Friday 8 April 2022

The Cabeço da Amoreira burial: An Early Modern Era West African buried in a Mesolithic shell midden in Portugal.

The Tagus and Sado valleys of central Portugal contain numerous shell middens, dating back to the Late Mesolithic, roughly 6500 to 5000 years ago. As well as depositories for waste shells, these sites were used as burial grounds by the people who made them. A number of these sites were excavated by archaeologists in the 1930s, producing a series of sets of Human remains, buried within the middens without grave goods. One site, Cabeço da Amoreira at Muge in the Tagus Valley yielded an individual noted at the time as being both notably taller and better preserved than others recovered from such sites. More recently, scientists working on a database of Mesolithic European genomes have begun to sequence individuals from these Mesolithic Portuguese sites, including the Cabeço da Amoreira individual, in the process of which they found that this individual was not closely related to other individuals from Mesolithic burials in Portugal, or elsewhere in Europe, but rather appeared to be of African descent.

In a paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports on 21 February 2022, Rita Peyroteo-Stjerna of Human Evolution at Uppsala University and the Centro de Arqueologia da Universidade de Lisboa, Luciana Simões, also of Human Evolution at Uppsala University, Ricardo Fernandes of the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, and the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University, independent researcher Gonçalo Lopes, and Torsten Günther and Mattias Jakobsson, again of Human Evolution at Uppsala University, present the results of the follow up study which used multiple lines of enquiry to determine the origin of the Cabeço da Amoreira individual.

Location of Cabeço da Amoreira shell midden (indicated by the star), Muge, Tagus valley, Portugal. Peyroteo-Stjerna et al. (2022).

Radiocarbon dating of material from the Cabeço da Amoreira site, including bone, charcoal and shells, have produced dates of between 6500 and 5000 BC, consistent with a Mesolithic origin for the site, however, radiocarbon dating of collagen from the individual buried at the site yielded dates between 1529 and 1763 AD, and probably between 1631 and 1793, consistent with an Early Modern origin. 

Relationships between Early Modern Europe and Africa were dominated by the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which saw millions of people taken from Africa and shipped to European colonies in the New World, and to a lesser extent Europe itself. Portugal is estimated to have directly imported 2-3000 African slaves per year between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of these remained enslaved their whole lives, though some were freed and able to live relatively independent lives, albeit very much at the bottom of the social scale. 

Because mitochondrial DNA is found in the mitochondria, organelles outside the cell nucleus, it is passed directly from mother to child without being sexually recombined each generation, enabling precise estimations of when individuals shared common ancestors, at least through the female line; this is known as the female haplogroup. It is also possible to trace direct ancestry through the male line, using DNA from the Y chromosome, which is passed directly from father to son without sexual recombination; this is known as the male haplogroup. Since everyone has mitochondria, it is possible to determine the female haplogroup of all Humans, but generally only males have a Y chromosome and can be assigned to a male haplogroup.

Genetic analysis of the Cabeço da Amoreira individual established that he had a Y chromosome, indicating that he was male. It was also possible to determine both his male haplogroup. He was found to belong to the E1b1a male haplogroup, which is the most widespread in sub-Saharan Africa, being commonly found in Nigeria, Congo, Cameroon, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, and among Bantu-speakers in Southern Africa.

A principle component analysis based upon his entire recoverable genome revealed that Cabeço da Amoreira man showed a greater genomic similarity to West Africans than to other populations, and in particular, to people of Gambian or Mandinka origin. 

(A) Principal component analysis. Worldwide modern populations (circles coloured according to continent) and Cabeço da Amoreira man projected as a yellow, red outlined diamond. (B) Geographic distribution of the genetic affinity of the studied individual with modern African populations, measured by outgroup-f₃. The two highest f₃ scores are depicted with diamonds. Peyroteo-Stjerna et al. (2022).

Peyroteo-Stjerna et al. next looked for alleles (gene variants) associated with sub-Saharan populations, finding that Cabeço da Amoreira man had a number of alleles which would further support an African origin, notably the FY*B allele, which is associated with resilience to Malaria, and a number of skin pigmentation alleles, namely MFSD12 rs10424065; DDB1 rs11230664; OCA2 rs1800404; SLC45A2 rs16891982; and HERC2 rs6497271, which are more commonly associated with sub-Saharan African populations than with Europeans (skin pigmentation is complicated, genetically speaking, and it is not possible to directly determine someone's exact skin tone from their genome at the current time, but it is possible to associate allele abundances with specific populations). Cabeço da Amoreira man also lacked the alleles for lactase persistence (i.e. retaining the ability to digest milk into adult life), sugesting that he was lactose intolerant, something more common in Africans than Europeans.

A stable isotope analysis for carbon and oxygen isotopes, based upon bone collagen from Cabeço da Amoreira man, suggested that when he was growing up his diet comprised largely C₄ Plants, supplemented with seafood. A diet of C₄ Plants is not at all typical for Portugal (or elsewhere in Europe) in the Early Modern period, although it would have been common in parts of West Africa, notably the Sahel Region (which reaches the coast in the Senegambia region and southern Mauritania), where the principal crops for the time would have been Sorghum and Millet, both of which are C₄ Plants. Further south, in the West African forest zone, the principal crops were Rice (a C₄ Plant) in the west and a more mixed vegecultural diet (also based around C₄ Plants) in the east. Therefore, the C₄ Plant component of Cabeço da Amoreira man's diet makes it likely that he came from the Sahel region, and the seafood component further ties him to the Senegambia and Mauritania region.

Estimated area of origin of Cabeço da Amoreira man (mug019) in West Africa and place of burial in Portugal. Traditional plant food-producing systems in West Africa. Peyroteo-Stjerna et al. (2022).

Around 35 000 slaves were brought to Portugal from Africa between 1514 and 1866. Records of these movements are fairly complete after 1750, but older records are somewhat patchy, making the origin of Cabeço da Amoreira man difficult to reconstruct in this way. However, it is known that slaves were brought to Portugal from predominantly from Guinea-Bissau and The Gambia, with smaller numbers arriving from the Cape Verde islands, Princes Island and São Tomé, Bance Island (Sierra Leone), the Gold Coast (Ghana), Senegal and Whydah (on the coast of modern Benin). 

Most slaves in Portugal during this period would have been baptised as Christians, and buried in Christian burial grounds. However, there are records of slaves being buried in other ways, including by roadsides, in wastelands or in Olive groves. The Church generally kept good records of births, deaths, marriages, and baptisms during this period, for all social classes including slaves, which offered some hope of discovering the identity of Cabeço da Amoreira man. Peyroteo-Stjerna et al. were able to identify two deaths of interest in the Cabeço da Amoreira area in the seventeenth century, the first of an unnamed slave on 5 May 1633, for whom no burial location is listed, and the second of the murder of a man named João at Arneiro da Amoreira on 1 November 1676; João is described as being brown skinned, which may indicate that he was of mixed origins, but he was buried in a churchyard, so presumably was not Cabeço da Amoreira man.

One notable feature of the Cabeço da Amoreira burial is that the body does not appear to have been buried hastily, but rather laying upon a bed of sand which had been used to line the grave, something not seen in Mesolithic shell midden burials (the difference was noted at the time of excavation, but the significance of this, understandably, was not realised).This implies that the burial at this location was planned and carefully executed, rather than being the hurried disposal of the body of a slave or murder victim.

Shell midden burials, both ancient and modern, are known from the Senegambia region, and are still sometimes practiced among Serer fishermen in the Saloum Delta. Here, some families maintain temporary settlements on islands deep within the delta, which are used for four-to-five months each year, when shellfish are harvested. Since these sites are essentially located on shifting sandbanks, the shell middens that build up their form stable hardgrounds, which can be used for purposed such as supporting structures and burying anyone who dies while the temporary villages are in use.

Modern cemetery on a shell midden, at Fadiouth in the Saloum Delta, Senegal. Hardy et al. (2015).

This does not unequivocally tie the Cabeço da Amoreira burial to the Senegambia region, but does create a plausible scenario in which members of a community transplanted to Portugal, who had practiced shell midden burials in their homeland, might have chosen to recreate the practice in their new environment.

See also...

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Facebook.

Follow Sciency Thoughts on Twitter.