Animal habits

Bronze Age cold sores

One of the most extraordinary stories of recent weeks is the discovery that the HSV-1 strain of the facial herpes virus that we know as the cold sore spread rapidly within Europe 5,000 years ago, coinciding with the mass migrations of people from Eurasia to Europe.

The dating, carried out at the University of Cambridge by a team of archaeologists and geneticists from all over Europe, is based on four samples of ancient DNA and statistical estimates of the rate at which the virus evolves. In a paper published in the journal Science Advances (, the authors say oral transmission probably took place between parent and child, but that the increase in transmission in the early Bronze Age marks the introduction of ‘new cultural practices such as the advent of sexual-romantic kissing’.

In a note called ‘A Brief History of Kissing’, Christiana Scheib of St John’s College, Cambridge, and the University of Tartu, Estonia, says that there are Neolithic figurines that have been interpreted as couples embracing, but the earliest known written record of kissing occurs in South Asian Vedic scriptures, also dating from the Bronze Age.

BELOW In the past, beavers have been hunted for both their fur and their musk glands, which have painkilling properties.
In the past, beavers have been hunted for both their fur and their musk glands, which have painkilling properties. IMAGE: Deborah Freeman.

Sexual-romantic kissing is not a universal form of human behaviour, says co-author Charlotte Houldcroft, of the Department of Genetics, University of Cambridge, who sees the proximity of large numbers of people migrating together and encountering new people as a mechanism for the spread of the virus. The research is part of the wider aim of understanding how humans and related species, such as Neanderthals, have shared pathogens and genes in the past, and the benefits or otherwise of the exchange.

Furs from Danish Viking burials

Beavers are not native to Denmark, so when researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the National Museum of Denmark identified the proteins distinctive to beaver fur in six Danish high-status graves dating to the Viking Age (10th century AD), they concluded that the fur was acquired through trade.

Publishing in PLOS ONE (, the authors further demonstrated that the elite clothing of the period was a composite of several species, including weasel and squirrel. Everyday clothing, including footwear, was made from the skins of domesticated cattle, but fashionable garments made the most of the visual contrasts between different kinds of fur.

Fur’s organic nature leads to its rapid degradation, so the authors used pioneering techniques to detect the keratins characteristic of different species. The remains of Viking Age fur clothing have survived best in elaborate burials in which the complex grave construction, as well as contact with metal grave goods, such as brooches, have aided the preservation of organic materials.

The findings confirm that extensive international trade and the exchange of goods was one of the major characteristics of the Viking Age, the final era of the Scandinavian Late Iron Age, spanning from around AD 800 to around 1050. Contemporary written sources describe wild animals being hunted in what is now northern Scandinavia and Russia. Fox, beaver, marten, ermine, and sable fur were among the commodities that were brought via trade routes to the growing Arab fur market in exchange for beads, silver, gold, and silk.

An example of the economic value of imported fur is given by the Arab traveller, geographer, and historian al-Mas‘ūdī (AD 896-956) who wrote in AD 943 that ‘there is no king who does not possess a fur coat or a caftan lined with the black fox fur from the Burṭās [the Volga Basin]’. Clearly the idea of wearing exotic fur as an easily recognisable indicator of social status, wealth, and power was already well established by this period.

Animals as symbols

According to popular medieval animal fable, beavers were in the habit of biting off their testicles in order to escape being hunted and killed. They symbolised the Christian virtue of chastity and the beaver’s act of self-castration was presented as a model of how to avoid vice and sin. In reality, the legend reflects the fact that beavers were hunted as much for their musk glands as for their fur. Feeding on the leaves, stems, and bark of the willow, beaver glands contained concentrations of the same painkilling ingredient as aspirin, and so were much sought-after for use as an analgesic in medieval medicine.

Sometimes, though, the tables were turned. There was a longstanding tradition among the artists who decorated the margins of manuscripts of showing a variety of wild creatures getting the better of their human tormentors. A British Library blog post ( gives some examples of this role reversal. One common motif is that of a knight in armour engaging in combat with a snail (for example, the Gorleston Psalter of 1310-1324, or Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor, 1315-1325). Another is that of the killer rabbit, shown wielding sword, axe, or bow and arrow as it fights against those hunting it. These fearsome creatures decorate several of the 626 pages of the Smithfield Decretals, for example, probably made in Toulouse, France, at the turn of the 14th century.

Nineteenth-century scholars tried to read too much into these marginal images, seeing them as allegorical representations of the poor and humble struggling under the tyranny of an oppressive aristocracy, or as a satire on social climbers. In all likelihood, they were just intended for fun – the humour being in the depiction of the world turned upside down, a reversal of the normal order. Michael Camille, who has written extensively on the subject (Image on the Edge, 1992), warns that ‘marginal imagery lacks the iconographic stability of a religious narrative or icon’ – in other words, don’t expect them to have a didactic or theological meaning.

The unicorn myth

Of all mythical creatures, the unicorn bears the crown – or rather is often depicted flanking a crown, as in the royal coat of arms that was used after James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and the unicorn (Scotland) partnered by a regal-looking golden lion (England) symbolised the unification of the two kingdoms.

RIGHT The unicorn has been a popular creature in mythology for many centuries, and often appeared in medieval art. This tapestry is part of a series of wall hangings known as The Hunt of the Unicorn.
The unicorn has been a popular creature in mythology for many centuries, and often appeared in medieval art. This tapestry is part of a series of wall hangings known as The Hunt of the Unicorn. IMAGE: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The myth of the shy woodland creature with a single horn erupting from its forehead goes back a long way: there are references in the Bible and in ancient Greek natural histories. Credence was given to their existence by the medieval trade in narwhal tusks. Ironically, while the entirely fabulous unicorn was often depicted and copiously described in medieval literature and art – famously in richly colourful tapestries such as the late 15th-century Lady and the Unicorn wall hanging in the Musée national du Moyen Âge (Cluny Museum) in Paris – depictions of real narwhals are almost entirely absent from Western art.

Was there a conspiracy to deceive among those who fished for narwhals and traded in their tusks? Marco Polo tells us in Book 3, Chapter 9, of his Travels about fraudulent practices that he witnessed on Java. Mocking the gullibility of people who ‘bring home pygmies which they allege to come from India… all a lie and a cheat’, he writes: ‘those little men are manufactured on this Island’, from dried and stuffed monkeys with human-like features. In the same chapter, he describes unicorns in unflattering terms: ‘with hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead… they delight much to abide in mire and mud. ‘Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin.’

Marco Polo was probably describing the Javan rhinoceros, and by a sad kind of irony the horn of the adult male rhino is now as sought-after as the unicorn once was, but for the opposite reason. Unicorns symbolised purity and innocence, but rhino horns are prescribed by practitioners of traditional medicine as an aid to male potency. Belief in unicorns did not survive the more rational scientific age of the 18th and 19th century, but the concept never died. Unicorns are now everywhere again, from children’s toys to the financial world, where rare and elusive start-up companies with a potential value of £1bn are known as unicorns.