The perfectly preserved Stone Age village of Skara Brae is perhaps Orkney’s most celebrated ancient site. Together with the stone circles of Stenness and Ring of Brodgar, it offers stunning proof that these northerly islands were once at the cutting edge of Neolithic civilisation.
But Skara Brae was only inhabited from about 3200 to 2200 BC – after which date, according to the traditional view, Orkney’s fortunes went downhill, as the Neolithic period (from c. 4000 to c. 2500 BC) gave way to the Bronze Age (from c. 2500 to c. 800 BC), and the islands slipped into a decline from which they were slow to recover.
In particular, it was thought that the new influx of European migrants known as ‘Beaker’ people – who almost completely replaced mainland Britain’s existing inhabitants following their arrival from the continent in about 2500 BC – had failed to leave a strong impression in Orkney, thereby ensuring that the once-influential islands were cut off from the cultural mainstream.
As we learn this week on The Past, however, this long-held consensus is now being challenged by genetic analysis of human remains found buried at another site – known as Links of Noltland – on Westray, Orkney’s most north-westerly island. Here, as Carly Hilts writes in the latest issue of Current Archaeology magazine, a team led by the University of Huddersfield has analysed the DNA of at least 22 individuals – some male, some female – and has reported some startling findings.
Not only have they uncovered the first concrete evidence of non-local people in Orkney during the Bronze Age – thus upending the traditional notion that Beaker people never made it to the islands in substantial numbers – but they have also revealed that most of these new arrivals were women, who somehow ended up partnering with local men.
Of course, the new findings raise questions in themselves – not least, how did these women get there in the first place? – but they also contribute to a dawning realisation that Bronze Age life in Orkney was more complicated than had previously been thought, and that the people who lived there were perhaps more diverse than we imagined.
Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives in search of more about the islands’ ancient past: we visited Ness of Brodgar, the astonishing site at the heart of Neolithic Orkney; we travelled to the Knap of Howar, perhaps the oldest preserved stone house in northern Europe, to understand how society there evolved; and we joined the team working at the Links of Noltland to see what daily life was like in prehistoric times.
And finally: if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on the Scottish islands. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!
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