Friday, 18 September 2020

The Kings of Rome, Fact or fiction?

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Romulus and Remus, Capitoline Museum, Rome

 There are no 
written records from the time the kings of Rome were said to rule, and the accounts of this time are so obscured by myth that it is impossible to say definitely whether they existed at all. 

Italy in the Early Iron Age.

Italy, in the Bronze Age, did not reach the level of sophistication of other Mediterranean regions. The closest it came was the Nuragic civilisation on the island of Sardinia (the Med’s second largest island) but on the mainland, the largest settlements were little more than large villages. The more advanced local cultures were completely lost in the Bronze Age collapse.

The turmoil, power vacuum and people movements of the Bronze Age collapse (1200-1250 BC), and its aftermath, resulted in a large influx of various new people to Italy both by land and sea. Meanwhile, Greece was plunged into 'the Greek Dark Ages', which lasted through to about 800 BC. 

Early Iron Age settlements in Italy were typically small and decentralised. The biggest were on fortified hill tops or coastal regions. Most were not more than a thousand souls each. They relied primarily on agriculture, with some metallurgy, cottage industries and various trading.

 One of the (Indo-European) newcomers was a small tribe called the Latini and by about one thousand BC they occupied a relatively modest triangle of relatively flat land that was later called ‘Latium vetus’ (Old Latium). .

‘Latium’ most likely meant ‘broad, plains’ (relative to the surrounds) and ‘Latini’ meant ‘people of the plains’.

Latium in the 5th Century BC, Wiki

‘Old Latium’ was on the west coast, just at the southernmost tip of the growing Etruscan region. It stretched between the river Tiber and the promontory of  Mount Cicero which is  100 km (62 mi) southeast of modern day Rome.

Things began to change around 960 BC as the region emerged from the BA collapse. The large  island of Euboea, just off the Greek mainland, had survived better than the other Greeks and in the 8th century BC (south of Rome) it established  Cumae, the first and greatest of what would become many Greek colonies in Sicily and Southern Italy that remained independent through till Roman conquest .

Latium Vetus sat on the southern edge of the (non Indo-European) ‘Etruscan’ region (now called Tuscany) which, for a time, become the most sophisticated local culture. This placed the Latini on an important land and sea trading route between the Greeks and the Etruscans (and above the Etruscans were the industrious Celts who had moved into Northern Italy). 

Rome started as an easily defensible hill-fort, with the control of an important ford across the Tiber River (for trade both along the coast and inland). It was surrounded by a wide fertile plain of rich volcanic soil, and so the early town thrived.

The arrival of the new Greeks brought one of the early Greek ('Euboean')  alphabets. All the early Italic alphabets (including early Latin script, 700 BC) have been derived from the Etruscan adaptation which occurred quite early, about 800 BC.

The Roman Kingdom is traditionally dated from 753 BC–509 BC (I’ll discuss this later).  Unfortunately, despite the re-discovery of writing, no records survive from this period, and very few inscriptions.

The supreme priest of Rome was called ‘Pontifex maximus’. This title literally meant he was the ‘greatest bridge builder’ (to the Gods). He was in charge of augury, festivals and religious dogma and his office also kept the main records of the time (called, not too surprisingly, the Annales maximi ).

Most of these records were destroyed when the city (under Republican rule) was sacked by the ‘Gauls’ (a confederation of continental Celtic tribes) in 387 BC. The rest were lost to theft and time. 

One of the earliest writers to attempt to document Rome’s early days (Cato the Elder, 234 BC-149 BC) complained that the only records he could obtain were obsessed with recording harvests. Sadly, only fragments of his historical thesis, ‘the Origines’, remain. 

Later Roman writers had to rely on oral traditions derived from story tellers, people who, over the centuries, made a living telling (improbable but) highly entertaining tales.

This is fortunate for those who prefer their myth and fantasy (with Gods and omens, tragic and inspiring tales) unencumbered by historical fact, but it is not helpful for those who wanted to know what really happened.

Romulus (first King of Rome) and his twin brother (Remus) were said to be born of the God Mars and a vestal virgin. They were abandoned to die in the wilderness on orders of the King of Alba Longa (who had displaced their grandfather as king). One version was that the God raped their mother, and the Goddess Vesta was more than a little miffed at her for getting pregnant. 

Of course, maybe the new king didn’t want two sons of a war god to later challenge his throne.

frieze, Certosa di Pavia monastery

The twins were suckled by a she-wolf (sent by the River God, Tiberius) and then were found and raised by a shepherd with no knowledge of their regal and divine heritage. 

They later regained their grandfather’s throne for him and then journeyed with a small group of warriors from Alba Longa to establish the new city of Rome on a virgin hilltop (the Palatine hill, which would later become the central of Rome's seven hills).

Romulus used a plough to mark out the boundary of his new city but before (or soon after) this happened, he argued with and killed his greatest rival, his twin brother, Remus.

Romulus was not the only Roman king that was claimed to have divine connections. 

The second king, Numa Pompilius created an immense opus of religious laws and customs, established temples and created various other institutions. He was said to be very wise, received many portents and spoke directly to various Godsbut his main source was ‘Egeria’, a nymph or minor Goddess, who dictated most of the laws of Rome. 

All Numa had to do was write them down each night.

Egeria dictating the laws of Rome, Ulpiano Checa

Servius Tullius, the second last king of Rome, in one version, was conceived when his mother (also a vestal virgin) was penetrated by a disembodied phallus that rose from a sacred hearth she was tending.

According to its founding legend, Rome was established as a sort of colony of Alba Longa, the previous foremost city of the Latini but it certainly didn’t behave as if it was a recent colony. 

Under her third king, Rome not only defeated its mother city but destroyed it so thoroughly that we don't know for sure where it ever was.

Alba Longa, in turn, was founded in myth (about 1200 BC) by ‘Aeneas’, a Trojan prince, and his son. Aeneas’s mother was Aphrodite (Venus), another divine connection.  

Aneas fleeing burning Troy, Fredrico Barocci

 He was a minor character in Homer’s epic, notable for his piety and the fact that that he (carrying his lame father), and his small band, was one of the few said to have escaped from the sack of Troy. His first wife was killed in the attempt.
His story is taken up in Virgil’s (‎29–19 BC) Epic Poem ‘the Aeneid’

My favourite tale from King Romulus’s time is ‘the Rape of the Sabine women’

Not for the actions of the early Latin men, though, but for the heroism of the women.

The Sabines were another Italic (Indo-European) tribe with settlements near the Latini as well as in the Apennine mountains. The story goes that Rome was mostly established by men, and none of the local settlements wanted to ‘supply them’ with women. Romulus held a festival at Rome, but it was a ruse. At a signal from him, his men grabbed any eligible women, most of which were Sabines.

A few apologists suggest that this was not rape, that the Latin term ‘raptio’ means large-scale abduction of women. They also argued Romulus treated the women well, and they were not slaves.

From a twenty first century point of view’ such distinctions seem a little disingenuous, but the new women of Rome certainly proved themselves both brave and loyal. Led by Hersilia (Romulus’s wife) they threw themselves between the Romans and an army of Sabines in the heat of battle.

Hersilia (excerpt), Jacques-Luoise David 

Livy (writing sometime between 27 and 9 BC) takes up the story.

... from the outrage on whom the war originated, with hair dishevelled and garments rent, the timidity of their sex being overcome by such dreadful scenes, had the courage to throw themselves amid the flying weapons, and making a rush across, to part the incensed armies, and assuage their fury; imploring their fathers on the one side, their husbands on the other.”

It couldn’t have happened like this. The delay in the Sabine’s coming to claim what was ‘theirs’ was, by some accounts, so long that it allowed the women to have children. 

Anyway, when Romulus eventually disappeared into a whirlwind to become the God Quirinus (or was murdered by senators), Hersilia fell into such a state of deep mourning that she, too, was taken into the heavens to become the Goddess Hora (Ovid, ‘Metamorphoses’, 8 AD).

The tales of the early Roman kings are as rich enough to rival the Arthurian Tales of England and other great Epics. They are sufficiently detailed that the ancient historians calculated a detailed time line, with the founding of Rome estimated to occur on April 21, 753 B.C. 

At first these myths were by and large accepted as authoritative accounts. Even now, discuss the foundation of Rome and the old myths are quickly trotted out, sometimes with a footnote suggesting the Roman kings may have been completely mythical. 

This doesn't give a sense of just how fanciful the earliest accounts are.

Rome was already there

Rome could not have been established in 753 BC on a virgin site. The Palatine Hill was occupied throughout pre-history, and there is clear evidence of occupation in the 10th century BC. Archaeologists have found pottery and a wall to divert spring water, which have been dated to the ninth century BC, indicating there was already a substantial town there at that time.

But Rome was a village, not a city in the early times

If Rome already existed, the other problem applies.

Romulus was said to be able to defeat sequential armies firstly from several nearby Latin towns, the Etruscan town of Fidenae and then an army of Sabines. Most of the early ‘Romans’ would live on surrounding farms rather than within the town/hill-fort itself, but even so this seems to be quite a challenge for the town Rome would have been at that time. 

It would be completely impossible if we apply the foundation myth (new town on virgin site) at face value.

Some of the institutions and buildings referred to in the foundation myth, from Romulus’s time and onwards, would require a significant, urbanised settlement. Archaeological records suggests Rome didn’t reach urbanisation until 625 BC.

The British historian specialising in Rome, Tim Cornell, suggested the time-line laboriously worked out by the ancients, and seen by them as definitive work, was completely wrong. He estimated the regal period was only from 625-509 BC, half the period claimed (753–509 BC). He suggested that the estimated time each monarch ruled was too long compared if one compared it with kings we do know about.

Further to all of this, Rome was likely not named after Romulus at all. It was probably the reverse. There are a few possibilities, but ‘Rumon’ was an ancient name for the Tiber, related to the Latin verb ruō 'to hurry, rush'.


Unless evidence emerges to the contrary, the only reasonable conclusion is that Romulus was a completely fictitious character.

How about Numa Pompilius, the second King of Rome?

Numa Pompilius's name comes from Greek  nómos meaning 'law or custom', and pompilius meaning 'the fifth' (in one Italic dialect). To cut a rather long story short, 'his' accumulated work seems to be very much the work of more than one man.

 If there ever was a single man called 'Numa Pompilius', he was unlikely to have been a king. He never led the small settlement in battle and 'his' work more resembles the accumulated records of several chief priests/magistrates. 

His reported actions were establishing endless temples and religious observances, the office of  Pontifex Maximus and some civil institutions. The supposedly massive body of laws (and customs) were especially religious. 

The Chief Priest (Pontifex Maximus) obtained advice from, and interpreted the will of, the Gods. They were obviously powerful (and somewhat educated) figures in Rome’s pre-history. Any assembly of leaders was called within the temple. It may have been the chief Priest who settled disputes and sometimes governed the people, before Rome had kings.

Numa was described as an aesthetic man, a Sabine, and in legend Sabines were related to the Spartans. He was said to have ordered his written works buried with him, suggesting it was better to rely on the living memory of priests. 

There is another legend (according to Livy) that four or five hundred years later and by accident, his works were found. After examination by several bodies, the books were ordered burnt by the Senate as too  'dangerous to religion' (Wiki). 

Fanatics (and this can include religious fanatics) can give rise to some of the most dangerous dictatorships known to mankind. Fourteen books, a massive collection of law, custom and philosophy dictated by a Goddess were seen as far, far, too dangerous and powerful for humble humans to possess, let alone read.   

The ‘third’ King of Rome

Tullus Hostilius  is more likely to have been an historical figure, in that 'he' gave his name to the ‘Curia Hostilia’. This building was a meeting place for the senators and was converted from an Etruscan temple. It stood at the edge of the forum (which itself was an open-air meeting place and market at that time).

The Etruscans and Sabines contributed to the population of early Rome, and if the Etruscans do represent (as is suspected) the original Neolithic people of Europe, they might have predated the arrival of the Latini to the region.  

Tullus couldn’t have done what he was credited with unless he lived much later than the 673–642 BC allotted to him by early Roman writers. The remains of the Curia Hostilia has been archaeologically dated to 600BC. Tullus (Rex) was also said to destroy Alba Longa (along with many other military triumphs) and this also happened later than traditionally suggested.

And his family name really was Hostilia but it certainly suited his aggressive military stance. If the

Tullus, from fresco, Capitoline Museum 
accounts of his wars with his neighbours is correct, he set  Rome on the path of aggressive expansion.

So, were the Roman Kings fictitious or not?

There were said to be seven Roman kings.

Romulus seems to be completely mythical, Numa Pompilius was more likely to be a priest. While a lot of his work is lost, if he wasn’t entirely mythical, the reports suggest that he was credited with the accumulated work of several generations of priests (and /or magistrates).

As we move closer to the time of the republic, most historians accept the kings become more likely to be historical figures, though accounts of them remain so stepped in myth it is hard to be absolutely sure.

Adding to this is confusion over which king did what. 

Romulus and Tullus Hostillus were both brought up among shepherds, both carried out a war with Fidenae and Veii, both doubled the number of citizens by bringing in other groups, and both organised the army.

There is a similar confusion over Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (the fifth king) and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (the seventh and last king) but there is a particular reason in their case. The kings were appointed, the office wasn’t hereditary, and yet ‘Superbus’ was the son (or maybe the grandson) of Priscus .

Tarquinius is the Latin version of an Etruscan family name of unknown origin. 

Lucius’ is a common Latin name that some think is related to the Latin verb lucere "to shine". 

In this case, however, the last three kings of Rome were Etruscan and Priscus was often called ‘Lucumo’ which may have been confused with ‘Lucius’, or may even have been the origin of the name. Lucumo is a Latin transliteration of Etruscan Lauchum (or Lauchme) and simply means ‘king’.

Which ever is the case, Priscus ( meaning ‘the Elder’) and Superbus (meaning ‘the Proud’) are epithets, and may have been added later, so there were two (related) kings with the same name.

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In next month’s blog I will discuss Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the last, the most hated ( and the most interesting) of the Roman Kings.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Out of Africa 2, Evolution of Homo Sapiens

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Are Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans the same species?

Before talking about the origin of Homo Sapiens, we need to consider (just concentrating on the major groups) whether to include include Neanderthals and their close cousins, the Denisovans.

Neanderthal woman, Bacon Cph 

Neanderthals evolved in Europe and ranged across southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia as far as the mountains at the western edge of Mongolia. They survived until about 40,000 YA. 

The closely related Denisovans (from ‘the cave of Dennis’ in Siberia) were a little more elusive. They ranged mainly across Asia, surviving in New Guinea perhaps as late as 11,500 YA.

 In Western Africa, there were pockets of archaic humans that survived through till at least 13,000 years ago.  

Modern Human DNA across Eurasia and New Guinea contains DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans, indicating ‘AMHs’ (Anatomically Modern Humans) bred with them. Modern African DNA indicates interbreeding with an, as yet unidentified, archaic human.

They have found bone fragments of hybrids: an AMH/ Neanderthal hybrid (in Italy) and a Denisovan/ Neanderthal hybrid (in the above mentioned Siberian cave), both with Neanderthal mothers.  There is a more complete specimen from Romania of a 15-16 year old male with mixed modern and archaic anatomical features dated as recently as 30,000 YA ago.

If AMHs, Neanderthals and Denisovans interbred (and the consensus is that they did) perhaps they  should be part of the same species, they should all be called 'Homo Sapiens', Homo Sapiens Neanderthalis. 

I have considerable sympathy for this view, so I have stuck to the somewhat clumsy term ‘Anatomically modern Humans’ (‘AMHs’) for the African version (rather than Homo Sapiens Sapiens). 

I have to emphasise however, that this is not the consensus. Most see them as separate species and the situation with inter-breeding is not so simple.  

For convenience I will only concentrate on Neanderthals, though Denisovans genes were more successful than the Neanderthal ones. 

Some gene studies have suggested successful interbreeding with Neanderthals might have been uncommon. If this were true, and even if it was just from lack of physical attraction, the further we get from successful interbreeding, the closer we get to them being separate species. 

The Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA

There is no Neanderthal DNA in modern human mitochondria and not a lot in Y chromosomes. This has led some anthropologists to variously suggest that Neanderthal/AMH hybrids were infertile, aborted, or sickly. Again, if this is true, the further away from viable, fertile offspring we get, the closer we are to species separation (‘speciation’).

The mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome stories point in different directions.

Mitochondria are small factories in cells that produce energy and protect the cell from oxidative enzymes. They have their own DNA, which mutates more rapidly than nuclear DNA, and all mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA comes from the mother.

Neanderthal m-DNA is very distinctive. If there is  none in modern humans, it suggests that a hybrid with a Neanderthal mother is less viable or might be infertile, and not the cause of our Neanderthal genes.

Moving back to the DNA found in cell nuclei : women have two X chromosomes, men have an X and a Y.  It is men , through their sperm, that determine the sex of the child.

While there is a mechanism for a pair of chromosomes to sometimes swap matching parts of themselves, sexual reproduction is the main way advanced forms of life have of mixing genes. (Swapping genes can happen between X and Y but not in the sex-linked portion).

So if there is less Neanderthal DNA in the Y chromosome, maybe it is the boys with a Neanderthal father that could have been infertile or have low survival.  

Other reasons for these findings

All these possibilities are not necessarily mutually exclusive and there are also are other possible factors that might have contributed to these genetic findings.

The above may be due to sampling errors. Gene technology is very new (initial draft for Neanderthal genome May 2010). We have few Neanderthals to test and even fewer hybrids and it is the hybrids which will contain the answer. 

Now we can identify hybrids even from bone fragments, and investigate them, perhaps we can see what really happened.

As mentioned, Neanderthals had fewer numbers than European AMHs (Cro-Magnons). They many have left a smaller genetic footprint from simple dilution.

And yet, there is a darker possibility for our poor Neanderthals and it seems to be a very likely contribution to the reduced number of Neanderthal genes mentioned above.  

Neanderthals were a physically robust group and physically well adapted to hostile, changeable climate in the Glacial period. Still, they mostly only lived till 35 whereas Cro-Magnon adults often lived till 50. 

Several studies of Eurasian fossils suggest initial levels of Neanderthal DNA were about 3 times what is seen today and a lot of the surviving Neanderthal DNA is 'non-coding' (so called 'junk' DNA). 

It seems natural selection was particularly brutal towards Neanderthal DNA, and it acted over a relatively short period of time.

Some paleo-geneticists suggest that Neanderthal populations were more in-bred, with harmful or weak genes. Whether this was true or not, there is no doubt Neanderthals were seriously outmatched by AMHs.

They had simpler tools with little adaptation over time and simpler social organisation and clothes whereas AMHs literally specialised in innovation. They made throwing spears 279,000 YA and 130,000 Y.A.. They traded (obsidian) over 300 KM distances. Even before leaving Africa they developed art, pigments, glue, decorations, beads, and multiple tools. By 60-70,000 YA. they had developed hafted tools and bone and stone arrowheads ( 60-70,000 YA).

When AMHs finally left Africa, they were in small numbers (see below) and yet the Neanderthal phenotype lost really badly, only overlapping Cro-Magnon man by 5,400-12,000 years. 

I won't document all the theories for extinction of Neanderthals, but some suspicion has to fall on the arrival of AMHs, whether they simply 'out competed them' or they brought disease.  


Another factor that might explain the apparent interbreeding of two 'species' would be the concept of chrono-species. All (or most) of the species of Homo are ‘chrono-species’ (as discussed in last month's blog). 

Take the Chihuahua and the Great Dane. They are sufficiently different that they cannot breed (even if they wanted to). They would be separate species, except that there is a chain of dogs in the middle that allow them to share the same gene pool.

In ‘chrono-species’ there is increasing separation over time and the intermediate links die out, leaving two or more  separate species. When this separation occurs is difficult to say, and if we go back in time to when the species have not fully separated, (for example to advanced versions of H. Erectus and early H. Sapiens), we might very get interbreeding, though we consider them different species from today's viewpoint.

(On the same vein and while we don’t think this is what happened, if AMHs and Neanderthals both bred with an archaic link and not each other, this would allow an exchange of genes while they are separate species).

Back to the question, where did H. Sapiens evolve?

H. Erectus, coming from Africa, colonised a large part of Eurasia starting about 2 million years ago, though in nothing like the numbers of AMHs. 

Where did AMHs evolve?

The earliest specimen of AMHs were found in North Africa  (Jebel Irhoud, Morocco about 300,000 years ago).

At first there was a mix of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ features. The modern skull features are a straight high forehead with a box-like head , smaller teeth and a prominent chin. The more ‘archaic features’ involve a thicker skull, the low, receding forehead, a somewhat oval skull, distinct brow-ridges and prognathism.

Over time, AMHs approached something more modern ( e.g. ‘Herto man’, Ethiopia 160,000 years ago progressing to another specimen from Tanzania 120,000 years ago).

They also developed a new (middle) Stone Age tool technology called ‘Aterian’.

AMHs spread to Israel/ Palestine and the Arabian peninsula fairly early. 

These regions had much less desert at the time and shared a number of animals with Northern Africa, the habitats being virtually connected.

The first specimen outside of Africa was a jaw bone fragment found near Mount Carmel in Israel,  dating back to about 190,000 YA. The characteristic Aterian tools have been found in Israel and the Arabian Peninsula also dating to about this time.

There is equivocal evidence (damaged fragments) of a surprisingly advanced form of AMHs in Greece 200,000 YA. 

Characteristic teeth and tools have also been found in China dated to 100,000 YA and modelling suggests AMH genes entering the Neanderthal gene pool around 100,000 YA.

AMHs would naturally continue to evolve over the whole of whatever territory they had spread to.  

If it is confirmed that a truly advanced form made it to Greece so long ago this might challenge the current narrative, but for the moment it seems that AMH first evolved in Northern Africa and spread out (with a mix of archaic and modern features) at least to the adjacent parts of the Middle East.

And then disaster struck.

3 models of H. Sapiens evolution

There are three main theories of how Homo Sapiens evolved from H. Erectus.

The multiregional hypothesis, as first described, suggests that so called ‘major racial groups’ arose because H. Sapiens emerged in multiple sites.

 Modern Australasians evolved from an Australasian H. Erectus, and so on. While there are dotted lines at each level allowing genetic mixing, this theory could be used to infer that the separation of modern man into so called ‘racial groups’ is much more ancient and fundamental than it actually is.

The ‘out of Africa’ theory suggests H. Sapiens evolved in Africa and then spread to Eurasia and might have been involved in pushing the other ‘archaic humans’ into extinction. 

Neither of these theories fully match the facts.

The Assimilation model looks a little closer to me: AMHs evolved in Northern Africa and they partly assimilated the archaic humans they came into contact with.

A time of Disaster   

Around 200,000 YA. was a good time for AMHs.

The world had been cooling for tens of millions of years but it was going through a wetter, warmer phase and the Sahara was green. .

Still, from around 350,000 YA (the period when the AMHs, Neanderthals and Denisovans were evolving) the climate was becoming increasingly unstable. It was beginning to alternate between warmer , wetter periods and cold very dry periods. 

It would have been a challenging time, and maybe helped spur evolution.

Then, around 115,000 YA, the climate turned murderous.

A Glacial Period began in Northern Eurasia (and North America) resulting in shrinking habitats and it lasted through till 11,700 YA.

It was worse than that, the cold diverted rains away from Northern Africa and the Middle East triggering mega-droughts that went on and on, with massive desert expansion .

But something worse, far worse, was just about to happen, a great cataclysm.

Around 75,000 YA  Mount Toba in Sumatra  erupted. The eruption was 12 times more explosive than the largest volcanic eruption in recent history (the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which caused the 1816 ‘Year without Summer’ in Europe).

Some say it had little impact on the environment, others say it caused a ‘nuclear winter’ (if one can still use a somewhat debated concept). Whether this was the cause or not, this time saw a massive depopulation event, involving several mammalian species.

The groups of AMHs outside of Africa are thought to have died out, any in Europe were later replaced by Neanderthals and back in Africa, they were pushed to the brink of extinction.

Genetic models point to a serious ‘population bottle neck’ in those AMHs that survived in Africa (a sudden reduction in genetic diversity).

It was almost the end for our Anatomically Modern Humans.

Today's humans are said to be descended from a very small population,  between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs (70,000 YA) and the common female ancestor of all living humans on earth (mitochondrial Eve) may have lived as recently as 150,000 YA.

Recent ‘out of Africa’

We now believe that a very small group of AMHs left Africa (this time successfully) 70,000–50,000 years ago and mainly followed the Southern Route to the Arabian Peninsula (sea levels were lower). They continued relatively rapidly along the coast of Asia to reach Australia around 65,000–50,000 years ago.

An early offshoot followed a northern route via the Levant to West Asia, finally reaching Europe around 48,000 YA..

Behavioural Modernity

There are subtle physical differences between Cro-Magnon and humans today, showing we have been continuing to evolve, even over recent times, but the intellectual difference between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon Man (40,000- 10,000 YA) was stunning.

Cro-Magnon, Charles Robert Knight,1920
While Neanderthal was an advanced form of homo, Cro-Magnon had a rich culture with sophisticated stone working, advanced symbolism and cave paintings that stood in stark contrast to our poorer cousins.

It is describes as 'behavioural modernity'. Some saw it
as an adaptation to the harsh environment in Europe at the  time but, as mentioned, it was already present in 
considerable measure  before AMHs left Africa. It 
was an area in which (we) AMHs really excelled, 
especially innovation, and it led to our success.

It goes without saying that Homo continues to evolve slowly and subtly, with improved adaptation to the environment in which we find ourselves and sharing these genetic adaptations across a gene pool now in the billions. 

Lately this has been greatly overshadowed by social evolution (technological and social revolutions), where we are literally creating these new environments. The amount of change has been extraordinary and the pace is getting faster all the time, even in living memory.

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Thursday, 9 July 2020

Out of Africa 1, the Evolution of Man

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Primates evolved 55 million years ago (MYA) ago in a world very different to our own.
Crab-eating_Macaques, Bernard Dupont, 

10 million years before, there had been a massive asteroid strike (or strikes) causing a 'mass extinction event' including most non avian dinosaurs, initiating a golden age for mammals.
The main land masses were closer than today. Eurasia and America were just separating; Australia and Antarctica were much closer and India was still a large island south of Eurasia.
It was very hot and steamy, in no small part due to greenhouse gases (later sequestrated into our fossil fuels and lying frozen in Siberian peat bogs). Equatorial forests stretched all the way to Antarctica.
It was an ideal world for the evolution and spread of a teeming population of tree dwellers and small mammals.

But it was also, for several reasons,  a climate maximum, heralding an inexorable cooling over many millions of years leading up to the Last Glacial Maximum about 19,000 BC.
Over this long period, tropical forests eventually shrank to the equatorial regions, being replaced by deciduous forests, grass lands and deserts. Permanent ice eventually formed at the poles. (Non human) primates eventually retreated from Europe, leaving only the Barbary apes of Gibraltar.
Current Primate range Napier and Napier, Wiki

This change was slow and 25 MYA there was still plenty of space for the Great Apes to evolve and flourish in the equatorial forests, through till about 15 MYA when the shrinkage of their habitat really began to 'bite'.

From our tree-dwelling forebears mankind inherited  forward-looking eyes, acute binocular vision (more often seen in predators) and grasping hands .
While there are many interesting suggestions, there is no fully accepted explanation of why our forebears moved to an erect posture and a bipedal (striding) gait, as opposed to what other apes and monkeys now do when they walk. Maybe it was a combination of things.
There is, however, a prelude in how apes use their upper limbs for grasping, manipulating (feeding and grooming) and their rear limbs for walking along branches. Apes also they tend to sit erect when feeding or resting. The potential for an erect posture and bipedal gait  was already there and that was the way 'we' 'decided' to go, and it worked .
Most Apes and monkeys remained in the shrinking jungles, but some monkeys (e.g. baboons), and some apes (e.g. chimps and Australopithecus) moved into the savanna (mixed grass/woodland) that was spreading out over East and Northern Africa.
To use a very archaic term, the Genus Australopithecus could be described as a ‘missing link’ between Apes and Homo (having features of both). They evolved around 4.2 million years ago, becoming widespread, eventually dying out about 1.9 million years ago.
They were the first of our ancestors to walk erect on two legs, sleeping in the security of trees at night. They had brains roughly 35% of the size of a modern human brain. Most were slender and covered in fur. The larger of the Genus reached 1.4 meters, many were smaller and females were distinctly smaller than males.

The name 'Australopithecus' comes from a combination of Greek and Latin, meaning ‘Southern Ape’ (from a full specimen discovered in South Africa).
They lived on fruit, vegetables, and tubers, and perhaps easy-to-catch animals such as small lizards.
The ‘Genus’ Australopithecus is defined as a group of ape species and subspecies that had features between apes and ‘homo’. In other words they walked erect.
We have no way to be sure if they are all as closely related as we think, we have lumped them together on similarities, often on the basis of fragmentary evidence. Some anthropologists variously propose lumping them with homo, splitting off some of them into other existing genera or using additional suggested genera to subdivide them. see here
This problem of classifying their finds is one of the great challenges for archaeologists and anthropologists who use morphology, habitat and behaviour as a guide to species, subspecies and genera (more on this later).
Cutting ties 
Genus Homo diverted from the Genus Pan around 5 million years ago, as measured by differences in DNA. Genus Pan is our closest relatives amongst the apes, chimpanzees being their only surviving representatives. 
In Genus Homo two chromosome pairs fused to reduce our chromosomes to 23 pairs instead of the 24 pairs in other apes, decisively separating Homo from all other surviving apes.
We currently need living, dividing, cells to count chromosomes, so we don’t know when this reduction happened, but it is most likely early. We also don’t know if Australopithecus had this too, but it is definitely possible.

Genera, Species and Subspecies
The concept of a species seems simple enough: (the largest grouping of organisms that can crossbreed with one another and produce fertile offspring).  A ‘genus’ is a group of related species with a common ancestor, and subspecies are groups within a species that look different, sometimes significantly so, but can still readily crossbreed if given the opportunity.
'Polytypic' can refer to a Genus (with lots of species) but more often refers to a species with lots of subspecies. The main species of homo over time were polytypic.

‘Breeds’ of domesticated species (like the multiple types of dogs, horses etc) are a special example of ‘subspecies’. If dogs were somehow long extinct and only a few partial remains were available, an archaeologist would likely think he had discovered several different species. In fact domesticated dogs, some wild dogs, and various wolves are all (currently) recognised as one species!

Early man cannot compete with the sort of diversity of Canis Lupus Familiaris (domestic dogs) has/have. The evidence is still fragmentary, especially in the distant past, but over time we have begun to believe that interbreeding of different-looking contemporary forms of Homo was far more common than we ever dreamt could be possible, and this explains some of the combinations we have found.
It's hard to be absolutely sure, but much of what we assumed were different contemporary species were subspecies. 
Part of this new understanding followed advances in understanding of how evolution actually works, and part of  it followed the realisation that modern man interbred with Neanderthals and Denisovans as soon as he reached Eurasia from Africa (more on this later).

Evolution and subspecies.
Evolution occurs when there is variation between individuals (within a species) and some of these variations have an advantage for survival and reproduction, either dependent on a certain habitat or an over all advantage.
Sub-species occur in nature when groups of the same species become separated over time or place and they then adapt to different environments or simply experience genetic drift. 

With several subspecies of early man (capable of interbreeding). Each had particular mutations that might be an advantage 'over all' or in certain habitats. Interbreeding, ensured that any differences that might prove advantageous could be combined and not lost forever over time.
Specific combinations may work well together. Such a wider variation allows penetration into niche habitats and faster adaptation to habitat change so was often a survival advantage for the species.

This interbreeding and evolution within subspecies leads to the concept of 'chronospecies'. A chronospecies is a species which slowly changes over time until it cannot be considered to be the same species as the originating genetic line (had they existed at the same point in time). 
Chrono-species Ian Alexander, Wiki

It might be just genetic drift and/or different environments causing such an accumulation of differences that eventually interbreeding becomes unlikely (e.g. loss of sexual attraction, mating rituals or physical differences).

While natural selection can favour  interbreeding to foster a larger gene pool with greater diversity, it can also favour separation of subspecies into separate species ('speciation') .
This happens when the 'in-between' or older varieties become at such a disadvantage relative to the new variety that the benefits of the larger gene pool (to the species as a whole) is outweighed by the cost.
Such a thing occurs more rapidly when the habitat of the subspecies is very different and the adaptation needed for each niche habitat is different.

In the development of a chronospecies, each change is small and interbreeding occurs along the 'chain'. The point at which we would say a new species has 'arisen' is arbitrary. The evolution of man followed just such a pattern.

While there is considerable uncertainty and debate, the minimalist view (currently favoured) leaves Homo Habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens (and their respective contemporaries) as the only three species of Homo.  
Encyclopaedia Britannica  see here
Gone are the multiple ‘species’ that were proclaimed every time an old time archaeologist found remains that varied from what had been found before.

We need to be cautious not to see evolution as always a march from primitive to more advanced and complex, though this can happen.
Natural selection doesn't care about human value judgements, it only cares about adaptation (survival) and reproduction. It just so happens that many of the adaptations leading to modern man had a huge survival advantage. 

Homo Habilis
Homo habilis was one of the earliest species of ‘man’ (homo), 2.4 to 1.4 MYA (overlapping Australopithecus by half a million years).
The arrival of Habilis marks the official start of Genus Homo.
‘Habilis’ is Latin, the same root as ‘able’ and has a number of related meanings like ‘skilful’. ‘Homo Habilis’ has been translated as ‘handy man’, tool maker.
Female H. Habilis, Élisabeth Daynès 
We initially used evidence of fashioning of tools as the  defining feature of Genus Homo, but advanced types of Australopithecus have been shown to fashion primitive tools maybe even a million years before Homo arose.
We don’t know for sure if Homo Habilis is a direct ancestor of modern man as we first believed, and we don't know 'his' relationship with a number of other early forms of Homo (like H. rudolfensis, another contender for the title of being our ancestor. We don't know whether they were separate species or subspecies).
The oldest Homo remains, LD 350-1, (as yet unclassified into a sub species) is from Ethiopia 2.8–2.75 million years ago (mya) confirming that 'homo' evolved in the African savanna.

Homo spread to Asia about 2 million years ago. There were manufactured tools from 2.1 MYA found in Shangchen, China and specimens found in the nation of Georgia 1.85–1.77 MYA. These were thought to be from Homo erectus but the Georgian specimens and brain size are decidedly primitive, so it might have been a variety of Homo Habilis or maybe something in between.

Homo Erectus
The award for the first species of man that spread beyond Africa usually goes to Homo Erectus.
H. Erectus lived from between 2 MYA to as recent as 110,000 years ago, overlapping H. Habilis by almost half a million years and Homo Sapiens by about 200,000 years. Being a Chronospecies the later versions of H.Erectus would be more advanced.
H. Erectus dispersal, Sheila Mishra Here
It is the longest surviving of all human species, being present nine times as long as our own species, Homo sapiens.

H. Erectus was highly successful, and mobile, and spread widely over Africa and Eurasia
It was H. Erectus that first began to hunt medium-large animals in groups (such as bovines or elephants), moving to a diet richer in meat. Erectus would have had some tribes that routinely followed migrating herds as well as moving into other niche habitats.

Erectus tamed fire a million years ago , and maybe earlier, and he made water craft probably for fishing, but was able to colonise at least a few islands (eg Indonesia)

With longer legs and relatively shorter arms (no longer climbing trees) loss of hair, and adaptation in sweat glands, he was able to run longer distances in the heat . H. Erectus became bigger, faster and smarter (with an average brain capacity at least a third bigger than H. Habilis).

There is a conflict in the best pelvis for running on two feet and the ability to deliver babies with large heads.
In 'Modern man ' children are dependant on their parents for longer (with the continued move to more monogamous bonding in parents) allowing considerable brain growth after birth.
Larger brains require a lot of energy and are best supported in a hunter-gatherer society by cooking food and using more meat in the diet, requiring co-operative hunting of large animals, mostly by males working together.

H. Erectus is a chronospecies with a very long history and a very wide range. He evolved over time and there were many subspecies. The larger subspecies had body proportions similar to modern man, with distinctly larger brains (up to 60% of H. Sapiens). This is in sharp contrast to the smaller and earlier subspecies (or species) of Erectus.

The main African versions is often called ‘H. ergaster’.
Homo heidelbergensis (700,000 to 300,000 years ago in Africa and Europe) is the subspecies (or maybe chronospecies) closest to H. Sapiens.

The oldest H. Erectus remains are found in Kenya. The majority view is that H. Erectus also evolved in Africa and spread over Euro-Asia via the Middle East then on to Asia (including China and Indonesia) about 2 MYA. As said, he also made it to islands and must have made primitive water craft. There is some debate when H. Erectus arrived in Europe, whether it was soon after or somewhat delayed because ‘he’ preferred a warmer climate.

Next blog is the conclusion of  'out of Africa'

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Tuesday, 19 May 2020

The Missing Neolithic Farmers of Old Europe

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 In last month’s blog we discussed the dawn of the Neolithic Age. It is believed that the transition to  
Urfa Man Turkey 9,000 B.C.
Neolithic farming occurred in the Levant, most likely when a 1200 year drought brought a catastrophic end to the local Mesolithic Age. A few permanent settlements survived this catastrophe (like Tell Qaramel near modern day Aleppo) but the shortage of forage likely forced greater reliance on cultivation of 'wild' strains of plants and grains (and presumably primitive irrigation).
 At first ‘pre pottery Neolithic’ settlements (PPNA, 10,000–8,800 BC) were similar to the Natufian Mesolithic villages except for being larger and (much) more sophisticated (e.g. Jericho).
There were variations over time and distance but in the later ‘a-ceramic’ period (PPNB, 8,800–6,500 BC) Anatolia (Turkey) emerged as a Neolithic powerhouse, incorporating animal husbandry, 'domesticated' strains of grain and other crops and farming techniques some of which were discovered elsewhere (such as Mesopotamia and the Zagros region of western Iran).
It was Anatolian farmers and fisher folk that island hopped to reach Greece (around 7000 BC, before the official start of the pottery Neolithic Age in the Middle East, 6,400 BC). They established a large number of thriving maritime settlements  over the northern Mediterranean and eventually the Atlantic coast. They followed two land routes into Europe, eventually reaching Scandinavia and crossing the English Channel around 4,000 BC ( the map to the right and below is only to roughly show some of these routes).
This was not the spread of ideas, this was large scale movement of farmers, their crops and animals. They intermarried with the nomadic and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Europe but they dominated them with their superior numbers.They cleared virgin forests, tilled the soil and domesticated local plants and animals. 
It was perhaps in central and south eastern Europe that saw their greatest achievements supported by a vast trade network. There they lived in heavily fortified settlements, like Sesklo in Greece which in 5000 BC may have housed  an incredible 5,000 people, one and half millennia before the invention of the wheel and only a few hundred years after the first (Sumerian) city (Eridu in Mesopotamia) was said to be established.
Archaeologists have found the oldest gold treasure in the world in Bulgaria (4,600 BC to 4,200 BC)  
Varna necropolis, Bulgaria Wiki
the earliest evidence of copper smelting in Serbia (5500-5000 BC, 1.5-2 millennia before the Copper Age) and the world's oldest salt mine in Hallstatt Austria (about 5,000 BC).
The 'Old European culture' varied over time and distance but their numbers and sophistication continued to grow with the arrival of the potter’s wheel and ox-drawn carts. A few archaeologists have even suggested some of their pottery symbols were a form of proto-writing hundreds of years before the Sumerian pictograms.
It was they that built many of the first European megaliths, long barrows and passage tombs. Some of the ‘mega settlements’ in central and South Western Europe around Western Ukraine (4000–3500 BC) may have housed 20,000 to 46,000 people.
Almendres Cromlech from 6,000 BC Portugal, Wiki
The first Neolithic farmers of old Europe reached their peak around 4,000 BC.
Around 3,500 BC their population began to collapse relatively abruptly. In many regions the depopulation was catastrophic. Britain  lost 90 % of its Neolithic population in three hundred years. In a few areas it was almost 100%, in other areas it was less and a few areas were relatively spared.

The Pelasgians, Minoans and Leleges (Greece), the Iberians and Basques, the Nuragic people of Sardinia, the Sicans and the Elymians of Sicily and the Etruscans are all suggested (with different levels of certainty) to be related to these older Europeans. See my earlier discussion of the first people of Greece here.
The artwork of these ‘old Europeans’ lead the celebrated archaeologist Marija Gimbutas to suggest they were ‘matristic’ and peaceful, worshiping the mother goddess and that they were overwhelmed by the war-like ‘paternal’ (fairer) Indo-Europeans pastoralists from the great Steppe, with their horses, weapons and male Gods.
Hamangia culture Bulgaria, wiki
There is no positive evidence for such a whole sale conflict and besides, the Indo-Europeans didn’t begin arriving in any numbers till 500 years after the start of the catastrophe, moving in to fill a relative vacuum.The Indo-Europeans weren't to finish their settlement of Europe till about 1,000 BC (towards the end of the European Bronze Age).
What happened to the missing Neolithic Farmers of old Europe?
History is replete with examples of sudden inexplicable collapse and disappearance of Neolithic cultures and civilisations, leaving only sadness and mystery behind. The usual ‘suspects’ warfare, climate change and soil exhaustion are not satisfactory here.
The old Europeans were sophisticated farmers who knew all about organic fertiliser and pasture rotation. The depopulation seemed to have hit different areas at slightly different times but a population ‘bust’ seemed much more likely after exponential population growth, as if it was punishing success.
Perhaps the population growth made food security more precarious and unable to respond to an external shocks. In some cases there was an increase in population nearby suggesting people were fleeing from something.
It is now suspected that the population density and unhygienic conditions led to an outbreak of disease, which spread from village to village over the trading routes. 
We already know just how devastating an epidemic can be in a population that has no natural immunity and the shift to Neolithic lifestyle made people much more vulnerable to epidemics.
There was already a long tradition 6500 BC -2000 BC in central and south-eastern Europe of villagers burning their whole village and moving every eighty years or so. Sometimes they would return to an old site much later and rebuild on the rubble. Was it denying another tribe use of the village while allowing the land to lay fallow? Was there religious or social reasons? We don’t really know, but it could have been related to vermin or disease.
If it was to cope with disease, burning their homes and fleeing to other areas no longer worked for the Neolithic farmers.
The scale of devastation with some areas massively depopulated (some less affected and a few relatively spared) is reminiscent of a later catastrophe, the Black Death and it seems that they were dealing with something of similar virulence. In a previous article we discussed the evidence emerging that they were indeed dealing with first pandemic of the Plague, with an early primitive strain but at least equally as devastating.here
Where did the plague initially come from?  We know its ancestor Yersinia pseudotuberculosis came from the far east so this early form of Plague likely came via the Great Eurasian Steppe.
It is pure speculation but possibly a more peaceful contact with Indo-European traders still proved fatal to the old people of Europe, long before the Indo-Europeans moved into Europe in any numbers.

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