Past Lives

Kevin Lewis

June 27, 2020

A dynastic elite in monumental Neolithic society
Lara Cassidy et al.
Nature, 18 June 2020, Pages 384–388


The nature and distribution of political power in Europe during the Neolithic era remains poorly understood. During this period, many societies began to invest heavily in building monuments, which suggests an increase in social organization. The scale and sophistication of megalithic architecture along the Atlantic seaboard, culminating in the great passage tomb complexes, is particularly impressive. Although co-operative ideology has often been emphasised as a driver of megalith construction1, the human expenditure required to erect the largest monuments has led some researchers to emphasize hierarchy — of which the most extreme case is a small elite marshalling the labour of the masses. Here we present evidence that a social stratum of this type was established during the Neolithic period in Ireland. We sampled 44 whole genomes, among which we identify the adult son of a first-degree incestuous union from remains that were discovered within the most elaborate recess of the Newgrange passage tomb. Socially sanctioned matings of this nature are very rare, and are documented almost exclusively among politico-religious elites — specifically within polygynous and patrilineal royal families that are headed by god-kings. We identify relatives of this individual within two other major complexes of passage tombs 150 km to the west of Newgrange, as well as dietary differences and fine-scale haplotypic structure (which is unprecedented in resolution for a prehistoric population) between passage tomb samples and the larger dataset, which together imply hierarchy. This elite emerged against a backdrop of rapid maritime colonization that displaced a unique Mesolithic isolate population, although we also detected rare Irish hunter-gatherer introgression within the Neolithic population.

Extreme climate after massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE and effects on the late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom
Joseph McConnell et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


The assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE triggered a power struggle that ultimately ended the Roman Republic and, eventually, the Ptolemaic Kingdom, leading to the rise of the Roman Empire. Climate proxies and written documents indicate that this struggle occurred during a period of unusually inclement weather, famine, and disease in the Mediterranean region; historians have previously speculated that a large volcanic eruption of unknown origin was the most likely cause. Here we show using well-dated volcanic fallout records in six Arctic ice cores that one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the past 2,500 y occurred in early 43 BCE, with distinct geochemistry of tephra deposited during the event identifying the Okmok volcano in Alaska as the source. Climate proxy records show that 43 and 42 BCE were among the coldest years of recent millennia in the Northern Hemisphere at the start of one of the coldest decades. Earth system modeling suggests that radiative forcing from this massive, high-latitude eruption led to pronounced changes in hydroclimate, including seasonal temperatures in specific Mediterranean regions as much as 7 °C below normal during the 2 y period following the eruption and unusually wet conditions. While it is difficult to establish direct causal linkages to thinly documented historical events, the wet and very cold conditions from this massive eruption on the opposite side of Earth probably resulted in crop failures, famine, and disease, exacerbating social unrest and contributing to political realignments throughout the Mediterranean region at this critical juncture of Western civilization.

A Massive, Late Neolithic Pit Structure associated with Durrington Walls Henge
Vincent Gaffney et al.
Internet Archaeology, June 2020


A series of massive geophysical anomalies, located south of the Durrington Walls henge monument, were identified during fluxgate gradiometer survey undertaken by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project (SHLP). Initially interpreted as dewponds, these data have been re-evaluated, along with information on similar features revealed by archaeological contractors undertaking survey and excavation to the north of the Durrington Walls henge. Analysis of the available data identified a total of 20 comparable features, which align within a series of arcs adjacent to Durrington Walls. Further geophysical survey, supported by mechanical coring, was undertaken on several geophysical anomalies to assess their nature, and to provide dating and environmental evidence. The results of fieldwork demonstrate that some of these features, at least, were massive, circular pits with a surface diameter of 20m or more and a depth of at least 5m. Struck flint and bone were recovered from primary silts and radiocarbon dating indicates a Late Neolithic date for the lower silts of one pit. The degree of similarity across the 20 features identified suggests that they could have formed part of a circuit of large pits around Durrington Walls, and this may also have incorporated the recently discovered Larkhill causewayed enclosure. The diameter of the circuit of pits exceeds 2km and there is some evidence that an intermittent, inner post alignment may have existed within the circuit of pits. One pit may provide evidence for a recut; suggesting that some of these features could have been maintained through to the Middle Bronze Age. Together, these features represent a unique group of features related to the henge at Durrington Walls, executed at a scale not previously recorded.

Marking the sacral landscape of a north Arabian oasis: A sixth-millennium BC monumental stone platform and surrounding burials
Olivia Munoz et al.
Antiquity, June 2020, Pages 601-621


Prehistoric stone structures are prominent and well-studied in the Levantine desert margins. In northern Arabia, however, such structures have received less attention. This article presents the results of investigations of a 35m-long stone platform, first constructed in the mid sixth millennium BC, overlooking the oasis of Dûmat al-Jandal in northern Saudi Arabia. Excavation of the platform has yielded bioarchaeological and cultural remains, along with evidence for several phases of construction and intermittent use down to the first millennium BC. Analysis of the platform and nearby tombs highlights the persistent funerary and ritual use of this area over millennia, illuminating nomadic pastoralist lifeways in prehistoric Arabia.

Complex mortuary dynamics in the Upper Paleolithic of the decorated Grotte de Cussac, France
Sacha Kacki et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, forthcoming


The Mid-Upper Paleolithic (Gravettian) karstic Grotte de Cussac (France) contains two areas of human remains in the context of abundant (and spectacular) parietal engravings. The first area (loci 1 and 2) includes the skeleton of a young adult male in a bear nest, rearranged by postdecomposition inundation, and the variably fragmentary remains of at least two individuals distributed across two bear nests, sorted anatomically and with most of the elements constrained to one side of one nest. The second area (locus 3) retains remains of two adults and an adolescent, in upper hollows and variably distributed down the slope, largely segregated into upper versus lower body groups. The only decoration associated with the human remains is red pigment on some of the bones or underlying sediment. The human remains indicate variable nonnatural deposition and manipulation of human bodies, body portions, and skeletal elements of at least six individuals. Moreover, Cussac is unusual in the association of these remains with exceptional parietal art. The complex Cussac mortuary pattern joins growing evidence from other Gravettian sites of variable treatment of individuals after death, within and across sites, in terms of formal deposition of the body versus postmortem manipulation versus surface abandonment. It provides a window onto the social diversity and the complex interactions of the living and the dead among these successful Late Pleistocene foragers.


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