Humans were nearly wiped out
70,000 years ago (from
(AP) Human beings may have had a brush with extinction 70,000
years ago, an extensive genetic study suggests.
Spencer Wells declares that the study tells "truly an epic
human population at that time was reduced to small isolated groups
in Africa, apparently because of drought, according to an analysis
released on Thursday.
The report notes that
a separate study by researchers at Stanford University estimated
that the number of early humans may have shrunk as low as 2,000
before numbers began to expand again in the early Stone Age.
illustrates the extraordinary power of genetics to reveal insights
into some of the key events in our species' history," said
Spencer Wells, National Geographic Society explorer in residence.
of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions,
coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world. Truly
an epic drama, written in our DNA."
Wells is director
of the Genographic Project, launched in 2005 to study anthropology
using genetics. The report was published in The American
Journal of Human Genetics.
Studies using mitochondrial
DNA, which is passed down through mothers, have traced modern humans
to a single "mitochondrial Eve," who lived in Africa about
200,000 years ago.
The migrations of
humans out of Africa to populate the rest of the world appear to
have begun about 60,000 years ago, but little has been known about
humans between Eve and that dispersal.
The new study looks
at the mitochondrial DNA of the Khoi and San people in South Africa,
who appear to have diverged from other people between 90,000 and
150,000 years ago.
researchers (led by Doron Behar of Rambam Medical Center in Haifa,
Israel, and Saharon Rosset of IBM T.J. Watson Research Center in
Yorktown Heights, New York, and Tel Aviv University) concluded
that humans separated into small populations before the Stone Age,
when they came back together and began to increase in numbers and
spread to other areas.
Eastern Africa experienced
a series of severe droughts between 135,000 and 90,000 years ago,
and researchers said this climatological shift may have contributed
to the population changes, dividing into small, isolated groups
that developed independently.
Leakey, a Genographic adviser, asked, "Who would have thought
that as recently as 70,000 years ago, extremes of climate had reduced
our population to such small numbers that we were on the very edge
Today, more than 6.6
billion people inhabit the globe, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
research was funded by the National Geographic Society, IBM, the
Waitt Family Foundation, the Seaver Family Foundation, Family Tree
DNA and Arizona Research Labs.
Satellite photograph of Western Europe
showing typical Atlantic weather.
Click the picture for another, larger one from August 2012.
'In 2021, a reindeer bone fragment
discovered in Castlepook Cave near Doneraile, Co. Cork in 1972 was
dated to 33,000 years ago, establishing human activity in Ireland
more than 20,000 years earlier than previously thought.' from
IN THE 'STONE AGES'
road excavations near Toomebridge, county Antrim in 2002-3,
archæologists found more than 10,000 artefacts, including
Stone Age axe heads and flints from 9,400 years ago, through
to Bronze Age times about 4,500 years ago. The finds were
especially significant because the site charted the change
from gathering (mostly crustaceans) and hunting, to settled
farming on the top of drumlins, the hillocks of loam formed
by the advance and retreat of the ice during the last Ice
of round houses of up to 12 metres in diameter suggested
that the settlement became permanent, rather than being
a seasonal encampment. The inhabitants are thought to have
fished and grown cereal crops.
The remains of Bronze Age cooking-pits - also used for
bathing and religious rituals - were found. They were lined
with clay or wood to make them water-tight...
The study of prehistory has tended, until recently, to be almost
entirely a matter of dates. Those dates are constantly being
updated, so these pages are not concerned with when or by whom
archæologists consider prehistoric tombs (or mortuary-houses) and
other megaliths to have been built.
Nor when the predecessors of the tomb-builders came to Ireland
- but with what they look like now in the man-denuded landscape.
As for what
they looked like when they were built in fertile upland clearings
of the vast forest that covered most of Ireland and Scotland (except
for the windswept coasts and highest mountains), anyone can easily
imagine. In those times there was a wealth of animal and plant-life
inconceivable today. The builders of those tombs, the erectors of
those standing-stones, began the now-inexorable process of man's
favourite activity: destruction in the name of construction. History
is the account of our fascination by power, its acquisition and
may have been a response too social and demographic stress due to
agricultural settlement. They are particularly dense on islands,
especially in the Mediterranean. They covered Ireland rather as
Romanesque churches cover Western Aquitaine - or as cell-phone masts
and electricity pylons cover Europe today. Indeed, more so, because
large concentrations all over the island (especially south Dublin,
north Clare and several areas of Tyrone and Cork) formed 'megalithic
landscapes' or vast sets for amazing prehistoric theatre and
son-et-lumière spectacles. The big difference between
the kinds of power-erections lies not so much in the now-charming
individuality and æsthetic quality of Irish megaliths as in
the mystery and ceremony which surrounded them - for we live now
in an unprecedentedly and cripplingly anti-mysterious and anti-ceremonial
some places. at some times, the people or bodies placed or walled
up in megalithic tombs might have been deemed magical or accursèd
epileptic, spastic or suffering from cerebral palsy.
a great many folk-tales involve local landscapes and topographical
features such as hills and cliffs, lakes and forests (important
to people not moving about in the bubbles of their cars), so it
is reasonable to suppose that many megalithic tombs were deliberately
sited in relation to the landscapes of the time, especially dominant
hills, horizons, streams and forests. Lines of sight must at least
occasionally have been cleared s through the woodlands and forest
- and some of them would have become tracks. Though the forests
have gone, sufficient numbers of tombs offer views of significant
or significantly-shaped hills, often with panoramas, for us to assume
a powerful connection between the temple-tombs and the landscape.
the raisers of those stones, the builders of those mortuary-houses
or tomb-temples to ancestor-worship, we the untameable adapters
and tamers of landscape, did not wipe out the well-adapted Mesolithic
hunter-gatherers who lived rather well along the rivers and more
favourable estuaries on a rich diet of fish, crustacea, shellfish,
nuts, berries and occasional game. We are the same people - and
the Neolithic revolution was cultural and technological rather than
slaughteringly-imperial in the manner of the unprecedented European
holocausts of North and South America. But it has emerged that in
the thousands of years between the demise of the Mesolithic people
and the arrival of the Romans in Britain, fish and shellfish were
hardly consumed at all: presumably they were considered to be food
for sub-humans only.
can we imagine the mind-set of megalith-builders when modern 'Caucasians'
cannot understand the mind-sets of contemporary Muslims, Hindus
or 'Animists' ?
It has been
established by analysis of mitochondrial DNA that the entire modern
European (and from-Europe) population are partly descended from
just seven women who lived at different times from 45,000 to 10,000
years ago. These women were themselves (at least) partial descendants
of just one woman who left Africa (or whose daughters left Africa)
much earlier still.
through analysis of DNA in the Y-chromosomes peculiar to men, modern
European peoples can trace their origins back to ten Stone Age men.
were not Neolithic farmers but Palæolithic and Mesolithic
gatherers and hunters. Thus the Neolithic cultural revolution occurred
by imitative adoption of crop- and animal-raising at different times
in different places. The climate in Ireland in Neolithic times was
like that of Western Portugal or Oregon today, which is one reason
why people favoured and hence cleared the uplands and low hills
which are so plentiful in Ireland. At that time the lower land was
dense forest full of wild pig, various kinds of deer, bears and
people are at great pains to say that hunter-gatherers have poor
diets - because the opposite is true. Purely farm-based diets tend
to produce a restricted range of foods (with accompanying vitamin-deficiency)
in very poor return for huge effort and totalitarian restriction
of freedom. There is an inevitable reduction of biodiversity to
the present pitiable levels - but no reduction of the diversity
of human disease and desire.
technology - however poor at giving us the food we are actually
designed to eat, as we are now beginning to realise - always produces
weapons for the arthritic, rickety and cancerous, those sick and
ever-sicker, ever-more-technological societies take over the healthy
in body (and especially in mind) in a process of survival of the
least fit. And of course invent religion to deny what reason would
otherwise show them.
the megalithic tombs (or mortuary-houses) were constructed, the
burial places of the Mesolithic people might be described as places
of return to the earth. Megaliths, however, are rather more arrogant
and rather more complex. The dead who were deposited in them were,
in a sense, not allowed to die, but were used as servants or instruments
of the kind of earth-conquering cults (such as Capitalism and Islam
and Christianity) that we have today.
were the ancestors, effectively trapped in stone houses, while the
living, who inhabited wooden dwellings, organised cults around them.
Megalithic tombs could have been used as auditoria,
as temples, abodes of oracles, places to resolve disputes, or indeed
to serve any public function in the same way as was the Temple of
am not concerned, either, with the speculations about the astronomical
and astrological significance of certain famous tombs and cemeteries
of tombs that enchant so many. The cult of glamorous explanations
which hypnotises our culture distances us from these monuments far
more than stories of fairies' houses, or the beds of the Hag Goddess
Bhéarra - and the legendary eloping lovers
Diarmuid and Gráinne. Suffice it to say that there were many hundreds
of times more monuments built than survive today. The Ordnance Survey
Letters for Dublin alone show that perhaps ten times the number
of monuments survived in that county at the beginning of the 19th
discoveries such as the amazing acoustical properties of many monuments
- carefully contrived tricks of sound to impress and intimidate
the unpriestly - amplify the poetry of the stones, the atmosphere
of the tombs tends to dissipate under the searchlight of our obsessive
explaining. From cults of miracles to cults of explanation is one-way
traffic. And just as ejaculation is not necessarily orgasm, so explanation
is not necessarily understanding.
it to say that the tombs are obviously houses - or cages - at least
temporarily, for certain kinds of dead (sacrificial or dynastic)
and perhaps records for their progeny. We can see and feel, without
the teleologies of excavation, pollen analysis, dendrochronology,
carbon-dating, and so on, that some also, like the many stone circles
and stone rows, are magical constructions. We can ourselves weave
any magic we like around them - ancient or modern. Most of our contemporaries,
however, ignore them or are ignorant of their very presence.
temple derives from Latin templum, whose original
meaning was 'viewing-space'.
This space or platform was in early- and pre-Roman times not for
viewing celestial bodies,
but for viewing birds - birdwatching. For augury (from a
proto-Latin word for 'bird') was practised
by observing the flight of birds (often geese) at
prescribed times, or before taking important decisions.
Augury was practised by augurs, who would then inaugurate
proceedings or actions.
seems more than likely that prehistoric tombs and stone circles
were templa for some kind or kinds
of augury, whether celestial or avian. Or even the interpretation
all this, it is obvious that different types of tomb-temple or mortuary-house
were built at different periods. This is convenient for the presentation
of these pages - which, of course, include quite a lot of modern
earliest (constructed in large numbers over 4000 years ago) are
the Court-tombs, so called because they have an unroofed
ceremonial space or court rather like the plazas or
assembly-places in front of Christian cathedrals,
or the templa of the Roman Republic.
might have served, like the Greek agora, as contained spaces
in which conflicts, both verbal and physical, could be played out
and resolved before the bones or ashes of ancestors. There is no
reason to assume that they were not multi-functional spaces, like
many buildings in our civilisation - e.g. municipal halls used for
wrestling matches and symphony concerts.
the courts are beautifully constructed with the 'post-and-panel'
to me interesting is that human presence long preceded tomb-building.
This reflects the complete difference of world-view between the
hunter-gatherers and the stock- (and people-) enclosing tomb-builders.
living in forests which they regard as entirely benign and holy,
tend to lay out their dead in the forest, covered with brushwood
and vegetation or basic/symbolic kinds of shelter, so that they
make a sweet and appropriate transition from creature to humus.
who clear forests in order to corral animals which, however valuable,
they inevitably regard as inferior beings, do not regard the forest
as entirely benign (though leaves collected from it are both summer
and winter fodder). They tend to regard the spaces they have cleared
as 'holy', and they do not like to envisage death as a cyclical
process between human and humus.
They - the
farmers who have been assigned to the Neolithic or New Stone Age
- invented the catastrophically-alienating concept of wealth, which
we now see to be reducing the planet to resource and product increasingly
overwhelmed by waste. The problem with concepts is that, once invented,
they cannot be uninvented. Concepts are as much the contents of
Pandora's legendary box as diseases. Thus the concept of "normality"
(as distinct from orthodoxy) invented less than 200 years ago, has
profoundly affected the lives of those who have a word for it.
is invented, the concept of inheritance immediately follows, along
with other nasty ideas such as the retention of wealth, as opposed
to the distribution of food ensured by (for example) hunter-gatherer
inevitably arise pedigree- and ancestor-worship of one kind or another.
And so imposing tombs arer built, so that human beings can deceive
themselves into continuing contact with the dead, either by ritual
and trance, or by actual touching of the bones through an aperture
- a practice which survived until recently in Europe, and probably
still survives in that most conservative and culturally-layered
peninsula of Europe, Italy.
of early Irish saints also feature apertures for such a purpose.
But to return
to Court-tombs, these mostly occur at a certain height (between
200 and 300 metres) because they were built on land cleared where
the forest was thinnest - upland which was better-drained than,
for example, the river valleys. There is a distinct possibility
that they had wooden precursors.
the coasts, occur where forest was thin due to sea-winds. Generally
they concentrate to the north and east of Ireland. And, like other
forms of Irish megalith, they are distinctively Irish although
they have relatives not just in nearby south-west Scotland, but
as far away as Languedoc in France, where some Allées-couvertes
have an unroofed court-feature.
allées-couvertes, they are long gallery-tombs encased
in a covering mound of stones or stones and earth, called a cairn,
corresponding to what in England is called a long-barrow.
The gallery was where the burials were placed; in Ireland these
were almost always burials of ashes after cremation.
first glance look like chaotic heaps of stones, but usually the
gallery and/or the court can be discerned.
in county Mayo, are still largely embedded in the peat-bog which
grew on top of them some centuries after they were built, and are
were roofed by large slabs often supported on corbel-stones
placed on top of the orthostats or supporting wall-slabs to narrow
the gap to be spanned.
courts are most commonly a single, roughly- semicircular forecourt
at the wider and higher front end of the cairn, which generally
faces east. The orthostats of these courts presented an often-imposing
a second forecourt occurs at the rear, making the megalith a Double-court
an unroofed, oval forecourt is found in the middle, with the burial
galleries going off from each end, opposing each other along the
axis of the tomb. These Central-court tombs are very large
and hard to photograph.
is the Full-court tomb, in which the forecourt is an oval
enclosure approached through a narrow passage.
two separate tombs are close together.
It is often
thought that prehistoric tombs have fallen victim only recently
to the depredations of "progress". But many were pillaged
or deliberately wrecked shortly after their erection.
Similarly, recent discoveries outside the city of Derry have shown
that Neolithic farmers were not the peaceful folk that a certain
pro-agricultural bias has encouraged us to believe, but fought each
other as fiercely as the'Celtic-speaking Irish who were constantly
attacking and burning each others' homesteads and rustling each
others' cattle. Ireland perhaps has never been a peaceful
Plan of the centre-court tomb at Ballyglass, county Mayo.
The penannular central court is some 13 metres wide.
To build it, a large house (the rectangle on the left) was demolished.
A 19th century sketch of a
ruined court-tomb in county Antrim known as
Cander's Walls -
which has now vanished.
Cloghanmore, Malin More, county
with a similar type of tomb on the island of Sardinia