Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification

For my second contribution to ABC world history I have found myself with O for Oman! Having never significantly looked into the history of the Arabian Peninsula, let alone the region that modern day Oman covers, I decided to go early with it, and take a general overview of the different Paleolithic periods important to this part of the world leading up to the Neolithic revolution.

The present-day Sultanate of Oman lies in the south-eastern Arabian Peninsula, but there are different definitions for Oman, Oman traditionally included the present-day United Arab Emirates, though its prehistoric remains differ in some respects from the more specifically defined Oman proper which corresponds roughly with the current central provinces of the country. Oman is surrounded by the vast Rub Al-Khali desert to the west and the Arabian Sea and Sea of Oman to the south and east. The country is naturally divided into three geological zones: the Al-Hajar Mountains in northern Oman, the Huqf depression in the interior and the Dhofar Mountains in the southwest. Many wadis (valleys or dry riverbeds) cross the plateaus of the central region that once would have flowed with ancient rivers that led into perennial lakes in the lowlands. There is plenty of evidence that this would have once been a fairly productive landscape of grasslands before the region became the very arid place it is today.

Dhofar region cave art
Continue reading “Oman in the Paleolithic: Migration and Desertification”

The Prehistoric Thames Valley

Despite living in London for most of my life, I only recently went to visit the Museum of London. The museum in general covers the entire history of the city, and has some great objects to go and stare at, especially in the medieval period for me. However, what I want to focus on right now is what the museum covers of period before the city, or any trace of it, even existed. This is the first part of the museum you’d see if you visit, and it covers the history of the Thames valley from before human settlement, and right through the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, and beyond of course.

The River Thames has played a vital role in the development and story of London for the last 450,000 years. It is only 352 kilometres from source to the sea, but throughout time it has continuously shaped the local landscape. It has been used by humans as a highway, a boundary, a food store and a sacred stream. In London today most of the Thames has artificial embankments, but in prehistory the river was wider and shallower, and probably flowed in a number of different channels. To Julius Caesar the river was known as Tamesa – ‘the flowing one’.

Artist’s impression of the prehistoric River Colne, a tributary of the Thames.

The Palaeolithic period up to 8800BC is characterised by climate change. Gradual, but continual cycles of warming then cooling, with periods when Britain was too cold to be occupied. During warmer times nomadic hunter-gatherers moved in and out of Britain, via a land bridge, following herds of animals. People would have eaten big game like mammoth and reindeer along with foraged foods such as nuts, fruit and roots. At the beginning of the Ice Age in this period, the Thames was much longer and ran through a different part of the UK. It started in the Welsh uplands, flowed across the English midlands and eventually joined the river Rhine in the southern part of what is now the North Sea. Nearly half a million years ago it was diverted into its present valley by ice sheets. Since then, it has changed course many times because of changes in global climate and sea level. Each time the sea level dropped, the river had to cut its way down through the land to reach the sea, leaving behind a dry flood plain. Nowadays, these former flood plains, or gravel terraces, are rich in archaeological finds, which were carried there by Ice Age flash floods. These include basic flint tools such as ‘hand axes’, as well as animal bones.

200,000 year old mammoth jaw found in Ilford, East London.

From 8800BC was the Mesolithic. As the climate warmed in this period the landscape changed from tundra to woodland. Hunter-gatherers continued to move in and out of Britain until it became cut off permanently from Europe around 6500BC. People began to manage the land to lure smaller prey such as red deer and wild boar into forest clearings. Tools changed and smaller worked flint was used to create weapons such as arrows. Evidence of transient Mesolithic occupation is provided by scatters of flint knapping debris found along the riverside of the Thames. The area of the Thames and its tributaries were widely used by mobile hunters and gatherers taking advantage of the rich fishing and wild fowling opportunities. As well as fresh water, the Thames provided these prehistoric people with a wide range of natural resources such as reeds, rushes and timber for building. The river bed was also full of flint nodules which were vital for making sharp tools. As mentioned, the wildlife was plentiful, and there were many types of fish and birds, and small mammals like beavers and otters. Larger animals, including deer and cattle, also came down to the river to drink. Seasonal runs of salmon, migrating birds and the occasional beached whale would have supplemented this diverse diet. Together, this made the Thames Valley a very prosperous place to live.

The fertile river banks were also prime soil to be farmed for grain, and this started to take place in the Neolithic period up to 2500BC. During this period there was a transition from nomadic hunter gathering towards small scale farming. Animals such as sheep and goats were domesticated and crops including spelt were grown. Excavations on the gravel terraces of the upper Thames at Yarnton in Oxfordshire show clear evidence of Early Neolithic farming. Here a rectangular ditched mortuary enclosure was constructed, a rectangular hall or communal longhouse defined by postholes, plus numerous pits and other postholes. It appears that Yarnton was an area of open grassland which was not continuously occupied, but was inhabited on an intermittent or seasonal basis for a long period of time by early pastoral farmers. The animal bones found at the site consist mostly of cattle, sheep, goat and pig. The presence of charred grain and bread demonstrates that cereals were produced nearby.

Various Stone Age tools on display at the Museum of London.

During this time we see the first evidence of monuments and large earthworks such as henges and cursus. Although centuries of cultivation of the Thames gravels have destroyed almost all the standing earthworks within this region, aerial survey has revealed a landscape covered with cropmarks of all periods. These surveys have also revealed long barrows, cursus monuments, causewayed enclosures, numerous ring ditches, mortuary enclosures and multiple henge monuments. One area of the Thames Valley where its cropmarks have been extensively excavated is Heathrow Airport. Work here revealed part of the Stanwell early neolithic cursus, which was later replaced by a series of late Bronze Age ditched fields. Interestingly, the Bronze Age settlement at Heathrow initially respected the line of the cursus; it was only encroached upon later, perhaps implying that over time its significance or sacred status was forgotten.

And it was the Bronze Age itself that came next from 2500BC to 800BC. The introduction of metal working changed lives and society. It is likely that those who controlled the supply, making and trade of bronze became more important and powerful. Britain was now a fully settled farming society. Widespread settlement would have led to friction between groups, and conflict over territory, and thus People began to live in more permanent roundhouses and protect their land. The emergence of weapons also becomes more prevalent during this time, perhaps for this reason. The Thames would have played an important role in these new issues, as the river acted as both a physical and psychological barrier. Settlements built on its islands used the water as a first line of defence. The remains of a number of wooden bridges have been found along the Thames. In the last century BC, the Thames also acted as a tribal boundary. Archaeologists have mapped out prehistoric territories using coins, and their conclusions suggest the river might have represented the boundary between neighbouring groups. According to Julius Caesar, the river was ‘fordable at one point only, and even there with difficulty’.

Bronze spearheads at the Museum of London.

Large numbers of objects have been recovered from the Thames during dredging. These include human remains, particularly skulls, as well as weapons, tools and ornaments made from stone, bone and metal. Many are beautifully made and seem to have been placed in the river deliberately. This happened in rivers across northern Europe. There may have been a variety of reasons why prehistoric people did this. Was it to appease the river’s power in times of flood? The later second millennium BC was a period of climatic deterioration and rising river levels. These events may have prompted the development of a new water-oriented cult, replacing an earlier sky or earth oriented cult. This new cult could explain the numerous discoveries of bronze tools and weapons during dredging of the lower Thames, as offerings to the river.

From 800BC is the Iron Age. New strong iron tools enabled people to plough heavier soils and clear more forest. This created a farming boom which In turn saw an increase in the population. People had different roles in society such as druids, craftspeople and farmers. Wealthy leaders showed off their prestige with decorated gold and bronze objects, jewellery and imported goods. Coins were produced as symbols of power. Eventually the Romans write about life in Britain, even prior to their invasion of the island, and this ends the prehistory of Britain. London was established as Londinium in AD43 on a site that guarded the Romans’ bridgehead on the north bank of the Thames and a major road nexus.

That covers the history of prehistory in the Thames valley, and London before London. To see artefacts from this whole period, and further beyond up to the present day then take a trip to the Museum of London, I really recommend it! I should have gone a long time ago myself.

The Altamura Man: an Overview of Neanderthal

The Altamura Man found in Italy is an interesting Neanderthal specimen. It was discovered in 1993 in the karstic cave of Lamalunga nearby Altamura (Puglia). The remains were at the bottom of a 26 ft deep well. The archaeologists suggest the cause of the death presumably was the accidental fall of the individual into the well. The find is in a great degree of conservation, even though this Neanderthal body has been dated as 150000 years old. However due to the calcification of the remains, the only parts left that are visible are the skull and a portion of the shoulder. A team lead by Giorgio Manzi has been investigating the body and their research produces DNA data that has categorise the specimen amongst the most ancient Neanderthal remains known from DNA extraction and analysis. This was published in the Journal of Human Evolution in 2015.

As I have kicked off with such a cool example of a pre-historic individual find, I thought I might as well talk a bit about Neanderthals as a whole since we have given them little mention here over the year. Moreover, I think Neanderthals are one of those historical people – or pre-historic in this case -that we tend to take for granted. I think many people still have this sort of cartoony idea about them being dumb cavemen, who were all whipped out because our cleverer and better looking Homo Sapiens ancestors came about with their evolutionary mad dash. Well, that is just not fair at all.

I think we tend to forget and overlook the fact that Neanderthals had, with their more stocky bodies, larger cranial capacities than your average Sapiens, and we just as crafty as any of the other early humans species in this worlds. Neanderthals have left an astonishing record of stone tools. Some of the most abundant and impressive founds come from France, particularly the area of Dordogne. In fact it is one of this French sites, Le Moustier, that gives the name of the culture (or as fancy archaeologist call it – techno-complex) known as Mousterian. This is a collection of flint tools of Neanderthal craft that emerged during the Middle Paleolithic (from 160000 BP to 40000 BP). But this was not a culture and type of tool making technique restricted to France. Remains of Mousterian span from far east as Siberia, to the plains of Spain. In Spain one can find the site of Atapuerca, just in the north of Castile, which is another famous settlement and data-analysis centre for the investigation of the evolution and development of early human societies. So, in this regard, our Altamura Man is not so uncommon in terms of his location. Therefore, I hope you now understand that the real uniqueness behind this find has more to do with the state of preservation and its calcification due to the geological conditions of the cave. As well as his age, of course.

Another thing that a lot of people do not realise, is that there is still a lot of Neanderthal in our modern human bodies. It has now been commonly accepted by scientist that Neanderthals were, at least in part, assimilated into the Homo Sapiens group via reproduction and mating. In fact, recent studies suggest that the sexual interaction between the two species happened much earlier than previously thought: around 100000 years ago, before, or during the first waves of diaspora from the African continent. Therefore, Neanderthal DNA runs through our veins, and it is still found individuals in the far East alongside Denisovans genetics. We have come a long way to understand this species since the first discoveries of Neanderthal remains in the 19th century. One of the first finds was that of an infants skull in Engis (modern-day Belgium). However, there is still much unknown about their lives, legacy and extinction. The scientific community still holds strongly that the Neanderthals became extinct due to climatological changes they were unfit to over come – presumably a long-lasting period of extreme cold in which our distant forebears outlasted their cousins due to, perhaps, higher adaptability. We do know that Neanderthal society was a hunting-gathering type; and that is about it. From the analysis of their teeth and the abundant evidence of weapons of their making, we now know that they were in fact apex predators, hunting from deer to mammoths. However, very recent report coming from El Sidron, (Spain), suggest that at least this group of Neanderthals survived mostly on mushrooms and plant leftovers, like pine nuts. Their social groups were also much smaller and farther wide-spread than those of the Homo Sapiens. And from there on everything gets a bit vague. There are some claims to artistic expressions in Neanderthal culture, such as some shells with pain found in a site in Murcia (Spain), as well some scratched rock surfaces found in Gibraltar that could be understood as rock cave art. However, the studies are inconclusive due to the lack of consistent evidence.

In any case, what comes across from this general overview of Neanderthals is the need of further investigations due to our lack of understanding. There is a serious lack of researchers investigating the Stone Age, or certain parts of it in Europe and the rest of the world, due to the difficulties this supposes. However, I think the challenge should encourage us to get more involved. Everyday science and our methods and resources get a little bit better to allow us to understand the very distant past with more clarity. We need to keep on pursuing this knowledge so that specimens like the Altamura Man stop being a funny coincidence in our historical, and pre-historic record, and turn them into highlights of the early origins of our societies.

The Altamira Cave

The Altamira cave is a very significant monument from Palaeolithic, that for some odd reason many people still do not know, or this is what I have found out. Because of such a thing, and considering I know them well as they are part of my cultural heritage, this blog entry is entirely dedicated to this topic. To start with, you need to know that “this cave, without doubt the best known cave in the Cantabrian region, is situated about two and a half kilometres to the south-west of the town of Santillana del Mar”1. The complex of galleries and tunnels that form the cave is about 270 metres long, and its well-known pre-historical paintings have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Site2. It is particularly well-known by its paintings of animals. The site was actually discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola who was an archaeologist, ecologist and investigator3. The historical tradition (although many say it is just a mere urban legend) says that it was really his daughter, accompanied by her dog, who adventured herself in the inside of the cave and discovered its wonders. At the present moment, the cave is not open to the public as the paintings had suffered some damage during the several years of visits (changes on temperature, air, light, etc. because of the constant presence of the visitors) so it has been closed, although it is sometimes opened for very special occasions. Nonetheless, nearby a museum and a replica of the cave4, the Neocueva, have been created and they are a well substitute for the real thing.

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