The first group of people to inhabit Malta arrived 700 years earlier than history books have suggested so far, Queen’s University Belfast researchers have discovered.

Through an analysis of ancient soils, the researchers found that the first inhabitants arrived about 5900BC with DNA analysis revealing that they came from different parts of the Mediterranean and Europe, including Africa.

They also found that a second colonisation arrived in 3850BC from Sicily and spent 1,500 years on the island, a feat the researchers dubbed “extraordinary”.

The team of researchers, led by Caroline Malone from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s, have been working at one burial site in Malta since 1987.

The professor’s teams have excavated 220,000 bones, representing between 500 and 800 people dating from 3600-2350BC.

The inhabitants cared for their sick, injured and elderly and were “hardy and determined”, continuing with their daily tasks despite being in chronic pain from advanced bone degradation

Over the past five years, with funding from the European Research Council, an international group of archaeological experts have been analysing the ancient bones and examining the wider landscapes, building a detailed picture of life in prehistoric Malta.

The data, which is being presented in Malta this week, has also revealed that the first inhabitants were “robust and healthy”, with the archaeologists describing their teeth as “some of the best” they had ever analysed.

According to the researchers, one skull showed that sophisticated dental work had been carried out as early as 2500BC when an abscess had been lanced from the root of a tooth.

The researchers also noted that the inhabitants cared for their sick, injured and elderly and were “hardy and determined”, continuing with their daily tasks despite being in chronic pain from advanced bone degradation. They survived on meat, cereals and pulses but as time went on they ate less meat and almost no fish.

“We have made some fascinating discoveries on Malta at Queen’s University Belfast, most recently through this international project. I have been working on the prehistory of Malta for over 30 years and the amount of detail we have extracted from these ancient skeletons is remarkable. They change the entire understanding of the first Maltese people.

“Through radiocarbon dating we have now been able to pinpoint that the first inhabitants arrived 700 years earlier than was previous thought, and we have also identified several episodes of separate colonisation. Given the restricted land space of Malta, it is remarkable that the second colonisation survived for 1,500 years,” Prof. Malone said.

She added that this sort of settlement stability was “unheard of in Europe and is impressive” in terms of how they were able to live on ever-degrading land for such a period of time.

The researchers also made important discoveries on climate change and the methods of farming used by analysing soil cored from deep valleys, which contained ancient pollen and animal evidence from past environments.

The group of experts included researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, University of Cambridge, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Malta, University of Plymouth, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage Malta and Heritage Malta. Five PhD students also took part in the programme.

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