The Malta Independent 19 September 2019, Thursday

Ancient Maltese civilisation felled most trees within first 100 years of arriving in Malta - report

Albert Galea Wednesday, 24 July 2019, 10:31 Last update: about 3 months ago

Many have questioned and speculated over the mysterious background to Malta’s ancient temples and, by extension, the people who made use of them thousands of years ago; but now, through an analysis of pollen buried deep in Malta’s soils, tree ring analysis, and ancient DNA from skulls and bones, a team of archaeologists have taken a significant step in understanding the intricacies of this civilisation and its eventual fate.

The Temple Culture of the Maltese archipelago began some 6,000 years ago and most probably numbered several thousand people at its height – far denser than the people of mainland Europe could manage at the time. Elaborate sacred sites were constructed such as those at Ggantija, Hagar Qim, and Mnajdra – which remain some of the earliest free-standing buildings known to humankind – but the civilisation had disappeared 1,500 years later.

Professor Caroline Malone, prehistory specialist at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, wanted to understand how the fragile island ecology sustained the people for so long despite drought, violent storms and soil erosion – and why it ultimately failed, writes The EU’s Research & Innovation magazine Horizon (full report here)

Malone ran an ambitious project called Fragility and sustainability in restricted island environments: adaptation, cultural change and collapse in prehistory – shortened to ‘Fragsus’, which drew on multiple tools to find some answers.

Scientists drilled earth cores ranging from eight to 30 metres deep, dating the sediment using carbon dating to understand which time period it referred to.

They counted the pollen at 2cm intervals and analysed individual pollen grains using chemical signatures imprinted by the surrounding environment to understand what nutrients the parent plants were absorbing from the ground. Molluscs embedded in the soil revealed glimpses of the landscape since ‘snails are very particular about where they live and don’t move far,’ Malone explained to Horizon.

Meanwhile, other specialists assessed the wear and tear on tens of thousands of human bones from a burial site to understand the islanders’ lifestyles. The team broke new ground by analysing bone with a technique called ancient DNA (aDNA) analysis, Malone said. It had previously been thought that the warmth of any climate south of the Alps would destroy such old DNA, but it turned out that skulls buried at a relatively cool five metres’ depth still harboured aDNA within thick bone behind the ear. 

The results that Malone’s team found are fascinating. They reveal a people who understood the importance of soil management to fend off starvation on an island which had no natural resources and was exposed to inclement and sometimes violent weather and climate.

Within a century of their arrival on Malta, Horizon magazine writes, they had felled most of the trees, hence exposing the ground to drastic erosion.

To survive, they reared dairy animals rather than prioritising meat – killing off newborn livestock before they had a chance to graze. They mixed livestock manure back into the soil and may even have made back-breaking journeys carting soil washed into the valleys back uphill to refresh the upland fields, the article explains.

The evidence for this lies in strange, parallel ruts in the ground that may be cart tracks, as well as signs from the skeletons that soft tissue had sometimes been worn completely away by hard, repetitive activity.

Oddly, Malone told Horizon, they ate almost no fish.

It was the temples themselves that must have held the community together, Malone thinks saying that more than a centre of worship it was more of a clubhouse culture “focused on ritual and feasting but where food – rather than a deity – was revered”.

“In the complexes it is now clear that the people displayed their livestock and harvests on special benches and altars, feasted, and also stored food”, the article reads.

There is no skeletal evidence of violent death and no fortifications, Malone said before noting that instead the society appears to have survived through cooperation and sharing.

The society was not without its deficiencies however; as the centuries passed the soil erosion and climate conditions worsened, as evidenced by the different types of pollen in the soil, the diminishing number of tree remains and the human bones wracked with evidence of dietary deficiencies, Malone said.

In the final centuries of the Temple Culture, between 2600 BC and 2400 BC, half of those dying were children but other factors likely contributed, Malone said. Adult skulls from this time are greatly varied, their DNA indicating the arrival of immigrants from as far as the Eurasian Steppes and sub-Saharan Africa, possibly causing population pressure and new diseases, she said.

The decisive blow may have been an unknown catastrophe that occurred around 2350 BC, a period during which, according to tree ring analysis, the whole region suffered a catastrophic climate event – possibly a dust cloud caused by a volcanic eruption, her research found.

Malone’s research was funded by the European Union and her Fragsus project received a grant of some €2.5 million.

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