Britons who built Stonehenge were product of ancient wave of migrant farmers

The Independent reports:
The ancestors of the Britons who built Stonehenge were farmers who had travelled from an area near modern Turkey, arriving around 4000BC, and who rapidly replaced local hunter-gatherer populations, according to new research.

Scientists investigating the origins of farming in Britain have said they have found overwhelming support for agriculture being introduced to Britain by a surge of continental migrants from Anatolia, bringing farming techniques, pottery and new religious cultures and beliefs.

The team examined DNA from 47 Neolithic farmer skeletons dating from 6,000 to 4,500 years ago and six Mesolithic hunter-gatherer skeletons from the preceding period, around 11,600 – 6,000 years ago.

From the DNA analysis the researchers were able to reveal that most of the hunter-gatherer population of Britain were replaced by those carrying ancestry originating on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. [Continue reading…]

Technology in deep time: How it evolves alongside us

Tom Chatfield writes:

Plenty of creatures can communicate richly, comprehend one another’s intentions and put tools to intelligent and creative use: cetaceans, cephalopods, corvids. Some can even develop and pass on particular local practices: New Caledonian crows, for example, exhibit a “culture” of tool usage, creating distinct varieties of simple hooked tools from plants in order to help them feed.

Only humans, however, have turned this craft into something unprecedented: a cumulative process of experiment and recombination that over mere hundreds of thousands of years harnessed phenomena such as fire to cook food, and ultimately smelt metal; as gravity into systems of levers, ramps, pulleys, wheels and counterweights; and mental processes into symbolic art, numeracy, and literacy.

It is this, above all, that marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species (at least until the crows have put in a million years more effort) humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

The economist W Brian Arthur is one of the most significant thinkers to have advanced this combinatorial account of technology, especially in his 2009 book The Nature of Technology. Central to Arthur’s argument is the insight that it’s not only pointless but also actively misleading to do what most history books cannot resist, and treat the history of technology as a greatest-hits list of influential inventions: to tell stirring tales of the impact of the compass, the clock, the printing press, the lightbulb, the iPhone.

This is not because such inventions weren’t hugely important, but because it obscures the fact that all new technologies are at root a combination of older technologies – and that this in turn traces an evolutionary process resembling life itself.

Consider the printing press, the invariable poster-child for anyone wanting to offer a quasi-historical perspective on the dissemination of information. The German inventor Johannes Gutenberg was, famously, the first European to develop a system for printing with movable type, in around 1440. Yet he was far from the first person to realise that using individual, movable components for each character in a sentence was a good way to speed up printing (as opposed to laboriously carving every page of text onto wood or metal).

Printing using individual porcelain characters had been developed in China in the 11th Century, and using metal character in Korea in the 13th Century. Gutenberg benefited, however, from the far smaller number of letters in German; from his knowledge of metal-smelting as a blacksmith and goldsmith, which helped him create a malleable-yet-durable alloy of lead, tin, and antimony; and from his insight that the kind of wooden presses used for centuries in Germany to make wine could be repurposed for pressing type against paper (itself a technology developed in China 1,500 years previously).

Wooden wine-presses, metal alloys, the Roman alphabet, oil-based ink, paper – every piece of the puzzle assembled by Gutenberg and his collaborators was based in a pre-existing technology whose origin could itself be traced back through previous technologies, in unbroken sequence, to the very first tools. [Continue reading…]

Pro-social religions didn’t kick-start complex social systems

Scientific American reports:

About 12,000 years ago human societies went big; tribes and villages grew into vast cities, kingdoms and empires within just a few millennia. For such large and complex societies to take root, people needed to maintain social cohesion and cooperation, even among complete strangers. What enabled this, many researchers have argued, was religion.

Such a religion, the idea goes, would work particularly well if it established standards of morality and behavior—and enforced them with the threat of supernatural punishment. This may involve so-called big gods who care about who is naughty or nice, like in the Abrahamic religions. Or, as in the Buddhist concept of karma, religions can enforce morality through what is dubbed “broad supernatural punishment”—spontaneous consequences that occur without the intercession of conventional big gods.

But a new study, published Wednesday in Nature, casts doubt on the role these kinds of “pro-social” religion play in enabling large-scale societies. “It’s not the main driver of social complexity as some theories had predicted,” says Harvey Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford and one of the lead authors of the study.

Instead the study suggests pro-social religions appeared after complex societies had already emerged. Although these religions may have helped sustain and grow large societies, the analysis makes the case that they were not necessary for societies to expand in the first place. [Continue reading…]

The rise of farming altered our bite and changed how people talk

Science News reports:

Humankind’s gift of gab is not set in stone, and farming could help to explain why.

Over the last 6,000 years or so, farming societies increasingly have substituted processed dairy and grain products for tougher-to-chew game meat and wild plants common in hunter-gatherer diets. Switching to those diets of softer, processed foods altered people’s jaw structure over time, rendering certain sounds like “f” and “v” easier to utter, and changing languages worldwide, scientists contend.

People who regularly chew tough foods such as game meat experience a jaw shift that removes a slight overbite from childhood. But individuals who grow up eating softer foods retain that overbite into adulthood, say comparative linguist Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and his colleagues. Computer simulations suggest that adults with an overbite are better able to produce certain sounds that require touching the lower lip to the upper teeth, the researchers report in the March 15 Science.

Linguists classify those speech sounds, found in about half of the world’s languages, as labiodentals. And when Blasi and his team reconstructed language change over time among Indo-European tongues (SN: 11/25/17, p. 16), currently spoken from Iceland to India, the researchers found that the likelihood of using labiodentals in those languages rose substantially over the past 6,000 to 7,000 years. That was especially true when foods such as milled grains and dairy products started appearing. [Continue reading…]

Neanderthals were people no less evolved than us

Rebecca Wragg Sykes writes:

Who were the Neanderthals? Even for archaeologists working at the trowel’s edge of contemporary science, it can be hard to see Neanderthals as anything more than intriguing abstractions, mixed up with the likes of mammoths, woolly rhinos and sabre-toothed cats. But they were certainly here: squinting against sunrises, sucking lungfuls of air, leaving footprints behind in the mud, sand and snow. Crouching to dig in a cave or rock-shelter, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to watch history rewind, and see the empty spaces leap with shifting, living shadows: to collapse time, reach out, and allow my skin to graze the warmth of a Neanderthal body, squatting right there beside me.

The business of archaeology is about summoning wraiths from the graveyards of millennia, after the vagaries of decay and erosion have done their work. Everything begins as fragments. Yet in recent years, poring over these shards has produced a revolution in our understanding of Neanderthals. Contrary to what we once thought, they were far from brutish, ‘lesser’ beings, or mere evolutionary losers on a withered branch of our family tree. Rather, the invention of new dating techniques, analysis of thousands more fossils and artefacts, and advances in ancient DNA research have collectively revealed the extent to which the lives of Neanderthals are braided together with our own. [Continue reading…]

Brittany’s seafaring hunter-gatherers were the first to build Europe’s ancient megaliths

Big Think reports:

The origin of the roughly 35,000 ancient monuments that dot Europe and the British Isles has long been a haunting mystery. From the Ring of Bodnar in the Scottish Orkney Islands to Stonehenge in the English countryside, to the Carnac stones in France, these ancient monuments have fascinated people for as long as they’ve been known.

Remarkably, there’s never been a serious effort made to date all of these structures in order to establish a single credible prehistoric timeline. Now, however, Bettina Schulz Paulsson has done exactly that using radiocarbon dating, lining up the sequence in which 2,410 of these sites were constructed. Her research has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on February 11.

As it turns out that it all started with single hunter-gatherer culture in an area now known as Brittany, France some 7,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s mammals have shrunk dramatically, and meat-eating hominids are to blame

The Washington Post reports:

Life on Earth used to look a lot more impressive. Just a little more than 100,000 years ago, there were sloths as long as a giraffe is tall, monstrous bears whose shoulders were six feet off the ground, and Bunyanesque beavers that weighed as much as an NFL linebacker. But over time, all of these creatures disappeared in a manner so rapid and so mysterious that scientists still can’t fully explain what went down.

Did an asteroid discharge the mega-beasts, similar to the one thought to have snuffed out the dinosaurs? Or was it widespread climatic change or a plague of new diseases? Did our penchant for hunting play a role?

It’s likely that a combination of factors led to a planet-wide demise in sizable mammals as the Ice Age came to a close. But a study published Thursday in the journal Science provides evidence that the major drivers were humans and other hominids.

“We looked at the entire fossil record for 65 million years, in million-year increments, and we asked the question, ‘Is it ever bad to be big?’ ” said lead author Felisa Smith, a paleoecologist at the University of New Mexico. For most of evolutionary history, the answer was no — larger body mass did not make an animal more likely to go extinct, she said. “For 65 million years, it didn’t matter what size you were.”

That is, until a new kind of predator arrived on the scene: Homo erectus. Around 1.8 million years ago, hominids that had long been dependent on plants became hominids that were “heavily and increasingly dependent on meat as a food source,” Smith said.

As these tool-wielding team hunters spread out from Africa, large-mammal extinctions followed. If you’re going to spend time and energy on a hunt, these early humans and their ancestors probably believed, it’s go big or go home.

“You hunt a rabbit, you have food for a small family for a day,” Smith said. “You hunt a mammoth, you feed the village.” [Continue reading…]

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After a volcano’s ancient supereruption, humanity may have thrived

Shannon Hall writes:

The Toba supereruption [about 74,000 years ago] expelled roughly 10,000 times more rock and ash than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption. So much ejecta would have darkened skies worldwide, causing scientists to speculate that it might have plunged the Earth into a volcanic winter whose chill could be felt far from Indonesia. Climate models suggest that temperatures may have plummeted by as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. And in such a cold world, plants may have ceased growing, glaciers may have advanced, sea-levels may have dropped and rainfall may have slowed.

Then in 1998, Stanley Ambrose, an anthropologist, linked the proposed disaster to genetic evidence that suggested a population bottleneck had occurred around the same time. He was certain that the Toba supereruption had caused the human population to decline to some 10,000 people — a close call for our ancestors.

“These were dramatic theories,” said Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who was not involved in the study. “They were very popular — both in the scientific world, but also in the public imagination.”

The latest study, however, suggests that those theories are incorrect, Dr. Petraglia said. “We’re not seeing all the drama.” [Continue reading…]

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Across human history, there’s little evidence large-scale social organization necessitates enduring inequality

David Graeber and David Wengrow write:

Stonehenge, it turns out, was only the latest in a very long sequence of ritual structures, erected in timber as well as stone, as people converged on the plain from remote corners of the British Isles, at significant times of year. Careful excavation has shown that many of these structures – now plausibly interpreted as monuments to the progenitors of powerful Neolithic dynasties – were dismantled just a few generations after their construction. Still more strikingly, this practice of erecting and dismantling grand monuments coincides with a period when the peoples of Britain, having adopted the Neolithic farming economy from continental Europe, appear to have turned their backs on at least one crucial aspect of it, abandoning cereal farming and reverting – around 3300 BC – to the collection of hazelnuts as a staple food source. Keeping their herds of cattle, on which they feasted seasonally at nearby Durrington Walls, the builders of Stonehenge seem likely to have been neither foragers nor farmers, but something in between. And if anything like a royal court did hold sway in the festive season, when they gathered in great numbers, then it could only have dissolved away for most of the year, when the same people scattered back out across the island.

Why are these seasonal variations important? Because they reveal that from the very beginning, human beings were self-consciously experimenting with different social possibilities. Anthropologists describe societies of this sort as possessing a ‘double morphology’. Marcel Mauss, writing in the early twentieth century, observed that the circumpolar Inuit, ‘and likewise many other societies . . . have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion’. In the summer months, Inuit dispersed into small patriarchal bands in pursuit of freshwater fish, caribou, and reindeer, each under the authority of a single male elder. Property was possessively marked and patriarchs exercised coercive, sometimes even tyrannical power over their kin. But in the long winter months, when seals and walrus flocked to the Arctic shore, another social structure entirely took over as Inuit gathered together to build great meeting houses of wood, whale-rib, and stone. Within them, the virtues of equality, altruism, and collective life prevailed; wealth was shared; husbands and wives exchanged partners under the aegis of Sedna, the Goddess of the Seals.

Another example were the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Canada’s Northwest Coast, for whom winter – not summer – was the time when society crystallised into its most unequal form, and spectacularly so. Plank-built palaces sprang to life along the coastlines of British Columbia, with hereditary nobles holding court over commoners and slaves, and hosting the great banquets known as potlatch. Yet these aristocratic courts broke apart for the summer work of the fishing season, reverting to smaller clan formations, still ranked, but with an entirely different and less formal structure. In this case, people actually adopted different names in summer and winter, literally becoming someone else, depending on the time of year.

Perhaps most striking, in terms of political reversals, were the seasonal practices of 19th-century tribal confederacies on the American Great Plains – sometime, or one-time farmers who had adopted a nomadic hunting life. In the late summer, small and highly mobile bands of Cheyenne and Lakota would congregate in large settlements to make logistical preparations for the buffalo hunt. At this most sensitive time of year they appointed a police force that exercised full coercive powers, including the right to imprison, whip, or fine any offender who endangered the proceedings. Yet as the anthropologist Robert Lowie observed, this ‘unequivocal authoritarianism’ operated on a strictly seasonal and temporary basis, giving way to more ‘anarchic’ forms of organisation once the hunting season – and the collective rituals that followed – were complete.

Scholarship does not always advance. Sometimes it slides backwards. A hundred years ago, most anthropologists understood that those who live mainly from wild resources were not, normally, restricted to tiny ‘bands.’ That idea is really a product of the 1960s, when Kalahari Bushmen and Mbuti Pygmies became the preferred image of primordial humanity for TV audiences and researchers alike. As a result we’ve seen a return of evolutionary stages, really not all that different from the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment: this is what Fukuyama, for instance, is drawing on, when he writes of society evolving steadily from ‘bands’ to ‘tribes’ to ‘chiefdoms,’ then finally, the kind of complex and stratified ‘states’ we live in today – usually defined by their monopoly of ‘the legitimate use of coercive force.’ By this logic, however, the Cheyenne or Lakota would have had to be ‘evolving’ from bands directly to states roughly every November, and then ‘devolving’ back again come spring. Most anthropologists now recognise that these categories are hopelessly inadequate, yet nobody has proposed an alternative way of thinking about world history in the broadest terms.

Quite independently, archaeological evidence suggests that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors were behaving in broadly similar ways: shifting back and forth between alternative social arrangements, permitting the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year, on the proviso that they could not last; on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. Within the same population, one could live sometimes in what looks, from a distance, like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes a society with many of the features we now identify with states. With such institutional flexibility comes the capacity to step outside the boundaries of any given social structure and reflect; to both make and unmake the political worlds we live in. If nothing else, this explains the ‘princes’ and ‘princesses’ of the last Ice Age, who appear to show up, in such magnificent isolation, like characters in some kind of fairy-tale or costume drama. Maybe they were almost literally so. If they reigned at all, then perhaps it was, like the kings and queens of Stonehenge, just for a season. [Continue reading…]

Britain left Stone Age 4,500 years ago as early Britons were replaced by metalworking migrants


BBC News reports:

The ancient population of Britain was almost completely replaced by newcomers about 4,500 years ago, a study shows.

The findings mean modern Britons trace just a small fraction of their ancestry to the people who built Stonehenge.

The astonishing result comes from analysis of DNA extracted from 400 ancient remains across Europe.

The mammoth study, published in Nature, suggests the newcomers, known as Beaker people, replaced 90% of the British gene pool in a few hundred years.

Lead author Prof David Reich, from Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, US, said: “The magnitude and suddenness of the population replacement is highly unexpected.”

The reasons remain unclear, but climate change, disease and ecological disaster could all have played a role.

People in Britain lived by hunting and gathering until agriculture was introduced from continental Europe about 6,000 years ago. These Neolithic farmers, who traced their origins to Anatolia (modern Turkey) built giant stone (or “megalithic”) structures such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire, huge Earth mounds and sophisticated settlements such as Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

But towards the end of the Neolithic, about 4,450 years ago, a new way of life spread to Britain from Europe. People began burying their dead with stylised bell-shaped pots, copper daggers, arrowheads, stone wrist guards and distinctive perforated buttons. [Continue reading…]