Author: Karin Goodwin
The woman known as Ava has brown hair and eyes and would have been a migrant to Caithness, it is claimed
She died 4, 250 years ago in Caithness, in the north of Scotland, her bones found by archaeologists in a grave cut into the rock in 1987.
But now, using new techniques to analyse ancient DNA researchers have discovered that the woman – who has become known as Ava – was a migrant, whose family would have sailed from Northern Europe to settle in Scotland.
The fresh analysis suggests that she likely had brown eyes and black hair – not blue eyes and red hair as previous thought. Her skin was most probably tanned and it is thought that she was lactose intolerant.
Shedding new light
The research, published in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and led by archaeologist Maya Hoole, has shed new light on previous ideas about both Ava’s appearance and heritage.
Ava’s bones, including a skull and teeth, were discovered during a quarrying operation near what is now the A9 trunk road, between Latheron and Thurso.
She was buried in an unmarked rock-cut grave rather than underneath a cairn or in a grave dug into soil, which are the most commonly discovered burial sites from the Copper Age and Early Bronze Age.
‘First or second generation migrant’
A piece of pottery, known as a Beaker, was among a small number of items Ava was buried with.
“We have learned from the DNA that she didn’t have any connection with the Neolithic population,” said Hoole. “Her close ancestors would have moved here. She would have been a first or second-generation migrant from Northern Europe.”
The new ancient DNA evidence was gathered by experts at the Natural History Museum in London and Harvard Medical School. Analysis has resulted in a facial reconstruction of Ava by a forensic artist, Hew Morrison.
“It has revealed huge insights into what she looked like and who she was,” added Hoole. “With the DNA analysis we learned so much – it was remarkable. I felt like a time traveller.”
Ava, who was aged between 18 and 25 when she died, lived in an Early Bronze Age community in an area forested with hazel, pine, alder and birch trees.
The community farmed cattle, ate a meat rich diet, was likely using local flora for medicinal practices and were highly skilled at crafting tools and objects.
Hoole claimed discoveries made about Ava were helping people connect to the past. “Archaeologists can become very disconnected,” she added.
“But it’s not just a pot or a pile of bones – this is an individual, a real person with a place in her community.”