The Historical Context of Cheddar Man

Cheddar Man | Know Your MemeThe Cheddar Man is the oldest complete human skeleton found in Britain.  He died a violent death around 7150 BC in Gough’s Cave in Chedder Gorge, Somerset, where his remains were uncovered in 1903. Cheddar Man made headlines when the latest forensic reconstruction from London’s Natural History Museum depicted him as dark skinned, a surprising revelation some criticised as politically motivated.

What we know:

  • Cheddar Man was not the first Briton: human fossils have been found in Gough’s cave predating Cheddar Man by 5,000 years. However, these early inhabitants did not survive the ice age and bear no relation to either Cheddar Man or modern Britons.
  • He was young, most likely in his mid-20s.
  • Cheddar Man belonged to mitochondrial haplogroup U5 (from the female line), a genome found mainly in Finns and Laplanders today.
  • His Y chromosomal haplogroup was I2A2.
  • He was 5’4 tall.
  • He was lactose intolerant.
  • According to the latest genome sequencing, Cheddar Man had blue eyes, ‘dark to black’ skin and curly, black hair.

Cheddar Man belonged to a wave of ‘Mesolithic’ (Middle Stone Age) settlers, blue-eyed hunters-gatherers who crossed to Britain by land as the ice sheets retreated.  Typical of hunter-gatherers, their numbers were small; probably only 12,000 in Cheddar Man’s time. They are not the main ancestors of modern Britain.

Eupedia ForumEurope in Cheddar Man’s time

In the Neolithic Era (New Stone Age), lighter-skinned, brown-eyed farmers of Middle Eastern origin settled across Europe, introducing livestock herding, grains and a milk-based diet. They interbred with and ultimately replaced, the smaller indigenous population. In Britain, they constructed Stonehenge and Skara Brae. Neolithic farmer ancestry is strongest in Sardinians today.

A third wave settled in Britain during the mid-Bronze Age, 5,000 years after Cheddar Man’s time. The demographic transformation is evidenced by the spread of Bell Breaker pottery around the time and the replacement of stone monoliths with humbler burial mounds. The ‘Bell Beakers’ were part of a larger migration of Indo-European speakers across Europe and South Asia. They introduced horses, bronze weaponry and the Y chromosomal haplogroup R1-B, which was not present in Western Europeans before but dominates today. More numerous, they engulfed the earlier populations and left a stronger genetic imprint. They were the progenitors of the ancient Celts.

The Genetic Map Of Europe – Brilliant MapsModern European Y chromosomal haplogroups

Further, better-known migrations of the Anglo Saxons and Norse followed in the Middle Ages. Disproportionate to their cultural influence, the Roman and Norman invasions had little impact on Britain’s genetic makeup.

In a recent article published by the ‘New Scientist’, published on the 21st February 2018, geneticist Susan Walsh, who worked on Cheddar Man project, admitted the data on Cheddar Man’s skin colour is not conclusive.

“It’s not a simple statement of ‘this person was dark-skinned’, it is his most probable profile, based on current research.”

The article further stipulates that recent genetic research on indigenous populations in Southern Africa by Brenna Henn of Stony Brook University demonstrated substantial variations in skin colour among individuals with similar genotypes. Like the colour of dinosaurs, discerning Cheddar Man’s complexion is educated guesswork.

Related imageDespite this, scientists have speculated Mesolithic Europeans were dark-skinned for some time. The genes for blue eyes evolved before the genes which determine light skin and blond hair. The Spanish LaBrana man (pictured right), a contemporary of Cheddar Man, exhibited similar traits.

Britain’s Mesolithic population, of which Cheddar Man belonged, were healthy and ate mainly fish, which is rich in vitamin D. Europeans evolved light skin to extract more vitamin D from the sun, so when excessive sunlight or a high seafood diet makes it abundant, these genes do not develop. This is why the Inuit maintain dark skin despite living in the boreal extremes of North America.

Originating from Anatolia and the steppes of southern Russia respectively, and eating milk products and bread over seafood, the Neolithic farmers and Bell Beaker people were lighter-skinned than Cheddar Man’s ilk. It is normal for dark-skinned people to develop lighter skin after millennia in cold European climates too, as did Ashkenazi Jews.

Today 10% of British DNA traces back to the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers like Cheddar Man, roughly 10% from Neolithic farmers and the rest, perhaps even up to 90%, from the Bell Beakers and later immigrants.

Genetics is a dynamic discipline. New technology, discoveries and research are constantly introducing new evidence and debunking the old. Yes, media coverage of the Cheddar Man was sensationalist, but that is their nature.

It is important to remember these migrations occurred over centuries, with interbreeding always occurring. What information we can discern from a handful of fossilised cavemen remains a murky glimpse to a long lost past.

Note: Studies on prehistoric migrations and genomes is convoluted but fascinating. I’ve linked some resources for further reading. The Eupedia and Nature posts are particularly detailed.

Sources: Nature, National Geographic, New Scientist, Eupedia, BBC, The Guardian, Abroad in the Yard

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Modern Kosovo

Kosovo flagNestled in the centre of the Balkans, the Republic of Kosovo is Europe’s youngest country, both politically and demographically. Alongside Bosnia and Albania, it is one of only three majority Muslim states in Europe. It is a small country of only 1.8 million; mostly ethnic Albanians and an Orthodox Serb minority. Like Bosnia, Kosovo emerged from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, governed by a UN mandate until 2008. This week marks its tenth birthday. 

Kosovo is recognised by only 113 of the 193 UN states.  This puts it in the ambiguous category of ‘partially recognised state’, alongside Taiwan, Palestine, Western Sahara and Northern Cyprus. Serbia’s fellow Orthodox Christian nations like Greece, Romania and Russia, and the former USSR do not recognise Kosovo while the Muslim world is split. Kosovo is neither a member nor observer of the UN.

kosovo recognition

Green countries recognise Kosovo. Crucially security council members Russia and China do not.

Yugoslavia’s sectarian strife of the 1990s was a legacy of Ottoman imperialism. The divide and rule policy of empires breeds ethnic hatred wherever it is implemented. Most conflicts since WW2, from the partition of India to the Rwandan Genocide result from old imperial policies that kept subject populations divided and favoured one group over another. This leaves deep seated hatred and mistrust along ethnic and religious lines, particularly when land rights are involved.

The Balkans, though under Muslim Turkish, not Christian European, rule was no different. The Ottomans favoured Muslims while taxing Christians higher and stealing their boys to raise as devout soldiers. When the Ottoman Empire retreated from the Balkans in the 19th century, the Austrians and the Russians took their place. The Austro-Hungarian Empire favoured Catholic Croats while the Russians favoured the Serbs. The nationalist zeitgeist which had united Italy and Germany only divided and ‘balkanised’ ethnoreligious lines further.

Kosovo was a tricky case. The small territory is dear to the hearts of many Serbs, being the centre of their old kingdom and the site of the heroic Battle of Kosovo in 1389 against the invading Turks. Despite this, by the 20th century, the majority population were ethnic Albanians, a non-Slavic folk who adopted Islam under Ottoman rule.

kosovo balkans.png

Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were formerly a part of Yugoslavia

Broz Tito united the region after WW2 through his magnetic personality and the internationalist appeal of Pan-Slavism and socialism. Each state in the federation had equal rights and the promotion of nationalism was banned. After Tito’s death, however, Yugoslavia became increasingly Serb dominated. Beginning in 1990, its constituent republics seceded.

In the following wars Kosovo was the last dispute to be settled. Slobidan Milosevic, who rose to power on a Serb nationalist platform, installed a Serb administration and clamped down on Albanian Kosovar rights. In 1996 the Kosovo Liberation Army took up arms. Milosevic responded with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing, massacring  10,000 Albanians and expelling a million others. The KLA committed war crimes too, but firepower was on the Serbian side. It was only after NATO aircraft bombed Serb targets into submission that Milosevic relented. Peace was ratified in 1998 and Kosovo gained independence a decade later.

Image result for kosovo bill clinton

Bill Clinton Boulevard, Pristina. The US President is a hero in Kosovo for guaranteeing  independence from Serbia in 1998

Ten years on and Kosovo is the second poorest nation in Europe after Moldova. Mistrust between Serbs and Albanians remain high, most of the former still yearning for reunification with Serbia. Unemployment stands at 57% and the country struggles to attract foreign investment. Kosovo’s diplomatic status does not help either. Foreign travel is virtually impossible: even the Prime Minister was recently denied visas to Britain and the USA.

Despite this, there are glimmers of a brighter future. Kosovo is debt free and in the capital of Pristina a cultural scene is booming. Power outages, which were common in the early days of independence, are now rare. In a continent plagued by low birth-rates, Kosovo’s young population just might be its saving grace.

Sources: BBC, CIA Factbooks, Kosovo Info, New York Times

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For Whom the Bell Tolls

hemingway cover.jpg‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ is Ernest Hemingway’s third and best-selling novel. It tells the story of a dynamiter tasked with destroying a bridge in the Spanish Civil War.

Drawing from Hemingway’s time as a journalist in that conflict, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ deals with the themes of death, duty, camaraderie and war. The cliché of ‘the earth moving’ during intercourse derives from this book.

I picked a hardback copy in a rushed visit to a Thai bookstore in 2017, a couple hours before a plane flight. It was my introduction to Hemingway, and I was not disappointed.

The title is drawn from John Donne, a 17th century English poet. In Donne’s time church bells tolled when someone had died:

‘No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.’

His communist superiors describe Robert Jordan ‘a young American of slight political development but a great way with the Spaniards and a fine partisan record.” Jordan has lived in Spain for a decade and dreams of returning to his native Montana to teach the language at university. He fights not for ideological reasons like his peers, but a sense of duty to his adopted home and its people.

Jordan is a demolitionist with the International Brigades, the antifascist volunteer force of Wily Brandt and George Orwell. At the start he is ordered to join a Republican partisan band in the Sierra Guararamma. When the Republican army launches its attack on Segovia he will detonate a bridge and thwart the fascist retreat.

The novel takes place over three nights and four days. For much of the book, Jordan wrestles with his mortality. Pablo, the partisan leader, is the only one to recognise the mission’s danger and this strikes tension between the two.  Bonding with the lively guerrillas and falling for the innocent yet long suffering Maria, in four days Jordan learns there is more to life than duty.

The book’s dialogue is written to give the impression it has been translated. Italicised Spanish phrases pepper the chapters and the characters address one another as ‘thou’ and ‘thee’ to represent their rural, old fashioned dialect. Whilst this has drawn criticism, my personal complaint is the handling of curse words. Phrases like ‘mucked off’ and ‘go and obscenity thyself’ replace expletives. It is frustrating, but can be overlooked.

The story reflects the dangers of doctrinal belief. Horrendous atrocities on both sides are accounted, including a rural township’s humiliating anti-fascist purge and the murder of a Republican mayor and his family by Falangist troops. So too is the bone wrenchingly frustrating suspicion and mistrust of the Communist leadership.

Some of the characters are based on real people.

  • Robert Jordan is a combination of Hemingway’s friend Robert Merriman, who fought in Spain, and himself.
  • Karkov, ‘the smartest man I knew’ writes for the Soviet newspaper and mentors Jordan. He is based on Hemingway’s friend Mikhail Kolstov, whom Stalin purged in 1939.
  • Andre Marty, the head of the International Brigades who appears near the end, was a historical figure.

Hemingway described ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ as ‘the most important thing I’ve ever done’. It would have won a Pulitzer Prize were it not for Columbia University president and fascist sympathiser Nicholas Murray Butler. He vetoed and no prize was awarded for 1941.

The Moor’s Last Sigh

moor boabdil.jpg

On the road south from Granada, high along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada, there is a pass where one can see the Alhambra palace for the last time. El Puerto del Suspiro del Moro is named for Spain’s last Moorish king, who turned to look back on his birthplace before he left forever.

Abu Abdullah Muhammad XII, known as Boabdil to the Spanish, was Emir of Grenada, the last Moorish stronghold in Iberia and the peninsula’s most sophisticated city.  The Emirate of Grenada covered most of Andalusia, the far south of Spain. It was here Boabdil’s forbearers first invaded six centuries before.

As the Moorish yoke waned the Christian kingdoms of Castile, Aragon, Portugal and Navarre grew ever bolder. By the 1000s their petty raids and skirmishes had evolved into full-scale crusades. In 1236 the Castilians conquered the capital of Cordoba and reduced the Muslim presence to a handful of petty kingdoms in the south.

Two factors spared Grenada the fate of its peers; geography and diplomacy. The Sierra Nevada sheltered the Emirate just as the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees restricted the Moorish advance of the 800s. The Emirs of Granada could feel the winds of change. Knowing it was better to work with, rather than against, their aggressors, they accepted protectorate status. For two hundred years Granada paid tribute to Castile in exchange for its autonomy.

In 1469 Queen Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand of Aragon, uniting the kingdoms into what we now call Spain. Though the ‘Catholic Monarchs’ shared their ambition, piety and zeal, Isabella was the true power behind the throne. She had earned her spurs in the court politics of Castile and proved an adept politician with a strict sense of justice. Isabella eliminated Castile’s violent crime and the crown debt within twenty years.Isabela of Castile.jpg

Previous Castilian kings had let Granada be, as a friendly Muslim neighbour provided a conduit to the lucrative West African gold trade. Isabela’s Catholic faith was paramount; she would complete the Reconquista no matter the cost.

The opportunity arose when Boabdil, then a mere prince, rebelled against his father over an inheritance dispute. Captured by the Spanish, Boabdil promised to swear fealty if they helped overthrow his father. The Pope called a crusade and the Catholic Monarchs assembled the largest army Spain had seen. The conquest was swift. Spanish cannons made short work of the Moorish castles that would have held out for years a century earlier and Boabdil’s plan to fight back was ruined.

When the Spanish besieged Granada, the Emir knew resistance was futile.  Boabdil surrendered on the condition Ferdinand and Isabella would spare the libraries and mosques of Granada and respect the faith of its subjects. They agreed, seized the city then broke their word. The Spanish burned the library to the ground and converted by the sword.

moor granada surrender.jpg

On the road out of the city, Boabdil turned to the distant walls of the Alhambra where he had spent his days and emitted his famous sigh. His mother was not impressed: “Weep like a woman,” she chided. “For what you could not defend as a man.”

The episode has captured the western imagination ever since. It was the subject of numerous paintings, and the allusion behind Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.

An Italian merchant in the Castilian employ was present at Granada:

“I saw Your Highnesses’ royal banners placed by force of arms on the towers of the Alhambra, … and I saw the Moorish king come out to the city gates and kiss Your Highnesses’ royal hands and those of my Lord the Prince.”

1492 ranks among the most significant dates in world history. Since the fall of Rome, the East had led the world in science, technology and culture. Even Constantinople, not Rome, was the centre of Christian civilization until its fall to the Ottomans.  In 1492 not only did Isabella and Ferdinand drive their Moorish nemeses from Europe forever but, with Moorish gold, gave this Italian merchant the funding he needed to sail west. The wheels were in motion. No longer would Eurasia’s Atlantic fringe be a backwater, but the seat of world power for years to come.

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