Neanderthals: pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals ate mussels, fish, and seals too

International research team with participation from University of Göttingen find it wasn't just Homo sapiens who sourced food from the sea -- impact on cognitive abilities suspected

Neanderthals marine
View on the Figueira Brava cave with its three entrances. Credits: João Zilhão

Over 80,000 years ago, Neanderthals were already feeding themselves regularly on mussels, fish and other marine life. The first robust evidence of this has been found by an international research team with the participation of the University of Göttingen during an excavation in the cave of Figueira Brava in Portugal. Dr Dirk Hoffmann at the Göttingen Isotope Geology Department dated flowstone layers - calcite deposits that form like stalagmites from dripping water - using the uranium-thorium method, and was thus able to determine the age of the excavation layers to between 86,000 and 106,000 years. This means that the layers date from the period in which the Neanderthals settled in Europe. The use of the sea as a source of food at that time has so far only been attributed to anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa. The results of the study were published in the journal Science.

Cracked-open and burnt fragments of pincers of the edible crab (cancer pagurus). Credits: João Zilhão

The cave of Figueira Brava is located 30 kilometres south of Lisbon on the slopes of the Serra da Arrábida. Today it is located directly on the waterfront, but at that time it was up to two kilometres from the coast. The research team, coordinated by the first author of the study, Professor João Zilhão from the University of Barcelona, found that the Neanderthals living there were able to routinely harvest mussels and fish, and to hunt seals. Their diet included mussels, crustaceans and fish as well as waterfowl and marine mammals such as dolphins and seals. Food from the sea is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other fatty acids that promote the development of brain tissue.

Until now, it has always been suspected that this consumption increased the cognitive abilities of the human populations in Africa. "Among other influences, this could explain the early appearance of a culture of modern people that used symbolic artefacts, such as body painting with ochre, the use of ornaments or the decoration of containers made of ostrich eggs with geometric motifs," explains Hoffmann. "Such behaviour reflects human's capacity for abstract thought and communication through symbols, which also contributed to the emergence of more organised and complex societies of modern humans".

Neanderthals marine
Horizontal exposure of a mussel shell bed. Credits: João Zilhão

The recent results of the excavation of Figueira Brava now confirm that if the habitual consumption of marine life played an important role in the development of cognitive abilities, this is as true for Neanderthals as it is for anatomically modern humans. Hoffmann and his co-authors previously found that Neanderthals made cave paintings in three caves on the Iberian Peninsula more than 65,000 years ago and that perforated and painted shells must also be attributed to the Neanderthals.

###

Original publication: J. Zilhão et al., Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers, Science, 10.1126/science.aaz7943

See: https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaz7943

 

 

Press release from the University of Göttingen

 

Science publishes study on Neanderthals as pioneers in marine resource exploitation

Neanderthals marine
Cracked-open and burnt fragments of Cancer pagurus pincer? Credits: José Paulo Ruas © João Zilhão

The journal Science has published a study led by the ICREA researcher João Zilhão, from the University of Barcelona, which presents the results of the excavation in Cueva de Figueira Brava, Portugal, which was used as shelter by Neanderthal populations about between 86 and 106 thousand years ago. The study reveals fishing and shellfish-gathering contributed significantly to the subsistence economy of the inhabitants of Figueira Brava. The relevance of this discovery lies in the fact that so far, there were not many signs of these practices as common among Neanderthals.

Regarding the consequences of this study, João Zilhão notes that "an influent model on our origins suggests the common consumption of water resources -rich in Omega3 and other fatty acids that favour the development of brain tissues- would have increased the cognitive skills of modern anatomy humans. That is, those humans who, in Africa, were contemporaries of Neanderthals and are usually regarded as the only ancestors of the current Homo sapiens". But the results of the excavation of Figueira Brava state that, if this common consumption of marine resources played an important role in the development of cognitive skills, it did so on the entire humanity, including Neanderthals, and not only the African population that spread later".

Zilhão member of the Prehistoric Studies and Research Seminar (SERP-UB), lists the research study in the line of "proof that accumulated over the last decade to show Neanderthals had a symbolic material culture". Two years ago, in 2018, the journals Science and Science Advances published two studies co-led by João Zilhão which showed that more than 65,000 years ago, Neanderthals made cave paintings in at least three caves in the Iberian Peninsula: La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales (Science). Furthermore, more than 115,000 years ago, they used perforated marine shells and with ocher remains, such as the ones from Cueva de los Aviones (Murcia, Spain), as pendants and shell containers with residues of complex mixes of pigment (Science Advances). These findings, the most recent one being the one in Figueira Brava, "support a view on human evolution in which the known fossil variants, such as Neanderthals' in Europe and its African anatomy contemporaries -more similar to ours-, should be understood as remains from our ancestors, not as different higher-lower species", notes Zilhão.

Pieces of clam Ruditapes decussatus, found in the site. Credits: Mariana Nabais © João Zilhão

A 50% of the diet of the inhabitants in Figueira Brava was built by coastal resources: molluscs (limpet, mussel and clams; crustaceans (brown crab and spider crab); fish (shark, eel, sea bream, mullet); birds (mallard, common scoter, goose, cormorant, gannet, shag, auk, egret, loon), and mammals (dolphin, seal). This was completed with the hunt of deer, goats, horses, aurochs and other small preys such as tortoises. Among the other carbonised plants were olive trees, vines, fig trees and other Mediterranean climate typical species, among which the most abundant was the stone pine -its wood was used as combustible. Pine forests were exploited as fruit tree gardens: mature pines, albeit closed, were taken from the branches and stored in the cave, where the fire could open them so as to take the pines.

The study also provides other results, such as the idea of the concept of Neanderthals as cold and tundra peoples, experts on hunting mammoths, rhinos, buffalos and reindeers, is biased. "Most Neanderthals would have lived in southern regions, specially in Italy and in the Iberian Peninsula, and its lifestyle would have been very similar to those in Figueira Brava", notes Zilhão.

Another important affirmation in the study is the familiarity of humans with the sea and its resources as something older and wider than what was thought. "This could probably help explain how, between 45,000 and 50,000 years ago, humans could cross the Timor Sea to colonize Australia and New Guinea, and then, about 30,000 years ago, the closest islands to the western Pacific", says Zilhão.

###

Article reference:

J. Zilhão, D. E. Angelucci, M. Araújo Igreja, L. J. Arnold, E. Badal, P. Callapez, J. L. Cardoso, F. d'Errico, J. Daura, M. Demuro, M. Deschamps, C. Dupont, S. Gabriel, D. L. Hoffmann, P. Legoinha, H. Matias, A. M. Monge Soares, M. Nabais, P. Portela, A. Queffelec, F. Rodrigues, P. Souto. "Last Interglacial Iberian Neandertals as fisher-hunter-gatherers", Science, 367, March 27, 2020.

 

Press release from the University of Barcelona

 

Neanderthals: Pioneers in the use of marine resources

Neanderthals slurping seashells by the seashore? This scene may startle those accustomed to imagining Homo neanderthalensis as a people of cold climes who hunted large herbivores. Yet an international team including scientists from three laboratories affiliated with the CNRS and partner institutions* have just demonstrated that Neanderthals hunted, fished, and gathered prodigious volumes of seafood and other marine animals: they discovered remains of molluscs, crustaceans, fish, birds, and mammals in a Portuguese cave (Figueira Brava) occupied by Neanderthals between 106,000 and 86,000 BCE. The diversity of marine food resources found there even exceeds that observed at other, much more recent Portuguese sites, dated to 9,000-7,500 BCE. The team's findings, published in Science (27 March 2020), suggest that many Neanderthal groups--living in Mediterranean climates far from the mammoth hunts of the frigid steppes--shared these dietary habitats.

###

Researchers from Centre de recherche en archéologie, archéosciences, Histoire (CNRS/Université de Rennes), from De la préhistoire à l'actuel : culture, environnement et anthropologie laboratory (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Ministère de la Culture) and Travaux de recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés laboratory (CNRS/Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture).

 

Press release from the CNRS


Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

"Arctic: culture and climate", an exhibition on the history of the Arctic people

British Museum announces major exhibition on the Arctic
The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

28 May – 23 August 2020
Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery

Lead supporter Citi
Supported by
Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald
AKO Foundation

There's Another One

In May 2020 the British Museum will open the first major exhibition on the history of the Arctic and its indigenous peoples, through the lens of climate change and weather. The Arctic has been home to resilient communities for nearly 30,000 years, cultures that have lived with the opportunities and challenges of one of the most dramatic and dynamic environments on the planet. Today climate change is transforming the Arctic at the fastest rate in human history. The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate is the first to look at the circumpolar region through the eyes of contemporary Arctic communities, revealing how Arctic peoples have adapted to climate variability in the past and addresses the global issue of changing climate through their stories in a transforming world.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Arctic Foliage wall hanging

Bringing together the largest and most diverse circumpolar collection ever displayed in the UK, including objects from the British Museum’s world-class Arctic collection and international lenders and commissions, this exhibition will reveal a wealth of artistic expression and ecological knowledge, from the past right up to the present day. From rare 28,000 year old archaeological finds excavated from the thawing ground in Siberia, unique tools and clothing adapted for survival, artworks reflecting the respectful relationship between Arctic people and the natural world, to stunning photography of contemporary daily life, the exhibition will show the great diversity of cultures and ingenuity of communities responding to dramatic changes in seasonal weather and human-caused climate change.

Walrus ivory needles, Yana-site, Russia

The Arctic Circle is the most northern region in the world encompassing the area of midnight sun in summer and the polar night in winter that covers 4% of the Earth. It is home to 4 million people including 400,000 indigenous peoples belonging to one or more of 40 different ethnic groups with distinct languages and dialects. Most of the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants rely on hunting, fishing and reindeer herding. These subsistence resources are supplemented by employment in industries such as government infrastructures, energy, commercial fishing and tourism.

Arctic peoples have traded and engaged across the Circumpolar North for millennia. From Russia, Greenland, Canada and the USA to the Scandinavian nations, the peoples of the region have thrived within this ever-changing and evolving landscape. Scientists predict that the Arctic will be ice-free in 80 years, which will bring dramatic and profound change to the people that live there and will affect us all.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Sledge

Twyla Thurmond, tribal coordinator, from Shishmaref, Alaska says “Shishmaref and other Alaska Native communities are demonstrating how people can stay strong and unified in their search for answers to climate change, the most challenging problem of the 21st century.”

The exhibition will feature many highlight objects from across the circumpolar region, including an 8-piece Igloolik winter costume made of caribou (wild reindeer) fur, illustrating the relationship between humans and animals in the Arctic. The hunted animal provides food for the community as well as clothing, perfectly adapted to help humans survive the extreme cold. All available natural materials are put to use. A delicate and unique household bag from western Alaska, crafted from tanned salmon skin, demonstrates the beautiful properties that emerge from fishskin when skilled practitioners work and expose material to particular weather conditions.

Icon into mask

Over the past 300 years, Arctic peoples have faced dramatic social, economic, and political changes as a result of European and Russian exploration to the region, quests for the Northwest Passage, and the global fur trade. A key object from this period is the Inughuit (Greenlandic) sled made from narwhal and caribou bone and pieces of driftwood. It was traded to Sir John Ross on his 1818 expedition, marking the first encounter between Inughuit and Europeans. Arctic peoples’ responses to the establishment of colonial governments and state-sponsored religions in the Arctic will feature, including a bronze carved Evenki spirit mask that was made from a 17th century Russian Orthodox icon. Today, Arctic peoples are transforming traditional heritage to meet contemporary needs and safeguard their culture. From performances adapted from ritual practices to commercial artwork inspired by storytelling and material traditions.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Inukshuk

Stunning contemporary photography of the Arctic landscape and local communities will form part of the immersive exhibition design. There will be a number of new artworks commissioned for the exhibition. These include a limestone Inuksuk, an iconic Arctic monument of stacked stones used to mark productive harvesting locations or to assist in navigation, built by Piita Irniq, from the Kivalliq Region of Nunavut, Canada. A new installation from the art collective Embassy of Imagination will present traditional clothing made from Japanese paper and printmaking by Inuit youth in Kinngait (Cape Dorset) and Puvirnitug, Nunavut, Canada.

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Sami hat

The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate will tell inspirational stories of human achievement while celebrating the region’s natural beauty. It will encourage debate about the future of this globally significant landscape in the light of the global climate change. Arctic peoples have faced different kinds of change, developing strategies and tools to mitigate the disruptive effects of social and environmental change from which we can all learn.

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald, and AKO Foundation

Amber Lincoln, Curator, Americas Section, British Museum, said ‘Through the generosity of indigenous Arctic people and Arctic scholars, this exhibition weaves together compelling stories, objects and landscapes of the Circumpolar North, at a time when the Arctic is changing before our very eyes.’

Hartwig FischerDirector of the British Museum, said ‘The Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate is a bold and ambitious exhibition that reflects the expanding vision of the British Museum. The show directly addresses the essential question of how humans can live with the impacts of extreme weather. The future and past come together in the present, united by the shared experiences of Arctic peoples. I would like to thank Citi, whose on-going support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.’

James Bardrick, Citi Country Officer, United Kingdom says: “As a global bank, we play an essential role in financing a sustainable economy and supporting indigenous peoples’ rights. We are particularly proud to partner with the British Museum for the forthcoming Arctic: culture and climate exhibition that sheds light on the formidable artistic expression and ecological knowledge of the Arctic populations. We are committed to financing and facilitating clean energy, infrastructure and technology projects that support environmental solutions and reduce the impacts of climate change, on rich and diverse communities such as those that inhabit the circumpolar Arctic.”

Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate
Umiaq and north wind during spring whaling by Kiliii Yuyan

If you want to read more about Arctic: culture and climate, follow the British Museum blog at blog.britishmuseum.org

 

Press release from the British Museum

Pictures courtesy of the British Museum


Thomas Becket 2020

Thomas Becket 2020: a year-long programme of events for the 850th anniversary of his murder

2020 programme commemorating the murder of Thomas Becket unveiled

  • 2020 is the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Year-long programme of Becket2020 events unveiled
  • British Museum to host first ever major UK exhibition on Thomas Becket’s life, death and legacy
Thomas Becket 2020
Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. The image on the front panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. © The Trustees of the British Museum

A year-long programme of events marking the 850th anniversary of one of the most shocking crimes in European history, the murder of Thomas Becket, are unveiled today. ‘Becket2020’ will see venues in London, Canterbury and beyond host a range of events across the year to commemorate his murder - a moment which changed the course of history. The programme includes performances, pageants, talks, film screenings and religious services, and culminates in the first ever major UK exhibition to explore Becket’s life, death and legacy which will open at the British Museum in October.

Thomas Becket 2020
A second Reliquary, Limoges, c. 1200. The image on the front panel shows the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered on 29 December 1170 – 849 years ago tomorrow. He was killed in Canterbury Cathedral by four knights with close ties to his former friend King Henry II, as eye-witnesses looked on. Becket was quickly canonised a saint by the Pope and his shrine at Canterbury became a major centre of European pilgrimage before being destroyed on the orders of Henry VIII in the early years of the English Reformation. In both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Church he is recognised as a saint and a martyr.

Canterbury Cathedral at night – © Canterbury Cathedral

In 2020, Canterbury will be the centre of activity celebrating Becket. A major new production of T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral will be performed for the first time in Canterbury Cathedral in October and is a joint initiative with The Marlowe Theatre. The Cathedral will also host a special choral evensong service to commemorate Becket’s martyrdom on the 29 December 2020. Elsewhere in the city, other highlights include Saint Thomas Becket – World Celebrity Healer at The Beaneya community creative project focusing on mental and physical health and wellbeing in the context of Becket’s fame. In July, Canterbury’s fifth annual Medieval Pageant and Trail will take place, and this year commemorates Henry ll’s pilgrimage to Canterbury to perform penance for his association with the murder of Becket.

Thomas Becket 2020
Pilgrim badge from the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. This badge depicts the scene of Becket’s martyrdom. © Museum of London.

London, the city of Becket’s birth, will also host a range of important events. Thomas Becket (title tbc) at the British Museum will be the first time Becket’s life, death and legacy has been explored in a major exhibition in the UK. Opening in October, it will showcase an incredible array of over 100 objects associated with Becket, including manuscripts, jewellery, sculpture, stained glass and paintings, and will feature artefacts from the Museum’s collection as well as important loans from the UK and around the world. It will present Becket’s tumultuous journey: from London-merchant’s son to Archbishop; and from a revered saint in death, to a ‘traitor’ in the eyes of Henry VIII, over 350 years later. Highlights include a number of beautiful sacred reliquaries which once contained precious relics of Thomas Becket. These were taken across Continental Europe and speak to the profound international spread of his cult.

Thomas Becket 2020
Pilgrim badge, pewter, a standing figure of St Thomas Becket, wearing archbishop's vestments and holding a cross-staff.  Becket's shrine at Canterbury was the most popular in England.  14th century. © Museum of London.

Also in the capital, The Museum of London will display a selection of their extraordinary collection of pilgrim badges. For over 300 years, Londoners flocked to Becket's shrine in Canterbury often returning with a badge as a keepsake. The Museum of London will use examples to illustrate Becket’s extraordinary life and his connections to the capital. Visitors will be encouraged to undertake their own mini-pilgrimage through the museum’s Medieval London Gallery from 14 February to October 2020. In June, the Becket Pageant for London will be a landmark community project centred around a new 70-minute stage-work and set against the iconic backdrop of medieval Guildhall Yard. The event will seek to re-imagine the only known Becket pageant, performed in London in 1519, and will be a playful musical entertainment for a modern audience. His Grace The Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, The Archbishop of Canterbury, will preach at Southwark Cathedral in December 2020, in commemoration of Thomas Becket's final sermon which took place at the same site shortly before his death. The Cathedral will also host an art installation by artist Michelle Rumney during Lent.

Naomi Speakman, co-curator of Thomas Becket at the British Museum, said: “the story of Thomas Becket’s life, death and legacy has all the hallmarks of a Game of Thrones plot. There’s drama, fame, royalty, power, envy, retribution, and ultimately a brutal murder that shocked Europe. These events had repercussions that have echoed out through time, and we’re delighted to be telling this important story for the first time in a major exhibition.”

Thomas Becket (title tbc) is at the British Museum from 15 October 2020 until 14 February 2021.

Canterbury Cathedral – © Canterbury Cathedral

Becket2020 programme of events.

This is a draft programme of events, to which others are in the process of being added, based on information derived from partners.

Canterbury Cathedral will take the lead on the leaflet and website for Becket 2020.

Events:

23 January - 'Lecture: 'Thomas Becket and the Young Henry III' by Professor David Carpenter, Professor of Medieval History (King’s College London)

7.00pm Claggett Auditorium, Canterbury Cathedral Lodge.

Free to Historical Association members and students; £3 for others

14 February (to October) – Becket 2020 pilgrim badge display at the Museum of London (free)

St Thomas Becket is an internationally renowned figure but his connections to London are rather less well-known. For over 300 years, Londoners flocked to Becket's shrine in Canterbury often returning with a pewter badge as a keepsake. Hundreds of these pilgrim souvenirs have been recovered from London excavations and mudlarking activity along the Thames and the museum holds the largest collection in the country.

The Museum of London will use some of its pilgrim badges to illustrate St Thomas Becket’s extraordinary life and his connections to the capital. Visitors will be encouraged to undertake their own mini-pilgrimage through the museum’s Medieval London Gallery from 14 February to October 2020. The display will deal with Thomas Becket the man and his early life in London, his exile and murder, the impact of his death and rise in miracle cures and finally, Becket’s shrine and the Jubilee of the Martyrdom in 1220.

25 February - Lecture on Becket & London by Prof Caroline Barron, Mercers' Hall, London

26 March - "The two Thomases" talk by Dean of Hereford, Hereford Cathedral

27 March - Annual Thomas Becket Lecture, a talk by Lord Rowan Williams on ‘Bede and Canterbury’ to anticipate the opening of the Medieval Canterbury Weekend (Venue: Canterbury Christ Church University).

3-5 April - Medieval Canterbury Weekend. 3-5 April 2020. Includes 'Becket was a Londoner' lecture on 5/4/20). Venue: Canterbury Christ Church University https://www.canterbury.ac.uk/arts-and-humanities/school-of-humanities/medieval-canterbury-weekend/medieval-canterbury-weekend.aspx

April to October 2020 - Canterbury Cathedral Eastern Crypt set aside as Pilgrimage Chapel for Becket2020

16 May – 27 September - ‘Becket - World Celebrity Healer’ exhibition at The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury https://canterburymuseums.co.uk/events/saint-thomas-becket-world-celebrity-healer/

18 May - ‘Church, Saints and Seals, 1150-1300’ (a one-day conference at Canterbury Cathedral and Canterbury Christ Church University).

24 May - Friends of Southwark Cathedral pilgrimage set off from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Arrive 1st June

30 May - Day of Prayer and Pilgrimage, plus Beacon Event (Canterbury Cathedral)

25 June–2 July – King’s Week (The King’s School, Canterbury) will include Becket-themed events.

27 June – Becket on Film screenings (Dr Tim Jones, Canterbury Christ Church University)

Late June (one of the final two weekends) - London pageant, Guildhall Yard (Emmeline Winterbotham)

4 July - Canterbury Medieval Pageant and Family Trail (An annual Becket-themed community event, led by the Canterbury Business Improvement District, involving community groups, re-enactors, and heritage organisations across the city).

4 July - Blessing of Becket Copes at Evensong (Canterbury Cathedral)

4 July – An evening screening of the 1960s film ‘Becket’ at the Gulbenkian (Venue: University of Kent, Canterbury).

5 July – Canterbury Cathedral major service for the Translation of Becket. 10.00 Eucharist, 15.00 ecumenical service

6th July - 31st Dec 2020 - "The Two Thomases" Exhibition at Hereford Cathedral

7 July - St Thomas Day

19 July – Canterbury Cathedral’s ‘Night of the Cathedral’ event 17.30 - 21.00

July (date TBC) - Film Screening by Dr Tim Jones of the 1970 anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom (Venue: Canterbury Christ Church University).

26 August - Pilgrimage Visit to Canterbury Cathedral from the Friends of Hereford Cathedral

Late August / September – A 3-week exhibition and series of talks on Kentish saints (Venue: Centre for Kent History and Heritage, in partnership with Canterbury Archaeological Trust, the Kent Archaeological Society and other local partners):

  • Monday 31 August: St Martin's: An introduction to the cult of saints: Dr Sarah James (University of Kent)
  • Tuesday 1 September: St Paul's: Early Episcopal Saints: Dr Diane Heath (CCCU)
  • Wednesday 2 September: St Mildred's: Anglo-Saxon female saints: Dr Hilary Powell (CCCU)
  • Thursday 3 September: St Dunstan's: ‘Conflicting convictions:  martyrs of the 16th century’: Dr Doreen Rosman (retired, University of Kent)
  • Friday 4 September: St Peter's: Late medieval minor and failed cults: Dr Sheila Sweetinburgh (CCCU)
  • Saturday 5 September: St Thomas RC church: St Thomas of Canterbury: Professor Rachel Koopmans (York University, Toronto)

September - A Sandwich to Canterbury relay walk (incorporating local parishes between Sandwich and Canterbury - tbc).

September – The Annual Education Day hosted by the Canterbury Tales Attraction with local partners.

September – Heritage Open Days will have a Becket theme.

19 September - Canterbury Cathedral Friends ‘Friends Day’, for members only, with a Becket theme (Venue: Canterbury Cathedral).

27 September - Lees Court Singing Compline for Becket at Canterbury Cathedral

3 October - Joint Evensong Portsmouth & Dio Pilgrimage (Canterbury Cathedral)

15 Oct 2020 onwards - British Museum Thomas Becket exhibition, London (end date and title TBC)

22-24 Oct 2020 - Murder in the Cathedral in Canterbury Cathedral. Major joint production with Marlowe Theatre.

27-29 Oct 2020 - Canterbury Cathedral: Big Draw and Childrens Pilgrimage activities

11-13/14 November – ‘Thomas Becket: Life, Death and Legacy’ Conference (Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury Christ Church University and University of Kent – dates and keynotes confirmed including Prof. Anne Duggan, Prof. Rachel Koopmans, Prof. Alec Ryrie, Prof. Nick Vincent, Dr Paul Webster; Venue: Canterbury Cathedral; funded by the British Academy).

29 December – Special choral evensong service to commemorate Becket’s martyrdom (Venue: Canterbury Cathedral).

Other Canterbury events in planning include:

  • Annual Anselm Lecture (University of Kent at Canterbury – date tbc).
  • St Dunstan’s Church, Canterbury, will produce a leaflet on Henry II and Becket.
  • St Thomas’s Church, Canterbury, will have a musical event, a possible exhibition and has a strong interest in pilgrimage.
  • The Canterbury Society will also host a Becket-related talk.
  • The St Dunstan’s underpass in Canterbury will have a new mural depicting medieval pilgrims through to modern students.
  • Canterbury Archaeological Trust Activities: (1) a workshop on Canterbury in the age of Becket, with object handling; (2) holding one or more walking tours of Canterbury in the age of Becket; (3) running an East Kent tour of individual sites (monuments, churches, etc.); (4) developing Apps for 20 centuries of Canterbury; and (5) producing a new book on Canterbury and a new map of Canterbury.

Other events to be aware of:

  • Lambeth 2020. 27 July - 1 Aug 2020 (University of Kent and Canterbury Cathedral)
  • The Open Golf, 12-19 July 2020 Sandwich, Kent
  • Canterbury Festival (17-31 October 2020)

 

Press release for the 2020 programme commemorating the murder of Thomas Becket from the British Museum


Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield

A warrior on a unique Bronze Age battlefield site in the Tollense Valley

Lost in Combat? Researchers discover belongings of a warrior on unique Bronze Age battlefield site

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
This collection of objects was found by divers in the Tollense river and is probably the contents of a personal pouch of a warrior who died 3,300 years ago on the battlefield. Credit: Volker Minkus

Recent archaeological investigations in the Tollense Valley led by the University of Göttingen, the State Agency for Cultural Heritage in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and the University of Greifswald have unearthed a collection of 31 unusual objects. Researchers believe this is the personal equipment of a Bronze Age warrior who died on the battlefield 3,300 years ago.  This unique find was discovered by a diving team headed by Dr Joachim Krüger, from the University of Greifswald, and seems to have been protected in the river from the looting, which inevitably followed fighting.  The study was published in Antiquity.

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
These are the battlefield remains from the layer where objects were found at the site near the Tollense river in Weltzin. Credit: Stefan Sauer

The archaeological records of the European Bronze Age are dominated by settlement finds, hoards and evidence of funeral sites.  However, the site at the river Tollense in Northern Germany is very different and provides for the first time in Europe the evidence of a prehistoric battlefield.  Over 12,000 pieces of human bone have already been recovered from the valley and osteoanthropologist Ute Brinker, from the State Agency has identified more than 140 individuals – young adult males in good physical condition. Their bones showed signs of recent trauma – the result of close and long-range weapons – and healed lesions, which probably indicate they were accustomed to combat. Isotopic results suggested that at least some of the group were not from the local area, but until now, it was not clear how far they travelled.

 

The discovery of a new set of artefacts from the remains of battle provides important new clues. The divers could document a number of Bronze finds in their original position on the river ground, among them a decorated belt box, three dress pins and also arrow heads. Surprisingly they also found 31 objects (250g) tightly packed together, suggesting they were in a container made of wood or cloth that has since rotted away. The items include a bronze tool with a birch handle, a knife, a chisel and fragments of bronze. Radiocarbon dating of the collection of objects demonstrates that the finds belong to the battlefield layer and they were probably the personal equipment of one of the victims. The finds were studied in a Master’s thesis by Tobias Uhlig and the new results make it increasingly clear that there was a massive violent conflict in the older Nordic Bronze Age (2000–1200 BC). In fact, recent evidence suggests that it is likely to have been on a large scale, clearly stretching beyond regional borders.

Tollense Vallery Bronze Age battlefield
This is a human skull found in the Tollense valley with fatal trauma caused by a Bronze arrowhead. Credit: Volker Minkus

Professor Thomas Terberger, from the Department of Pre- and Early History at the University of Göttingen, says, “This is the first discovery of personal belongings on a battlefield and it provides insights into the equipment of a warrior. The fragmented bronze was probably used as a form of early currency. The discovery of a new set of artefacts also provides us with clues about the origins of the men who fought in this battle and there is increasing evidence that at least some of the warriors originated in southern Central Europe.”

 

Original publication: Tobias Uhlig et al. Lost in combat? A scrap metal find from the Bronze Age battlefield site at Tollense (2019), Antiquity. DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2019.137

 

Press release (No. 207 - 15.10.2019) from the University of Göttingen / DE


Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta jewellery links Finland to a European exchange network

Levänluhta
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.

Read more


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

Read more


apple

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.

apple
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