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ISSN 1357-4442 Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 45, June 1999


Neanderthals, sex and modern humans

A boy buried 24,000 years ago proves the two species did interbreed, writes Paul Pettitt

The relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals has been the subject of vigorous debate for many years. Did the two species inter-breed? Did they come into contact at all, during the tens of thousands of years of their co-existence on Earth? (See BA, March, and Letters, May.)

In 1996, DNA from the original Neander valley Neanderthal remains was extracted and analysed. This work demonstrated that there were at least 500,000 years of evolutionary divergence between our own species and the c 40,000 year old Neanderthal in question, diminishing the likelihood that the two species intermixed.

Now, however, direct evidence has come to light from Iberia, demonstrating unequivocally that contact took place and was probably quite extensive on the peninsula. The evidence was the discovery in November last year of an Early Upper Palaeolithic burial, over 24,000 years old, at the Abrigo do Lagar Velho in central western Portugal. The burial was of a young boy who was part Neanderthal, part modern human. His discovery has dramatically changed our perspective on Neanderthal extinction and the spread of our own species across Europe.

The Ebro river, which runs NW-SE across the neck of the Iberian peninsula, has recently come to be seen by some researchers as a major environmental boundary in the Upper Pleistocene. The earliest anatomically modern human colonists – dating to c 40,000-30,000 years ago – are only found north of the Ebro, while Neanderthals persist as late as 29,000 years ago to the south, represented by such sites as Zafarraya in Andalucia, and Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It is not until after 30,000 years ago that modern humans penetrate south of the Ebro.

Why was this so? It may have been that Neanderthals were ecologically adapted to the temperate, wooded environments south of the Ebro, and that there was no pressure for modern humans to move further south until climatic conditions began a downturn after 30,000 years ago. For up to 10,000 years then, there may have been distinct human species living on either side of the river. Such `frontier’ situations may have obtained elsewhere too, such as along the Danube in Romania. For a period modern humans were confined to the north bank of that river too, before eventually crossing south.

Five or six thousand years after these frontier conditions obtained on the Ebro, a young individual died. He was probably male, died around the age of four, and was buried under the Lagar Velho rockshelter in a clearly cut grave. He has been named, rather prosaically, Lagar Velho 1. He was probably quite important to his people, and was accorded special attention in death. His skeleton is largely complete, and was found associated with a pierced periwinkle (littorina obtusata) shell that he probably wore as a pendant. He was covered with red ochre.

The edge of the shallow grave was lined with stones and bones, which included the remains of red deer coxyx placed by his right arm, in addition to an articulated vertebral column of a rabbit apparently placed over his chest and upper arm. These have been dated by Oxford University’s radiocarbon accelerator unit to c 24,000-25,000 years ago, within the mid-Gravettian period.

The nature of the burial aligns it with other Gravettian sites in Portugal such as the Gruta do Caldeirao, where identical pierced periwinkle shells have been found (but no burials) dated to around 26,000 years ago. The use of red ochre – one assumes to colour either the boy’s clothing or a burial shroud – also links Lagar Velho 1 with other Gravettian ceremonial burials across Europe. These include the famous (and male) `Red Lady’ of Paviland from the Gower Peninsula, Wales, dated to 26,000-27,000 years ago, the Brno II `Shaman’ and the triple burial at Dolni Vestonice from Moravia in the Czech Republic, burials at Arene Candide and Caviglione in Italy, and even the highly elaborated burials at Sungir, Russia. All date to the period between 27,000 and 22,000 years ago, and are characterised by the use of red ochre, often elaborate personal ornamentation in the form of pierced beads, shells and other paraphernalia, and usually an association with large herbivore remains placed in the grave cuttings.

Who these people were we will never know, but as they were accorded rich mortuary rites one might speculate that they played important roles in their societies. They may perhaps have been shamans, sorcerors or other high status clan members – or, in the new Portuguese case, the children of such people.

Perhaps the Lagar Velho boy’s features marked him out as special from birth. A study of his anatomical features by Erik Trinkaus of Washington University has yielded fascinating results which surpass even the associated grave ritual in importance. Most of his cranium, mandible, dentition and other skeletal bones survive – and exhibit a mosaic of European early anatomically modern human and Neanderthal features.

Some, such as the curvature of the long bones, tooth size and proportions, and chin morphology, align him with Homo sapiens sapiens; others, such as body proportions, muscular insertions, and longbone robusticity, connect him with Neanderthals. In terms of body proportions he is `hyper-arctic’ – his limbs are relatively short compared to his abdomen, and his tibia is relatively short in relation to his femur. These proportions reflect an adaptation to cold, dry environments that is characteristic of European Neanderthals and is distinct from the subtropical body proportions of our own species.

Given the relatively temperate climatic conditions of the Iberian peninsula at the time that Lagar Velho 1 lived, one cannot explain his body proportions as being an anatomically modern human adaptation to severe conditions. In any case, one does not find such an adaptation with humans living further north in the same period. Rather, it has to relate to gene flow between the two species. As Lagar Velho 1 died 5,000-6,000 years after Neanderthals appear to have become extinct in the region, the survival of a number of Neanderthal traits in an otherwise `modern’ human indicates that there must have been a significant degree of interbreeding between Iberian Neanderthals and the early anatomically modern humans who first colonised the region.

Until now, the notion that Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans came into contact has been speculative only. Certain tool assemblages dating from around 40,000-30,000 years ago – the Chatelperronian of France, Ulluzian of Italy and others – appear to be technologically `transitional’ between the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. Although it is unclear which species of human made such assemblages, most opinion favours Neanderthals, and the transitional aspects of the technology have been taken by some researchers to imply contact and acculturation between the two species.

The Lagar Velho child resolves the issue in that he constitutes smoking-gun evidence of significant contact, at least in the Iberian peninsula. Presumably many opportunities for social and sexual intercourse between the two species existed along the Ebro frontier and the river valleys of northern Spain. Lagar Velho 1 demonstrates that a simple model of absolute replacement of archaic humans by moderns with little or no interaction – a `blitzkrieg’ – does not hold for this region.

This is not to say the picture was the same everywhere. The pattern of Neanderthal extinction and colonisation by moderns varies considerably from region to region. In some regions overlap appears to have been very brief, in others up to 10,000 years. In view of this it is extremely unlikely that the process was identical throughout Eurasia; in some regions it may have been abrupt, in others prolonged. There is also no necessary connection between the biological processes of Neanderthal extinction and those behavioural changes which are reflected archaeologically in the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition.

Lagar Velho 1 presents fascinating evidence of just one of the many possible ways in which Neanderthals were replaced by modern humans, and underlines the complexity of the Late Pleistocene emergence of our own species.

Dr Paul Pettitt is a Senior Archaeologist at the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and a research fellow of Keble College at Oxford University

A paper on the Lagar Velho boy, The Early Upper Palaeolithic human skeleton from the Abrigo do Lagar Velho (Portugal) and modern human emergence in Iberia, by C Duarte, J Maurcio, P Pettitt, P Souto, E Trinkaus, H Van Der Plicht and J Zilhao (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA) will be published later this year.

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Stonehenge and the terror in the sky

Stonehenge was built to predict meteor showers, argues space researcher Duncan Steel

When, in the 1960s, Stonehenge was interpreted as an eclipse predictor by astronomers Gerald Hawkins and Sir Fred Hoyle, and by amateur enthusiast C.A. `Peter’ Newham, an outcry issued from the archaeological community.

I can see why: the astronomical theories rode roughshod over the evidence on and under the ground. For example, they required that the four Station Stones were part of the original development, whereas these are clearly of a later phase. Archaeologists therefore had reason to be irked because the evidence of their science was being overlooked.

Nevertheless it is clear that a significant fraction of their agitation was provoked by what might be termed discipline-protection: resentment that outsiders should dare to dabble in their bailiwick.

Possibly astronomy played no part in the design and usage of megalithic monuments, although I think not. If astronomical matters were involved, then it behoves us all to work together to try to find the real reason for the huge effort which went into the many henge developments of the era.

I have some expertise in the field of small solar system bodies (meteors, asteroids and comets), and an interest in Stonehenge not only astronomical, but also personal: presently I live in Australia, but I was born in north-east Somerset, not so far from Stonehenge.

I believe that Hoyle, Newham and Hawkins were on the right lines, but that their ideas of tracking the moon and the sun apply only to the later phases of the developments (broadly Stonehenge II and III, after about 2500BC). Their interpretation was that Stonehenge was used to foresee when eclipses were to occur for ritual purposes. Actually I see the significance of charting the sun and the moon, and predicting eclipses, as being more closely tied up with refining a calendar rather than an end in itself. However, that is not my subject here.

My own interpretation of Stonehenge has more to do with meteor showers. What I am suggesting is that the very earliest developments at Stonehenge – the Cursus and Stonehenge I, dating from 3500-2800BC – were used to predict when meteor showers were to occur, those showers being of interest in themselves, as opposed to mere tools to determine the year.

Why would meteor showers – the debris trails from comets – be important to these people? When the sun was formed 4.5 billion years ago, it was about 30 per cent fainter than it is now. Five billion years hence it is expected to be twice as bright as now. Elsewhere in the cosmos processes generally alter on similarly long timescales: if you watched the Andromeda galaxy for a million years it would not change much.

This is not the case for comets and meteors. Comet Hale-Bopp has made its fleeting visit, not to be back for two millennia. Some other bright comet may soon flash into view. The meteor shower emanating from Gemini, which occurs each year around 13 December, was not observed before the 19th century, because at that stage its orbit did not intersect with that of the Earth. Today the Earth experiences about ten annual showers. Meteor showers, however, come and go over epochs of centuries or millennia. That is, on brief timescales, comparable to those of discrete civilizations.

There is no reason to believe that what people saw 5,000 years ago is what we see now. The stars, the planets, the moon and the sun would all look much the same as today, but not the comets and meteors. And those are the phenomena which often worry people most. In 1833, for example, there was a mighty meteor storm seen over the eastern parts of North America. Many hid under their beds whilst others fell to their knees, interpreting it as the sign of the Second Coming and the Apocalypse.

These meteors, the Leonids, are due back on 17 November this year. They have been seen every 33 years since AD902, often literally scaring people to death.

But there is no reason to suspect that the Leonid shower is the most extreme form of meteoric shower which occurs. Astronomers see comets break asunder all the time, spewing out great quantities of debris, whereas the parent of the Leonids (comet Tempel-Tuttle) is quite well-behaved.

There is a principle in natural science which we should consider, that of catastrophism. The fundamental tenet of catastrophism is that infrequent major events dominate the effects of plentiful smaller events. For example, the dearth of great trees in England’s green and pleasant land compared to 20 years back is the result of a few discrete episodes – two hurricanes and Dutch elm disease – rather than a large number of smaller storms and minor arboreal afflictions.

This is the main thing which Charles Darwin got wrong. Influenced by his geologist friend Charles Lyell, Darwin saw biological evolution as slow and gradual. In recent decades evidence has accumulated to sugest that this notion is incorrect: it is unusual major events which dominate, not the minor, gradual alterations. Darwin still holds us back in this way, natural scientists tacitly preferring a gradualistic explanation rather than a catastrophic one. But when you see a river valley, understand that most often it has been spasmodic floods which have shaped it, not the plodding flow which is evident for 99 per cent of the time.

Similarly when I see an extraordinary phenomenon like Stonehenge, I seek an extraordinary explanation. It is simply not the case that such an explanation is unlikely. With various colleagues I have developed a theory that the current interglacial period (the Holocene) is warmer than the long-term norm as a result of a heightened influx of cometary dust. There is much evidence for this, including lunar rocks returned by the Apollo astronauts which indicate that the flux of dust near Earth has been much elevated over the past ten millennia.

The source of this dust we believe is a broken-up giant comet, which has spawned a huge complex of material in the inner solar system including numerous asteroids, meteoroid streams, and one comet, Encke, which is now active (that is, it is liberating sufficient water vapour to produce a bright cloud about itself).

Every so often the swivelling of the orbit of the main stream of debris will bring it around to intersect Earth’s orbit, and then you can expect fireworks. Our tracking of the orbit indicates that great meteor storms will then occur every few years in epochs lasting for a few centuries. There will be pairs of these epochs separated by 300-500 years, followed by a gap of about 2,500-3,000 years before the next pair occurs. These timings fall out from the celestial mechanics, involving some quite complicated calculations.

In this scenario I can account for many aspects of the early developments at Stonehenge, such as the orientations (the approaching stream of material would appear in the sky near where the sun rises at the summer solstice around 3200-3000BC, but closer to due east half a millennium earlier) and the dates (the Cursus in the centuries after 3500BC, Stonehenge I following a few centuries later).

I am happy to play the devil’s advocate, and make further suggestions which many will find outrageous. If we are to progress, we need to consider all possibilities.

Take the numerous long barrows associated with Neolithic sites like Stonehenge. Question: what do they look like from the modern world? Answer: air-raid shelters. Thus, hypothesis for debate: they were air-raid shelters.

What I mean is, imagine that every so often the sky lit up with myriad shooting stars, many large enough to cause percussions shaking the ground (this does happen). You would be able to see the comet-related trail of material approaching in the sky. The long barrows were shelters in which to cower, safe from the terrifying spectacle outside, just as some modern humans hide their heads under the pillow during a lightning storm. If that were your need, what else could you build on Salisbury Plain, given the local materials?

The era of these meteor storms would have been temporary, lasting only through to about 2800BC. Thereafter the interest in the sky was transferred to charting the sun and the moon. The long barrows obtained a revised usage as burial sites, and other barrow forms were developed disconnected from the original purpose.

But eventually the meteor showers came back, with another set of intersections with the Earth starting around 500 BC. Are there any similar `air-raid shelters’ dating from that time? Well, yes. The Iron Age fogous (elaborate souterrains with built-up walls capped with flat slab roofs) of southern Britain, and in particular western Cornwall, have long been a mystery. The purpose usually ascribed to them – food storage – hardly warrants the extreme care with which they were constructed, compared to other dwellings of the period.

Taking this further, how do you react when a low-flying aircraft shakes your windows? By shaking your fist at the sky? Would not the Iron Age Britons have done the same thing, metaphorically-speaking? If the gods had come back again and again to wreak havoc, one tactic (good for the morale if nothing else) would have been some fist-shaking, trying to scare off the celestial apparition.

It seems that some of the great White Horses cut in chalk hillsides date from this era, and might be interpreted as a hostile gesture towards the sky. Let me hypothesize that when the Cerne Abbas Giant is properly dated, we will find that it originated in the last half millennium BC. The message it was designed to convey to the unwelcome visitors from above seems unmistakable.

Dr Duncan Steel published his ideas about Stonehenge in more detail in Natural Catastrophes During Bronze Age Civilizations (BAR 728, 1998). He is the author of Rogue Asteroids and Doomsday Comets (Wiley, 1995), and two books to be published later this year: Eclipse (Headline) on the history and astronomy of eclipses, and Marking Time (Wiley) on the calendar.

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From ancestor cult to divine religion

Gods were first invented in the Bronze Age, argues Mike Parker Pearson

What was the essence of prehistoric religion? How can we understand what people believed about the afterlife in the time before written texts? Were prehistoric beliefs simply `primitive’ versions of modern religions with notions of gods and goddesses?

Recently archaeologists have steered clear of trying to answer these questions. It is unfashionable to consider the nature of ancient religious belief, and some would even argue that it is impossible to make inferences about ancient ideas from material remains alone.

Yet there is one way in which we can explore past societies’ beliefs about the supernatural. It is by studying the way they treated their dead. Philosophers have described death as the `muse of religion’ – the eternal mystery at the core of religion and philosophy. Since that earliest story of the search for immortality, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh first written down around 4,000 years ago, the question of what happens when we die has been at the heart of religious writings.

Many archaeological remains, including some of the most impressive, relate to the treatment of the dead. They provide clues about how past people understood their finite lives in relation to their deaths or, in other words, how they experienced life in the face of death. By examining these tombs, monuments and representations, we can find clues to the state of people’s awareness of death and how it changed. The earliest indication of the human awareness of death, as evidenced by the deliberate burial of dead bodies, is from early modern human burials at Qafzeh and Mugharet es-Skhul in the Near East, from around 100,000 years ago. The exciting recent find of 300,000-200,000-year-old bones of 32 proto-Neanderthals in a deep cave at Atapuerca in Spain raises the possibility that notions of death awareness and associated concepts of the self may be much older than we have realized.

However, I shall concentrate here on the last 10,000 years of our experience. It is the period in which we have built monuments and in which the drive for achievement and permanence often appears to have had religious motivations.

During the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A period (c 10,000-9300BC) in the Near East, the people of Jericho and other settlements buried their dead beneath the floors of the houses in which they lived. Yet they removed the skulls of dead adults and kept them above ground, in caches within their homes. In the subsequent Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (PPNB) period, such skulls were often plastered with a clay face and given cowrie shells for eyes.

This material presencing of the dead among the living was one aspect of a society that seems to have been obsessed with its dead ancestors. Settlements were built and rebuilt on the same spot for generations. As they grew into tell mounds, each village consisted effectively of the living perched on top of the accumulation of clay from houses of the dead. Each tell was a visible marker of a community’s ancestral depth.

It is perhaps not surprising that ancestors were so important to people at the very start of the farming period, for these people were becoming increasingly concerned with the `ancestries’ or rootstock of the domesticated animals and edible plants on which they relied. In these ancestor religions the dead were important perhaps for guaranteeing fertility and for overseeing the fortunes of the living.

It is in the PPNB levels at Jericho and other settlements in the Near East and southeast Europe that clay statuettes first appear in large numbers. In certain areas they are mostly female effigies, giving rise to interpretations of a mother-goddess cult, but in others such as northern Greece the sexes are represented in equal numbers. Followers of the late Marija Gimbutas’s ideas have interpreted these figurines as effigies of a mother-goddess. Yet there are some very good reasons for seeing them as representations of dead individual ancestors.

These include the restriction of representations to adults (similar to the selection of skulls) since pre-sexual children cannot be ancestors; the discovery of statuettes in caches beside human skulls; and the archaeological contexts of figurines, found beneath houses and also in house walls and the joins between houses, placed there perhaps as expressions of household kinship links.

Moreover, the faces of both plastered skulls and figurines were carefully modelled with the exception of the mouth which is generally missing or only weakly represented. This similarity links the two styles and suggests that the statuettes and figurines represented individual ancestors in the same way as the plastered skulls, but in a more symbolic form. The mother-goddess theory is an anachronism – a back-projection of ideas about gods and goddesses in human form derived from later religions. Deity religions – the conception of supernatural forces in human form – first arose with the development of early complex states such as those in Bronze Age Egypt, Mesopotamia and China. There is no convincing evidence for deity religion anywhere before this date.

Ancestors were still regarded as important in Egypt after c 3100BC and Mesopotamia after c 2600BC – figurines continue to be made, but they gradually fade out during the Bronze Age. At the same time, new ideas emerged, when the rulers of these early states enhanced their absolute power by claiming descent from deified founding ancestors.

These rulers evidently expected an afterlife which was a mirror-image of life on earth, where they would live in splendour surrounded by their court. The burials of the Egyptian 1st Dynasty at Abydos and the Mesopotamian royal tombs at Ur provide graphic evidence of the mass sacrifice of courtiers, as if to accompany their dead ruler to the royal court in the other world. In the same way in China, the first royal graves accompanied by mass human sacrifice appear with the Shang Dynasty after c 1400BC, and the concept of immortal superhuman deities was first developed.

Human rulers wished to be seen as the representatives on earth of their deified ancestors, bolstering their autocratic regimes through the eternal rule of heavenly deities. In contrast to the disembodied spirits or forces of earlier times, these deities were now given human form – not surprisingly, human form similar to that of the rulers themselves. Their statues, like those of the rulers, were often larger than life, in clear contrast to the small ancestor figurines of the preceding Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. These and similar religious concepts survived in some parts of the world – for example, in pre-Columbian South and Central America – into the historical period.

In less developed parts of the Neolithic and Bronze Age world, such as Britain and western Europe, the evidence for the nature of prehistoric religion is less clear: we have neither Neolithic figurines, nor Bronze Age statuary. Yet it is possible that a similar conceptual shift – from ancestors to deities – took place here too, evidenced by the transition from the communal, re-usable burial mounds of the Neolithic to the rich leader-burials of the Bronze Age. Today’s `world religions’ – Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam – combine aspects of ancestor and deity cults in syncretic fashion according to place and tradition.

The origins of these religious movements lie largely between 600BC and AD600, among the poor and dispossessed of the ethnic groups engulfed by imperial and state powers. Unlike the deity cults of the early states, these religions were born out of prophets’ and teachers’ promises of salvation and enlightenment for the masses, in which earthly power and wealth provide no advantage for achieving the goal of transcendence of death.

The great monuments of societies following one of the world religions are generally not to collective or individual dead but to the supreme deity or to the central idea of the religion. The remains of the dead are annihilated, disposed of simply, or subsumed within the monuments to the deity/idea. With the new idea of the transcendence of death being open to everyone, the idea itself becomes more important than the individual dead.

Today we live in an increasingly secular age, in which salvation is thought to come about through solutions found in this world rather than the next. We may doubt or reject the notion of transcendence of death. But by looking back on past attempts to transcend death, we can learn to view the world anew and confront our mortality without dogma or denial.

Dr Mike Parker Pearson is Reader in Archaeology at the University of Sheffield. His book, The Archaeology of Death and Burial, will be published by Sutton next month.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999