Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ava of the Highlands (BBC)

From the BBC: "Effort to unlock secrets of 3,700-year-old woman 'Ava'"

Hat tip, Mandy Chamberlin!

When you read the BBC story, don't get wrapped around the axle of periodization.  This is a late Beaker burial, directly carbon dated to 3700 B.P.

It is a particularly interesting burial for a number of reasons.  I'll go by the numbers starting with the news story in the BBC.  As you can tell, this young woman was hyper-brachycephalic bordering on ultra-brachycephalic based on the measurements of archaeologist Maya Hoole, who's managing "The Achavanich Beaker Burial Project". (see website)

The Young Beaker Woman (modified, via The Achavanich Burial Project)

I've previously hypothesized that the already meso- to brachycephalic ethnic Beakers were intensely swaddled as infants using cradle boards, further deforming their heads in some cases.  Comparing the two women of Achavanich (Highlands) and Camino de Yeseras (Madrid) might be a useful place to start (scroll down on this post).

Before preceding, I'll give you my two cents on flatheads.  It is clear to people-not-on-drugs that there is an identifiable ethnic core to the pan-Euro-African Bell Beaker phenomenon and that these people are easily distinguishable from the local substrate, in terms of height, skull characteristics, teeth, toes, and now by ancient DNA, etc.

But it seems that some Beaker heads are also outside 'normal' dimensions, unless they all had some kind of congenital deformity, which is not likely.  That leaves environmental concerns as the likely cause of a flathead like Hoole illustrates for Achavanich girl below.
A Pancake Head! by Maya Hoole (modified, via The Achavanich Burial Project)

Part of why I'm confident Beaker babies were strapped to cradle boards is really fourfold.  The first is the deep paternal ancestry of Beaker men, which quite clearly takes us to North Asia where there is plenty of ethnographic examples on both sides of Beringa.  We can see similar occipital flattening in Mongolian or Navajo babies of varying intensity.

The second question is really about mobility.  Beakerfolk were not 100% copper-wielding, warrior men walking around like roosters.  They were all ages, but more often children and babies.
So when we talk about Beaker mobility we must remember who is mobile.  You will remember a post recently on disabled Beaker folk and you may remember that even the Amesbury archer was crippled and may have needed a walking cane since one of his knees was blown out.  We can at least solve the baby mobility problem.

Navajo Woman and Child (Commons)

Thirdly, Europeans have a long and rich tradition of border-line child abuse swaddling.  It's only been in the last century or two that old school swaddling has died out, although its still customary to tightly wrap an infant in blankets.  Really it comes down to cradle boards, intensity and folk beliefs which have varied in intensity.

Finally, intentional head deformation, as practiced on every continent by every people since the Paleolithic, aims to lengthen the skull.  Intentional skull deformation is often very dramatic and highly differentiated, not something requiring giant calipers. 

Lapp Family (UMD Sweden)
This leaves us with an elegant solution, that the folk beliefs of the Beaker culture encouraged binding infants to cradle boards to include the head.  Mongolians did this to increase the child's height and 'make them strong and upright'.  Europeans generally believed it helped build the character and keep them out of trouble.

If this was the case, it could complicate other aspects of research though.  One is that cradling has been linked to an increase in infant hip dysplasia and the malformation of the acetabulum.  These types of patterns may have been (instead) used to indicate frequent horseback riding in Germany.  I don't know if developmental and adult deformities are easily separated or not.

Now moving on to this oddly decorated beaker.  Some of it seems to have some Grooved Ware character with the palm leaf pattern.  It's considered remarkable by Hoole for the number of techniques used to create it. 
The Clarke N4 Short Neck Beaker (modified, via The Achavanich Burial Project)

And now for one last comment on the burial.  Within in rock-cut pit there was placed a cow scapula, which is the shoulder blade.  There is no mention or expectation that it was ever notched, however this particular bone was a common burial artifact among the 'Sea Peoples' with connections to Cyprus, among others.  I believe cow spatulas are also found in Iberia; I'll have to research this further.  Perforated cow spatulas are also found in Northern China.

It has been variously proposed that notched and un-notched scapulas were musical instruments (David S. Reese, 2002), either a harp body or possibly a sound board like a turkey slate*, except for musical purposes.  
A Sea Peoples Scapula
A little of topic, this website of the Sea Peoples epic, has a pretty good breakdown of Sea People groups. 

Overall, there's quite a bit of Bronze Age activity around Caithness, especially at Achavanich.

* a turkey slate is load friction based soundboard used for hunting turkeys in North America


  1. Really interesting post. But the first critical question it all raises in my mind is how one is meant to pronounce Achavanich. I pondered whether it might be Basque since the first geographical reference "Highlands" didn't strike me as definitive, and it came right before a reference to Madrid. I quickly realized no, it must be Slavic ... I finally clicked through to the link and discovered it was Scottish, then spent about a half hour looking for pronunciation, even turning up a bilingual English/Gaelic text on placenames in Caithness. Alas, "spell it like it sounds" doesn't seem to apply to Scottish Gaelic. I'm assuming throaty ch's, but I have a suspicion that 'v', derived from an m in the longer phrase that it comes from, may be one of those odd Scottish things that outsiders have to scratch their chins at.

    And hopefully you recognize I'm just making fun of myself, not complaining. I don't read out loud, but I still find it hard to read things if I don't know the pronunciation. I end up focused rolling the word on my tongue (silently) and lose track of the substance. Now I'll go back and try to take in everything else in the post.

  2. Do you choose the Navajo for a reason. I believe cradle-boarding was broadly practiced by Native Americans, but the Navajo by one theory are part of a later migration. Perhaps you've chosen them to imply that the Beaker connection is particularly related to Na Dene, rather than broadly to even older North Asian customs that might have flowed out of North Asia 8-10,000 years earlier. Perhaps even a connection to the hypothesized "back-migration from Beringia"?:

  3. I used Navajo as an example, but you are correct, it's found throughout the Americas. proper swaddling is/was pretty common in North Eurasia. I assume the epicenter is among ancient mobile populations of North Asia.

    The genetic connection is more likely this Ancestral North Eurasian going back to the Pleistocene, so by this I mean something that is a bit more removed but continuing certain cultural and social practices.

  4. It would appear that you're the victim of Autocorrect. From your article:

    "... I believe cow spatulas are also found in Iberia..."

    Although, I admit, cow spatulas is a hell of a mental image.

    1. Ha ha. Cows that can flip their own burgers. Another for the autocorrect files.

  5. Hallo Ryan,
    I'd say Ach (combination of 'ac'tual and lo'ch'); a (a long sound like in 'apple'); van (as in the vehicle) and ich (combination if tri'ck' and lo'ch').
    But that's just me.
    Maya Hoole

  6. Hi Ryan,

    I'm a Gaelic speaker who was brought up in Caithness. Achavanich is the Anglicised spelling of the Gaelic Achadh a’ Mhanaich, the field of the monk. So, ch as in loch, the v is nasal (coming from an m) and stress, I'd say, on the first syllable of the second word. Unfortunately I don't believe that there are any native Gaelic speakers left there to confirm the exact pronunciation with.

    Cheers, Alasdair