October 21, 2015
Combining DNA, archaeological and prehistoric evidence, we discovered that you come from a lineage of resilient women, women who survived the ice age, when others died. You belong to one of the rarest female lines in Europe. Because there are so few women like you who share this ancestry, we can infer that at some point, there were not many of your female ancestors having children. The ones that overcame harsh, challenging environments to bear female children who eventually led to you probably possessed a combination of resilience, intelligence, and maybe a little bit of magic . . . We’d like you to meet your ancient mother, Vi. — Alexis and Siamak
Though she knew the members of the band would have given her and her children food anyway, Vi gave her man a tiny and exquisite horse head of reindeer ivory—a token piece of sympathetic magic. It would surely bring him luck on the hunt. Besides, she was proud of her work.
Now, three moons later, despite the magic, Vi’s man had been gone longer than usual. The other men had already returned deflated from a poor hunt, but Vi’s man had stayed behind. He would not come home without meat. She tried to push thoughts out of her mind of what could happen to her man. Once when she was a girl, Vi and her brothers came across vultures arriving at a fresh human carcass. One look at the trampled ground around it, its crushed face and mangled flesh told them that he was probably kicked and run over by bison, betraying a young man’s mistake, not yet skilled in the art and magic of hunting.
She was a spry thing, Vi, despite her thirty years, with pale brown skin, topaz eyes, and thick, dark hair carved along her temples with a fine bone knife into a flowing mohawk. She had three daughters and one son, and all had been pressed into work, even the youngest, since her man had not come back from the summer hunting grounds. Every year, he had to travel further away to follow the reindeer, horse, and bison herds.
They were steppe hunters, Vi and her folk. Everything was organized around the migrations. Mistiming even one migration would have been fatal. Besides, coming late to a hunting ground might mean finding it already occupied by another band. This was not only inconvenient, but also potentially deadly. Accustomed to harsh, cold winters, Vi’s people lived in large communes whose survival relied on following exacting rules. Every bit of the animals they hunted had to be used, their very bones crushed and boiled to yield bone fat. Discipline ensured endurance.
Vi reached for her neck, and felt the familiar contours of the beaded shell necklace she treasured, the edges worn smooth from years of wear. It had been given to her by her mother, who said she got it from her mother, and all the mothers before her who it was told came from the faraway place of deep water that tasted salty, like blood.
On long winter nights, her mother brought forth magic in the flickering light of the fire. A reindeer and an outline of a small hand appeared, as she put red ochre to the wall. Then, a more abstract figure appeared, a spiral shape with a crosshatch design. Vi’s mother used it to show generations of women before who came from another place, high up in the hills. This fantastic place had water, like the river that sustained her and all the animals, but the river was so big you could not see across the banks. This was the water that tasted like blood so strong that people cannot drink it. Many mothers ago, the men had a quarrel over rights to the reindeer that turned into a brawl so violent, that Vi’s family had to leave for new hunting grounds. Vi was not afraid of change. Change was a way of life these past few years as the herds became thinner and stopped following the annual migration patterns.
Because the small game around the camp had all been killed or run away, the band had been talking about moving in the direction of the setting sun, to find a new place that hadn’t yet been overhunted by her kind. If Vi and her children stayed behind, they would probably starve, but if they left, her man would never be able to find them. Vi stayed behind to wait for her man to return so she could tell him how to find the rest of the band. They would stay the winter in their familiar cave and join the group next spring before the break up of the river ice. But, she sent her children with the rest of the band. Vi’s son was forced to carry off her youngest daughter, who was not yet entirely weaned.
The toddler’s piercing wail did not stop until it faded out of earshot, but Vi could still hear it day in and day out as she waited for her man to return. Without the rest of the group around, small animals returned to the area. Vi trapped a large hare and slow roasted it in a pit with mushrooms and other herbs. No, she would not starve this winter. But, was living a life alone worth living?
Join us in our next installment, as we travel in the footsteps of Vi and her ancestors to Cantabria, Spain and Southern France.
Vi’s story was created from Patricia Hamilton’s mitochondrial DNA line using the scientific evidence currently available. We cannot know with 100% certainty exactly where Vi and her family came from, but through an analysis of Patricia’s DNA, we were able to reconstruct the most likely locations of Patricia’s oldest known female ancestors living approximately 15,000 years ago. We combined archaeological and other scientific data about the geographical features, climate, flora and fauna, human impact, and cultural artifacts to interpret what Vi’s life was like, and ways that she and her people faced formidable challenges of living in Ice Age Europe.
The information presented here is for edutainment purposes and copyright of Alexis Bunten and Siamak Naficy. No part of the text or information presented in this blog may be reproduced without the written permission of the authors.