6.7.1 Movement of People

One of the major changes since the National ScARF project has been the advent of reliable and relatively cheap aDNA testing. By January 2019, over 60 Chalcolithic and Bronze Age individuals from Scotland have undergone analysis (Sheridan et al 2018). The results have shown clearly that new groups of people arrived in Scotland from the Continent starting in the 25th century BC; this marks the beginning of the Chalcolithic period (Hoole et al 2017; Olalde et al 2018). The numbers involved and the tempo of the movement have been a matter of debate, as described by Booth (2019), but the archaeological evidence does not suggest a mass migration. Still, enough people arrived to affect a near-total (92%) genetic turnover over the course of several generations; once again, the mechanisms by which this occurred are being debated. The incomers will have looked different from the indigenous Neolithic population, with perhaps slightly paler skin and rounder (brachycephalic) skulls; it may be, as has been argued by Thomas (in Parker Pearson et al 2019, 435–6, 457), that the difference in head shape between the incomers and the indigenous population was partly due to the practice of ‘cradle boarding’, whereby infants were carried around and laid down attached to a rigid board. The osteological survey of human remains from northeast Scotland, undertaken by Hutchison (2019) for the Beakers and Bodies project, concluded that all but one Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age skull examined was brachycephalic.

The only individuals of Chalcolithic or Bronze Age date in the Highland Region to have been analysed for aDNA so far are a young female dubbed ‘Ava’ from Achavanich in Caithness (Hoole et al 2017; Case Study Ava Bronze Age Burial); an adult male from Fyrish, Ross-shire (Sheridan et al 2018); and a young adult male from Acharole, Caithness (MHG1980; Bryce 1905; Secrets of the stones: finding the Acharole cist burial). All of these individuals are associated with Beaker pottery. The aDNA and isotopic analysis of ‘Ava’ revealed that her parents or grandparents on both sides had been immigrants, probably from the area that is now the Netherlands, but that she had been raised locally. Her skull is particularly broad (hyperbrachycephalic), and the young male buried at Acharole has a similarly broad skull. The aDNA analysis currently underway will reveal whether the two were related.

Isotope analyses have also revealed patterns of human mobility. The Beaker People Project (Parker Pearson et al 2019), which undertook a series of isotopic analyses of Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Age individuals from different areas in Britain, including the Highland Region, found that many individuals had not grown up in the area in which they were buried, but that in most cases, the movement of individuals may have been over a short distance.

Strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of the male buried with rich grave goods at Culduthel between 2280 cal BC and 2020 cal BC revealed that he had originally come from County Antrim in Northern Ireland, as did a male buried at Kinaldie in Aberdeenshire (Parker Pearson et al 2019, 395). Both could conceivably have been involved in the movement of metal from Ireland into northeast Scotland. Close to the Culduthel cist was a second relatively richly equipped cist burial of an adult female. That individual, dated to 2200–1970 cal BC, was also an incomer, in this case probably from southwestern or western Britain (ibid).


Case Study: Ava Bronze Age Burial

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