DNA reveals a complex patchwork of prehistoric migrations

From bbc:

DNA from ancient skeletons has revealed how a complex patchwork of prehistoric migrations fashioned the modern European gene pool.

The study appears to refute the picture of Europeans as a simple mixture of indigenous hunters and Near Eastern farmers who arrived 7,000 years ago.

The findings by an international team have been published in Science journal.

DNA was analysed from 364 skeletons unearthed in Germany – an important crossroads for prehistoric cultures.

“This is the largest and most detailed genetic time series of Europe yet created, allowing us to establish a complete genetic chronology,” said co-author Dr Wolfgang Haak of the Australian Centre for DNA (ACAD) in Adelaide.

“Focusing on this small but highly important geographic region meant we could generate a gapless record, and directly observe genetic changes in ‘real-time’ from 7,500 to 3,500 years ago, from the earliest farmers to the early Bronze Age.”

Dr Haak and his colleagues analysed DNA extracted from the teeth and bones of well-preserved remains from the Mittelelbe-Saale region of Germany. They focused on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – the genetic information in the cell’s “batteries”.

MtDNA is passed down from a mother to her children, allowing geneticists to probe the maternal histories of populations. Geneticists recognise a variety of mitochondrial DNA “clans”, or lineages, in human populations. And each of these lineages has its own distinct history.

The team’s results show that indigenous hunter-gatherers in Central Europe were edged out by incomers from Anatolia (modern Turkey) some 7,500 years ago. A majority of the hunters belonged to the maternal clan known as haplogroup U, whilst the farmers carried a selection of genetic lineages characteristic of the Near East.

Around 6,100 years ago, farming was introduced to Scandinavia, which coincided with the appearance of Neolithic mtDNA lineages in that region too.

“In some ways agriculture was an obvious and easy way to go in the Fertile Crescent. But once you take it out of there, it involves an abrupt shift in lifestyle,” said Dr Spencer Wells, director of the Genographic Project and an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic, adding that early agricultural groups were living “on the edge”.

“They were basically taking crops that had evolved over millions of years in the Middle East and were adapted to that dry-wet pattern of seasonality and moving them into an area that was recently de-glaciated.

“It was no trivial thing to transfer crops such as barley and rye to the northern fringes of Europe.”

Dr Wells thinks this precarious existence may be reflected in the spread of the lactase persistence gene, which enables people to digest milk into adulthood. Scandinavian populations have some of the highest frequencies of this gene variant in Europe, and it appears to have undergone strong natural selection in the last few thousand years – suggesting milk had a key nutritional role and the ability to drink it conferred an enormous advantage.

“What it implies is that the underlying farming culture is not stable. They are literally teetering on the brink of dying out,” said Dr Wells.

Indeed, something does seem to have happened to the descendents of the first farmers in Central Europe. The DNA evidence shows that about a millennium later, genetic lineages associated with these Near Eastern pioneers decline, and those of the hunter-gatherers bounce back. Climate change and disease are both possibilities, but the causes are a matter for further investigation.

A second study, also published in Science by Ruth Bollongino at the University of Mainz, Germany and colleagues, implies that hunter-gatherer cultures persisted alongside farming cultures for 2,000 years after the introduction of agriculture to the region – with very little interbreeding between the two.

From 4,800 years ago, novel maternal lineages spread into the region, associated with the emergence of the Corded Ware people – who take their name from the inscribed patterns on their pottery.

The study suggests this culture was brought by groups moving in from the East. Scientists compared the mtDNA types found in Corded Ware people with modern populations and found distinct affinities with present-day groups in Eastern Europe, the Baltic region and the Caucasus.

A few hundred years later, a counterpart of this society swept in from the West. This ancient group, known as the Bell Beaker Culture, was in part responsible for the spread of a mtDNA lineage called Haplogroup H.

Largely absent from Central European hunters and scarce in early Neolithic farmers, H remains the dominant maternal lineage in Europe today and comparisons between the Bell Beaker people and modern populations suggest they came from Iberia – modern Spain and Portugal.

“Our study shows that a simple mix of indigenous hunter-gatherers and the incoming Near Eastern farmers cannot explain the modern-day diversity alone,” said co-author Guido Brandt, from the University of Mainz.

“The genetic results are much more complex than that. Instead, we found that two particular cultures at the brink of the Bronze Age 4,200 years ago had a marked role in the formation of Central Europe’s genetic makeup.”

Spencer Wells explained: “When you look at today’s populations, what you are seeing is a hazy palimpsest of what actually went on to create present-day patterns.”

Dr Haak concurs: “None of the dynamic changes we observed could have been inferred from modern-day genetic data alone, highlighting the potential power of combining ancient DNA studies with archaeology to reconstruct human evolutionary history.”

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Catacomb saints in all of their splendour

From DM:

A relic hunter dubbed ‘Indiana Bones’ has lifted the lid on a macabre collection of 400-year-old jewel-encrusted skeletons unearthed in churches across Europe.

Art historian Paul Koudounaris hunted down and photographed dozens of gruesome skeletons in some of the world’s most secretive religious establishments. Incredibly, some of the skeletons, said to be the remains of early Christian martyrs, were even found hidden away in lock-ups and containers. They are now the subject of a new book, which sheds light on the forgotten ornamented relics for the first time.

St Benedictus

Thousands of skeletons were dug up from Roman catacombs in the 16th century and installed in towns around Germany, Austria and Switzerland on the orders of the Vatican. They were sent to Catholic churches and religious houses to replace the relics destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Mistaken for the remains of early Christian martyrs, the morbid relics, known as the Catacomb Saints, became shrines reminding of the spiritual treasures of the afterlife. They were also symbols of the Catholic Church’s newly found strength in previously Protestant areas.

St Luciana

Each one was painstakingly decorated in thousands of pounds worth of gold, silver and gems by devoted followers before being displayed in church niches. Some took up to five years to decorate. They were renamed as saints, although none of them qualified for the title under the strict rules of the Catholic church which require saints to have been canonised. But by the 19th century they had become morbid reminders of an embarrassing past and many were stripped of their honours and discarded.

Mr Koudounaris’ new book, Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs, is the first time the skeletons have appeared in print.

St Valerius

 ‘I was working on another book looking into charnel houses when I came across the existence of these skeletons. As I discovered more about them I had this feeling that it was my duty to tell their fascinating story. After they were found in the Roman catacombs the Vatican authorities would sign certificates identifying them as martyrs then they put the bones in boxes and sent them northwards. The skeletons would then be dressed and decorated in jewels, gold and silver, mostly by nuns. They had to be handled by those who had taken a sacred vow to the church – these were believed to be martyrs and they couldn’t have just anyone handling them. They were symbols of the faith triamphant and were made saints in the municipalities. One of the reasons they were so important was not for their spiritual merit, which was pretty dubious, but for their social importance. They were thought to be miraculous and really solidified people’s bond with a town. This reaffirmed the prestige of the town itself.’

He added: ‘It’s impossible to put a modern-day value on the skeletons.’

More images here.

Archaeology of politics: Turkey vs. Germany

From DW:

An argument between Germany and Turkey about ancient treasures is escalating. Turkey wants its treasures back, but German archaeologists say Turkish sites are being exploited for tourism.

Archaeology often has a lot to do with politics – the current argument between Germany and Turkey is a prime example. Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, last December accused Turkey of displaying “almost chauvinistic behavior.” In reply, the Turkish culture minister Ömer Celik told German news magazine “Der Spiegel” that he demanded an apology, and he asked for five ancient objects to be returned that are currently shown in museums in Berlin. He claims they were taken out of Turkey illegally. Parzinger rejects any accusations of illegality for three of these objects: In December 2012, he said that the torso of the Fisherman of Aphrodisias, the sarcophagus from the Haci Ibrahim Veli tomb and a 13th-century prayer niche were all acquired legally.

But “legal” is a fluid concept in the world of archaeology. The export of ancient treasures from the Ottoman Empire has been prohibited by law since 1884. At the same time though, it wasn’t unusual to share the treasures discovered in excavations with teams from abroad. Special permission was often given to take objects out of the country, and there was a flourishing black market. The issue is often less a matter of legality than of morality.

In this context, the tone that Turkey has recently used in its quest to get ancient treasures back from museums like the Metropolitan in New York and the British Museum in London is surprising. The Turkish culture minister’s announcement that he’s only asking for objects “that are rightfully ours” is a sign of Turkey’s new-found – some might say, excessive – self-confidence. Other countries have already felt the effects: two French excavation sites have been recently shut down.

Fight for the Sphinx

In 2011, then Culture Minister Ertugrul Günay reclaimed the more than 3,000-year-old Sphinx of Hattusa, which had been shown in a Berlin museum since World War I. If the Sphinx were not returned, said the minister, the German Archaeological Institute would lose its excavation permits in Turkey. The Sphinx was indeed returned, but without recognition of any legal claim: it was a goodwill gesture, according to Parzinger. In return, he was hoping for substantial loans from Turkey for a big Pergamon exhibition in Berlin last year. But the loans never arrived.

The agreement on more intensive cooperation between the two countries’ museums and archaeologists which was signed at the time seems to have been merely for show. Parzinger has complained publicly that Turkey hasn’t kept a single promise. He says there have only been more demands for the return of objects, as well as accusations that German archaeologists left “devastated landscapes” at excavation sites.

According to Ernst Pernicka, long-time head of excavation in Troy, there is no truth in that. He believes Turkey is using archaeologists as hostages to get the objects back that they want. Last year, Pernicka says, he and other top archaeologists were asked by the Turkish authorities to go to German museums to call for the return of a number of ancient objects. Turkish authorities deny this.

Another problem Pernicka sees is that Turkey is keen to conserve the sites and use them for tourism rather than for ongoing research. The government wants “archaeology in action.” But that often gets in the way of research, says Pernicka.

Ancient cities under water

The Turkish historian Edhem Eldem is also unhappy about the expectation that foreign archaeologists are expected to ensure that their sites are suitable for tourists. He puts it down to “growing nationalism” and the victory of economic interests.

“The fact that archaeology is part of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism shows how ambivalent the situation is,” says Eldem. He also laments the government’s double standards. If it makes economic sense, the authorities have no problem sacrificing important sites like Allianoi or Hasankeyf, which are on a level with Pompeii, for a dam project. Allianoi, an ancient city close to Pergamum, has already been flooded. And despite international protest, the same fate awaits Hasankeyf.

“International archaeology can only flourish in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” says Felix Pirson, head of the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul. He doesn’t approve of the harsh tone that has dominated the German-Turkish debate recently. He sees the excavations in Anatolia, where “decisive developments in the history of man were continued, enriched and accelerated,” as an international task.

Confrontation doesn’t help anybody

Today, there are many teams already working under German leadership but with international membership. It’s not just German archaeologists who believe that dealing with World Cultural Heritage sites should be a common task not restricted by national borders. They also agree that questions need to be asked about the origin of ancient treasures which are taken out of their country. But it is clear that political confrontation and rigid demands don’t help anybody, including Turkey. The habit of reclaiming archaeological finds could come back to haunt Istanbul if Lebanon decides to ask for the return of the famous sarcophagus of Alexander. It was taken to Istanbul’s Archaeological Museum in 1887, during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

Building a medieval monastery the old-fashioned way

From Spiegel:

What did a medieval stonemason do when heavy rainfall interrupted his work? Umbrellas are impractical at construction sites. Gore-Tex jackets weren’t yet invented, nor were plastic rain jackets. “He donned a jacket made of felted loden cloth,” says Bert Geurten, the man who plans to build an authentic monastery town the old-fashioned way.

Felted loden jackets will also be present on rainy days at Geurten’s building site, which is located near Messkirch, in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemberg, between the Danube River and Lake Constance. Beginning in 2013, a Carolingian monastery town will be built here using only the materials and techniques of the 9th century. From the mortar to the walls, the rain jackets to the menu, every aspect of the operation will be carried out as just as it was in the days of Charlemagne. “We want to work as authentically as possible,” says Geurten.The building contractor from the Rhineland region has long dreamt of carrying out his plan. When he was a teenager, the now 62-year-old was inspired by a model of the St. Gallen monastery plan in an exhibition in his home city of Aachen. The plan, dating from the beginning of the 9th century, shows the ideal monastery, as envisioned by Abbot Haito of Reichenau.

Haito dedicated his drawing to his colleague Abbot Gozbert of St. Gall, who presided over the monastery from 816 to 837. He meticulously recorded everything that he believed was necessary for a monastic city, from a chicken coop to a church for 2,000 worshipers. Altogether he envisaged 52 buildings — but they were never built. That will change in spring 2013, though, when ox-pulled carts wil begin carrying the first stones to the building site in the forest near Messkirch. It won’t be finished until about 2050, according to estimates.

A Glimpse of the Middle Ages

The lengthy time frame betrays the ambitious dimensions of the project, which is not just a tourist attraction, but also a meticulous scientific undertaking. Twelve experts, including historians, architects and archaeologists, form the scientific council that oversees the monastic town. Their job is to advise the artisans while simultaneously learning from their experiences.

Such experiments offer a rare glimpse into the everyday life of past centuries. Often there is only one way to find out how people once built their homes, prepared their food or sewed their clothes — by recreating the historic experience. Experimental archeology researchers have discovered that antique linen armor offers as much protection as kevlar vests, how beer was brewed in the Bronze Age and how Stone Age people sharpened blades.

The 9th century — the era which will be recreated by the Carolingian monastery town project — is a particularly interesting focus for such experiments. There are few surviving documents from the period some 1,100 to 1,200 years ago. “Our goal is not to end up having a monastery town, but to build it,” says Geurten.

The first building will be a small wooden church. “Of course, in the Middle Ages, they didn’t build the large stone church first,” says Geurten. The craftsmen at that time did not want to postpone their prayers until the stone church was finished, so they constructed a simple wooden church as an interim arrangement until they could move into the magnificent stone building decades later.

Harsh Conditions

Carts carrying building materials will be pulled by Hinterwald cows. With a height of around 115 to 125 centimeters (3′ 9″ to 4′ 1″)and weighing between 172 and 218 kilograms (380 and 480 pounds), these working animals come the closest to those used during the time of Charlemagne. “They are descended from the Celts’ cattle,” says Geurten.

Not just workers will have to adjust to medieval conditions, though. The plan also includes a special experience for visitors, who will walk a lengthy distance from the parking lot before reaching the construction site. “They should feel like they journey in time and leave the present behind them,” says Geurten. If they get hungry, the monastery town will have a 9th-century menu. “The potato was unknown,” says Geurten. “And there will be no coffee around to drink.” Everything that the tradesmen and visitors will eat will be grown in the soil near the construction site.

The example of the French castle Guédelon proves that visitors will not be deterred by such a strict approach. In Burgundy, builders are constructing the 13th-century castle with medieval techniques. Every year the site attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors. “A Guédelon visitors’ survey has shown that people want to return on average every three years,” explains Geurten. “They want to see the castle grow and follow its progress.”

He hopes for similar success at his monastic town. The project has initial funding of around €1 million ($1.3 million) from city, state and European Union sources, but that will only sustain it for the first few years. After that, the project will have to fund itself.

A Flood of Volunteers

Given the tight budget, craftsmen salaries will remain low. “The net wage is about €1,200 (per month),” says Geurten. “I can’t pay more.” The working hours are also a long way from what German trade unions recommend these days. They will work from April 2 — Charlemagne’s birthday — almost without break until St. Martin’s Day, on Nov. 11. During those eight months, there will be one single weekend off. “In the Middle Ages, the rent for the year was always paid on St. Martin’s Day,” said Geurten. The winter break lasts until April when the temperatures are warm enough to work again.

Despite the difficult conditions, the project has been swamped with applications. “I’ve had 85 stone masons apply already,” says Geurten. “They all dream of having the chance to work with their hands.” This also applies to the blacksmith. “They won’t be hammering kitschy horseshoes for tourists. The forge must supply the site with tools,” he adds.Overall, the construction site will have 20 to 30 permanent staff in addition to volunteers. There has already been a lot of interest. “From Lufthansa pilots to a teacher, all kinds of people have applied.” One candidate even sent his application written in medieval German on a real roll of parchment. Meanwhile, schools will likely be allowed to join in with the site’s work for as long as a week. “We are developing a plan that will enable the children to prepare for their experience in the classroom first,” says Geurten.

It will take about 40 years until the final stone is laid in the monastery church. By then it is highly unlikely that Geurten will still be alive. But he doesn’t mind. “I just want a founding father’s tomb in the crypt. Then they could come and light candles for me,” he says.

500 new fairytales discovered in Germany

From Guardian:

A whole new world of magic animals, brave young princes and evil witches has come to light with the discovery of 500 new fairytales, which were locked away in an archive in Regensburg, Germany for over 150 years. The tales are part of a collection of myths, legends and fairytales, gathered by the local historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth (1810–1886) in the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz at about the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting the fairytales that have since charmed adults and children around the world.

Last year, the Oberpfalz cultural curator Erika Eichenseer published a selection of fairytales from Von Schönwerth’s collection, calling the book Prinz Roßzwifl. This is local dialect for “scarab beetle”. The scarab, also known as the “dung beetle”, buries its most valuable possession, its eggs, in dung, which it then rolls into a ball using its back legs. Eichenseer sees this as symbolic for fairytales, which she says hold the most valuable treasure known to man: ancient knowledge and wisdom to do with human development, testing our limits and salvation.

Von Schönwerth spent decades asking country folk, labourers and servants about local habits, traditions, customs and history, and putting down on paper what had only been passed on by word of mouth. In 1885, Jacob Grimm said this about him: “Nowhere in the whole of Germany is anyone collecting [folklore] so accurately, thoroughly and with such a sensitive ear.” Grimm went so far as to tell King Maximilian II of Bavaria that the only person who could replace him in his and his brother’s work was Von Schönwerth.

Von Schönwerth compiled his research into a book called Aus der Oberpfalz – Sitten und Sagen, which came out in three volumes in 1857, 1858 and 1859. The book never gained prominence and faded into obscurity.

While sifting through Von Schönwerth’s work, Eichenseer found 500 fairytales, many of which do not appear in other European fairytale collections. For example, there is the tale of a maiden who escapes a witch by transforming herself into a pond. The witch then lies on her stomach and drinks all the water, swallowing the young girl, who uses a knife to cut her way out of the witch. However, the collection also includes local versions of the tales children all over the world have grown up with including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin, and which appear in many different versions across Europe.

Von Schönwerth was a historian and recorded what he heard faithfully, making no attempt to put a literary gloss on it, which is where he differs from the Grimm brothers. However, says Eichenseer, this factual recording adds to the charm and authenticity of the material. What delights her most about the tales is that they are unpolished. “There is no romanticising or attempt by Schönwerth to interpret or develop his own style,” she says.

Eichenseer says the fairytales are not for children alone. “Their main purpose was to help young adults on their path to adulthood, showing them that dangers and challenges can be overcome through virtue, prudence and courage.”

In 2008, Eichenseer helped to found the Franz Xaver von Schönwerth Society, an interdisciplinary committee devoted to analysing his work and publicising it. She is keen to see the tales available in English, and a Munich-based English translator, Dan Szabo, has already begun work on stories ranging from a miserly farmer and a money-mill to a turnip princess.

“Schönwerth’s legacy counts as the most significant collection in the German-speaking world in the 19th century,” says Daniel Drascek, a member of the society and a professor in the faculty of language, literature and cultural sciences at the University of Regensburg.

Celtic Princess discovered in Germany

From BBC News:

German experts are carefully taking apart a complete Celtic grave in the hope of finding out more about the Celts’ way of life, 2,600 years ago, in their Danube heartland.

It wasn’t the most glorious final journey for an aristocratic Celtic lady who, in life, clearly had a bit of style.

She died just over 2,600 years ago and rested in peace until a few months ago when her grave was dug up in its entirety – all 80 tonnes of it – and transported on the back of a truck through countless German towns.

In the grave, too, was a child, presumed to be hers. Their last inglorious journey ended in the back yard of the offices of the archaeological service of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

When the truck arrived, the grave encased almost entirely in concrete, was unloaded and a tent constructed around it. The archaeologists decided that removal of the whole grave would allow them to use the most modern resources of analysis, from computers to X-rays. From the gantry above a pit, archaeologists leant down and scraped the earth from the bones and jewels speck-by-speck. What emerged was the lady, the child and their ornaments.

Because of the amount of gold and amber jewellery, they are assumed to be important, a princess and the young prince or princess. It indicates that the early Celts had an aristocratic hierarchy, which has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists.

“It is the oldest princely female grave yet from the Celtic world,” said Dr Dirk Krausse, who is in charge of the dig.

“It is the only example of an early Celtic princely grave with a wooden chamber.”

The archaeologists are excited because this grave was preserved by the water-sodden soil of the region so that the oak of the floor was intact, for example, and that puts an exact date on it. The oak trees were felled 2,620 years ago, so, assuming they were felled for the grave, our lady died in 609BC.

The grave had also not been robbed down those 26 centuries, unlike many others. This means that the jewellery is still there, particularly beautiful brooches of ornate Celtic design in gold and in amber. We usually think of the Celtic heartland as the western edges of Europe – Wales, Scotland and Ireland and Brittany in France.

But Dr Krausse says the real Celtic heartland was actually in the region in the upper reaches of the Danube, from where the Celts could trade.

“Celtic art and Celtic culture have their origins in south-western Germany, eastern France and Switzerland and spread from there to other parts of Europe,” said Dr Krausse.

They were then squeezed by the tribes from the north and the Romans from the south, so that today they remain only on the western edges of the continent.

The lady in the grave reveals the Celts to have been a rather stylish people with a love of ornament, examples of which are coming out of the mud of the grave in the tent in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart.

From the gantry above the grave, Nicole Ebenger-Rest has been doing much of the painstaking excavation. As well as the rings and brooches, she uncovered the teeth of the Celtic princess. But what also excited her were specks of cloth or food or other organic matter which might reveal a way of life.

“It is a skeleton but it’s still a human being so you have a natural respect,” she said, looking her fellow human being in the face, across the divide of 26 centuries.

From BBC News.