DNA evidence shows surprise cultural connections between Britain and Europe 8,000 years ago
Researchers found evidence for a variety of wheat at a submerged archaeological site off the south coast of England, 2,000 years before the introduction of farming in the UK.
The team argue that the introduction of farming is usually regarded as a defining historic moment for almost all human communities leading to the development of societies that underpin the modern world.
Published in the journal Science, the researchers suggest that the most plausible explanation for the wheat reaching the site is that Mesolithic Britons maintained social and trade networks spreading across Europe.
These networks might have been assisted by land bridges that connected the south east coast of Britain to the European mainland, facilitating exchanges between hunters in Britain and farmers in southern Europe.
Called Einkorn, the wheat was common in Southern Europe at the time it was present at the site in Southern England – located at Bouldnor Cliff.
The einkorn DNA was collected from sediment that had previously formed the land surface, which was later submerged due to melting glaciers.
The work was led by Dr Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, in collaboration with co-leads Professor Vincent Gaffney of the University of Bradford and Professor Mark Pallen of Warwick Medical School, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, the University of Birmingham and the University of St. Andrews.
Dr Allaby, Associate Professor at the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences, argues that the einkorn discovery indicates that Mesolithic Britain was less insular than previously understood and that inhabitants were interacting with Neolithic southern Europeans:
“8,000 years ago the people of mainland Britain were leading a hunter-gatherer existence, whilst at the same time in southern Europeans farming was gradually spreading across Europe.
“Common throughout Neolithic Southern Europe, einkorn is not found elsewhere in Britain until 2,000 years after the samples found at Bouldnor Cliff. For the einkorn to have reached this site there needs to have been contact between Mesolithic Britons and Neolithic farmers far across Europe.
“The land bridges provide a plausible facilitation of this contact. As such, far from being insular Mesolithic Britain was culturally and possibly physically connected to Europe.
“The role of these simple British hunting societies, in many senses, puts them at the beginning of the introduction of farming and, ultimately, the changes in the economy that lead to the modern world”.
“The novel ancient DNA approach we used gave us a jump in sensitivity allowing us to find many of the components of this ancient landscape”
Commenting on the research’s findings Professor Vincent Gaffney, research co-lead and Chair in Landscape Archaeology at the University of Bradford, said:
“This find is the start of a new chapter in British and European history. Not only do we now realise that the introduction of farming was far more complex than previously imagined. It now seems likely that the hunter-gather societies of Britain, far from being isolated were part of extensive social networks that traded or exchanged exotic foodstuffs across much of Europe.
“The research also demonstrates that scientists and archaeologists can now analyse genetic material preserved deep within the sediments of the lost prehistoric landscapes stretching between Britain and Europe. This not only tells us more about the introduction of farming into Britain, but also about the societies that lived on the lost coastal plains for hundreds of thousands of years.
“The use of ancient DNA from sediments also opens the door to new research on the older landscapes off the British Isles and coastal shelves across the world”
Co-lead Professor Mark Pallen, leader of the Pallen Group at the University of Warwick’s Medical School, explains how the researchers employed a metagenomic approach to study the einkorn DNA:
“We chose to use a metagenomics approach in this research even though this has not commonly been used for environmental and ancient DNA research. This means we extracted and sequenced the entire DNA in the sample, rather than targeted organism-specific barcode sequences. From this we then homed in on the organisms of interest only when analysing DNA sequences”.
The research builds on the work of the Maritime Archaeology Trust, who also collected the sediment samples from the site. The Trust’s Director, Garry Momber, commented:
“Of all the projects I have worked on, Bouldnor Cliff has been the most significant. Work in the murky waters of the Solent has opened up an understanding of the UK’s formative years in a way that we never dreamed possible.
“The material remains left behind by the people that occupied Britain as it was finally becoming an island 8,000 years ago, show that these were sophisticated people with technologies thousands of years more advanced than previously recognised. The DNA evidence corroborates the archaeological evidence and demonstrates a tangible link with the continent that appears to have become severed when Britain became an island”.
The research is published in a Science paper entitled: ‘Sedimentary DNA from a submerged site reveals wheat in the British Isles 8,000 years ago’.
The precise dating of ancient charcoal found near a skull is helping reveal a unique period in prehistory
The key to addressing this, as well as other important issues, is precisely determining the age of the skull. A combination of dating methods, one of them performed by Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, head of the Weizmann Institute’s D-REAMS (DANGOOR Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry) laboratory, has made it possible to define the period of time that the cave was occupied and thus the skull’s age.
The combined dating provides evidence that Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis could have lived side by side in the area.
The Manot Cave, a natural limestone formation, had been sealed for some 15,000 years. It was discovered by a bulldozer clearing the land for development, and the first to find the partial skull, which was sitting on a ledge, were spelunkers exploring the newly-opened cave.
Five excavation seasons uncovered a rich deposit, with stone tools and stratified occupation levels covering a period of time from at least 55,000 to 27,000 years ago.
Dating the skull presented a number of difficulties. “Because it was already removed from the layer where it was presumably deposited,” says Dr. Elisabetta Boaretto, “we had to look for clues to tell us where and when it belonged in the setting of the archaeological record in the cave.”
The age of the skull was first determined to be 54.7 thousand years old by a technique known as the uranium-thorium method, which was applied to the thin mineral deposit on the skull. But the estimated possible error in that type of method is plus or minus 5.5 thousand years. To obtain independent confirmation of the date, a different type of dating was required, e.g., radiocarbon dating.
To narrow down the possible range of the skull’s age and determine when the skull’s owner had lived in the cave, the archaeological team led by Prof. Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University, Dr. Ofer Marder of Ben Gurion University and Dr. Omry Barzilai of the Israel Antiquities Authority turned to Dr. Boaretto. She and her team participated in the excavation of the cave and applied radiocarbon dating to carefully selected charcoal remains, so that the whole cave, and thus the timing of human occupation, was mapped.
The agreement between the two methods – carbon and uranium-thorium – provided the necessary support for the “correction” in the original uranium-thorium dating of the skull, which then helped fix the true age of the skull at around 55,000 years.
The date and shape of the Manot Cave skull provides some intriguing evidence that humans and Neanderthals might have interbred sometime during the human trek out of Africa, most likely as the former passed through the Middle East before spreading out north and east.
The 55,000-year-old partial skull is the first evidence of a human residing in the region at the same time as Neanderthals, whose remains have been found at several nearby sites. Archaeologists are now searching for more evidence of ancient human habitation in the cave. If, indeed, the mixing between humans and Neanderthals took place in this area, it would suggest that the owner of the skull and his kin may have been the ancestors of all modern non-Africans.
Archaeologists open the mysterious lead coffin found buried just feet from the former grave of King Richard III
This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of the people of medieval Leicester.’- Mat Morris, archaeological lead, University of Leicester
A mysterious lead coffin found close to the site of Richard III’s hastily dug grave at the Grey Friars friary has been opened and studied by experts from the University of Leicester.
The coffin was discovered inside a much larger limestone sarcophagus during a second excavation of the site, in August 2013 – one year after the remains of the former King of England were unearthed. Richard III will be reinterred at Leicester Cathedral this month (March) after his mortal remains are taken from the University of Leicester on Sunday 22 March.
Inside the lead coffin, archaeologists found the skeleton of an elderly woman, who academics believe could have been an early benefactor of the friary – as radiocarbon dating shows she might have been buried not long after the church was completed in 1250 (although analysis shows her death could have taken place as late as 1400).
The high status female was in one of 10 graves discovered in the grounds of the medieval complex, including that of Richard III, six of which were left undisturbed. Those that were examined were all found to have female remains.
Grey Friars site director Mathew Morris, who led the dig said: “Although it might seem unusual that Richard III is the only male skeleton found inside the Grey Friars church, the other four skeletons all being female, it must be remembered that we have only excavated five of ten identified graves in the church’s chancel with the potential for hundreds more burials elsewhere inside the church, the other friary buildings and outside in the cemetery.
“Excavations of other monastic cemeteries have found ratios ranging from 1:3 to 1:20 woman to men buried, with urban monastic cemeteries typically having greater numbers of women buried in them than rural sites.
“In Leicester, ULAS’s excavation of the medieval parish church of St Peter (today situated beneath the John Lewis store in Leicester’s Highcross retail quarter) found that the burial of men and women inside the church was broadly equal.
“Statistically, the sample is too small to draw any conclusions to the significance of so many women at Grey Friars. After all, if we carried out more excavations it is possible that we could find that these are the only four women buried in the church. Richard III would certainly not have been the only male buried here during the friary’s 300 year history and historic records list at least three other men buried in the church.
What stands out more is the contrast between the care and attention taken with these burials – large, neatly dug graves with coffins – and the crudeness of Richard III’s grave. The more we examine it, the clearer it becomes how atypical Richard III’s burial really was.”
The lead coffin, with an inlaid crucifix, the location of her burial in presbytery of the friary’s church (possibly close to the high altar) meant that she had a special significance to the holy Catholic order.
The discovery is the first example of an intact medieval stone coffin to be unearthed in Leicester during modern excavations.
Mathew Morris added: “The stone sarcophagus was a tapered box carved from a single block of limestone. Inside, the wider end was curved, creating a broad head niche.
“Unfortunately, the stone lid did not properly fit the coffin allowing water to get inside, and its immense weight had badly cracked the sarcophagus, meaning it could not be lifted intact.
“However, inside the inner lead coffin was undamaged except for a hole at the foot end of the casket where the lead had decayed and collapsed inward exposing the skeleton’s feet.
“This is the first stone coffin in Leicester to be excavated using modern archaeological practices.
“This makes it a unique discovery which will provide important new insights into the lives of the people of medieval Leicester.”
Of the other nine sets of remains found at the Grey Friars, during the second excavation, three more were exhumed by University archaeologists, and six left undisturbed.
Two graves inside the choir – where Richard III was found – contained wooden coffins and inside were two females aged between 40 and 50-years-old.
Radiocarbon dating shows there is a 95 per cent probability that they died between 1270 and 1400.
Osteological examinations found that one of the women had a possible congenital hip dislocation which forced her to walk with a crutch.
The other was found to have lived a life of hard physical labour – regularly using her arms and legs to lift heavy weights.
And she was not alone.
A fourth female skeleton, which had been disturbed, was also thought to have believed to had led a life of hard physical work.
She is believed to have died in her early to mid-20s.
Analysis of the three intact sets of female remains – including the lady in the lead coffin – show that all of the women had a highly-varied, protein-rich diet including large amounts of sea fish.
A diverse diet like this would indicate that they would have been wealthy, and were able to consume expensive foods like game, meat and fish.
“Analysis of Skeleton 4 shows that she had a life of hard physical work, frequently using her arms and legs to lift and support weight. It is interesting then that she is buried in an area of the church which would have typically been reserved for wealthy benefactors and people of elevated social status.
“Her presence in this area might suggest that the friary’s main source of donations came from the town’s middle-classes, merchants and tradespeople who were probably of more modest means, and worked for a living.”
There is a small clue as to who is buried at the site, which is in Leicester city centre, just a few yards from Leicester Cathedral where Richard III will be reinterred in March.
But not enough information remains to say with any accuracy whether the records relate to any of the female skeletons found by Mathew and the team.
Documents dating back to the time of the burials – about 700-years – name a lady called Emma, who was married to John of Holt.
In September of that year, the Bishop of Lincoln issued an indulgence granting 20-days off Purgatory for anyone who would say ‘a Pater and a Ave for the soul of Emma, wife of John of Holt, whose body is buried in the Franciscan church in Leicester’.
However, little is known about her, including what she looked like, her age at death or where in the friary church she was buried.
Mathew said: “We know little about her and a lack of fundamental information, such as her age at death, what she did for a living, what she looked like or where in the church she was buried, coupled with no known descendants who can provide a DNA sample, make it impossible to say for certain whether one of these skeletons is that of Emma, or indeed anyone else. Sadly, they will forever remain anonymous.”
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