07/12/2018
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New research reveals early Scottish migrant had brown eyes and black hair

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The digital reconstruction of Ava, a skeleton buried more than 4,000 years ago in Achavanich in Caithness, shows that the young woman who archaeologists have been studying would have looked markedly different to her Caithness neighbours.

Caithness in the far north-east Highlands might seem to, to modern-eyes, to be in the far reaches of Scotland but, as the new research proves, people did migrate to this area as long ago as 2,500BC – and were able to settle in the area.

The skeleton’s burial

Ava was discovered by archaeologist Robert Gourlay in 1987 in a grave cut into bedrock, where her bones were found alongside flint artefacts, a beaker and cow bones. Her remains underwent DNA analysis which initially indicated she had red blue eyes and red hair. However the latest, up-to-date analysis shows that Ava would actually have had brown eyes and black hair, meaning she might have looked markedly different to others in her community.

The findings, ‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study, have now been published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Maya Hoole, the report's lead author, said: ‘When we started to explore the ancestry aspect of her DNA, we realised that genetically she had no relation to the local population who were residing in Caithness before her.

‘Her ancestors look like they moved into the Caithness area a few generations before she was born, suggesting she was a first or second generation migrant, with her predecessors most likely coming from somewhere in Northern Europe, such as the Netherlands.’

DNA analysis

The DNA analysis was undertaken by a team working at London’s Natural History Museum and Harvard Medical School in the US. The new information includes two further radiocarbon dates, a more detailed osteological report, isotopic information pertaining to the place where Ava had been raised and to her diet, histological information on the decomposition of her body, and genetic information that sheds light on her ancestry, her hair, eye and skin colour and her intolerance of lactose. (This is the first time that an ancient DNA report has been published in the Proceedings.)

A profound connection to Caithness

The study’s co-author, Tom Booth, of the Natural History Museum said: “Our previous work looking at ancient DNA from hundreds of prehistoric British skeletons had already established that there was an influential movement of people from mainland Europe around 2500 BC which transformed the local population and their cultures. However, the reconstruction of Ava brings a sense of humanity to a story which can often appear as an abstract mass of bones, genes and artefacts.

“Her ancestors arrived in the area only a few generations before she lived, yet the evidence suggests she was profoundly connected to the area in which she was found. She grew up there and when she died, her body was buried in a grave cut into the local bedrock.

“That she perhaps looks slightly different from what people would expect from someone living in northern Scotland adds an extra level of intrigue and is testament to the difficulties in projecting modern assumptions onto the past, particularly prehistory, which is inherently strange.”

Read the findings in full in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

QUICK LINK: Ancient Pict facial reconstruction

Images: reconstruction © Hew Morrison’, photographs © Maya Hoole; skeleton © Michael Sharpe

Hoole, M., Sheridan, A., Boyle, A., Booth, T., Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Olalde, I., Thomas, M., Barnes, I., Evans, J., Chenery, C., Sloane, H., Morrison, H., Fraser, S., Timpany, S., & Hamilton, D. (2018). ‘Ava’: a Beaker-associated woman from a cist at Achavanich, Highland, and the story of her (re-)discovery and subsequent study. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 147, 73-118. https://doi.org/10.9750/PSAS.147.1250

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