Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

While feeding bison, a man discovers a rare 1,000-year-old rock carving by accident

While feeding bison, a man discovers a rare 1,000-year-old rock carving by accident

An archaeologist has discovered rock carvings dating back over 1,000 years at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Saskatchewan, Canada. What makes the discovery even more remarkable is that it happened completely by accident.

Wanuskewin’s chief archaeologist, Ernie Walker, made the discovery in the summer of 2020 while out feeding bison in a paddock located 800 meters west of the Wanuskewin building, it was announced on Friday.

As they were rolling around in the dirt wallowing, the bison had cleared a patch of ground where Walker spotted a boulder peeking through the dirt. Further inspecting the rock, the archaeologist noticed grooves that formed a definite pattern. Walker was able to determine that the boulder was actually a petroglyph.

Walker says that the boulder is a “Ribstone” resembling the bones of a bison and representing fertility, carved over a thousand years ago. He goes on to explain that he had searched the area previously but had missed the petroglyph.

Following this discovery, as the Ribstone was being excavated, Walker and his team turned up three more petroglyphs, as well as the tool that they believe was used to make the carvings.

“This is tremendously significant and very unusual,” Walker says. “Whoever did that, left it there or misplaced it, probably over a thousand years ago. I like to think it’s their business card. They left their business card here.”

The Wanuskewin Heritage Park team estimates that the petroglyphs date back anywhere between 300 and 1,800 years, when placed into the context of historic events this gives a probable age of 1,000 years old.

“It is extremely rare to find four carved boulders together, and even more rare to locate the carving tool used to make them.

A truly remarkable story, however, is the bison,” the team said in a press release. “Had they not been reintroduced to their traditional land— after being hunted nearly to extinction in the 1870s—this important scientific discovery would have remained hidden.”

Bison were reintroduced to Wanuskewin Heritage Park after an absence of over 150 years in 2019.


The reintroduction of the animal was part of a $40-million revitalization that included conservation efforts to repopulate bison numbers across North America.

While feeding bison, a man discovers a rare 1,000-year-old rock carving by accident
A 1,000-year-old petroglyph was found in Wanuskewin.

“The discovery of these petroglyphs is a testament to just how sacred and important this land is,” CEO of Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Darlene Brander, said.

“The individual who made these petroglyphs was actually carving their legacy into the rock many years ago.”

The Wanuskewin Heritage Park, located on Opimihaw Creek, a tributary of the South Saskatchewan River, is currently applying for the status as a United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization Heritage site. Brander believes that this could be the deciding factor in that application.

Ernie Walker found the petroglyphs in the summer of 2020.

A 3-foot-long mammoth tusk hidden on the ocean floor could offer clues about the ancient creatures

A 3-foot-long mammoth tusk hidden on the ocean floor could offer clues about the ancient creatures

Scientists have confirmed that an ‘ancient’ tusk recovered 10,000 feet below the ocean surface does belong to a young mammoth. A team of researchers from UC Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the University of Michigan were traversing the seafloor about 185 miles off the California coast, near Monterey in 2019, when they spotted what looked like an elephant’s tusk and picked up a small fragment.

Members of the science team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute observe the mammoth tusk.

They returned in July 2021 to get the entire specimen and after further examination, they have determined the three-foot-long tusk, ‘uniquely’ preserved by the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea, belongs to a Columbian mammoth.

At this time, it’s unclear how old the tusk is, but Dr Terrence Blackburn, a researcher at UC Santa Cruz, told the New York Times it could be more than 100,000 years old. Blackburn’s lab is analyzing the tusk using CT scans, a method that will not only reveal the animal’s age but the full three-dimensional internal structure of the tusk and other information as well.

The tusk was first spotted about 185 miles off the California coast, near Monterey in 2019

‘Specimens like this present a rare opportunity to paint a picture both of an animal that used to be alive and of the environment in which it lived,’ UC Santa Cruz professor Beth Shapiro said in a statement. 

‘Mammoth remains from continental North America are particularly rare, and so we expect that DNA from this tusk will go far to refine what we know about mammoths in this part of the world.’ 

It’s likely that the tusk belonged to a young female mammoth, the Times reported, as Katherine Moon, a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s lab, took DNA evidence from the tip that was first discovered in 2019.

At this point, researchers are unsure how the tusk made its way to the bottom of the ocean floor, even though the animal died on land. The tusk was initially retrieved by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named Doc Ricketts.

When the researchers went back to the tusk in July, they attached household sponges and plastic fingers to the end of the ROV’s arms to make it easier to pick up.

They also took photos and videos to create a 3-D model in case it broke during recovery.

‘You start to ‘expect the unexpected when exploring the deep sea, but I’m still stunned that we came upon the ancient tusk of a mammoth,’ senior scientist Steven Haddock said in the statement. 

‘We are grateful to have a multidisciplinary team analyzing this remarkable specimen, including a geochronologist, oceanographers, and paleogenomicists from UCSC and palaeontologists at the University of Michigan. 

‘Our work examining this exciting discovery is just beginning and we look forward to sharing more information in the future.’ 

A 3-foot-long mammoth tusk hidden on the ocean floor could offer clues about the ancient creatures
It’s unclear how old the tusk is, but it could be more than 100,000 years old

Mammoth tusks over 100,000 years old are ‘extremely rare,’ Dick Mol, a palaeontologist with the Historyland museum, told the Times.  However, the tusk was covered in a thick layer of iron-manganese crust, which is abundant in the deep sea and likely suggests it has been there for at least a few thousand years.

Approximately 200,00 years ago, the Earth went through a glacial period, with mankind’s ancestors migrating from Africa. It’s possible the mammoths also migrated out of Africa, but it’s unclear how they arrived.  

‘We don’t really know much of anything about what was happening during that time period,’ University of Michigan palaeontologist Daniel Fisher told the Times. 

‘We don’t have access to a lot of specimens from this time period and that’s due in large part to the fact that getting access to sediments of this age is difficult.’  

‘This specimen’s deep-sea preservational environment is different from almost anything we have seen elsewhere,’ added Fisher, who specializes in the study of mammoths and mastodons, in the statement. 

‘Other mammoths have been retrieved from oceans, but generally not from depths of more than a few tens of meters.’  


Nonetheless, the researchers are excited by the discovery and the possibilities it brings as it pertains to learning more about the age of the animal and how it lived.     

‘We’re all incredibly excited,’ Moon told the Times. ‘This is an Indiana Jones mixed with Jurassic Park moment.’ 

Lesser known than their famous ancestors, the woolly mammoths (pictured), Columbian mammoths were created after woolly mammoths bred with Krestovka mammoths in North America

Lesser known than their famous ancestors, the woolly mammoths, Columbian mammoths were created after woolly mammoths bred with Krestovka mammoths in North America. It’s unclear when they first appeared on Earth, but a study published in February suggested the ‘hybridization … took place approximately 420,000 years ago.’

Around one million years ago there were no woolly or Columbian mammoths, as they had not yet evolved. Roughly half of the Columbian mammoth’s genome came from the Krestovka mammoth and the other half from the woolly mammoth. 

Spectacular Fossil of ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ Can Finally Reveal Its Secrets

Spectacular Fossil of ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ Can Finally Reveal Its Secrets

Palaeontologists will finally have the chance to study in detail an exquisite fossil containing what appears to be the most complete Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops skeletons on record, tangled together in possible epic combat.

Spectacular Fossil of ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ Can Finally Reveal Its Secrets
Close-up to the juvenile T. rex specimen of ‘Dueling Dinosaurs

Originally discovered in 2006, the ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil was kept in private hands and locked away in warehouses for 15 years.

The prestigious find was finally acquired by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS) and is promised to shed new light on the paleobiology of the most famous prehistoric adversaries ever existed.

An iconic battle?

Did the juvenile tyrannosaur and the full-grown ceratopsian actually fight each other to death? Or did the two animals entombed together by chance, perhaps as carcasses caught on the same river sandbar? No one knows for sure, but there’s a series of tantalizing clues that need to be taken into account.

For example, the juvenile Tyrannosaurus had most of its teeth broken, its skull is cracked and it also bears a broken finger. Triceratops for its part had tyrannosaur teeth embedded in their spine.

Whether the aforementioned injuries were sustained during a brutal battle between the two adversaries or occurred after each creature’s death is yet to be concluded.

Most scientists agree that the full excavation of the skeletons may help solve this 66 million-year-old mystery.

The ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil may represent a lethal struggle between a Triceratops and a juvenile T. rex.

A precious fossil

The ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil is a truly remarkable find. It is thought to include 100% of both creatures’ bones, as well as body outlines, skin impressions, and possibly even the remains of soft tissues and stomach contents.

“What is remarkable about these specimens is they still preserve all their context about the late Cretaceous period surroundings. So we can really dive in and know there is integrity in the scientific data that will come from these specimens,” said Lindsay Zanno, a palaeontologist at North Carolina State University and the NCMNS head of palaeontology.

Some of the questions researchers want to answer about the fossils include determining if molecules are preserved in the skin impressions and if the tyrannosaur fossil shows evidence of feathers.

Moreover, the juvenile tyrannosaur specimen could shed new light on the growing stages of the ‘tyrant lizard king’ and its transformation from an agile hunter to a bulky superpredator.

The ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ compared to a human


Despite being a recurring theme across most dinosaur media, the iconic showdown between T.rex and Triceratops was only weakly backed up by scientific evidence.

The examination of the ‘Dueling Dinosaurs’ fossil could confirm -among others, that such violent interactions did indeed take place in the Late Cretaceous North America 66 million years ago…

The fossil will be housed in a new expansion to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, including a state-of-the-art palaeontology lab, that will open in 2022. For more information about this spectacular fossil as well as the future exhibit visit the official site of the NCMNS here.

Four Of North America’s Oldest Human Skulls Don’t Look Much Alike

Four Of North America’s Oldest Human Skulls Don’t Look Much Alike

The earliest humans in North America were far more diverse than previously realized, according to a new study of human remains found within one of the world’s most extensive underwater cave systems.

Four Of North America's Oldest Human Skulls Don't Look Much Alike
The original position of the skeletal remains inside the submerged cave of Muknal. These remains date back to about 10,000 years ago and belonged to an adult male.

The remains, discovered in the caverns of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, represent just four of the earliest North Americans, all of whom lived between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago. They’re important because North American remains from the first millennia of human habitation in the Americas are rare, said study leader Mark Hubbe, an anthropologist at The Ohio State University. Fewer than two dozen individuals have been discovered, he added.

What makes the four individuals from Mexico interesting is that none of them is quite alike. One resembles peoples from the Arctic, another has European features and one looks much like early South American skulls, while the last doesn’t share features with anyone population.

“The differences we see among these Mexican skulls are on the same magnitude as the most different populations nowadays,” Hubbe told Live Science.

The settlement of the Americas is a complicated topic, shrouded in mystery because of the dearth of archaeological findings from 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, which is probably when the first humans set foot on the continent. South America has more early human remains than North America, Hubbe said. The skulls found in South America are typically quite similar to one another, sharing features of skull measurements with indigenous Australians and Africans.

This doesn’t mean that the South Americans had ancestors who came directly from Australia or Africa, Hubbe cautions. Rather, the shared features reveal a shared common ancestry between ancient South Americans and the peoples of Australia and Africa. 

“The [skull] morphologies in Asia changed a lot in the last 10,000 years,” Hubbe said. “Everyone who came [to the Americas] before 10,000 years ago would look a lot like early modern humans out of Africa and Australia.”

Because the path to South America must have included pit stops in North America or along the Pacific coast, the assumption has long been that early people in South America looked a lot like early people in North America. But the new research suggests otherwise, Hubbe said. Instead, early North American populations look far more diverse than early South American populations.

“For whatever reason, when they went to South America, part of this diversity disappeared,” Hubbe said.

The extensive caves of Quintana Roo are now mostly underwater. But about 12,000 years ago, during the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the beginning of the Holocene, sea levels were lower and the caves were dry. Some of the early inhabitants of Mexico seemed to use the caves as burial places, deliberately placing bodies inside. Some other skeletons discovered in the caves appear to indicate that those people’s deaths may have been accidental.

Of the four skulls studied in the new research, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, one came from a young adult woman who lived around 13,000 years ago; one belonged to a young adult male from the same era; one was from a middle-aged woman who lived between about 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, and the fourth was that of a middle-aged man from around 10,000 years ago. Hubbe and his co-authors used computed tomography (CT) scanning to re-create digital, 3D images of the skulls. They then marked various landmarks on the skulls, such as the bottom of the nose or top of the eye orbits. Sizes and distances between landmarks were then used to compare the skulls to larger data sets of measurements from different populations of people around the world.

The four skulls, from cenotes (sinkholes) in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, analyzed in the study.

There are limitations to working with the data of only four people, Hubbe said – after all, any given individual can be an outlier compared with the rest of his or her community. But, in an attempt to downplay any individual quirks of the skulls, the researchers focused only on the components of the measurements that explained the majority of the variations between skulls. By limiting the analysis to only major variations, they could avoid putting too much weight on smaller differences between skulls.

They found that the 13,000-year-old young woman had features that most closely matched Arctic North Americans from Greenland and Alaska. The young man from 13,000 years ago, on the other hand, looked most similar to people from European populations. The middle-aged female from between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago looked much like the earliest settlers of South America. Finally, the middle-aged man from around 10,000 years ago showed no clear pattern. He had features seen in several American and Asian populations.

The findings are important because they provide new information on the earliest Americans, said Richard Jantz, an anthropologist at the University of Tennessee who was not involved in the research. The skulls are diverse, he said, though he noted that all but the young man from 13,000 years ago had Asian or Native American affinities, so the differences shouldn’t be overexaggerated.

The new information complicates the fuzzy picture of who the first Americans were and how the earliest migrations worked.

North America could have been more diverse than South America if there were a consistent flow of people – and new genes – into North America, but only one or two big movements of populations through the funnel of Mexico into South America, Hubbe said.

“We cannot test this at this point,” he said.

That story also contradicts the genomic data researchers have collected. Genomics suggests that all Native Americans (with the exception of a few later migrants) descend from a single migration of people from Asia. But research-based on phenotype – the way people looked – suggests multiple migration events, creating a population that got regular injections of diversity. 

“I think if America consisted of a homogenous population 10,000 or 15,000 years ago, that drawing skulls at random from it would not produce as much variation as you see,” Jantz said. 

In today’s humans, Jantz said, genomics data and skull shape data generally mesh well — people with similar ancestry tend to show similarities in their skull measurements. So far, the same does not seem to be the case for the earliest Americans. But there are limitations in data on both the genetic and the archaeological sites, Jantz said. Genomics researchers have only three ancient DNA samples from North America, and modern Native Americans’ genetic profiles have been complicated by genocide and mixture with Europeans. Researchers who study skull morphology have only a handful of bones to work with, as well. 

“To me,” Jantz said, “the biggest challenge is reconciling conflicting lines of evidence.”

How fossilization preserved a 310-million-year-old horseshoe crab’s brain

How fossilization preserved a 310-million-year-old horseshoe crab’s brain

Researchers have uncovered a never-before-seen fossilized brain from a 310 million-year-old horseshoe crab, revealing some surprises about the evolution of these wannabe crustaceans, according to a new study.

This fossilized horseshoe crab (Euproops danae), shown in the left image, held a perfectly preserved mold of its brain, shown close-up in panel B. Panel C shows a reconstruction of Euproops danae, including the position and anatomy of the brain.

The fossilized brain, which belongs to the extinct species Euproops Danae, was discovered at Mazon Creek in Illinois, where the conditions were just right to perfectly preserve the animal’s delicate soft tissue. 

There are four species of horseshoe crabs alive today — all of which sport hard exoskeletons, 10 legs and a U-shaped head. Despite their name, these “crabs” are actually arachnids that are closely related to scorpions and spiders, according to The National Wildlife Federation.

Although horseshoe crab fossils are relatively common, nothing was previously known about their ancient brains, the researchers said. 

“This is the first and only evidence for a brain in a fossil horseshoe crab,” lead author Russell Bicknell, a palaeontologist at the University of New England in Maine, told Live Science. The chances of finding a fossilized brain are “one in a million,” he added. “Although, even then, chances are they are even rarer.” 

Soft tissues that makeup brains are very prone to rapid decay, Bicknell said. “In order for them to be preserved, either very special geological conditions, or amber, are needed.”

In this case, geology helped to keep the soft tissue in tip-top condition over the years and preserve the brain — or at least a copy of the brain. “We have a mould of the brain, not the brain itself, so to speak,” Bicknell said. 

The deposits at Mazon Creek are made of an iron carbonate mineral called siderite, which forms concretions — mineral precipitations — that can quickly encase a dead body and fossilize it.

Although such concretions preserved the horseshoe crab’s body, the brain tissue still decomposed and eventually disappeared. However, as the brain rotted away it was replaced by a clay mineral called kaolinite, which created a cast of the brain.

Kaolite is white in colour, whereas siderite is dark grey. This colour contrast meant the brain fossil “stood out more than it would have normally” from the rest of the fossil, Bicknell said.

The hunt is now on for more ancient brains that might have been fossilized in the unique geological conditions that preserved this horseshoe crab.

“The Mazon Creek deposit is exceptional,” Bicknell said. “If we started looking, we may be lucky enough to find more [brain fossils].”

The discovery provided researchers with the unique opportunity to study how the arachnids’ brains evolved over time. But to the researchers’ surprise, they found that the ancient brain, which dates to the Carboniferous period (359 million to 299 million years ago), was remarkably similar to that of a modern horseshoe crab.

“Despite 300 million years of evolution, the fossil horseshoe crab brain is pretty much the same as modern forms,” Bicknell said.

The 70 Million-Year-Old History of the Mississippi River

The 70 Million-Year-Old History of the Mississippi River

In 1758, the French ethnographer Antoine-Simon Le Page du Pratz published The History of Louisiana, in which he wrote that the Mississippi River’s name meant “the ancient father of rivers.” Though his etymology was off—the Ojibwe words that gave us Mississippi (Misi-ziibi) actually mean “long river”—the idea has proven durable. “Ol’ Man River” buoyed Show Boat, the 1927 musical by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II.

The 70 Million-Year-Old History of the Mississippi River
The Mississippi Delta, seen from space in 2001.

During the 1937 flood, Raymond Daniell wrote in the New York Times about frantic efforts to raise barriers “faster than old man river could rise.”

Now it appears that the Mississippi is far older than Le Page thought, and it used to be far bigger than the Ojibwe could have imagined. And it might even become that big again in the future.

These are the extraordinary new findings unearthed by geologists including Sally Potter-McIntyre at Southern Illinois University, Michael Blum at the University of Kansas and Randel Cox at the University of Memphis, whose work is helping us better understand the monumental events, beginning in late Cretaceous North America, that gave rise to the Mississippi, swelling it to gargantuan proportions.

An 1832 expedition led by Henry Schoolcraft identified the Mississippi’s source as Lake Itasca in Minnesota.

In the late Cretaceous, around 80 million years ago, a mountain chain spanned the southern portion of the continent, blocking southbound water flows, so most North American rivers flowed to the Western Interior Sea or north to Canada’s Hudson Bay.

Eventually, a gap in those mountains formed, opening a path for the river we now know as the Mississippi to flow to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists call that gap the Mississippi Embayment, but the rest of us know it as the Mississippi Delta, the vast flood plain that stretches from southern Missouri to northern Louisiana.

As recently as 2014, geological consensus held that the Mississippi began flowing through the embayment around 20 million years ago. But in 2018, Potter-McIntyre and her team concluded, based on the age of zircon fragments they excavated from sandstone in southern Illinois, that the river began flowing much earlier—some 70 million years ago.

The Mississippi was thus born when dinosaurs still roamed the planet; one can almost picture an alamosaurus bending its prodigious neck to drink from its waters. By contrast, the Missouri River, in its current form, dates back a mere two million years. Old Man River, indeed.

Still, 70 million years ago the Mississippi was nowhere near as large as it would become. Blum has detailed how the waterway grew as it added tributaries: the Platte, Arkansas and Tennessee rivers by the late Paleocene, then the Red River by the Oligocene.

Around 60 million years ago, the Mississippi was collecting water from the Rockies to the Appalachians; by four million years ago, its watershed had extended into Canada, and the Mississippi had grown to an enormous size, carrying four to eight times as much water as it does today, Cox and colleagues have found. “This was a giant river, on the order of the Amazon,” said Cox.

So the river’s larger-than-life role in culture was perhaps inevitable. Until the early 19th century, the Mississippi marked the western border between Spanish and American territory, and it continues to give life to the cities that sprang up along its route.

After Union forces captured Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln saw the emancipated river as a symbol of a nation unified: “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea,” he wrote.

Mark Twain, the best publicist a river ever had, inspired 150 years’ worth of dreams about floating away from our troubles. And among members of the Ojibwe, Dakota and Chitimacha tribes, who still live on portions of ancestral lands in the Mississippi Valley, a spiritual connection to the river remains strong.

In 2013, Nibi Walk, a group of Indigenous women walked 1,500 miles along the Mississippi to advocate for clean water—an issue of vital importance to the 18 million Americans who get their drinking water from the river.

The river’s famed fluctuations have shaped American urbanization, too. The Great Flood of 1927 accelerated the Great Migration, as African Americans, disproportionately displaced, sought economic opportunity in cities such as Chicago and Detroit.

“Old Mississippi River, what a fix you left me in,” Bessie Smith sings in “Homeless Blues,” one of many songs about the 1927 flood. That disaster also ushered in an era of unprecedented public works, as the federal government sought to remake the river into a predictable route for moving bulk necessities like corn and coal.

The mighty river has inspired more than a thousand songs since 1900, including “Big River” by Johnny Cash and “Proud Mary,” in which John Fogerty (echoed later by Tina Turner) observes that “people on the river are happy to give.” That truism is confirmed every year when people who live along the Mississippi offer a meal and a shower to the dozens of strangers who test themselves against Old Man River by paddling small boats from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

This Gorgeous Ice Cavern Has An Ancient Forest Underneath

This Gorgeous Ice Cavern Has An Ancient Forest Underneath

Mendenhall Glacier is one of the most picturesque places that is situated in Southeast Alaska. It is whoppingly 13.6 miles long. There is a number of ice caves that can be located in this Glacier. Also, an ancient forest was revealed beneath the glacier in the last decade due to rapidly melting ice.

This Gorgeous Ice Cavern Has An Ancient Forest Underneath

Basically, a glacier is a very large amount of snow piled up together and then turned into ice. Sadly, global warming is causing glaciers around the globe to melt at a speed that has never been seen before, and Mendenhall Glacier is a victim too.

Mendenhall Glacier has shrunk 1.75 miles since 1929 and will continue to do so unless there is a proper solution implemented for global warming.

As the glacier is continuously retreating, remains of an ancient forest have been revealed underneath the glacier.

Well, preserved stumps and trunks can be now seen clearly after more than 2000 years.

Some of those trees still have their roots intact to the ground. The preservation is that good! Some of those still have the bark with them. It is quite possible to determine the age of those trees because most of them are in a growth position.

The research team that worked on these trees are calling them spruce or hemlock based on their diameter of the trunk and the trees growing in the region present day.

The Earth has passed different ice ages since its beginning. In those ice ages, glaciers have grown, advanced, and also shrunken and retreated. During those different periods, they send out liquefied ice streams that push aprons of gravel beyond the edge of glaciers. 

A similar thing happened with this uncovered ancient forest; it was sealed in what can be called the Tomb of Gravel.

This melting of ice is something that we should be highly concerned about. But at the same time, we can also spend our time learning about the climate of the old ages thanks to these kinds of events.

Maya Farmers May Have Planned for Population Growth

Maya Farmers May Have Planned for Population Growth

For years, experts in climate science and ecology have held up the agricultural practices of the ancient Maya as prime examples of what not to do. 

Maya Farmers May Have Planned for Population Growth
The research team surveyed a small area in the Western Maya Lowlands situated at today’s border between Mexico and Guatemala, shown in context here.

“There’s a narrative that depicts the Maya as people who engaged in unchecked agricultural development,” said Andrew Scherer, an associate professor of anthropology at Brown University. “The narrative goes: The population grew too large, the agriculture scaled up, and then everything fell apart.”

But a new study, authored by Scherer, students at Brown and scholars at other institutions, suggests that that narrative doesn’t tell the full story. Using drones and lidar, a remote sensing technology, a team led by Scherer and Charles Golden of Brandeis University surveyed a small area in the Western Maya Lowlands situated at today’s border between Mexico and Guatemala.

Scherer’s lidar survey — and, later, boots-on-the-ground surveying — revealed extensive systems of sophisticated irrigation and terracing in and outside the region’s towns, but no huge population booms to match.

The findings demonstrate that between 350 and 900 A.D., some Maya kingdoms were living comfortably, with sustainable agricultural systems and no demonstrated food insecurity. “It’s exciting to talk about the really large populations that the Maya maintained in some places; to survive for so long with such density was a testament to their technological accomplishments,” Scherer said.

“But it’s important to understand that that narrative doesn’t translate across the whole of the Maya region. People weren’t always living cheek to jowl. Some areas that had the potential for agricultural development were never even occupied.”

The research group’s findings were published in the journal Remote Sensing. When Scherer’s team embarked on the lidar survey, they weren’t necessarily attempting to debunk long-held assumptions about Maya agricultural practices. Rather, their primary motivation was to learn more about the infrastructure of a relatively understudied region.

While some parts of the western Maya area are well studied, such as the well-known site of Palenque, others are less understood, owing to the dense tropical canopy that has long hidden ancient communities from view.  It wasn’t until 2019, in fact, that Scherer and colleagues uncovered the kingdom of Sak T’zi’, which archaeologists had been trying to find for decades.

Lidar scans of the research area revealed the relative density of structures in Piedras Negras, La Mar and Lacanjá Tzeltal, providing hints at these cities’ respective populations and food needs.

The team chose to survey a rectangle of land connecting three Maya kingdoms: Piedras Negras, La Mar and Sak Tz’i’, whose political capital was centred on the archaeological site of  Lacanjá Tzeltal.  Despite being roughly 15 miles away from one another as the crow flies, these three urban centres had very different population sizes and governing power, Scherer said.

“Today, the world has hundreds of different nation-states, but they’re not really each other’s equals in terms of the leverage they have in the geopolitical landscape,” Scherer said. “This is what we see in the Maya empire as well.”

Scherer explained that all three kingdoms were governed by an ajaw, or a lord — positioning them as equals, in theory. But Piedras Negras, the largest kingdom, was led by a k’uhul ajaw, a “holy lord,” a special honorific not claimed by the lords of La Mar and Sak Tz’i’. La Mar and Sak Tz’i’ weren’t exactly equal peers, either: While La Mar was much more populous than the Sak T’zi’ capital Lacanjá Tzeltal, the latter was more independent, often switching alliances and never appearing to be subordinate to other kingdoms, suggesting it had greater political autonomy.

The lidar survey showed that, despite their differences, these three kingdoms boasted one major similarity: agriculture that yielded a food surplus.

“What we found in the lidar survey points to strategic thinking on the Maya’s part in this area,” Scherer said.

“We saw evidence of long-term agricultural infrastructure in an area with relatively low population density — suggesting that they didn’t create some crop fields late in the game as a last-ditch attempt to increase yields, but rather that they thought a few steps ahead.”

The lidar — along with boots-on-the-ground surveying (left) and aerial photography (right) — showed evidence of expansive irrigation channels across the region. The depression with dark soil at the left shows the remains of an ancient channel.

In all three kingdoms, the lidar revealed signs of what the researchers call “agricultural intensification” — the modification of land to increase the volume and predictability of crop yields. Agricultural intensification methods in these Maya kingdoms, where the primary crop was maize, included building terraces and creating water management systems with dams and channelled fields. Penetrating through the often-dense jungle, the lidar showed evidence of extensive terracing and expansive irrigation channels across the region, suggesting that these kingdoms were not only prepared for population growth but also likely saw food surpluses every year.

“It suggests that by the Late Classic Period, around 600 to 800 A.D., the area’s farmers were producing more food than they were consuming,” Scherer said. “It’s likely that much of the surplus food was sold at urban marketplaces, both as producer and as part of prepared foods like tamales and gruel, and used to pay tribute, a tax of sorts, to local lords.”

Scherer said he hopes the study provides scholars with a more nuanced view of the ancient Maya — and perhaps even offers inspiration for members of the modern-day agricultural sector who are looking for sustainable ways to grow food for an ever-growing global population. Today, he said, significant parts of the region are being cleared for cattle ranching and palm oil plantations. But in areas where people still raise corn and other crops, they report that they have three harvests a year — and it’s likely that those high yields may be due in part to the channelling and other modifications that the ancient Maya made to the landscape. 

“In conversations about contemporary climate or ecological crises, the Maya are often brought up as a cautionary tale: ‘They screwed up; we don’t want to repeat their mistakes,’” Scherer said. “But maybe the Maya were more forward-thinking than we give them credit for. Our survey shows there’s a good argument to be made that their agricultural practices were very much sustainable.”

Aside from Scherer and Golden, study authors include Brown PhD students Mark Agostini, Morgan Clark, Joshua Schnell and Bethany Whitlock; recent Brown PhD graduates Mallory Matsumoto, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and Alejandra Roche Recinos, now a visiting assistant professor at Reed College; and researchers from McMaster University and the University of Florida. The research was funded in part by the Alphawood Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.