Ancient Mayans built pyramids partly from ash after a catastrophic volcanic eruption
Akira Ichikawa, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, has found evidence of Mayans returning to a part of Central America that was destroyed after a catastrophic volcanic eruption, much sooner than previously thought.
In his paper published on the Cambridge University Press site Cambridge Core, he describes his study of the area around what was once the site of San Andrés in the Zapotitán Valley, in what is now El Salvador.
Prior research has shown that in AD 539, the Ilopango volcano erupted in an event now known as the Tierra Blanca Joven eruption, and it was a really big one—the largest in Central America over the past 10,000 years, and the largest on Earth over the past 7,000 years.
The blast was so powerful that it covered the area around the volcano in waist-high ash for 35 kilometers. It also blew itself apart, leaving behind a deep gash that is now a crater lake.
The eruption also greatly impacted the Mayan civilization, sending it into a period of decline due to the loss of nearby settlements and cooler temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere.
Due to lack of evidence, historians have debated for years about how soon the Maya returned to the area, with most suggesting it likely took hundreds of years.
In this new effort, Ichikawa describes evidence of the Mayan people returning to a site 40 miles west of the volcano between 30 and 80 years after the eruption. And not only did they return; they built a large pyramid using ash and dirt.
To learn more about what went on in the area around the site, over the years 2015 to 2019, Ichikawa collected and analyzed samples from the ground and from the Campana structure, a pyramid resting atop a large platform.
He found that work on the structure appears to have begun approximately 30 years after the eruption, though it could have been as long as 80 years.
Either way, the data suggest that the Mayan people returned to the area quickly—soon enough that some could have been survivors of the blast.
Ichikawa suggests it is likely the people built the pyramid as a way to appease the gods who had shown their anger by setting off the eruption.
Study Shows Head Lice Helped Preserve Ancient Human DNA
Human DNA can be extracted from the ‘cement’ head lice used to glue their eggs to hairs thousands of years ago, scientists have found, which could provide an important new window into the past.
In a new study, scientists for the first time recovered DNA from cement on hairs taken from mummified remains that date back 1,500-2,000 years. This is possible because skin cells from the scalp become encased in the cement produced by female lice as they attach eggs, known as nits, to the hair.
Analysis of this newly-recovered ancient DNA – which was of better quality than that recovered through other methods – has revealed clues about pre-Columbian human migration patterns within South America. This method could allow many more unique samples to be studied from human remains where bone and tooth samples are unavailable.
The research was led by the University of Reading, working in collaboration with the National University of San Juan, Argentina; Bangor University, Wales; the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. It is published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Dr Alejandra Perotti, Associate Professor in Invertebrate Biology at the University of Reading, who led the research, said: “Like the fictional story of mosquitos encased in amber in the film Jurassic Park, carrying the DNA of the dinosaur host, we have shown that our genetic information can be preserved by the sticky substance produced by headlice on our hair. In addition to genetics, lice biology can provide valuable clues about how people lived and died thousands of years ago.
“Demand for DNA samples from ancient human remains has grown in recent years as we seek to understand migration and diversity in ancient human populations. Headlice have accompanied humans throughout their entire existence, so this new method could open the door to a goldmine of information about our ancestors while preserving unique specimens.”
Until now, ancient DNA has preferably been extracted from dense bone from the skull or from inside teeth, as these provide the best quality samples. However, skull and teeth remains are not always available, as it can be unethical or against cultural beliefs to take samples from indigenous early remains, and due to the severe damage destructive sampling causes to the specimens which compromise future scientific analysis.
Recovering DNA from the cement delivered by lice is therefore a solution to the problem, especially as nits are commonly found on the hair and clothes of well preserved and mummified humans.
The research team extracted DNA from nit cement of specimens collected from a number of mummified remains from Argentina. The mummies were of people who 1,500-2,000 years ago reached the Andes mountains of the San Juan province, Central West Argentina. The team also studied ancient nits on human hair used in textile from Chile and nits from a shrunken head originating from the ancient Jivaroan people of Amazonian Ecuador.
The samples used for DNA studies of nit cement were found to contain the same concentration of DNA as a tooth, double that of bone remains, and four times that recovered from the blood inside far more recent lice specimens.
Dr Mikkel Winther Pedersen from the GLOBE institute at the University of Copenhagen, and first author, said: “The high amount of DNA yield from these nit cement really came as a surprise to us and it was striking to me that such small amounts could still give us all this information about who these people were, and how the lice related to other lice species but also giving us hints to possible viral diseases.
“There is a hunt out for alternative sources of ancient human DNA and nit cement might be one of those alternatives. I believe that future studies are needed before we really unravel this potential.”
As well as the DNA analysis, scientists are also able to draw conclusions about a person and the conditions in which they lived from the position of the nits on their hair and from the length of the cement tubes. Their health and even cause of death can be indicated by the interpretation of the biology of the nits.
Analysis of the recovered DNA from nit-cement revealed and confirmed:
The sex of each of the human hosts
A genetic link between three of the mummies and humans in Amazonia 2,000 years ago. This shows for the first time that the original population of the San Juan province migrated from the land and rainforests of the Amazon in the North of the continent (south of current Venezuela and Colombia).
All ancient human remains studied belong to the founding mitochondrial lineages in South America.
The earliest direct evidence of Merkel cell Polymavirus was found in the DNA trapped in nit cement from one of the mummies. The virus, discovered in 2008, is shed by healthy human skin and can on rare occasions get into the body and cause skin cancer. The discovery opens up the possibility that head lice could spread the virus.
Analysis of the DNA of the nits, confirmed the same migration pattern for the human lice, from the North Amazonian planes towards Central West Argentina (San Juan Andes)
Morphological analysis of the nits informed that:
The mummies were all likely exposed to extremely cold temperatures when they died, which could have been a factor in their deaths. This was indicated by the very small gap between the nits and scalp on the hairs shaft. Lice rely on the host’s head heat to keep their eggs warm and so lay them closer to the scalp in cold environments.
Shorter cement tubes on the hair correlated with older and/or less preserved specimens, due to the cement degrading over time.
Tens of Thousands of ice age Paintings across a cliff face shed light on people and animals from 12,500 years ago
In the Colombian jungle, archaeologists have found tens of thousands of ancient drawings dating back about 12,500 years. This prehistoric depictions of animals and humans have been discovered adorning cliff faces that stretch for almost eight miles. On top of that, some depict long-extinct ice age animals.
Archaeologists were shocked to discover numerous human handprints on the site, according to the Daily Mail. Funded by the European Research Council, the British-Colombian team had no idea what awaited them in the Chiribiquete National Park — but is now finally ready to share the remarkable discovery with the world.
Pictures of animals such as mastodons and paleo lamas, the extinct ancestors of elephants and camels, were perhaps the most exciting. The cliff face art also includes giant sloths and ice age horses, all of which were clearly seen and painted by some of the first humans to ever reach the Amazon.
According to The Guardian, the find has been aptly lauded as “the Sistine Chapel of the ancients.” Based on the sheer scale and plethora of paintings, experts say it’ll take generations to properly analyze. While it was uncovered last year, the find was kept secret for a documentary set to air on Britain’s Channel 4 in December.
“When you’re there, your emotions flow…We’re talking about several tens of thousands of paintings,” said lead archaeologist José Iriarte, professor of archaeology at Exeter University. “It’s going to take generations to record them…Every turn you do, it’s a new wall of paintings.”
The site is so remote that it took experts a two-hour drive from Chiribiquete National Park to Serranía de la Lindosa — followed by a four-hour hike to reach it. After this long journey, the team was awed to discover such extensive paintings.
Regional natives of the Amazon didn’t keep written records until fairly recently. With a humid climate and high levels of acid in the soil, nearly every trace of their tangible presence — including human remains — have been lost. Most about the region’s history before 1,500 has been inferred from ceramics and arrowheads.
Most native tribes of the Amazon are believed to have descended from the first prehistoric group of migrants to cross the Bering Land Bridge around 17,000 years ago. The discovery is thus sure to shed unprecedented light on various aspects of their culture.
“We started seeing animals that are now extinct,” said Iriarte. “The pictures are so natural and so well made that we have few doubts that you’re looking at a horse, for example. The ice-age horse had a wild, heavy face. It’s so detailed, we can even see the horsehair. It’s fascinating.”
While it’s yet unclear exactly which tribe was responsible for the uncovered art, there are some preliminary wagers at hand. Both the Yanomami and Kayapo tribes have been around for thousands of years and appear to be likely candidates.
Of course, not everything worth doing is easy — and the region’s more hostile factors rapidly made that clear for Iriarte and his team. Ella Al-Shamahi, presenter of the upcoming Channel 4 documentary series Jungle Mystery: Lost Kingdoms of the Amazon, spoke about these hidden threats.
“Caimans are everywhere, and we did keep our wits about us with snakes,” she said, recalling a giant bushmaster, “the deadliest snake in the Americans with an 80 per cent mortality rate” which the team encountered in the dead of night. “You’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Unfortunately, there was another lethal threat abounding in the jungle not to be taken lightly — the FARC. Colombia suffered decades of civil war between these guerrillas and the government, with a shaky truce and heavy militant presence in the jungles not particularly calming.
Fortunately, they allowed the experts entry.
“When we entered Farc territory, it was exactly as a few of us have been screaming about for a long time,” said Al-Shamahi. “Exploration is not over. Scientific discovery is not over but the big discoveries now are going to be found in places that are disputed or hostile.”
It was only last week that evidence of ancient hallucinogenic rituals was uncovered in California. It seems these Colombian tribes engaged in the same, as paintings of psychoactive plants were also found on the walls.
“For Amazonian people, non-humans like animals and plants have souls, and they communicate and engage with people in cooperative or hostile ways through rituals and shamanic practices that we see depicted in the rock art,” said Iriarte.
“It’s interesting to see that many of these large animals appear surrounded by small men with their arms raised, almost worshipping these animals,” added Iriarte.
For Al-Shamahi, one of the more intriguing aspects was the height of some of these illustrations. They were so elevated that they could only be viewed with camera-drones and some depicted wooden towers with figures bungee jumping off of them. Still, the historical context blew her away more than anything.
“One of the most fascinating things was seeing ice age megafauna because that’s a marker of time. I don’t think people realize that Amazon has shifted in the way it looks. It hasn’t always been this rainforest. When you look at a horse or mastodon in these paintings, of course, they weren’t going to live in a forest.”
“They’re too big. Not only are they giving clues about when they were painted by some of the earliest people — that in itself is just mind-boggling — but they are also giving clues about what this very spot might have looked like: more savannah-like.”
As it stands, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on continued research here. Fortunately for us, we’ll get to see these initial discoveries up close when the documentary series airs its episode on the matter on Dec. 12.
Underwater robot finds shipwreck with treasure worth up to $17B
Researchers have released new details about the discovery of a centuries-old shipwreck holding up to $17 billion worth of sunken treasure off the coast of Colombia. Just don’t ask them to mark the spot with an “X” on any map.
The Spanish galleon San Jose, often called the “Holy Grail of shipwrecks,” was found off the coast of Cartagena, Colombia in November 2015, using a specialized robot, scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said.
WHOI scientists worked with the Colombian government and the Maritime Archeology Consultants group to find the wreck, although it took them some time to confirm that it was actually the San Jose.
MAC allowed the WHOI researchers to announce their role in the project this week, although Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos previously tweeted about the shipwreck discovery in 2015.
The famed 64-gun, the three-mast vessel was sunk by a British ship in 1708, sending it to the bottom of the ocean with its cargo hold loaded full of gold, silver, and emeralds.
Its location has long been a mystery and subject of fascination, but in the end, it was a submersible robot – not a treasure-hunter – that found it.
Researchers first detected the ship on sonar and used a remote submersible, dubbed the REMUS 6000, to investigate it further.
The REMUS 6000 captured a slew of images showing the San Jose to be mostly buried in sediment, at a spot some 600 meters below the surface.
Researchers say they knew it was the San Jose when they saw photos of its distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphin designs.
“With the camera images from the lower altitude missions, we were able to see new details in the wreckage and the resolution was good enough to make out the decorative carving on the cannons,” expedition leader Mike Purcell, a WHOI engineer, said in a news release. “MAC’s lead archaeologist, Roger Dooley, interpreted the images and confirmed that San Jose had finally been found.”
The exact location of the wreck remains a Colombian state secret.
Colombia says it will set up a museum to display artifacts from the wreck. However, don’t expect to see a pile of sunken treasure in that museum anytime soon.
The fate of San Jose’s treasure remains unclear, as there have been several lawsuits in recent decades over who has a claim to it.
Every piece of that treasure will remain on the seafloor, at least until the legal battle is won.
Turtle fossil the size of a car unearthed shows signs of ancient croc battle
Turtle fossil the size of a car unearthed, shows signs of ancient croc battle Fossils of a turtle the size of a car have been unearthed in what is now northern South America.
The turtle – Stupendemys geographicus – is believed to have roamed the region between 13 and 7 million years ago. The fossils were found in Colombia’s Tatacoa Desert and Venezuela’s Urumaco region.
Researchers say they’ve unearthed several fossils from Stupendemys geographicus, a massive freshwater turtle that grew up to four metres (13 feet) long and weighed more than one metric tonne.
The fossilized remains include the largest shell ever recovered and the first piece ever found from the turtle’s lower jaw, according to a paper published in the journal Science Advances.
“Stupendemys geographicus was huge and heavy. The largest individuals of this species were about the size and length of a sedan automobile if we take into account the head, neck, shell, and limbs,” said Edwin Cadena, a paleontologist and lead author of the study.
The fossils also reveal that males of the species had large horns built into the front of their shells, which are thought to have been used for fighting with other males and fending off larger foes. Females did not have those same horns, according to Marcelo Sanchez, a paleobiologist who led the project at the University of Zurich’s Paleontological Institute and Museum.
“The two shell types indicate that two sexes of Stupendemys existed — males with horned shells and females with hornless shells,” Sanchez said in a news release from the university.
Modern male turtles have also been known to fight with one another, although they lack the shell-mounted weapons of their ancestors.
The stupendous turtle was massive by modern standards, but not when compared to some of the gigantic crocodile ancestors that occupied the same prehistoric swamps of its era. Among those prehistoric predators was the caiman Purussaurus, which measured 11 metres (36 feet) long, and the slightly smaller Gryposuchus, which was 10 metres (33 feet) long.
Fossil evidence shows the turtles definitely tangled with crocodilian predators from time to time, as one of the battle-scarred male shells had a five-centimetre (two-inch) tooth embedded in it.
The new fossils were found in the Tatacoa desert of Colombia and the Urumaco region of Venezuela. The specimens include the largest-ever recovered shell fossil, which measures 2.86 meters (9.4 feet) long.
Paleontologists have known about the turtle’s existence since the 1970s, but they haven’t found enough specimens yet to build a full profile of its behaviours.
The newly recovered jaw pieces are expected to shed some light on what the turtle ate, Cadena said.
“Its diet was diverse including small animals — fishes, caimans, snakes — as well as mollusks and vegetation, particularly fruits and seeds,” he told Reuters. “Putting together all the anatomical features of this species indicates that its lifestyle was mostly in the bottom of large freshwater bodies including lakes and rivers.”
Only one turtle in history was thought to be larger: the Archelon, an ocean-dwelling behemoth that measured 4.6 meters (15 feet) long and lived nearly 70 million years ago. Paleontologists don’t know if these turtles were biters — but with their car-sized bodies, one probably wouldn’t want to find out.
Meet The Megatherium: The Adorable 13-Foot Sloth That Ruled The Prehistoric Amazon
The year is 9,000 B.C. Humongous cave bears, saber-toothed tigers, and massive-antlered Irish elk roam the grasslands and forests of South America, but the biggest of all is the Megatherium, an elephant-sized ground sloth.
The Megatherium was one of the largest ground mammals ever to have existed. The Megatherium dominated the continent’s southern grasslands and lightly forested areas and was something of a king of the mammals for thousands of years before a mass extinction event wiped it from the planet.
Or did it?
Rediscovering The Megatherium
It would not be until 1788 that the Megatherium would be seen again after the mass extinction event that wiped out pre-historic animals like the wooly mammoth and saber-toothed tiger, too.
It was then that an archaeologist named Manuel Torres discovered a rare fossil specimen on the banks of the Luján River in eastern Argentina. Though he did not immediately recognize it, he deemed it worth further study and sent it back to his base of study at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (The Spanish National Museum of Natural History) in Madrid, Spain. There, it was assembled into its most likely arrangement and mounted for display. A museum employee also created a thorough sketch of the animal to further study it.
Before long, the fossil caught the eye of esteemed French paleontologist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier was intrigued by the sketch of the creature and used it to further explore its anatomy and taxonomy, and over time, he managed to create a more complete picture of the Megatherium’s history. In 1796, just eight years after the Megatherium had been discovered, Cuvier published the first paper on it.
In this paper, Cuvier theorized that the Megatherium was a giant sloth, perhaps an early ancestor of the modern equivalent. Initially, he believed that the Megatherium used its claws to climb trees as modern-day sloths did. However, he later amended his theory and hypothesized instead that the sloth was much too large to climb trees and likely used its claws to dig subterranean holes and tunnels.
With this explanation, a picture of the Megatherium as it existed began to form; a sloth the size of an elephant, with giant, powerful claws, that lived mostly on and under the ground. With further study, scientists began to discover its habitat, diet, and reproductive cycle, and the picture became ever clearer.
The Megatherium likely lived across the continent of South America, from southern Argentina all the way to Colombia. Full grown, individual creatures likely weighed upwards of four tons — the weight of the average male elephant — making it the largest land mammal second only to the wooly mammoth. It probably walked most of its life on four legs, though it is believed that it could stand on its hind legs in order to reach treetops and high foliage to feed its herbivorous diet. When it stood, the Megatherium would have been upwards of 13 feet tall.
Due to its immense size, it’s likely that Megatherium moved slowly like the sloths of today. It was likely one of the slowest creatures in its environment. In looks, it was quite similar to the modern sloth, though with facial characteristics of another one of its descendants, the anteater. In fact, it was in part Megatherium’s resemblance to more modern creatures that got Darwin thinking about his theory of evolution.
The Megatherium lived in large groups, though individual fossils have been found in isolated locations such as caves. It gave birth to live young, as most other mammals do, and likely continued living in familial groups while their young matured. Due to the lack of predators – they outweighed (and could likely kill) saber-toothed cats and other small carnivores – they lived a quiet and probably diurnal lifestyle.
Further, the Megatherium wasn’t much of a picky eater. The gigantic herbivores didn’t have to compete with smaller mammals for food as they had the advantage of height and procuring food from distances that smaller mammals simply couldn’t. They could tolerate and adapt to various types of plants as well as allegedly nibble on the occasional carcass, which allowed the Megatherium to migrate and thrive all over the continent — for 5.3 million years.
So what, or perhaps who, led to this resilient mammalian force’s extinction?
Extinction And Possible Survival
In roughly 8,500 B.C., the earth experienced a “Quaternary extinction event” during which most of the earth’s large mammals disappeared.
The Irish elk and saber-toothed tiger went extinct during this time as well as mammoths within the confines of continents, as some survived for several thousand more years in remote island areas. And, of course, the Megatherium went extinct during this time as well. These giant ground sloths were thought to have survived in more remote areas for at least another 5,000 years following this extinction, though.
Scientists are still not entirely sure what accounts for this mass extinctionas it does occur simultaneously with glacial-interglacial climate change. Instead, the extinction of the Megatherium seems more to have been the work of the emergence of mankind. Indeed, Megatherium fossils have been found with cut marks on them, suggesting that they were hunted by humans. Whatever the reasons for their disappearance, scientists have long believed that the elephant-sized sloths have been out of commission for at least 4,000 years.
However, rumors of giant sloths living deep in the jungles of South America have emerged. Those who live in and around the Amazon rainforest have long passed down stories of a dangerous beast they call the “mapinguari,” a giant sloth-like creature who is over seven feet tall, with matted fur and large, sharp claws. They claim it tramples foliage and brush and roars out of a giant, second mouth on its stomach.
Stomach-mouth aside, the description of the mapinguari is actually quite similar to descriptions of the Megatherium, and indeed several drawings of the mapinguari are hard to discern from those of the Megatherium. Some experts have theorized that the initial mapinguari sightings many years ago may, in fact, have been Megatherium that survived extinction by sequestering themselves within the shelter of the rainforest.
As many theorize that the mass extinction event was, in part, caused by a human invasion of their habitat, it would make sense that some could survive by avoiding populated areas. If the Megatherium truly did evade extinction, then the modern-day interpretation of the mapinguari is most likely an exaggerated report blown out of proportion through a generations-long game of telephone.
However, it could always be the case that the Megatherium truly did go extinct all those years ago and that the mapinguari, with its fetid breath and giant stomach-mouth, is truly roaming the Amazon and we are all in terrible danger.