assyrian Empire fall

What felled the great Assyrian Empire? A Yale professor weighs in

The Neo-Assyrian Empire, centered in northern Iraq and extending from Iran to Egypt -- the largest empire of its time -- collapsed after more than two centuries of dominance at the fall of its capital, Nineveh, in 612 B.C.E.

Despite a plethora of cuneiform textual documentation and archaeological excavations and field surveys, archaeologists and historians have been unable to explain the abruptness and finality of the historic empire's collapse.

Numerous theories about the collapse have been put forward since the city and its destruction levels were first excavated by archaeologists 180 years ago. But the mystery of how two small armies -- the Babylonians in the south and the Medes in the east -- were able to converge on Nineveh and completely destroy what was then the largest city in the world, without any reoccupation, has remained unsolved.

A team of researchers -- led by Ashish Sinha, California State University, Dominguez Hills, and using archival and archaeological data contributed by Harvey Weiss, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and environmental studies at Yale -- was able for the first time to determine the underlying cause for the collapse. By examining new precipitation records of the area, the team discovered an abrupt 60-year megadrought that so weakened the Assyrian state that Nineveh was overrun in three months and abandoned forever. The research was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13.

Assyria was an agrarian society dependent on seasonal precipitation for cereal agriculture. To its south, the Babylonians relied on irrigation agriculture, so their resources, government, and society were not affected by the drought, explains Weiss.

The team analyzed stalagmites -- a type of speleothem that grows up from a cave floor and is formed by the deposit of minerals from water -- retrieved from Kuna Ba cave in northeast Iraq. The speleothems can provide a history of climate through the oxygen and uranium isotope ratios of infiltrating water that are preserved in its layers. Oxygen in rainwater comes in two main varieties: heavy and light. The ratio of heavy to light types of oxygen isotopes are extremely sensitive to variations in precipitation and temperature. Over time, uranium trapped in speleothems turns into thorium, allowing scientists to date the speleothem deposits.

Weiss and the research team synchronized these findings with archaeological and cuneiform records and were able to document the first paleoclimate data for the megadrought that affected the Assyrian heartland at the time of the empire's collapse, when its less drought-affected neighbors invaded. The team's research also revealed that this megadrought followed a high-rainfall period that facilitated the Assyrian empire's earlier growth and expansion.

"Now we have a historical and environmental dynamic between north and south and between rain-fed agriculture and irrigation-fed agriculture through which we can understand the historical process of how the Babylonians were able to defeat the Assyrians," said Weiss, adding that the total collapse of Assyria is still described by historians as the "mother of all catastrophes."

Through the archaeology and history of the region, Weiss was able to piece together how the megadrought data were synchronous with Assyria's cessation of long-distance military campaigns and the construction of irrigation canals that were similar to its southern neighbors but restricted in their agricultural extent. Other texts noted that the Assyrians were worrying about their alliances with distant places, while also fearing internal intrigue, notes Weiss.

"This fits into a historical pattern that is not only structured through time and space, but a time and space that is filled with environmental change," says Weiss. "These societies experienced climatic changes that were of such magnitude they could not simply adapt to them," he adds.

With these new speleothem records, says Weiss, paleoclimatologists and archaeologists are now able to identify environmental changes in the global historical record that were unknown and inaccessible even 25 years ago. "History is no longer two-dimensional; the historical stage is now three-dimensional," said Weiss.

Neo-Assyrian Empire fall
Deportees after the Assyrian siege of Lachish, Judea (701 B.C.E.). Detail from bas-relief removed from Sennacherib's 'Palace Without Rival,' Nineveh, Iraq, and now in The British Museum. Photo credits: The British Museum

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Weiss' previous research defined the 2200 B.C.E. global megadrought that generated societal collapse from the Mediterranean to China.

In addition to Weiss, researchers from California State University-Dominguez Hills, Xi'an Jiaotong University, University of Minnesota, University of Colorado-Boulder, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Ankara, and University of Southern California contributed to the study.

The press release for the study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire comes from the Yale University.

The study Role of climate in the rise and fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, by Ashish Sinha, Gayatri KathayatHarvey WeissHanying Li, Hai ChengJustin ReuterAdam W. Schneider, Max Berkelhammer, Selim F. Adalı, Lowell D. Stott and R. Lawrence Edwards, was published in Science Advances on Nov. 13rd.

 


Ancient feces reveal parasites in 8,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük

Ancient feces reveal parasites in 8,000-year-old village of Çatalhöyük

parasites whipworm Çatalhöyük
South area excavation of Çatalhöyük, Turkey, in 2003. Author: Ziggurat, CC BY-SA 3.0

New research published today in the journal Antiquity reveals that ancient faeces from the prehistoric village of Çatalhöyük have provided the earliest archaeological evidence for intestinal parasite infection in the mainland Near East.

People first gave up hunting and gathering and turned to farming in the Near East, around 10,000 years ago. The settlement of Çatalhöyük is famous for being an incredibly well preserved early village founded around 7,100 BC. The population of Çatalhöyük were early farmers, growing crops such as wheat and barley, and herding sheep and goats.

"It has been suggested that this change in lifestyle resulted in a similar change in the types of diseases that affected them. As the village is one of the largest and most densely populated of its time, this study at Çatalhöyük helps us to understand that process better," says study lead Dr Piers Mitchell of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology.

The toilet was first invented in the 4th millennium BC in Mesopotamia, 3000 years later than when Çatalhöyük flourished. It is thought the people living at Çatalhöyük either went to the rubbish tip (midden) to open their bowels, or carried their faeces from their houses to the midden in a vessel or basket to dispose of them.

"We would expect this to have put the population at risk of diseases spread by contact with human faeces, and explains why they were vulnerable to contracting whipworm," says the study first author Marissa Ledger.

"As writing was only invented 3000 years after the time of Çatalhöyük, the people were unable to record what happened to them during their lives. This research enables us for the first time to imagine the symptoms felt by some of the prehistoric people living at Çatalhöyük who were infected by this parasite."

To look for the eggs of intestinal parasites, Cambridge researchers Mitchell, Ledger and Evilena Anastasiou used microscopy to study preserved pieces of human faeces (coprolites) from a rubbish tip, and soil formed from decomposed faeces recovered from the pelvic region of burials. The samples dated from 7,100-6150 BC.

To determine whether the coprolites excavated from the midden were from human or animal faeces, they were analysed for sterols and bile acids at the University of Bristol Mass Spectrometry Facility by Helen Mackay, Lisa Marie Shillito, and Ian Bull. This analysis demonstrated that the coprolites were of human origin.

Further microscopic analysis showed that eggs of whipworm were present in two of the coprolites, demonstrating that people from the prehistoric village were infected by this intestinal parasite.

"It was a special moment to identify parasite eggs over 8000 years old," said study co-author Evilena Anastasiou.

Whipworms are 3-5cm in length, and live on the lining of the intestines of the large bowel. Adult worms can live for 5 years. Male and female worms mate and their eggs are mixed in with the faeces. Whipworm is spread by the contamination of food or drink from human faeces that contain the worm eggs. A heavy infection with whipworm can lead to anaemia, diarrhoea, stunted growth and reduced intelligence in children.

"Now we need to find ancient faecal material from prehistoric hunter gathers in the Near East, to help us understand how this change in lifestyle affected their diseases." added Mitchell.

Read more


Balak Mesha Stele

New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history

New reading of Mesha Stele could have far-reaching consequences for biblical history

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE

Balak Mesha Stele
Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone), plaster replica of the basalt original in the Louvre, Dhiban, Jordan, Iron Age IIB, c. 830 BC - Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago, Photo Daderot,CC0 

The biblical King Balak may have been a historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, an inscribed stone dating from the second half of the 9th century BCE.

A name in Line 31 of the stele, previously thought to read , 'House of David', could instead read 'Balak', a king of Moab mentioned in the biblical story of Balaam (Numbers 22-24), say archaeologist Prof. Israel Finkelstein and historians and biblical scholars Prof. Nadav Na'aman and Prof. Thomas Römer, in an article published in Tel Aviv: The Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

The Mesha Stele was found in the 19th century in the ruins of the biblical town of Dibon in Moab (present day Jordan), and is now in the Louvre. The stone's inscription tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavours of King Mesha of Moab, who is mentioned in the Bible. The stele was cracked in the 19th century and parts of it are missing, but portions of the missing parts are preserved in a reverse copy of the inscription, known as a 'squeeze', made before the stele cracked.

The authors studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze, and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter beth (a 'b' sound).

While the other letters are eroded, the most likely candidate for the monarch's name is 'Balak', the authors say. The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was at Horonaim, a place mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River. "Thus, Balak may be a historical personality like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the Deir Alla inscription, was considered to be an 'invented' figure," they suggest.

"The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading, 'House of David' - accepted by many scholars for more than two decades - is no longer an option," the authors conclude. "With due caution we suggest the name of the Moabite king Balak, who, according to the Balaam story of Numbers 22-24, sought to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel.

"This story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele. Yet, to give a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from the ancient reality, including two personal names: Balaam and Balak."

 

Press release from Taylor & Francis Group

 

New reading of the Mesha Stele inscription has major consequences for biblical history

Line of the inscription lends credence to the story of Balaam in the Book of Numbers, Tel Aviv University researchers say

 

The legendary King Balak from the Book of Numbers may have been a real historical figure, according to a new reading of the Mesha Stele, the longest extra-biblical inscription in existence.

The Mesha Stele, an ancient inscribed stone dating to the ninth century BCE, tells the story of the territorial expansion and construction endeavors of King Mesha of Moab, who is also mentioned in the Second Book of Kings in the Old Testament. The stele was found in the 19th century among the ruins of the ancient town of Dibon in Moab, located in today's Jordan, east of the Dead Sea. The stele is on display at the Louvre Museum.

According to the study, a word on Line 31 of the stele that has until now been interpreted as "House of David" in fact refers to King "Balak," who is known as a Moab ruler only from the Book of Numbers.

The new Tel Aviv University-Collège de France study was published on May 2 in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University. It was co-authored by Prof. Israel Finkelstein and Prof. Nadav Na'aman of TAU's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures in collaboration with Prof. Thomas Römer of Collège de France and the University of Lausanne.

A recent exhibit, Mésha et la Bible, held in October 2018 at the Collège de France in Paris in conjunction with the Louvre Museum, showcased the Meshe Stele "squeeze," a reverse copy of the inscription on paper. This exhibition afforded researchers the unique opportunity to take high-resolution photographs of the squeeze.

Although the stele had been cracked in the 19th century, the parts that went missing were preserved in the squeeze, which was made before the stone broke into pieces.

The authors of the new research studied new high-resolution photographs of the squeeze and of the stele itself. These new images made it clear that there are three consonants in the name of the monarch mentioned in Line 31, and that the first is the Hebrew letter bet, which corresponds to the English letter "B."

The most likely candidate for the monarch's name is "Balak." The seat of the king referred to in Line 31 was "Horonaim," which is mentioned four times in the Bible in relation to the Moabite territory south of the Arnon River.

"We believe Balak was a historical figure like Balaam, who, before the discovery of the famous Deir Alla inscription in Jordan in 1967, was considered an 'invented' character," explains Prof. Finkelstein. "The new photographs of the Mesha Stele and the squeeze indicate that the reading 'House of David' -- accepted by many scholars for more than two decades -- is no longer valid."

In 1994 the French epigrapher André Lemaire suggested that letters missing in Line 31 of the stele would spell "House of David," as in the Tel Dan Stele, which features the term in reference to the Kingdom of Judah. Accordingly, Lemaire proposed that in the mid-ninth century Judah ruled in southern Moab, east of the Dead Sea.

"With due caution, we suggest that the line refers to the Moabite King Balak, who, according to the Balaam story in Numbers 22-24, was supposed to bring a divine curse on the people of Israel," Prof. Na'aman says.

"The biblical story was written down later than the time of the Moabite king referred to in the Mesha Stele," Prof. Römer adds. "But to proffer a sense of authenticity to his story, its author must have integrated into the plot certain elements borrowed from ancient reality, including the names Balaam and Balak."

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American Friends of Tel Aviv University supports Israel's most influential, comprehensive and sought-after center of higher learning, Tel Aviv University (TAU). TAU is recognized and celebrated internationally for creating an innovative, entrepreneurial culture on campus that generates inventions, startups and economic development in Israel. TAU is ranked ninth in the world, and first in Israel, for producing start-up founders of billion-dollar companies, an achievement that surpassed several Ivy League universities. To date, 2,500 US patents have been filed by Tel Aviv University researchers -- ranking TAU #1 in Israel, #10 outside of the US and #43 in the world.

 

Press release from the American Friends of the Tel Aviv University


Crusades genetics DNA Sidon Lebanon

The Crusades: genetics tells a story of war and love

Crusaders made love and war, genetic study finds

First genetic study of the Crusaders confirms that warriors mixed and had families with local people in the near East, and died together in battle

 

The first genetic study of ancient human remains believed to be Crusaders confirms that warriors travelled from western Europe to the near East, where they mixed and had families with local people, and died together in battle. Researchers from the Wellcome Sanger Institute and their collaborators analysed ancient DNA extracted from nine skeletons dating back to the 13th century, which were discovered in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon.

The results, published today (18 April) in the American Journal of Human Genetics, confirm that while the Crusaders mixed with local people and recruited them to their cause, their genetic presence in the region was short-lived.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars fought between 1095 and 1291, in which Christian invaders tried to claim the near East. It's known that nobility led the Crusades, but historical records lack details of the ordinary soldiers who travelled to, lived and died in the near East.

In recent years, archaeologists uncovered 25 skeletons dating back to the 13th century within a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. All of those found in the pit were male and had been violently killed during battle, as seen by the blunt force injuries to their skulls and other bones. Their bodies had been disposed of in the pit and burned.

Nearby, an isolated skull was found. The head may have been used as a projectile that was catapulted into the opposition's camp to spread disease and slash morale, illustrating the brutality of the battles.

Clues found alongside the skeletons in the pit, such as European shoe buckles, a coin and carbon-14 dating analysis, led archaeologists to believe the human remains were Crusaders.

In a new study, researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute produced whole-genome sequences of the ancient skeletons' DNA and confirm they were in fact Crusaders.

The team report that three individuals were Europeans of diverse origins, including Spain and Sardinia, four were near Easterners who had been recruited to the fight, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry, suggesting they were the descendants of mixed relationships between Crusaders and near Easterners.

Dr Chris Tyler-Smith, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "Historical documents tell us the names of the nobility who led the Crusades, but the identities of the soldiers remained a mystery. Genomics gives an unprecedented view of the past and shows the Crusaders originated from western Europe and recruited local people of the near East to join them in battle. The Crusaders and near Easterners lived, fought and died side by side."

However, the researchers believe the Crusaders' influence in the region was short-lived as European genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today.

When the researchers sequenced the DNA of people living in Lebanon 2,000 years ago during the Roman period, long before the Crusades, they found that today's Lebanese population is genetically similar to the Roman Lebanese, suggesting the Crusades had no lasting impact on Lebanese genetics.

Dr Marc Haber, from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: "The Crusaders travelled to the near East and had relationships with the local people, with their sons later joining to fight their cause. However, after the fighting had finished, the mixed generation married into the local population and the genetic traces of the Crusaders were quickly lost."

In the study, the team worked with archaeologists at the Sidon Excavation site to transfer bones of the nine skeletons from Lebanon to a laboratory in Cambridge dedicated to ancient DNA. Here, small portions of the surviving 800 year-old DNA were extracted from the temporal bone in the skulls by DNA extraction experts. An ultra-sterile working environment was set up by the scientists to prevent contamination of the samples with their own DNA, which would render them useless.

The ancient DNA samples were particularly difficult to extract and sequence as the bodies had been burned and buried in a warm and humid climate, where DNA degrades quickly. Recent advances in DNA extraction and sequencing technology made studying the ancient and damaged DNA possible.

Dr Claude Doumet-Serhal, Director of the Sidon excavation site in Lebanon, said: "I was thrilled to discover the genetic identities of the people who lived in the near East during the Crusades. Only five years ago, studies like this would not have been possible. The uniting of archaeologists and geneticists creates an incredible opportunity to interpret significant events throughout history."

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Publication:

Marc Haber et al. (2019) A transient pulse of genetic admixture from the Crusaders in the Near East identified from ancient genome sequences. American Journal of Human Genetics. DOI: 10.1016/j.ajhg.2019.03.015

Funding:

This study was supported by Wellcome (098051).

The Wellcome Sanger Institute

The Sanger is one of the world's leading genome and biodata institutes. Through its ability to conduct research at scale, it is able to engage in bold and long-term exploratory projects that are designed to influence and empower science globally. Institute research findings, generated through its own research programmes and through its leading role in international consortia, are being used to develop new diagnostics and treatments for human disease and to understand life on Earth. Find out more at http://www.sanger.ac.uk or follow @sangerinstitute

About Wellcome

Wellcome exists to improve health by helping great ideas to thrive. We support researchers, we take on big health challenges, we campaign for better science, and we help everyone get involved with science and health research. We are a politically and financially independent foundation.

 

Press release from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute

A history of the Crusades, as told by crusaders' DNA

Crusades genetics DNA Sidon Lebanon
This image shows the bones of the Crusaders found in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. Credit: Claude Doumet-Serhal

History can tell us a lot about the Crusades, the series of religious wars fought between 1095 and 1291, in which Christian invaders tried to claim the Near East. But the DNA of nine 13th century Crusaders buried in a pit in Lebanon shows that there's more to learn about who the Crusaders were and their interactions with the populations they encountered. The work appears April 18 in The American Journal of Human Genetics.

The remains suggest that the soldiers making up the Crusader armies were genetically diverse and intermixed with the local population in the Near East, although they didn't have a lasting effect on the genetics of Lebanese people living today. They also highlight the important role ancient DNA can play in helping us understand historical events that are less well documented.

"We know that Richard the Lionheart went to fight in the Crusades, but we don't know much about the ordinary soldiers who lived and died there, and these ancient samples give us insights into that," says senior author Chris Tyler-Smith, a genetics researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

"Our findings give us an unprecedented view of the ancestry of the people who fought in the Crusader army. And it wasn't just Europeans," says first author Marc Haber, also of the Wellcome Sanger Institute. "We see this exceptional genetic diversity in the Near East during medieval times, with Europeans, Near Easterners, and mixed individuals fighting in the Crusades and living and dying side by side."

This image shows the bones of the Crusaders found in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. Credit: Claude Doumet-Serhal

Archaeological evidence suggested that 25 individuals whose remains were found in a burial pit near a Crusader castle near Sidon, Lebanon, were warriors who died in battle in the 1200s. Based on that, Tyler-Smith, Haber, and their colleagues conducted genetic analyses of the remains and were able to sequence the DNA of nine Crusaders, revealing that three were Europeans, four were Near Easterners, and two individuals had mixed genetic ancestry.

Throughout history, other massive human migrations--like the movement of the Mongols through Asia under Genghis Khan and the arrival of colonial Iberians in South America--have fundamentally reshaped the genetic makeup of those regions. But the authors theorize that the Crusaders' influence was likely shorter-lived because the Crusaders' genetic traces are insignificant in people living in Lebanon today. "They made big efforts to expel them, and succeeded after a couple of hundred years," says Tyler-Smith.

This ancient DNA can tell us things about history that modern DNA can't. In fact, when the researchers sequenced the DNA of people living in Lebanon 2,000 years ago during the Roman period, they found that today's Lebanese population is actually more genetically similar to the Roman Lebanese.

"If you look at the genetics of people who lived during the Roman period and the genetics of people who are living there today, you would think that there was just this continuity. You would think that nothing happened between the Roman period and today, and you would miss that for a certain period of time the population of Lebanon included Europeans and people with mixed ancestry," says Haber.

These findings indicate that there may be other major events in human history that don't show up in the DNA of people living today. And if those events aren't as well-documented as the Crusades, we simply might not know about them. "Our findings suggest that it's worthwhile looking at ancient DNA even from periods when it seems like not that much was going on genetically. Our history may be full of these transient pulses of genetic mixing that disappear without a trace," says Tyler-Smith.

That the researchers were able to sequence and interpret the nine Crusaders' DNA at all was also surprising. DNA degrades faster in warm climates, and the remains studied here were burned and crudely buried. "There has been a lot of long-term interest in the genetics of this region, because it has this very strategic position, a lot of history, and a lot of migrations. But previous research has focused mainly on present-day populations, partly because recovering ancient DNA from warm climates is so difficult. Our success shows that studying samples in a similar condition is now possible because of advances in DNA extraction and sequencing technology," says Haber.

Next, the researchers plan to investigate what was happening genetically in the Near East during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.

But they also hope that these kinds of studies will become more commonplace--and more interdisciplinary. "Historical records are often very fragmentary and potentially very biased," Tyler-Smith says. "But genetics gives us a complementary approach that can confirm some of the things that we read about in history and tell us about things that are not recorded in the historical records that we have. And as this approach is adopted by historians and archaeologists as a part of their field, I think it will only become more and more enriching."

This image shows the bones of the Crusaders found in a burial pit in Sidon, Lebanon. Credit: Claude Doumet-Serhal

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This work was supported by The Wellcome Trust.

The American Journal of Human Genetics, Haber et al.: "A transient pulse of genetic admixture from the Crusaders in the Near East identified from ancient genome sequences" https://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(19)30111-9

The American Journal of Human Genetics (@AJHGNews), published by Cell Press for the American Society of Human Genetics, is a monthly journal that provides a record of research and review relating to heredity in humans and to the application of genetic principles in medicine and public policy, as well as in related areas of molecular and cell biology. Visit: http://www.cell.com/ajhg

 

Press release from Cell Press


Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact

An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Cultures in Contact - An exhibition presents 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima

Francavilla Marittima Calabria University of Basel Cultures in contact
Foreign lifestyle and local tradition: The finds from a male tomb of Francavilla Marittima, Calabria, testify to the adoption of Greek drinking and eating habits by the Italian elites in the 8th century BC. The large clay pot was used for mixing wine and water, the bronze kettle (right) for cooking meat. The iron ax and the bronze fibulae identify the deceased as a member of the local upper class. Photo: © Victor Brigola, Stuttgart.

More than 30 ancient graves have been uncovered by archaeologists and students of the University of Basel as part of an educational excavation in southern Italy. The graves date from a time when the first Greeks and Orientals arrived in the region about 3000 years ago and document the cultural exchange with the local population. The results and methods of the research project will now be presented in an exhibition at the University Library of Basel, which opens on 12 April 2019.

Even in ancient times, the south of Italy was a hub for migration. The Iron Age settlement of Francavilla Marittima (ca. 800-700 BC) played a key role as a contact point between the local population and traders and colonists from Greece and the Near East.

Since 2009, the Basel project has been researching the burial site of this settlement and has uncovered 33 graves of women, men, and children to date. Grave goods such as vessels, figurines, jewelry, and weapons offer a wealth of information about the lifestyle of the local elite and their reaction to the arrival of colonists.

Productive cultural exchange

“Initially, we suspected strong differences between the locals and the colonists,” states the archaeologist Prof. Martin Guggisberg, who has been leading the excavation. “After 10 years of research, however, we see the relationship in a new light: not confrontation and opposition determined the picture, but dynamic processes of cultural transformation that led to the gradual establishment of a new, Greek order from around 700 BC onwards.

The research team discovered evidence for the intertwining of the traditional and the new in the tomb of a local ruler. Among his grave goods were different sorts of vessels and bowls that point to Greece and prove the adoption of new drinking and cultural practices. By contrast, his inhumation in fetal position underlines his adherence to the local tradition.

Iron swords buried in plaster coat

Since the swords were not well preserved, they had to be retrieved in a plaster coat. They were then x-rayed with a computer tomograph in the local hospital.

Of special importance is also the discovery of three iron swords. They belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy and document the penetration of new fighting techniques from the East. Since the swords were very badly preserved, the research team first used a plaster coat and then digital analysis methods to reconstruct them graphically and in 3D print.

The swords in the computer tomograph.
One sword, three views: the found swords belong to the oldest documents of this new weapon type in Italy. Since the metal in the ground was corroded, the researchers used digital analysis methods, which made it possible to "print" one of the swords three-dimensionally and reconstruct it graphically.

From excavation to exhibition

Over the years, more than 70 students participated in the teaching excavation in Francavilla Marittima, learning how to use pickaxes, trowels, and brushes as well as the latest surveying technology and digital documentation methods. The students conceived the exhibition “Cultures in Contact” under the guidance of Atelier Degen+Meili, an exhibition consultancy based in Basel. The result of the collaboration is a presentation that not only makes visible the cultural contacts at the time but also presents the working methods of the project.

Prof. Dr. Martin Guggisberg from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Basel will introduce the exhibition on 12 April 2019 at 5.30 pm. Further speakers will be Prof. Dr. Thomas Grob, Vice President of the University of Basel, Dr. Pietro Maria Paolucci, Italian Consul in Basel, as well as Dr. Franco Bettarini, Mayor of Francavilla Marittima.

Francavilla Marittima: Basel excavation and exhibition

Cultures in Contact – 10 years of Basel excavations in Francavilla Marittima, University Library Basel, Schönbeinstrasse 18-20 (1st floor), Basel. The exhibition runs until 9 June 2019. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 8 am – 10.30 pm, Saturday 9 am – 7 pm, free admission. On 15 May 2019, 6.15 p.m., there will be a theme evening with Prof. Martin Guggisberg. Public guided tours: 16 April and 15 May 2019, at 6.15 pm.

The Francavilla Marittima project is the result of a successful cultural collaboration between Switzerland and Italy. It has received support from various partner institutions, including the Archaeological Soil Research of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, the Department of Prehistoric and Scientific Archaeology of the University of Basel, and the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the University of Bern, the Max Planck Institute for Human History, Jena, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico della Sibaritide, the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per le Province di Catanzaro, Cosenza e Crotone, the Municipality of Francavilla Marittima and the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali of the Italian State. The excavations are supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Voluntary Academic Society of Basel, the Max Geldner Foundation and the University of Basel.

 

 

Press release from the University of Basel/Universität Basel


desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Declassified U2 spy plane images reveal bygone Middle Eastern archaeological features

Researchers from Penn and Harvard are the first to make archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery, and have created a tool that allows other researchers to identify and access the Cold War-era photos

desert kites U2 spy plane Iraq Near East
FIGURE 12. Chains of desert kites as visible in U2 imagery from mission 1554, January 30, 1960 (Roll 14L, Frame 1783). Web map version at https://arcg.is/0jreeP.

In the 1950s and early '60s, with the Cold War at its peak, the United States flew U2 spy planes across Europe, the Middle East, and central eastern Asia, taking images of interesting military targets. Though the missions typically connected Point A to Point B, say an air field and an important city, in many cases the camera kept recording between those spots, capturing thousands of photos of the desert, steppes, fields, and villages below.

Such a collection can represent a goldmine for landscape archaeologists like Emily Hammer of the University of Pennsylvania and Jason Ur of Harvard University. But for decades, all film and documents from these missions--code-named CHESS by the U.S. government--remained classified. And even when they became public in 1997, they weren't indexed or scanned.

Until now, the majority of this kind of historical aerial documentation came from the CORONA spy satellite program, which the U.S. ran between 1959 and 1972. But only the highest-resolution CORONA images, taken during the program's final five years, are useful for most archaeological purposes. The U2 photos are earlier and a higher resolution than even the best CORONA images, offering the chance to see historical features undecipherable by CORONA or already gone by the time of those missions.

Knowing the potential insight offered by the U2 images, Hammer and Ur began sifting through the materials. By analyzing thousands of high- and low-resolution frames, they discovered many historical and archeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps, 3,000-year-old irrigation canals, and 60-year-old marsh villages no longer visible today. The work, which they published in the journal Advances in Archaeological Practice, represents the first archaeological use of U2 spy plane imagery--and a new and exciting window into history.

"The photos provide a fascinating look at the Middle East several decades ago, showing, for example, historical Aleppo long before the massive destruction wrought in the ongoing civil war," says Hammer, an assistant professor in Penn's Near Eastern languages and civilizations department. "Plus, the work and the accompanying online resources will allow other researchers to identify and access U2 photos for the first time."

Hammer and Ur have both conducted research in the Middle East for decades, in Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They've also both used CORONA spy satellite imagery extensively. However, many of those image sets didn't date back as far as Hammer wished they would. "We knew that U2 spy planes must have taken thousands of images across large parts of the Middle East, but there was no easy way to access or reproduce the film negatives," she says.

A chance encounter with Lin Xu, a researcher who had retrieved U2 images of his hometown in China, led Hammer and Ur to press on. "Seeing the amazing quality of those archival photos," Hammer says, "we knew that it would be worth the detective work it would take to build a systematic index of them."

It wasn't an easy process. Ahead of time, they had to select the film rolls they wanted moved from the National Archives' storage center in Kansas to the aerial film section in Maryland. Once there, the researchers unspooled hundreds of feet of film over a light table to identify pertinent frames, then photographed the negatives in pieces using a 100-millimeter macro lens. Later, they stitched together and adjusted each frame, before geo-referencing the photos using GIS software to match up images with coordinates of real-world places.

Despite the tedium of some of the individual tasks, the process excited Hammer. "As you turn the spool of a film roll following the path of the U2 plane, you may not know exactly what you'll see in unfamiliar places, so there's often a sense of exploration and discovery," she says. "Other times, the pilots were flying over regions I knew by heart from travel and study, and I would almost hold my breath, hoping that the plane had veered just a little to the right or left."

The hours of work paid off, revealing many important archaeological features, including prehistoric hunting traps called desert kites in eastern Jordan, an Assyrian canal system in northern Iraq, and marshes in southern Iraq, case studies the researchers highlighted in their paper.

Desert kites, stone-wall structures that date back 5,000 to 8,000 years, were used to trap gazelle and other similar animals. The dry desert of eastern Jordan preserved many of them, but agricultural expansion in western Jordan dismantled or destroyed many more. The satellite images bring them back to life, showcasing a web of diamond-shaped enclosures with what look like long kite tails, offering the best view, to date, of these important hunting tools.

canal system Assyrians Iraq U2 spy plane Middle East
FIGURE 16. Ancient canals in northern Iraq: (a) U2 photograph of the subterranean canal above the Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Mission 1554 Frame 398, January 29, 1960); (b) U2 photograph of Assyrian canals, tunnels, and sites at Negub (Mission 8648 Frame 853, October 30, 1959); (c) canals and site on the right bank of the Upper Zab River (Mission 1554 Frame 402, January 20, 1960). Web map version at https://arcg.is/uDb94; (d) DigitalGlobe image showing the growth of the modern town of Khabat over the features in 16c (June 2, 2016).

The second feature, the canal system in northern Iraq, provides insight into how an early empire maintained its power and governed, Hammer explains. "The Assyrians built the first large, long-lasting, multi-cultural empire of the ancient world, so many people are interested in how they organized territory, controlled people, built their huge cities, and managed the land," she says. "The irrigation system fed the royal capitals, made agricultural surplus production possible, and provided water to villages."

Finally, the U2 images of southern Iraq present the layout, size, and environmental position of Marsh Arab communities in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many of which disappeared after massive hydroelectric dams in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq impounded the rivers, and especially after the government of Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the marshes. Before that, "people lived a unique lifestyle there for thousands of years, herding water buffalo, building houses and all manner of things out of reeds, living on floating islands of reeds, planting date palms, and fishing," Hammer says. "Now we can study the spatial organization, demography, and lifestyles of these communities."

Though the three archaeological features represent different historical time scales, going back thousands of years or just decades, they all demonstrate how humans are changing the natural landscape, often in ways visible only from a 70,000-foot view.

Aerial images like those from the U2 spy missions allow archaeologists like Hammer and Ur to travel back in time. "The activities of ancient human communities frequently left large-scale traces on the landscape," Hammer says. "You can't see these patterns when you're standing on top of them, but just like stepping back from the blobs of paint on an Impressionist painting reveals the full picture, aerial and satellite imagery allow the patterns to emerge."

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Emily Hammer is an assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also in the Anthropology and Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World graduate groups and is part of the Price Lab for Digital Humanities.

Jason Ur is a professor of anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis.

 

Press release from University of Pennsylvania

Pictures and captions from the paper Near Eastern Landscapes and Declassified U2 Aerial Imagery, by Emily Hammer and Jason Ur, Advances in Archaeological Practice, published online: 12 March 2019; 2019 © Society for American Archaeology. The article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence CC BY 4.0.


genetics history prehistory Spain Iberia Iberian populations genetic history

Unique diversity of the genetic history of the Iberian Peninsula revealed by dual studies

Unique diversity of the genetic history of the Iberian Peninsula revealed by dual studies

Two studies, one looking at Iberian hunter-gatherers between 13,000 and 6,000 years ago and another looking at Iberian populations over the last 8000 years, add new resolution to our understanding of the history and prehistory of the region

Vanessa Villalba-Mouco performing aDNA labwork. Credit: Marieke S. van der Loosdrecht

An international team of researchers have analyzed ancient DNA from almost 300 individuals from the Iberian Peninsula, spanning more than 12,000 years, in two studies published today (14/03/2019) in Current Biology and Science. The first study looked at hunter-gatherers and early farmers living in Iberia between 13,000 and 6000 years ago. The second looked at individuals from the region during all time periods over the last 8000 years. Together, the two papers greatly increase our knowledge about the population history of this unique region.

The Iberian Peninsula has long been thought of as an outlier in the population history of Europe, due to its unique climate and position on the far western edge of the continent. During the last Ice Age, Iberia remained relatively warm, allowing plants and animals - and possibly people - who were forced to retreat from much of the rest of Europe to continue living there. Similarly, over the last 8000 years, Iberia's geographic location, rugged terrain, position on the Mediterranean coast and proximity to North Africa made it unique in comparison to other parts of Europe in its interactions with other regions. Two new studies, published concurrently in Current Biology and Science, analyze a total of almost 300 individuals who lived from about 13,000 to 400 years ago to give unprecedented clarity on the unique population history of the Iberian Peninsula.

Iberian hunter-gatherers show two ancient Paleolithic lineages

For the paper in Current Biology, led by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, researchers analyzed 11 hunter-gatherers and Neolithic individuals from Iberia. The oldest newly analyzed individuals are approximately 12,000 years old and were recovered from Balma Guilanyà in Spain.

Excavation work in progress at the site of Balma Guilanyà. Credit: CEPAB-UAB

Earlier evidence had shown that, after the end of the last Ice Age, western and central Europe were dominated by hunter-gatherers with ancestry associated with an approximately 14,000-year-old individual from Villabruna, Italy. Italy is thought to have been a potential refuge for humans during the last Ice Age, like Iberia. The Villabruna-related ancestry largely replaced earlier ancestry in western and central Europe related to 19,000-15,000-year-old individuals associated with what is known as the Magdalenian cultural complex.

Interestingly, the findings of the current study show that both lineages were present in Iberian individuals dating back as far as 19,000 years ago. "We can confirm the survival of an additional Paleolithic lineage that dates back to the Late Ice Age in Iberia," says Wolfgang Haak of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, senior author of the study. "This confirms the role of the Iberian Peninsula as a refuge during the Last Glacial Maximum, not only for fauna and flora but also for human populations."

This suggests that, far from being replaced by Villabruna-related individuals after the last Ice Age, hunter-gatherers in Iberia in fact already had ancestry from Magdalenian- and Villabruna-related sources. The discovery suggests an early connection between two potential refugia, resulting in a genetic ancestry that survived in later Iberian hunter-gatherers.

"The hunter-gatherers from the Iberian Peninsula carry a mix of two older types of genetic ancestry: one that dates back to the Last Glacial Maximum and was once maximized in individuals attributed to Magdalenian culture and another one that is found everywhere in western and central Europe and had replaced the Magdalenian lineage during the Early Holocene everywhere except the Iberian Peninsula," explains Vanessa Villalba-Mouco of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, first author of the study.

The researchers hope that ongoing efforts to decipher the genetic structure of late hunter-gatherer groups across Europe will help to even better understand Europe's past and, in particular, the assimilation of a Neolithic way of life brought about by expanding farmers from the Near East during the Holocene.

Ancient DNA from individuals spanning the last 8000 years helps clarify the history and prehistory of the Iberian Peninsula

The paper published in Science focuses on slightly later time periods, and traces the population history of Iberia over the last 8000 years by analyzing ancient DNA from a huge number of individuals. The study, led by Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute and including Haak and Villalba-Mouco, analyzed 271 ancient Iberians from the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Copper Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and historical periods. The large number of individuals allowed the team to make more detailed inferences about each time period than previously possible.

The researchers found that during the transition to a sedentary farming life-style, hunter-gatherers in Iberia contributed subtly to the genetic make-up of newly arriving farmers from the Near East. "We can see that there must have been local mixture as the Iberian farmers also carry this dual signature of hunter-gatherer ancestry unique to Iberia," explains Villalba-Mouco.

Between about 2500-2000 BC, the researchers observed the replacement of 40% of Iberia's ancestry and nearly 100% of its Y-chromosomes by people with ancestry from the Pontic Steppe, a region in what is today Ukraine and Russia. Interestingly, the findings show that in the Iron Age, "Steppe ancestry" had spread not only into Indo-European-speaking regions of Iberia but also into non-Indo-European-speaking ones, such as the region inhabited by the Basque. The researchers' analysis suggests that present-day Basques most closely resemble a typical Iberian Iron Age population, including the influx of "Steppe ancestry," but that they were not affected by subsequent genetic contributions that affected the rest of Iberia. This suggests that Basque speakers were equally affected genetically as other groups by the arrival of Steppe populations, but retained their language in any case. It was only after that time that they became relatively isolated genetically from the rest of the Iberian Peninsula.

Additionally, the researchers looked at historical periods, including times when Greek and later Roman settlements existed in Iberia. The researchers found that beginning at least in the Roman period, the ancestry of the peninsula was transformed by gene flow from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. They found that Greek and Roman settlements tended to be quite multiethnic, with individuals from the central and eastern Mediterranean and North Africa as well as locals, and that these interactions had lasting demographic as well as cultural impacts.

"Beyond the specific insights about Iberia, this study serves as a model for how a high-resolution ancient DNA transect continuing into historical periods can be used to provide a detailed description of the formation of present-day populations," explains Haak. "We hope that future use of similar strategies will provide equally valuable insights in other regions of the world."

genetics history prehistory Spain Iberia Iberian populations genetic history Iberian Peninsula
Cueva de Chaves site. Credit: Museo de Huesca

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