Category Archives: History

Heritage Of A Deadly Disease Pinpointed With Help From Iceland’s Genealogical Database

A collaboration of scientists from Iceland and the United States has used Iceland’s genealogical database* to trace the ancestors of patients suffering from hereditary cystatin C amyloid angiopathy (HCCAA). Analysis shows that the deadly mutation in the cystatin C gene, L68Q, derives from a common ancestor born roughly 18 generations ago, around 1550AD.

This dominantly inherited disease, which is due to a mutation in cystatin C (L68Q), strikes young adults with healthy blood pressure. The disease results in death from repeated brain haemorrhages, on average by the age of 30. The origin of the mutation causing HCCAA was previously unknown, but using DNA haplotype analysis* the scientists have shed light on the history of this autosomal dominant disease that has high penetrance in contemporary Icelanders.

The scientists found that 200 years ago, obligate carriers of the mutation lived a normal life span compared to the control population (their spouses). In carriers born around 1820, however, a trend of shortening life span began, resulting in an average life span of only 30 years in people born around 1900. This 30-year lifespan has stayed constant since then in both men and women.

At the same time, a matrilinear effect appeared whereby those who inherited the mutation from the mother died earlier. For carriers born after 1900, the difference is a loss of 9.4 years for those who inherited the mutation from their mothers rather than their fathers. Based on this information, the authors propose that the traditional diet of the nation (which in the past consisted largely of whey-preserved offal as well as meat, dried fish, and butter) “protected” the mutation carriers for almost 300 years until the Icelandic diet changed early in the early 19th century, exemplified by drastic increases in imported carbohydrates and salt.

This finding has implications for studies of Alzheimer’s disease as cerebral amyloid angiopathy (CAA) is almost universally found in Alzheimer’s patients and normal cystatin C protein is one of the proteins found in amyloid in brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Studies are underway to try to elucidate the risk factors with the hope of providing a preventive stategy for cystatin L68Q carriers.

*By deCODE Genetics

Palsdottir A, Helgason A, Palsson S, Bjornsson HT, Bragason BT, et al. A Drastic Reduction in the Life Span of Cystatin C L68Q Carriers Due to Life-Style Changes during the Last Two Centuries. PLoS Genet, 4(6): e1000099 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000099

The Potato

What is the Potato?

  • The potato that is known as an important world crop is a single species, Solanum tuberosum, belonging to the family Solanaceae.
  • Other well-known crops in that family are the tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), the aubergine (S. melongena), various species of chilli peppers (Capiscum) and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum).

What is its Distribution?

  • Seven cultivated species are recognised, of which Solanum tuberosum has a world-wide distribution in the form of its sub-species tuberosum. Another subspecies, andigena, is cultivated in the Andes of South America. The other cultivated potatoes are restricted to the high Andes in an area stretching roughly from central Peru to central Bolivia.
  • The potato possesses more related wild species than any other crop plant, a recognised total of 228. These are widely distributed through the Americas.

The Potato in Prehistory:

  • Ceramics showing human/potato hybrids from the Moche culture of Peru date to c. AD 1-600.
  • Earlier evidence is found freeze-dried (chuno) or partly cooked in rubbish pits. Dating shows the crop has been cultivated from at least 7000 BP.

The Potato and Europe:

  • The first recorded account of potatoes by Europeans dates to 1537 when a group of Spaniards led an expedition to the Opón Valley in Colombia.
  • Sir Francis Drake saw potatoes in Chile in 1578.
  • The potato arrived in Europe towards the end of the 16th century.
  • It reached Spain c. 1570.
  • It then spread to Italy and Portugal.
  • Charles d’Ecluse, or Clusius, a herbalist, was a central figure in the spread of the potato through Germany, Low Countries, France and Switzerland.
  • 1590 is a likely date for the potato’s arrival in England in the ships of John Gerard. Contrary to popular belief, it is unlikely that Sir Walter Raleigh was responsible for this, although he may have been instrumental in taking them to Ireland in the mid-17th century.
  • The first botanical description was that of Caspar Bauhin in 1596.
  • Bauhin sent potatoes to France c. 1600.
  • Taken to Norway, and thence Sweden and Denmark from Scotland by mid 18th century.
  • General adoption in Eastern Europe from Germany in late 18th – early 19th century.

The Potato and the Rest of the World:

  • Directly introduced to Canary Islands from Peru c. 1622.
  • Taken to India and China by British missionaries in late 17th century and known in Japan and parts of Africa by same period.
  • New Zealand c. 1769 and adopted by Maoris c. 1840.

The Irish Potato Famine:

  • In 1845 Ireland was struck by an epidemic of the fungal disease Phytophthora infestans, commonly known as potato blight or potato murrain.
  • There had been shortages prior to then due to bad weather or less destructive diseases.
  • A likely source for the blight was the eastern United States, where blight had largely destroyed the potato crops of 1843 and 1844.
  • Once introduced diffusion was rapid. By late summer and early autumn of 1845 it had spread throughout the greater part of northern and central Europe; an area stretching from Switzerland to Scandinavia and Scotland, and from Poland to the west coast of Ireland.
  • For the tenant farmers, or cottiers, the blight destroyed their winter stores, imperilled their seed for the coming year, and reduced them to killing and eating the pig by which they paid the rent because they had no potatoes on which to feed it.
  • The crop of 1846 was also almost completely destroyed.
  • By 1847 the traditional relationship between farmer and labourer was thoroughly disrupted. There was also an enormous deficiency of potato seed and prices of Indian meal were such that people were reduced to eating those potatoes they would have used for seed.
  • Mass death and emigration reduced the population from almost 8.2 million in 1841 to fewer than 6.6 million in 1851.

Why is the Potato so important?

  • Important source of carbohydrates
  • Useful amounts of vitamins and minerals e.g. 1lb cooked new potatoes = 75 mg vitamin C.
  • Deficient in vitamins A and D, although this was made good by drinking milk in 18th century Ireland or pre-war Poland.


Donnelly, Jr. J.S. 2001. The Great Irish Potato Famine. Sutton Publishing: Stroud.

Hawkes, J.G. 1990. The Potato: Evolution, Biodiversity and Genetic Resources. Belhaven Press: London.

Salaman, R.N. 1949. The History and Social Influence of the Potato. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Red Deer in Early Medieval Ireland

The theory of materialism asserts that artefacts have ‘biographies’ or lives of their own. Objects become more than a set of tools for adapting to an environment. Instead, their production, exchange, use and reuse becomes integral to the construction of social realities. Artefacts become ‘networks of significant’ that enable and constrain the practices of individuals and communities. In short, people make themselves and others through objects. In his paper Soderberg (2004) explores this theory in relation to animals, specifically red deer (Cervus elaphus). As he notes, with animals there is “nothing metaphorical about the fact that the material world is alive,” (Soderberg, 2004: 168). He hypothesises, therefore, that the relationships between people and deer in medieval Ireland should give access to the social dynamics of the period, in particular those associated with monasteries.

One key aspect of those dynamics is evident in the Old Irish term for red deer: ag allaid, which is translated as wild bovine. This and classifications of animals in texts such as the Betha Comaithchesa lead to the suggestion that red deer and cattle are conceptually linked (Soderberg, 2004: 168). However, this in itself would give red deer a liminal status; they would be of the social domain as cattle, the archetypal domestic animal, and yet also outside it, being wild (Soderberg, 2004: 168).

Monasteries were also cast in liminal terms, and it has been proposed that a link between the two exists on the basis that some monastic sites have produced unusually high concentrations of red deer skeletal material and also on the basis that dietary regimens of some monasteries identify venison and other wild meats as legitimate food (Soderberg, 2004: 168).

Ireland had only a single species of cervid, red deer, between the beginning of the Holocene and c. AD 1200 when both texts and archaeology show the importation of a second species, fallow deer (Dama dama). In 1213 the archbishop of Dublin was given fallow dder from Coventry, whilst in 1244 80 fallow deer were stocked at Glencree in Co. Wicklow (Soderberg, 2004: 171). The earliest archaeological fallow deer are from thirteenth and fourteenth century contexts at Norman castles in Wexford and Meath, as well as urban contexts in Waterford (Soderberg, 2004: 171). That importation is part of the social upheaval of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and represents the most significant faunal change in Ireland since the Neolithic (Soderberg, 2004: 171).

Red deer and fallow deer have significantly different physical and social characteristics. Red deer are larger and have more complex and rigid dietary preferences than fallow deer. Their social organisation is less variable, and male red deer and considerably more territorial. In addition, red deer engage in seasonal migrations and prefer a large home range (Soderberg, 2004: 172). These differences contribute to how the two species interact with humans. The spread of fallow deer from the Continent to Britain to Ireland is linked with the spread of hunting preserves and numerous scholars have concluded that this happened because fallow deer are more suited to confinement in parks than other available cervid species (Soderberg, 2004: 172). The essential features of deer parks were ownership of land and exercising rights over resources in that land. Fallow deer is, therefore, a marker for this process and the species becomes linked to the establishment of a more highly centralised social organisation (Soderberg, 2004: 172).

Red deer are, as well as one of the only cervid species in Ireland prior to the thirteenth century, also one of the few animals that appear commonly on high crosses (Soderberg, 2004: 173). This provides support for the suggestion that the crosses map out social relationships (Soderberg, 2004: 173). The majority of crosses featuring red deer depict hunting. These fall into two types. The first depict the pursuit of deer. The second type depict a lone deer, both those marked as captured and those simply shown in isolation (Soderberg, 2004: 173).

Early medieval texts provide another source of information about deer and human society. In particular, they provide a means of considering if the conceptualisation of red deer as found on the crosses appears in a different medium (Soderberg, 2004: 177). It is noted that several stories show kings and saints gaining necessary products from deer when their domestic counterparts – cattle – are unable to plough or provide milk (Soderberg, 2004: 177-178). The Life of Ciaran, the founding saint of Clonmacnoise, shows a stag visiting the youthful Ciaran and offering his antlers as a book stand. Later in life, a stag is used to transport his books (Soderberg, 2004: 178). Such stories are part of the corpus that connects sovereignty of king or saint with power over the normally uncontrolled (Soderberg, 2004: 178). Ecclesisatical texts emphasise the opposition of the wilderness to the domestic realm at the same time as emphasising the association of deer, monasteries and the wilderness (Soderberg, 2004: 178).

The texts and iconography amplify the notion that monasteries and deer were closely associated with one another in a manner that identifies monasteries with a realm beyond royal or secular control. This contextualises archaeozoological data from excavations at sites such as Clonmacnoise and encourages us to ask questions about the shifts in skeletal frequency and how this was associated with the role of such sites as monastic settlements as opposed to monastic towns (Soderberg, 2004: 181).

Reference: Soderberg, J. 2004. Wild Cattle: Red Deer in the Religious Texts, Iconography and Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 8 (3): 167-183

Red Sky at Night

A quick snippet from the latest edition of Current Archaeology:

“Our own record on pollution in the past has left a mark in an unexpected place: a team of scientists has been studying Turner’s paintings for evidence of man-made pollution in the 19th century and of the impact of major volcanic eruptions. Turner’s watercolours are especially helpful because he sketched the vivid sunsets that resulted from atmospheric dirt and dust with remarkable precision. By studying his work, scientists have identified the years 1813, 1831 and 1835 as periods when the skies were reddest as a result of pollution.”

Reference: Catling, C. 2007. Turner’s red skies. Current Archaeology 214: 8

Uncovering Chinese Gold Rush History

With the interest and financial help of the Heritage Council of Victoria, the See Yup Society in Melbourne is restoring and documenting the thousands of historical memorial tablets that line the halls of their temple in South Melbourne. The memorial tablets, which remember the dead, are helping reveal the extent of Chinese immigration during the time of the gold rush in Australia. Uncovering the stories of those thousands of Chinese who came in search of their fortune is a mammoth task. In the 1850s – 60’s twenty per cent of the population in Victoria were Chinese.

Archaeologist David Bannear said that very little is known about what happened to those Chinese, and that these tablets are able to tell part of the story of those remarkable people. He felt that if the tablets were to be lost then the souls of those 13,000 men would be lost forever. “I was very touched by that,’ he said. “As an archaeologist I understand the moral… the joys and the expectations associated with artefacts and they really change people’s lives.”

As an ongoing project, the Old Chinese inscriptions will be translated and put in a database which will be available to the public. The Executive Director of Heritage Victoria, Ray Tonkin said, “We believe this is a remarkable project which gives great insight into Victoria’s history and heritage.

“The temple itself of course, has been listed on the Heritage register for many years and was always seen to be very important, not only an important piece of architecture, but a great piece of Victoria’s cultural heritage,” he said. Chinese heritage is gaining increasing recognition in Victoria as it is appreciated in being a valuable contribution to early Australian history.

Source: Rayment, P. 2007. Uncovering Chinese Gold Rush History. The Epoch Times.

Review: ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson

Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realise.

Bill Bryson describes himself as a reluctant traveller, but even when he stays safely at home he can’t contain his curiosity about the world around him. ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ is his quest to understand everything that has happened from the Big Bang to the rise of civilisation – how we got from there, being nothing at all, to here, being us. In an amusing, conversational style he takes us from the origin of the universe through to the rise of the naked ape. Along the way he touches on everything from physics to geology, and from biology to archaeology.

Entertaining as well as informative, Bryson has mastered the art of story-telling. He has a confident grasp of fine details and is able to present them in a way that does not swamp the reader. This book is an ideal introduction to the history of our planet for someone who is curious to find out more, but who does not possess any specialist knowledge.