Wednesday, August 13, 2014

New Chalcolithic DNA!

Mitochondrial DNA from El Mirador Cave (Atapuerca, Spain) Reveals the Heterogeneity of Chalcolithic Populations, PLOSONE, Gomez-Sanchez et al, 2014 

El Mirador bone gallery (Gomez et al, 2014)

I'll go ahead and give a little background to what all this means, at least to me.  As you read, keep two things in mind.  1)  These individuals PCA practically within the same hula-hoop as individuals in modern North Iraq and Armenia.  2)  The mtdna haplogroups show something not typical of contemporaneous, culturally Bell Beaker graves.

Before the emergence of the Bell Beaker Culture (BBC) in Southwestern Iberia (where it appears first), the Iberian Peninsula was already effectively in its Chalcolithic.  Pre-Bell Beaker Iberia was a diverse place.

One interesting group, little understood, was the Almerian Culture, which may be related to a few other poorly defined cultures.  These people seem to have had connections with the Syrian highlands, but not many connections with Cardial or other Neolithic peoples.  They may have spread up the Atlantic coast, but they may not have been a single cohesive population either.  They may have spawned similar cultures in British Islands, Sardinia and the tip of France.  They also remained distinct from the Megalithic peoples that had probably originated from North Africa earlier in the Neolithic.

These "Almerians" did a number of very Near Eastern things.  They built Tholoi, worshipped the same "Eye Idols" and had a very similar material culture.  Guttural singing and good acoustics may have been important to them. Some of the elephant ivory they used were imports of the Syrian Elephant.

As one comparison, and Iberia occulo and a Syrian one:

Apontamentos de Arqueologia e Património – 8 / 2012

Eye Idol, Northern Syria
(Found within a context dedicated to Ninhursanga "mother of the mountain", also known as "Mami")

The authors speculate that these maternal lineages may be associated with a Megalithic substrate, and they may well be, but I don't see any evidence for that in North Africa (as I assume Megalithism entered Western Europe from there).  I'd guess that what we are looking at in the haplogroup chart below is something uniquely pointing to a more recent maritime migration from the Northern Middle East.

I'm surprised that the El Mirador people PCA cluster so close to Rossen and other similar Neolithic groups.  But there may be reasons for this that need further exploration.  It may be that what El Mirador and Rossen have in common is what they don't have by comparision.  In other words, Middle Neolithic people and Non-Beaker Iberians may not have the components indicative of later PIE migrations, whereas almost all modern humans in the region have some or a lot.  So maybe they are not that similar.  I don't see any reason to think they would be, either by haplogroup frequency or culture, because they seem very different.

One problem I see though, is that in comparing Rossen and later Baalberg, both had intrusive elements and may not have been unified ethnic cultures.  The few individuals tested to date may not be an accurate representation of the population.  Just food for thought.

I don't know what the material culture of the El Mirador people were; it may have been something typical of the Meseta at that time.  Whether or not these people were Almerian culturally, so to speak, is really irrelevant.  As far as I'm concerned, somebody, somewhere in Iberia at that time had recently immigrated from the Near East in the 4th millenium based on material culture.  Someone's dna should show this.
Previous mitochondrial DNA analyses on ancient European remains have suggested that the current distribution of haplogroup H was modeled by the expansion of the Bell Beaker culture (ca 4,500–4,050 years BP) out of Iberia during the Chalcolithic period. However, little is known on the genetic composition of contemporaneous Iberian populations that do not carry the archaeological tool kit defining this culture. Here we have retrieved mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences from 19 individuals from a Chalcolithic sample from El Mirador cave in Spain, dated to 4,760–4,200 years BP and we have analyzed the haplogroup composition in the context of modern and ancient populations. Regarding extant African, Asian and European populations, El Mirador shows affinities with Near Eastern groups. In different analyses with other ancient samples, El Mirador clusters with Middle and Late Neolithic populations from Germany, belonging to the Ro¨ssen, the Salzmu¨nde and the Baalberge archaeological cultures but not with contemporaneous Bell Beakers. Our analyses support the existence of a common genetic signal between Western and Central Europe during the Middle and Late Neolithic and
points to a heterogeneous genetic landscape among Chalcolithic groups.


  1. Thanks for mentioning this. On one side it is not the least surprising that the Atapuerca (Mirador) Chalcolithic farmers, whose autosomal DNA (Dasakali 2014) is Italian-like and not too different from other ancient European farmers (from either Cardium or Danubian contexts), have so much "Neolithic" mtDNA (only 25% H, lots of T2 and X, surely also J, K and U3 should be considered in this group) and are therefore so "pre-modern".

    On the other side, it is striking that they are so extremely pre-modern, being so close to the Basque Country and Portugal, whose ancient DNA is much more modern-like (or even hyper-modern in the case of Portugal, as happens with some Central European Bell Beaker peoples - by this I mean particularly lots of H but also more U than what is found at El Mirador).

    Notice please that Atapuerca is near Burgos, not far from the Basque Country and right on the St. James' Way, which was also a Megalithic and Bell Beaker cultural (trade?) route. In this sense one would expect that they would be genetically closer to Basques than to Mediterranean Ancient Farmers but nope. This probably underlines that the Ebro Valley was a major vector of Neolithic settlement in Iberia, stemming from the Mediterranean shores, where similarly "pre-modern" aDNA pools have been found in both Early Neolithic (Catalonia) and Chalcolithic contexts (Languedoc). And it also underlines that there must have been a major backflow from the West, something also detected in Central Europe.

    As for the "oculados" ("eyed") idols, I'll write a separate comment.

    1. As far as the Basques go, being hyper modern makes sense since the Ebro is o e of the ten major drainages into the Mediterranean. Its also comparitively fertile. Also, as mentioned in the paper, this area and the Nor hern Meseta probably have two distinct Beaker Colo izations and a back migration from the main co tinent.
      Undoubtedly, the Ebro was a target of Maritime Beakers and modern Basque have what I would consider strong connections with probable haplogroups. I'm puzzled by Basque mythology and language though. I would place e it in the Near East and certainly Basque haplogroups don't preclude that, at least M269-P312 probably originated near there.

      As far as Almerians, the culture itself was in s. Spain, Portugal but it is probably related to others. Look up "The Folkton Drums" of the UK grooved Ware (or incipient beaker with grooved influence). Clear connection with Spain artistically (eye brows, lines on cheeks, big occulo eyes)

    2. Basically, the results add another layer of complexity to the region

    3. Actually the Ebro area is relatively low in Bell Beaker presence. The greatest concentrations of BB in Iberia are in the following five areas:
      → Estremadura (Portugal, VNSP civilization)
      → Almería province (Los Millares civilization)
      → Catalonia (probably with links to SE France, particularly towards the coast)
      → Alicante/Valencia provinces (a core Cardium area)
      → Ciempozuelos area south of Madrid (which later develops its own regional style and probably influenced much of the surrounding Central Plateau)

      The findings in the Ebro basin are all in the Mid-Upper area and surely related to the Basque Country (which has scattered BB findings all around) and a "route" south of the river through central Aragon (I count only five such findings in a 1980s map).

      The area of plate idols in Alentejo is pretty much lacking Bell Beaker (just a few findings), although it was important in the development of Dolmenism first and later in that of tholoi tombs (often in the same social-ritual contexts: for example Perdigoes enclosure has two dolmens to which later was added a tholos tomb).

      I do not think we can talk of "Bell Beaker" colonization in SW Europe: bell beaker always appears in older locally rooted contexts. It could be the case in Central Europe but not in SW Europe, I understand. But I guess that there could be exceptions. This can only be determined studying the various geographies case by case.

      I'll see what I can find on the British stuff you mention. I know that grooved ware has been compared to Epicardial pottery but not sure how solid this relation may be. I'm unfamiliar with oculados in Britain and it'll be interesting to learn about them for sure.

    4. OK, I took a quick Google image peek to those British references you mention. Certainly the drum's iconography reminds a lot to what we can find in Chalcolithic Iberia and the grooved pottery has both elements of coincidence with Iberian Epicardial (particularly La Almagra pottery, typical of Andalusia and Portugal) and with the triangle/zig-zag decorations we find both in the Iberian plate idols as well as in many Bell Beaker variants (the International style particularly). All that makes it very interesting. Are you planning to write about them?

    5. I am not planning anything in the near future. If you do write on Grooved origins I'd re commend looking at pinnate motifs as well that could be a connection with Acacia Leaf motifs. It could also have strong mythological connections with a mother goddess/ birth. The majority view is that Groove has origins in Orkney but this is not accepted by everyone including g me. There is also a recent paper looking into Groove contents is. Beer, milk. Etc.

    6. I forgot to add, there is a very recent paper looking into pinnate patterns on grooved pottery, challenging the basket theory

  2. I am admittedly perplex by the "oculado" plate idol from Syria you show. It is the first time ever I heard of such items existing in West Asia, so I would appreciate more context (exact location, chronology, is it an isolate finding?) in order to be able to evaluate it properly.

    The similitude with the plate idols from SW Iberia (rather than the Almeriense, where "oculado" iconography does exist but not plate idols) is indeed striking. But the devil is usually in the details and I lack of any such detailed information, so one could well speculate on an offering by a Western traveler, maybe in search of ivory and other trade goods, would it be an isolate finding.

    I have argued that the "oculado" iconography is probably pan-Mediterranean (and even found in India) and surely represents an owl, being the symbol of some ancient goddess (later known as Pallas-Athena, it seems). But the plate idol format seems a bit too much.

    Notice please that, while the tholos concept is known in the Upper Euphrates and Cyprus before Iberia, there is a gap of some 1000 years between these two phenomenons and also tholoi were not used as tombs in Asia but rather as homes, temples and workshops. So a lot of people have argued for an independent development in Southern Iberia or at most a very obscure link to West Asia. The plate idol of Northern Syria would appear to breach this lack of obvious relationship but, as I have said, without further detail it is impossible to evaluate.

    In any case, I don't make any sense of linking Atapuerca (Mirador) with these Southern Iberian Chalcolithic phenomenons. First of all because it is a Northern Iberian site and none of these elements are present in Atapuerca (dolmens instead abound, as do to some extent Bell Beaker elements), secondly because the genetics found here are so typically Neolithic that the obvious link is to Cardium Pottery culture (and in general Mainline European Neolithic of Thessalian origins), not anything that might (or not) have arrived later from West Asia.

    1. Oops, they say that El Mirador lacks Bell Beaker archaeology. I must say I am surprised (I believe that some BB has been found in Atapuerca, maybe in some other sub-site?) but I must take their word for it.

    2. I'll have to keep my comments brief since I'm using a cellphone, but check out this paper:
      "Some reflections about an Alabaster stele from Mari (Syria) and its possible connections to the wester Mediterranean". Schuhmacher 2013

      There's a few other papers as well. I've spent some time in comparitive mythology (my grandmother taught for 40 years). I would feel comfortable saying " Mari" (Basque mythology) is identical and recent ly derived from a goddesses originating outside n the upper reaches of the Ceyhan.

    3. I found the paper and also some info on the other only other known case of similar plate idols from West Asia, apparently dated to the earliest occupation of Assur, c. 2500 BCE.

      The study suggests a c. 3000 BCE date for the Mari plate, however this is highly speculative and the actual radiocarbon date is also from c. 2500 BCE. Hence both findings seem of similar date and roughly belong to the same area (Northern Mesopotamia).

      There are elements that are atypical from the Portuguese plates, namely the stags, but otherwise the similitude is clear. However the Portuguese plates seem older (3500-2600 BCE). Therefore and with due caution I am tempted to think a West → East cultural flow in this case, whose impact was very limited in any case. Not everything had to go from East to West in the Ancient Mediterranean. A possible explanation could be trade contacts between Iberia and the Levant.

      I would say that Mari is a Christian name (it has been documented in the apparent family tomb of Jesus, being most rare among Ancient Hebrews, what implies that the actual mother of Jesus bore that name and not Myriam), whatever the precursors it may have in West Asian history. In the context of Christian-Pagan semi-synchretism (similar to American Santería and such) the Basque Mother Goddess adopted this name and surely melted with the Catholic cult of Mary, which is much more important than anything theological or biblical for the popular strata, not just among Basques but everywhere (in other words: Catholicism is a shallowly judaized Pagan cult of the Mother Goddess, and this may well apply to other Christian churches, although I'm not that familiar). My impression is that Mari had another name (or even names) earlier and that this may well have been Gaia, which is a word that has full and relevant meaning in Basque: (1) matter, substance; (2) potential, capability (gai izan: to be able, ezkongai(-a): bride or groom, etc.).

      There's a goddess Mari also in Dravidian India, I learned recently, and did not surprise me the least because I think that many such "coincidences" (best expressed in the monotheistic sexualized couple: Mari-Sugaar, Gaia-Eros, Sakhti-Shiva, Yin-Yang...) are just the Neolithic religion, so to say, stemming probably from West Asia (an alternative explanation could relate them to the mysterious expansion of Dolmenic Megalithism eastwards). This faith, so popularly rooted that, as I said before, persists even in the oh-so-Patriarchal Christianity, somehow managed to survive in blended forms through the ages and subsequent layers.

      I am unclear on why do you claim to track these ideas to precisely the Upper Ceyhan river. If you're thinking in Halafian Culture, I'd think on first sight that the related cultures that arrived to the Balcans (Vinca-Dimini) and did not extend too deep into Europe (although may have affected Italy in the late Chalcolithic), actually seem more "Patriarchal" than the earliest Neolithic layer, showing the first representations of what seems to be a male god (which I would think Kronos).

      My personal opinion on the religious layers of Europe, largely based Hesiod's Theogony, is as follows:
      1. Neolithic layer (divine couple, Gaia-Eros):
      2. Sky god surely related to astronomical practices: Uranus/Urtzi. As you may know Urtzi left no mythology among Basques but did leave weekdays' and meteorological vocabulary, being mentioned as the name of the Christian sky-god in Medieval texts (so it is assumed that subsequent sky-gods were assimilated to him).
      3. Kronos, surely of Halafian/Mesopotamian roots. Never reached the West.
      4. Indoeuropean gods.
      5. Judeo-Christian trinity.

      My opinion in any case.

    4. Note, if I recall correctly, the name documented in that intriguing Ancient Jewish tomb, which seems to be that of Jesus and some of his relatives, is Maria, not Mari. Close enough in any case, as Mari is a common abbreviation of Maria in all Iberia.

  3. Semi off topic: this may interest you: ancient copper metallurgy in the North Iberian Plateau:

    Mostly the author seems to find a transition from an informal pre-Beaker copper metallurgy to a, less common, but more "controlled" metallurgy in the Beaker period. There's only one Beaker metallurgy site in all the region (compared with several in the previous period) but it's a true Beaker tomb. The author also indicates that Beakers are not related to mining areas as such anyhow but rather to smelting or trade in areas distant from them.

    Just a detail but I know you treasure every bit of Beaker information very much.

    1. Thanks for sending this. I appreciate it. As you know I'm very interested in this time frame in this region.