New Stone Age: DNA breakthrough of two men buried in a cave near Oban 6,000 years ago

A DNA breakthrough has found that two men laid to rest in a cave in the centre of Oban were immigrants from the Continent who settled in Scotland around 6,000 years ago and were most likely brothers.

The bones were excavated from Macarthur Cave in Oban, which sits in the town centre, with DNA now showing the remains date from 6,000 years ago and belong to two men, probably brothers.
The bones were excavated from Macarthur Cave in Oban, which sits in the town centre, with DNA now showing the remains date from 6,000 years ago and belong to two men, probably brothers.

DNA analysis has found that two men laid to rest in a cave in Oban were descended from immigrants from the Continent who settled in Scotland around 6,000 years ago, and were most likely brothers.

The remains from Macarthur Cave were analysed by a team led by Professor David Reich of Harvard University, who established the men were close relatives.

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It is believed they were either father and son or, more probably, siblings. The findings were revealed by Dr Alison Sheridan, former longstanding Principal Curator of Early Prehistory at National Museums Scotland, in her recent series of Rhind lectures for The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Earlier research by Professor Reich and others has shown that immigrant farmers from Northern France came to Britain around 4,000BC, introducing a way of life that was totally different from that of the indigenous population of hunter-fisher-foragers and almost wiping out their DNA signature.

Dr Sheridan described the new information as “fantastically valuable” to our understanding of the transition from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) to the Neolithic – or New Stone Age – period in Scotland.

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She added: “The DNA of the incomers contrasts starkly with that of the Mesolithic inhabitants of Britain and Ireland and we can also say that the incomers looked different from the indigenous groups, with slightly lighter skin and different coloured eyes.

“There were so many incomers that they almost drowned out the indigenous DNA signature. It declines rapidly as the incomers arrive and, in contrast to the situation on the Continent, it did not recover.

However, that does not mean that we are dealing with a genocidal or disease-borne wipeout by the incoming farmers.”

Seven people buried during the Neolithic period in Scotland have so far been found to carry a mix of both immigrant and indigenous DNA.

Three were found in Raschoille Cave, Oban with another discovered at Ulva Cave and three at Carding Mill Bay, on the outskirts of Oban.

Dr Sheridan added: “It is clear that some locals did ‘get jiggy’ with some of the farmers.”

She said that the disappearance of the Mesolithic lifestyle wasn’t immediate given there is evidence from some parts of Scotland that hunter-fisher-forager groups continued to exist until around 3,750BC, several generations after the first farmers had appeared.

"In the west of Scotland, for example, you have two completely different communities living different lifestyles within a day’s sail of each other, with indigenous people eating fish, shellfish and seals and laying out their dead on shell middens on Oronsay, while French immigrant farmers were tending domesticated animals, growing crops, using pottery and building megalithic monuments for their dead on the mainland.”

"They might not have come into contact with each other for several generations but when they did, clearly love blossomed and the fishy folk decided – rightly or wrongly – that a life of farming offered a cushier and more reliable existence.”

The Rhind lectures can be viewed at www.youtube.com.

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