Mayan Civilization Continues to Amaze

I have been listening to this lecture series about the colonization of the Americas, and how the Mayans were unprecedented for being able to carve out an advanced civilization in an inhospitable, under-resourced jungle without the benefit of the wheel, plow, and draft animals (the lack of the latter is why the wheel never came to use as a tool to begin with).

Now, scientists using advance laser technology have revealed the incredible extent of the Mayans’ achievements: sophisticated urban complexes spanning tens of thousands of structures deep in the jungle. As IFLS reports:

Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 1,200 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Whether or not these structures existed at the same time, or represents different periods of development, it is still amazing that such large and well organized societies could have sustained themselves in environments that even today are challenging to settle and develop.

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.


Wikimedia Commons


Oldest Human Remains Discovered In Ethiopia

From The Guardian:

A lower jaw bone and five teeth discovered on a hillside in Ethiopia are the oldest remains ever found that belong to the genus Homo, the lineage that ultimately led to modern humans.

Fossil hunters spotted the jaw poking out of a rocky slope in the dry and dusty Afar region of the country about 250 miles from Addis Ababa.

The US-led research team believes the individual lived about 2.8m years ago, when the now parched landscape was open grassland and shrubs nourished by tree-lined rivers and wetlands.

The remains are about 400,000 years older than fossils which had previously held the record as the earliest known specimens on the Homo lineage.

The discovery sheds light on a profoundly important but poorly understood period in human evolution that played out between two and three million years ago, when humans began the crucial transformation from ape-like animals into forms that used tools and eventually began to resemble modern humans.

“This is the the first inkling we have of that transition to modern behaviour. We were no longer solving problems with our bodies but with our brains,” said Brian Villmoare at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

DNA Tests Reveal Ancient Europeans To Be Dark-Skinned

We’re accustomed to seeing portrayals of early humans (aka cavemen) as slightly tanned but otherwise mostly European-looking. But a recent study reported in NBC challenges that assumption, finding that as fairly recently as 7,000 years ago, Europeans were dark-skinned as Africans.

A 7,000-year-old European man from a transitional time known as the Mesolithic Period (from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago) whose bones were left behind in a Spanish cave had the dark skin of an African, but the blue eyes of a Scandinavian. He was a hunter-gatherer who ate a low-starch diet and couldn’t digest milk well — which meshes with the lifestyle that predated the rise of agriculture. But his immune system was already starting to adapt to a new lifestyle.

Researchers found all this out not from medical records, or from a study of the man’s actual skin or eyes, but from an analysis of the DNA extracted from his tooth.

The remains of the Mesolithic male, dubbed La Braña 1, were found in 2006 in the La Braña-Arintero cave complex in northwest Spain. In the Nature paper, the researchers describe how they isolated the ancient DNA, sequenced the genome and looked at key regions linked to physical traits — including lactose intolerance, starch digestion and immune response.

The biggest surprise was that the genes linked to skin pigmentation reflected African rather than modern European variations. That indicates that the man had dark skin, “although we cannot know the exact shade,” Carles Lalueza-Fox, a member of the research team from the Spanish National Research Council, said in a news release.

Meanwhile, The Guardian gets to another big, social implication:

Another surprise finding was that the man had blue eyes. That was unexpected, said Lalueza-Fox, because the mutation for blue eyes was thought to have arisen more recently than the mutations that cause lighter skin colour. The results suggest that blue eye colour came first in Europe, with the transition to lighter skin ongoing through Mesolithic times.

On top of the scientific impact, artists might have to rethink their drawings of the people. “You see a lot of reconstructions of these people hunting and gathering and they look like modern Europeans with light skin. You never see a reconstruction of a mesolithic hunter-gatherer with dark skin and blue eye colour,” Lalueza-Fox said. Details of the study are published in the journal, Nature.

It’s no secret (though perhaps underplayed) that modern humans originate from Africa, and thus would have had similar pigmentation and physiology to indigenous African (although note that Sub-Saharan Africa is the most diverse area in the world, so there is no quintessential African look, and many different skin shades and phenotypes are represented). 

However, the revelation that Europeans were — fairly recently by evolutionary standards — once indistinguishable from many modern Africans challenges popular attitudes towards race and human identity. We have a tendency to apply our modern biases to historical retrospection, and to over-emphasize physical differences that are superficial and ultimately artificial. Notions of race, nationhood, and what constitutes “European” or “African” are all social constructs of our very recent making.

Granted, this doesn’t mean that such concepts are worthless or negative, per se — although, needless to say, the potential for harm is great — but it does cloud up the facts about humanity’s origins and history, and overlooks how fundamentally arbitrary and transient our racial and national identities are.

Cueva de las Manos

This is the Cueva de las Manos (Spanish for Cave of the Hands), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the province of Santa Cruz, Argentina (south of the town of Perito Moreno). Its name and claim to fame are obvious, although a variety of other art subjects are present. The art in the cave dates from 13,000 to 9,000 years ago, the oldest being 9,300 BCE. The site was last inhabited around 700 CE (or AD), possibly by ancestors of today’s Tehuelche people.

The age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of a very interesting tool: bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint. The inhabitants, who varied over time as different groups moved in and out, had actually developed stenciling, not an art style we usually associate with ancient people (note that most of the hands are left, suggesting that they used their right hands to hold the pipe).

The binder used to combine the paint is unknown, but these people were pretty sophisticated: they knew which mineral pigments to utilize and how to do so. Iron oxides, for example, were used to produce reds and purples, kaolin for white, natrojarosite for yellow, and manganese oxide for black. Art was serious business to them.

Other depictions include human beings, guanacosrheas, felines and other animals. Most amazing to me is the presence of geometric shapes and zigzag patterns, which shows that these people had conceptions of abstract art forms, rather than merely painting what they saw (although humans probably developed that far earlier anyway, it’s still fascinating to see it on display given the popular perception of prehistoric people as lacking such cognitive abilities).

There are also naturalistic portrayals of a variety of informative hunting techniques, including the use of bolas, a throwing weapon that was used like a sling. Perhaps they were just depicting everyday life, but maybe this was meant to be educational. I’d like to think they sat their kids down and went over these images like a teacher at a chalkboard.

Curiously, there are also red dots on the ceilings, probably made by submerging their hunting bolas in ink, and then throwing them up in the air. This suggests that these folks might have been experimenting with different art forms, although perhaps it was just some sort of ritual or form of practice.

Either way, it must be breathtaking to see this in person, to be able to put my hands close and realize that these were the physical marks of human beings just like me. And wonder what else they did in their spare time? What was their idea of fun? Maybe this art was recreational rather than utilitarian? Either way, it’s beautiful and a wonderful reminder of where we came from.

Reflections of My Ancestors

I saw a mummy exhibit when I visited a museum yesterday, and it was one of the most impactful experiences I’ve had in some time. After a while, I grasped the amazing fact that I wasn’t looking at a mere archeological finding, but a human being just like me. This was someone who had emotions, thoughts, fears, and joys largely the same as my own, despite the thousands of years separating us, not to mention a culture and belief system that would be alien to one another. Imagine what it would be like to have a conversation with this person.

According to the caption, he was in his 40s when he died, probably due to an accident. He was apparently a physical laborer, maybe a craftsman, who was successful enough to afford the honor of being mummified. I wonder what his name was, or what kind of life he lived. What did he like to do for fun? It’s weird to think that billions of individual personalities existed before us, and many more will come into existence long after we’re gone too.

Did Cooking Make Us Human?

According to Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human, we owe our existence as Homo Sapiens Sapiens to the now-taken-for-granted habit of cooking our food. Fire allowed us to consume meat and access the high-energy proteins that contributed to the development of larger brains (since such brains require a lot of energy). It also made tough and fibrous vegetable matter more palatable, expanding our diet like never before. The unprecedented absorption of all these previously unattainable vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, over many generations, is what eventually made us the most cognitively advance life form we know.

Furthermore, according to Wrangham, not only did cooked food change our physiology, from teeth type and brain size, but it presumably influenced such things as our sexual relationships, division of labor, sociality, and numerous other behaviors. It may be a bit of strange, but it’s a fascinating point to consider.

If you’re curious, you can listen to an interesting interview with the author on Point of Inquiry, where he neatly summarizes his points. I must admit that it’s a pretty convincing hypothesis, though it’s certainly incomplete and simplistic: there are plenty of alternative and complementary factors that influenced human development beyond the consumption of digestible proteins. However, I don’t think Wrangham is claiming that cooking was the sole factor in our evolution, but rather an important catalyst. It’s very likely that all the other theories have some grain of truth to them.

Until recently, however, there was an important bit of evidence that casted doubt on Wrangham’s claims: the enlargement of human brains always appeared to have begun long before hominins started cooking, with Homo erectus, about 1.5 million years ago; in contrast, the first evidence for controlled use of fire was about 400,000 years ago. While there had been earlier reports of burned bones and vegetation associated with human presence from 1.5 million years ago, those might have been due to wildfires rather than fires controlled by humans.

Granted, Wrangham rightly noted that human molar teeth underwent a relative reduction in size around the time of Homo erectus, which would be expected if we were consuming more cooked and tenderized food. But there was still no smoking gun, as it were.
At least until very recently: a new paper in PNAS reveals evidence of controlled fire use dating back to about 1 million years ago. This was uncovered in “Wonderwerk Cave,” in northern South Africa, which yielded multiple samples of charred bone and burnt plant material. The bones, which appear to be non-human, have the same alterations we’d see in modern-day cooked bones.
The burnt plant material consisted of grasses, leaves, and brushes, since humans hadn’t yet perfected the use of cooking over logs (indeed, the highest temperature suggested by bone and plant scans is about 700 degrees C—not hot enough to be produced by wood). The bones appear to have been heated to a temperature between 400 and 500 degrees C, which, while not hot enough to cook a steak completely, can still make it edible.

The authors of the study reached this conclusion:

Thus, our data, although they do not show evidence of constructed combustion features, as listed by Roebroek and Villa as a criterion of controlled burning (3), demonstrate a very close association between hominin occupation and the presence of fire deep inside Wonderwerk Cave during the Early Acheulean. This association strongly suggests that hominins at this site had knowledge of fire 1.0 Ma. This is the most compelling evidence to date offering some support for the cooking hypothesis of Wrangham (1).

Note how cautious the report is – they’re not suggesting this is clear-cut evidence, but rather that it appears very likely that controlled fire was developed at this time and place. That’s a good sign of scientific integrity. Either way, it’s exciting to see just how much more advanced our species (and its ancestors) probably was.

Eternal Embrace

It’s amazing how much we continue to learn about our ancient ancestors, despite the passage of time and our ubiquitous alterations of this planet (which either destroy or uncover archaeological artifacts, depending on random chance). Consider this discovery from a few years ago, which I only recently stumbled upon on Archaeology (a website on the Archaeological Institute of America):

It may look a little grim, but here’s the story:

Archaeologists were suddenly quoting lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Digging in the Italian village of Valdaro–near the city of Mantua, a setting for the famous Elizabethan tragedy–they uncovered a startling double burial. Dubbed the “Lovers of Valdaro” by the media, the pair were huddled close together, face to face, their arms and legs entwined, seemingly in an eternal embrace.

The burial, which dates to the Neolithic period (5000-4000 B.C.), caused an immediate stir among its discoverers. “I am so thrilled at this find,” says archaeologist Elena Maria Menotti, who led the excavation. “I have been involved in lots of digs all over Italy, but nothing has excited me as much as this. I’ve never been so moved, because this is the discovery of something special.”

Although it is not the only Neolithic burial to contain more than one person, double burials are rare, and the pose and the positioning of this couple are unique. After an initial examination of the bones, experts determined that the man and woman were no more than 20 years old, and both around 5 feet, 2 inches tall.

It’s beautiful to imagine that even at our most “primitive” level, we still retained the same innate sense of love and compassion that we apply largely to a modern context. Granted, we were still human then, so it shouldn’t be too surprising. But I’ve often felt that the popular perception of ancient humans tends to portray them as boorish and savage, precluding the sort of emotional depth we see on display in this and other fascinating discoveries. I think it’s a great record of the better part of our nature.