Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

Massive 1,100 Year Old Maya Site Discovered In Georgia’s Mountains?

Massive 1,100 Year Old Maya Site Discovered In Georgia’s Mountains?

The Mayans built astonishing temples in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras – but now some believe the ancient peoples fled their dissolving civilization and ended up in Georgia.

Historian and architect Richard Thornton believes a 1,100-year-old archaeological site shows that Mayan refugees fled Central America and ended up in the North Georgian mountains near Blairsville.

His astonishing theory is based on the discovery of 300 to 500 rock terraces and mounds on the side of Brasstown Bald mountain that date to 900AD – around the time the Mayans began to die out.

Massive 1,100 Year Old Maya Site Discovered In Georgia's Mountains?
City Spotting: This 3D virtual reality image was made from the ruins found in the Brasstown Bald mountain

Mr. Thornton’s blockbuster theory revolves around the area near Brasstown Bald potentially being the ‘fabled city of Yupaha, which Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto failed to find in 1540’.

He described it as ‘certainly one of the most important archaeological discoveries in recent times’.

The Mayans died out around 900AD for reasons still debated by scholars – although drought, overpopulation, and war are the most popular theories, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The remains were first found by retired engineer Carey Waldrip when he went walking in the area in the 1990s. Archaeologist Johannes Loubser excavated part of the site and wrote a report about it in 2010, but does not believe the rock terraces are Mayan.

‘I think that (Mr. Thornton) selectively presents the evidence,’ Mr. Loubser told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ‘But he’s a better marketer than I and other archaeologists are.’

Look at this: The remains were first found by retired engineer Carey Waldrip, pictured, when he went walking in the area in the 1990s

Mr. Loubser, who excavated a rock wall and small mound, added that claims like this must be backed up with ‘hard evidence’ because of the various conflicting opinions in the archaeological world.’

Mr. Loubser believes the structures could have been built by the Cherokee Indians or an earlier tribe between 800AD and 1100AD.

He stopped digging because he realized the site could be a grave. Still, Mr. Thornton claims early maps of the location named two villages ‘Itsate’, which was how Itza Mayans described themselves.

The terrace structures and date helped him reach his conclusion. It was commonplace for the Itza Maya to sculpt a hill into a pentagonal mound,’ he argues. ‘There are dozens of such structures in Central America.’

But not everyone is impressed by Mr. Thornton’s theory. He cited the University of Georgia archaeology professor Mark Williams in an article on

‘I am the archaeologist Mark Williams mentioned in this article,’ Professor Williams said on Facebook. ‘This is total and complete bunk. There is no evidence of Maya in Georgia. Move along now.’

Theory: The Mayans could have left Central America and ended up in the North Georgian mountains
Theory: The Mayans could have left Central America and ended up in the North Georgian mountains
Fascinating: The Mayans died out around 900AD for reasons still debated by scholars – although drought, overpopulation and war are the most popular theories (file picture)

‘The sites are certainly those of Native Americans of prehistoric Georgia,’ Professor Williams told ABC News. ‘Wild theories are not new, but the web simply spreads them faster than ever.’

Mr. Thornton wasn’t bothered by the ensuing debate, in fact, that’s exactly what he wanted.

‘I’m not an archaeologist. I’m a big picture man,’ said Mr. Thorton to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

‘We’re hoping this article stirs up some interest. I was just trying to get the archaeologists to work some more on the site and they come back snapping like mad dogs.’

He works with a company called History Revealed Media that helps create three-dimensional maps of excavated sites and said that when he compared his map of the Georgia site, it reminded him of other Mayan works.

‘It’s identical to sites in Belize,’ he argued.

The Mayans have been under intense scrutiny over the past few years as rumors abound about their mysterious 5,132-year calendar allegedly predicting the apocalypse on December 21, 2019.

But various experts have spoken out against Doomsday, including Mexico’s ‘Grand Warlock’ Antonio Vazquez, to say that the Mayan calendar instead will just reset and a new time-span will begin.

A Lost Japanese Village Has Been Uncovered in the British Columbia Wilderness

A Lost Japanese Village Has Been Uncovered in the British Columbia Wilderness

In 2004, archaeology professor Robert Muckle was alerted to a site within the forests of British Columbia’s North Shore mountains, where a few old cans and a sawblade had been discovered. He suspected the area was once home to a historic logging camp, but he did not anticipate that he would spend the next 14 years unearthing sign after sign of a forgotten Japanese settlement—one that appears to have been abruptly abandoned.

Brent Richter of the North Shore News reports that Muckle, an instructor at Capilano University in Vancouver, and his rotating teams of archaeology students have since excavated more than 1,000 items from the site.

The artifacts include rice bowls, sake bottles, teapots, pocket watches, buttons, and hundreds of fragments of Japanese ceramics. Muckle tells Smithsonian that the “locations of 14 small houses … a garden, a wood-lined water reservoir, and what may have been a shrine,” were also discovered, along with the remnants of a bathhouse—an important fixture of Japanese culture.

Dishes and bottles found at the site in the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve.

The settlement sits within an area now known as the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, located around 12 miles northeast of Vancouver.

Muckle has in fact uncovered two other sites within the region that can be linked to Japanese inhabitants: one appears to have been part of a “multi-ethnic” logging camp, Muckle says, the second a distinctly Japanese logging camp that was occupied for several years around 1920. But it is the third site, which seems to have transitioned from a logging camp to a thriving village, that fascinates him the most.

“There was very likely a small community of Japanese who were living here on the margins of an urban area,” Muckle tells Richter. “I think they were living here kind of in secret.”

In approximately 1918, a Japanese businessman named Eikichi Kagetsu secured logging rights to a patch of land next to where the village once stood, making it likely that the site was once inhabited by a logging community.

The trees would have been largely harvested by around 1924, but Muckle thinks the village’s residents continued to live there past that date.

“The impression that I get, generally speaking, is it would have been a nice life for these people, especially in the context of all the racism in Vancouver in the 1920s and ’30s,” he tells Richter.

The first major wave of Japanese immigration to Canada began in 1877, with many of the new arrivals settling in the coastal province of British Columbia. From the start, they were met with hostility and discrimination; politicians in the province prohibited Asian residents from voting, entering the civil service, and working in various other professions, like law, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Anti-Japanese prejudices boiled over during the Second World War, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Days later, Japanese troops invaded Hong Kong, killing and wounding hundreds of Canadian soldiers who were stationed there.

Back in Canada, authorities began arresting suspected Japanese operatives, impounding Japanese-owned fishing boats, and shutting down Japanese newspapers and schools. By the winter of 1942, a 100-mile strip of the Pacific Coast had been designated a “protected area,” and people of Japanese descent were told to pack a single suitcase and leave.

Families were separated—men sent to work on road gangs, women, and children to isolated ghost towns in the wilderness of British Columbia. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, more than 90 percent of Japanese Canadians were uprooted during the war, most of the citizens by birth.

No records survive of the people who lived in the North Shore camp, and Muckle has yet to find an artifact that can be reliably dated to after 1920. But given that the inhabitants of the village seem to have departed in a hurry, leaving precious belongings behind, he tells Smithsonian that he suspects they stayed in their little enclave in the woods until 1942, when “they were incarcerated or sent to road camps.”

Eventually, per the CBC, the Greater Vancouver Water District closed off the valley where the settlement was located, and the forest began to take over.

Speaking to Richter of North Shore News, Muckle notes that, after nearly 15 years spent excavating at the site, he will likely not return again.

But he hopes to share his records and artifacts with several museums and archives— including the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre in Burnaby, British Columbia, which seeks to preserve Japanese Canadian history and heritage—so the forgotten settlement in the woods will be remembered for years to come.

This 2,400-year-old mushroom is the largest living organism on the planet

This 2,400-year-old mushroom is the largest living organism on the planet

The largest living thing on the planet is not a whale or any other animal you might expect. It is a giant fungus that kills anything in its path, currently taking up more than three square miles of Oregon.

The Armillaria ostoyae, more popularly known as the honey mushroom, began from a single spore too tiny to be seen by the naked eye. It has been entwining its black shoestring filaments over the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, which causes trees to die as it grows.

Spreading through the roots of trees, this fungus covers 2,200 acres today, which makes it the largest living organism ever to be found.

“When you’re on the ground, you don’t notice the pattern, you just see dead trees in clusters,” said Tina Dreisbach, a botanist, and mycologist working with the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon.

Extremely similar to a mushroom, the outline of this giant fungus extends 3.5 miles across, and fairly stretches three feet into the ground, covering an area as large as 1,665 football fields. No one has yet estimated its weight.

Dead Trees Reveal Fungus

In 1998, Catherine Parks, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande, Ore., discovered this. She heard about a large tree die-off from root decay in the forest east of Prairie City, Ore.

With aerial shots, Parks checked out an area of dying trees and gathered root samples among 112 of them.

She singled out the fungus through DNA testing. Then, through comparing cultures of the fungus developed from the 112 samples, she was able to determine that 61 of them were from the same organism, which means that a single fungus had grown bigger than anyone had ever illustrated before.

Dry Climate May Encourage Growth

As it is microscopic, the only evidence of the fungus on the surface are clumps of golden mushrooms that materialize in the fall with the rain.

“They are edible, but they don’t taste the best,” said Dreisbach. “I would put lots of butter and garlic on them.”

Unearthing the roots of one affected tree, something that matches white latex paint can be observed. These are actually mats of mycelium, which sip water and carbohydrates from the tree as fungus grub, thus interfering with the tree’s absorption of nutrients.

Rhizomorphs are the black shoestring filaments that stretch as long as 10 feet into the soil, infesting tree roots through a mixture of pressure and enzyme action.

Scientists are absorbed in learning to control Armillaria as it kills trees, however, they soon realize that the fungus has served a purpose in nature for millions of years.

30,000-year-old stone tools discovered in Mexican Cave suggest humans reached America much earlier than thought

30,000-year-old stone tools discovered in Mexican Cave suggest humans reached America much earlier than thought

Stone tools unearthed in a cave in Mexico indicate that humans could have lived in the area as early as about 33,000 years ago, researchers report online July 22 in Nature. That’s more than 10,000 years before humans are generally thought to have settled North America.

This controversial discovery enters a new piece of evidence into the fierce debate about when and how the Americas were first populated. The initial peopling of the Americas is a contested and evolving topic, with the exact timing of the first arrivals still unknown.

Historically, Mexico’s understudied and controversial archaeological record has remained on the periphery of First Americans’ research.

Evidence of human presence at Chiquihuite Cave extends this antiquity and attests to the cultural variability of older-than-Clovis sites and the earliest humans on the continent.

“For decades people have passionately debated when the first humans entered the Americas,” said Professor Eske Willerslev, a researcher at St John’s College at the University of Cambridge and director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen.

“Chiquihuite Cave will create a lot more debate as it is the first site that dates the arrival of people to the continent to around 30,000 years ago — 15,000 years earlier than previously thought.”

“These early visitors didn’t occupy the cave continuously, we think people spent part of the year there using it as a winter or summer shelter, or as a base to hunt during migration.”

“We don’t know who they were, where they came from, or where they went. They are a complete enigma,” added Dr. Ciprian Ardelean, an archaeologist at the University of Zacatecas.

“We falsely assume that the indigenous populations in the Americas today are direct descendants from the earliest Americans, but now we do not think that is the case.”

“By the time the famous Clovis population entered America, the very early Americans had disappeared thousands of years before. There could have been many failed colonization that was lost in time and did not leave genetic traces in the population today.”

Professor Willerslev, Dr. Ardelean, and their colleagues excavated a total of 1,930 stone tools such as knives, scrapers, and arrowheads in Chiquihuite Cave.

Archaeologists have unearthed what appears to be stone tools, including this one, in a cave in central Mexico that date to as early as about 33,000 years ago.

“The collection of artifacts reveals advanced flaking skills applied to challenge raw material, represented by green and blackish varieties of recrystallized limestone,” the scientists said.

“The flaked tools reflect a previously unknown and mostly unchanged technological tradition.”

Examples of stone artifacts from Chiquihuite Cave: (a) core, (b-e) flakes; inlay in b emphasizes an isolated platform, (f-j) blades, (k-o) points

The authors also attempted to identify ancient human DNA in all archaeological layers of the cave.

However, no evidence of human DNA within the samples was found. This adds weight to the theory that the early people didn’t stay for long in the cave.

“We identified DNA from a wide range of animals including black bears, rodents, bats, voles, and even kangaroo rats,” said Dr. Mikkel Winther Pedersen, a geneticist at the University of Copenhagen.

“We think these early people would probably have come back for a few months a year to exploit reoccurring natural resources available to them and then move on. Probably when herds of large mammals would have been in the area and who had little experience with humans so they would have been easy prey.”

“The location of Chiquihuite Cave definitely rewrites what has conventionally been taught in history and archaeology and shows that we need to rethink where we look for sites of the earliest people in the Americas.”

A California Couple Found $10 Million In Gold Coins In Their Backyard

A California Couple Found $10 Million In Gold Coins In Their Backyard

After all, a California couple who have discovered a $10 million cache of hidden gold coins may not be so lucky The coins may have been stolen from the U.S. Mint in 1900 and thus be the property of the government, according to a published report.

A search of the Haithi Trust Digital Library provided by Northern California’s fishery guide Jack trout, who is also a historian and collector of rare coins, brought up the news of theft on the website of the San Francisco Chronicle.

The anonymous California couple spotted the edge of an old can on a path they had hiked many times before several months ago. Poking at the can was the first step in uncovering a buried treasure of rare coins estimated to be worth $10 million.

This image provided by the Saddle Ridge Hoard discoverers via Kagin’s, Inc., shows one of the six decaying metal canisters filled with 1800s-era U.S. gold coins unearthed in California by two people who want to remain anonymous.

“It was like finding a hot potato,” the couple told coin expert Don Kagin from Kagin’s, Inc. The couple hired the president of Kagin’s, Inc. and Holabird-Kagin Americana, a western Americana dealer and auctioneer, to represent them.

The coins are mostly uncirculated and in mint condition, and they add up in face value to $27,000. “Those two facts are a match of the gold heist in 1900 from the San Francisco Mint,” the newspaper reported.

Jack Trout told the paper that an 1866 Liberty $20 gold piece without the words “In God We Trust” was part of the buried stash, and the coin may fetch over $1 million at auction because it’s so rare.

A California couple found 1,427 Gold-Rush era U.S. gold coins in their yard when they were out walking their dog last year. The collection — valued at $11 million

“This was someone’s private coin, created by the mint manager or someone with access to the inner workings of the Old Granite Lady (San Francisco Mint),” Trout told the newspaper. “It was likely created in revenge for the assassination of Lincoln the previous year (April 14, 1865). I don’t believe that coin ever left The Mint until the robbery. For it to show up as part of the treasure find links it directly to that inside job at the turn of the century at the San Francisco Mint.”

Mint spokesman Adam Stump issued this statement when contacted by ABC News: “We do not have any information linking the Saddle Ridge Hoard coins to any thefts at any United States Mint facility. Surviving agency records from the San Francisco Mint have been retired to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), under Record Group 104.  When news of the stash first broke, coin dealer Kagin spoke about the rarity of such a find.

“Since 1981, people have been coming to us with one or two coins they find worth a few thousand dollars, but this is the first time we get someone with a whole cache of buried coins… It is a million to one chance, even harder than winning the lottery,” Kagin told

The couple is trying to remain anonymous after finding the five cans of coins last spring on their Tiburon property in northern California and conducted an interview with Kagin.

“I never would have thought we would have found something like this. However, in a weird way I feel like I have been preparing my whole life for it,” the couple said.

“I saw an old can sticking out of the ground on a trail that we had walked almost every day for many, many years. I was looking down in the right spot and saw the side of the can. I bent over to scrape some moss off and noticed that it had both ends on it,” they said.

It was the first of five cans to be unearthed, each packed with gold coins.

“Nearly all of the 1,427 coins, dating from 1847 to 1894, are in uncirculated, mint condition,” said Kagin told

He said that the couple plan to sell most of the coins, but before they do, they are “loaning some to the American Numismatic Association for its National Money Show, which opens Thursday in Atlanta.”

“Some of the rarest coins could fetch as much as $1 million apiece,” said Kagin. He also said that they wish to sell 90 percent of the collection through and on the company’s website.

“We’d like to help other people with some of this money. There are people in our community who are hungry and don’t have enough to eat. We’ll also donate to the arts and other overlooked causes. In a way, it has been good to have time between finding the coins and being able to sell them in order to prepare and adjust. It’s given us an opportunity to think about how to give back,” said the couple.

Kagin and his colleague David McCarthy, senior numismatist, and researcher at Kagin’s, met with the couple last April, two months after the hoard was found.

When McCarthy and Kagin told the couple that their bonanza will be in the annals of numismatic stories for quite some time, the couple said, “It would have been quite a pity not to share the magnitude of our find. We want to keep the story of these coins intact for posterity.”

Archaeologists Find 16,000-Year-Old tools in Texas

16,000-Year-Old Tools Discovered in Texas, Among the Oldest Found in the West

In the 1990s, archeologists in Texas claim they made a significant find by uncovering a cache of stone tools from 13,000 years ago that showed evidence of the continent ‘s oldest widely spread civilization. But then, years later, they made an even more powerful find in the same place — another layer of artifacts that were older still. About a half-hour north of Austin and a meter deep in water-logged silty clay, researchers have uncovered evidence of human occupation dating back as much as 16,700 years, including fragments of human teeth and more than 90 stone tools.

In addition to being some of the oldest yet found in the American West, the artifacts are rare traces of a culture that predated the culture known as Clovis, whose distinctively shaped stone tools found across North America have consistently been dated to about 13,000 years ago. Indeed, an entire generation of anthropologists was taught that Clovis represented the continent’s first inhabitants. But, along with a handful of other pre-Clovis finds, the Texas tools add to the mounting evidence that humans arrived on the continent longer ago than was once thought, said Dr. D. Clark Wernecke, director of the Gault School of Archaeological Research.

“The most important takeaway is that people were in the New World much earlier than we used to believe,” Wernecke said.

The pre-Clovis artifacts include more than 90 stone tools, such as bifaces and blades, and more than 160,000 flakes left over from the point-making process.

“We were all taught [North America was first populated] 13,500 years ago, and it appears that people arrived 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.”

The location in Texas where the new finds were made, known as the Gault Site, was first identified in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that archaeologists discovered the first tools, like tapered-oval spearheads, that were clear signs of the ancient Clovis culture. It was those finds that Wernecke and his colleagues went to investigate further when they began working at the Gault site in 2002.

“At the time, we were interested in Clovis, and we had no idea of anything earlier there,” he said. After several years of digging test pits and making chance finds, the team ended up focusing on two of the most striking parts of the site. The first part, known as Area 12, revealed an unusual “pavement” constructed out of cobbles buried deep beneath the surface.

“[It’s] a roughly two-by-three-meter rectangular gravel pad about 10 centimeters thick of rounded river gravels in a narrow range of sizes, with artifacts of at least Clovis age on and around it,” Wernecke said.

“The indications from the surrounding data are that it had a structure on it.”

The presence of Clovis-era stone tools suggested that the paved floor dated to about 13,000 years ago. The team kept digging, and about 1 meter below the pavement and the Clovis tools, they found nine more flakes of shaped stone, along with a scattering of animal bones. Assuming that material found below the Clovis pavement must be older than Clovis, the researchers were intrigued. But there was not much to go on.

Researchers found stone tools fashioned in the signature Clovis style. But several centimeters below that, an abundance of new material appeared — including human teeth.

“In Area 12, you have the pavement, lithics, and bone, and not much else,” Wernecke said. However, the team also turned its attention to another area nearby, where it discovered significantly more, and larger, artifacts that were also older than Clovis. Here, at a spot named Area 15, the researchers first found a few more stone tools fashioned in the signature Clovis style. But several centimeters below that, an abundance of new material appeared — including human teeth.

Among a pile of limestone rocks, the team discovered the enamel caps of four adjacent teeth from a young adult female. No human bones were found, and enamel can’t be radiocarbon dated, Wernecke noted, so details about the woman — like how and when she lived and died — remain a mystery for now. However, within this same, deep, older-than-Clovis layer of sediment, the researchers unearthed yet another compelling find — more than 90 stone tools, fashioned in a style that clearly wasn’t Clovis. Clovis projectile points can be identified by their long parallel-sided shape — a form known as lanceolate — as well as by their thin bases, and notches where a shaft could be hafted onto the stone.  But many of the newly found, deeper artifacts didn’t fit that description.

“The morphology is completely different,” Wernecke said. “They are not lanceolate points with basal thinning.

“Three of them are very small stemmed points, and the fourth is a somewhat thick sort of lanceolate point. In addition to the 90 tools, the artifacts include more than 160,000 stone flakes left over from the tool-making process. And they, too, are different from the flakes found with Clovis tools, Wernecke said.

“The flaking patterns are also completely different,” he said.
“These were not made using Clovis technology.”

But the fact that these artifacts were different from and deeper than, the Clovis points didn’t necessarily prove that they were older. To establish their age, Wernecke and his colleagues submitted 18 of the artifacts to a lab for optically stimulated luminescence dating — a process that analyzes tiny grains in the soils to reveal when they were last exposed to sunlight, thereby giving a sense of how long they’ve been buried. The results showed that the artifacts were between 13,200 to 16,700 years old. At their most ancient, that’s some 3,000 years older than the earliest known signs of Clovis culture anywhere in North America.

“We compared these [dates] with relative dating of artifacts and radiocarbon dates wherever possible,” Wernecke added. “All seem to agree well.”

The discovery of all of these older-than-Clovis artifacts raises tantalizing questions about what that earlier culture was like, and how it compared to the Clovis culture. According to Wernecke, the pre-Clovis tools suggest that their makers were likely direct predecessors of the Clovis. Many aspects of their technology — like how they made biface blades — were similar but not identical, he said.

A comparison of a Clovis point found at the Gault site (left) with the bases of older points found below the Clovis layer.

“Blade technology does not seem to have changed a lot — a little bit in technique, but both cultures were making similar blades,” he said.

“Likewise, many of the tools are the same basic tools — easily recognizable to either technological culture but made in a different fashion. A different set of technological tools and instructions were used to arrive at similar tool types.” This continuity in technology might indicate a similar continuity of culture, Wernecke added, a gradual transition from one culture to the next.

“You would logically expect some similarity,” he said. “If people adopted new technology, some of the old would hang around.

“If [the tools] were completely different, you would expect to find another culture in between [the Clovis and older-than-Clovis layers], or evidence for total replacement of the population.”

Much more work remains to be done at the Gault site, Wernecke said. But the discoveries made there so far have enormous implications for our understanding of the history of human migration and the peopling of the Americas, Wernecke said. 

“In 1590, [Spanish missionary and naturalist] Jose de Acosta wrote that the people in the New World were primitive humans who must have walked here, and we have built on that premise ever since,” he said.

“But it was not possible to walk here until much later, with 3-mile-high glaciers in the way.

“If people got here 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, they had to have come along the coast in boats.” Moreover, he added, the diversity of artifacts uncovered at the Gault site also shows that the continent’s earliest peoples were not a static or monolithic group.

“We are beginning to understand that the first peoples in the new world were just like us,” Wernecke said, “intelligent, inventive, creative — and they found ways to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

14,000-Year-Old Poop Found in Oregon Cave Turns Out to Be Human

14,000-Year-Old Poop Found in Oregon Cave Turns Out to Be Human

Gizmodo reports that archaeologists John Blong and Lisa-Marie Shillito of Newcastle University and their colleagues tested 21 coprolites unearthed in Oregon’s Paisley Caves for the presence of human sterols and bile, which are not soluble in water and thus chemically stable. Previous mitochondrial DNA testing of the ancient waste indicated that all of the samples were human in origin, but critics argued that DNA from later occupation of the cave may have washed into lower, older cave sediments and contaminated the samples.

Outside the Paisley Caves entrance.

“We address issues of potential DNA contamination through fecal lipid biomarker analysis, providing evidence that there likely was DNA moving from younger human occupations into older cave sediments and coprolites, but also confirming that people were camping at the caves as early as 14,200 years ago,” Blong said.

Genetic analysis of the coprolites suggested they came from humans, but some researchers questioned this result, citing possible contamination of the samples. The progeny of the poop remained unresolved for years, but new research is providing a fresh look at these stale but incredibly important piles of dung.

Paisley Caves

Humans first entered North America around the end of the last ice age, sometime between 20,000 and 15,000 years ago. Further confirmation of exactly when and how this migration took place would be a big deal, even if the evidence in question is literally full of crap. Coprolites, in order to last for so long, require an arid environment. Plenty of dry caves exist in western North America, but Paisley Caves are special in that they’re the only ones known to harbor evidence of human activity dating back to the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.

That said, this evidence is not great. Aside from the supposed human coprolites, the only other evidence at Paisley Caves from this time period tends to be flakes left over from the manufacturing of stone tools (which can’t be reliably dated) and butchery marks found on the bones of possible prey animals (which might actually be gnaw marks made by non-human animals). This is where ancient poop can help—when skeletal or other lines of evidence are either scarce or non-existent.

“The most convincing evidence for many archaeologists was a collection of preserved feces containing Native American mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) deposited 14,400 to 14,000 years ago, making them the oldest directly dated human remains in the Western Hemisphere,” John Blong, a co-author of the new study and an archaeologist at Newcastle University, wrote in an email to Gizmodo. “This evidence was criticized, though, because several of the coprolites contained both human and dog mtDNA, suggesting that the human mtDNA may be the result of contamination from overlying layers. No one doubts that the coprolites are as old as the radiocarbon dates say they are, they just doubt they are human.”

That the prior mtDNA analysis was deficient is a distinct possibility. People and animals have been sharing these caves for millennia, so it’s very possible that genetic material from one pile of poop leached onto others.

“If you’ve ever watched a crime show on TV, you know that DNA can get everywhere,” said Blong. “Organisms constantly shed DNA in hair, skin cells, sweat, saliva, and so on.” At the same time, DNA is soluble in water, making it highly mobile in wet environments.

“Even though the interior of the Paisley Caves is very dry, we do see clues in the sediments that there were occasional, short-term wetting events,” Blong explained. “Imagine a storm with heavy rain that blows into the caves. The rain soaks into the cave sediments and dries a day or two later. Even in this short period of time, the water can transport human DNA left by a later group down into the deeper sediments representing an earlier time.”

Archaeologist Lisa-Marie Shillito collecting cave samples.
Archaeologist Lisa-Marie Shillito collecting cave samples.

Thankfully, DNA isn’t the only clue available to scientists, as coprolites also contain fecal lipid biomarkers, which can be pinned to certain types of animals. Moreover, lipids—organic molecular compounds that include fats, oils, steroids, and other biosignatures—are not very soluble in water, so they don’t tend to move around caves when things get wet. They’re also chemically stable, so they preserve well over long timescales.

“These characteristics make lipids a more reliable source for identifying human coprolites in a setting where cave sediments occasionally get wet,” said Blong.

With this in mind, Blong, along with study co-author Lisa-Marie Shillito and other colleagues, analyzed the lipid biomarkers found in 21 coprolite samples taken from Paisley Caves, all of which were previously found to be of human origin through mtDNA analysis. The researchers ran tests to determine sterol and bile content, in order to discern human feces from those produced by other animals. The researchers then compared these samples to the surrounding sediment, finding that minimal leaching occurred between the coprolites and the cave environment.

Of the 21 samples analyzed, 13 were identified as belonging to humans, two of which had been previously dated to the 14,000-year-old timeframe. Interestingly, one poop sample was linked to a panther and another to a lynx. Details of this analysis were published in Scientific Reports.

Study co-author Helen Whelton working on samples in the lab.

“Our study addresses persistent criticisms of the DNA evidence for the earliest human occupation of the Paisley Caves,” said Blong. “We address issues of potential DNA contamination through fecal lipid biomarker analysis, providing evidence that there likely was DNA moving from younger human occupations into older cave sediments and coprolites, but also confirming that people were camping at the caves as early as 14,200 years ago.”

Katelyn McDonough, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University, told Gizmodo that the fecal biomarker approach is “very exciting,” as lipids “preserve better and move less than other materials, such as DNA.” Overall, “this study both advances and showcases the fecal biomarker approach and makes a good case for the use of this method in tandem with DNA analysis in the future,” said McDonough, who wasn’t involved in the new research, though she has spent time working in Paisley Caves.

McDonough said she was “somewhat surprised” by the disagreement between the DNA and biomarker readings for some of the coprolites, “but that goes to show that we shouldn’t always rely solely on DNA and that multiple lines of evidence are best, when possible.”

For the new study, the authors also directly dated a cultural remnant found in the caves. A bulrush fragment, either from a basket or mat, was found to be roughly 14,000 years old, “further confirming the earliest human occupation,” said Blong. McDonough said the directly dated piece of basketry is “incredible” and an “extremely unique glimpse into plant use and textile production around 14,000 years ago.”

“We still have a lot to learn about when the first people arrived in the Americas, where they came from, and what routes they took to get here,” said Blong. “Our study adds to growing evidence that people were in the Americas more than 14,000 years ago, prior to the widespread Clovis culture.”

Indeed, the new paper is further evidence that humans reached this part of the world prior to the emergence of Clovis culture and its iconic stone tool technology. The Clovis people, who emerged around 11,500 to 11,000 years ago, were once considered to be the first inhabitants of North America, but this theory is increasingly coming into doubt. Archaeological evidence excavated in western Idaho suggests humans were in the region well over.

As Blong pointed out, these coprolites are the oldest directly dated human remains in the Western Hemisphere, but there’s other important archaeological evidence to consider. A study from last year, for example, showcased some of the earliest evidence of humans in North America, specifically at the Cooper’s Ferry site in western Idaho. Stone tools, animal bones, traces of fire pits, and other signs of human occupation were dated to between 16,560 and 15,280 years ago.

It’s also worth pointing out that the colossal ice sheet separating North America from Siberia began melting around 14,800 years ago. That humans were living in Oregon’s Paisley Caves soon afterward is not much of a surprise, but it’s good to have this extra bit of poopy evidence. Excitingly, these human coprolites have more stories to tell. As Blong told Gizmodo, he and his colleagues are currently analyzing the coprolites to figure out what these pioneering humans were eating.

Ancient Aztec palace unearthed in Mexico City

Ancient Aztec palace unearthed in Mexico City

Ancient Aztec palace unearthed in Mexico City
Archaeologists say the floor is likely to have formed part of a courtyard

The historic Nacional Monte de Piedad building in Mexico City appears to cover much more than low-interest pawn loans to those in need. As it turns out, the building actually stands on the remains of an Aztec palace.

According to USA Today, the discovery occurred during an inspection by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

Experts found basalt slabs on the property that they now believe to be part of the palace’s main courtyard, which later became home to Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

The palace, found under a historic pawnshop, was also used by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés
The floors were part of open space in Axayácatl’s palace

In addition to the sheer architectural wonder of the find, the discovery provides a historic glimpse into a world long gone and insight into how the empire changed as the Spanish infiltrated it.

“They [the Spaniards] remodeled a room to celebrate mass, and right there, they also held various rulers captive,” said INAH in a statement. “Starting with their distinguished host: Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.”

The palace was constructed for the Aztec ruler Axayáctl, who oversaw the capital city of Tenochtitlan from 1469 to 1481. Axayáctl’s son was Moctezuma II, one of the empire’s last rulers who was killed in 1520.

The Nacional Monte de Piedad was built in the 1770s and has since become a charity, pawn shop, and loan provider.

Though archaeologists had previously identified parts of the palace over the last two decades, the recent discovery of the building’s foundation was a milestone.

“Given its characteristics, the specialists deduced that it was part of an open space in the former Palace of Axayáctl, probably a courtyard,” the INAH statement continued. “While in that palace, numerous events took place,” including perhaps the death of Moctezuma himself.

The basalt slabs were first found in September 2017 as officials were making preliminary efforts to refurbish the National Monte de Piedad. The entire following year was essentially spent on unearthing the rest of the foundation to assess and authenticate these remnants.

In addition to the palace, experts found the remains of a house built by Cortés after the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

The Spanish ruthlessly ordered the Aztecs to destroy their temples and palaces upon taking control, while using the same materials to build entirely new structures — like this house.

“These premises, like so many other structures of the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, were destroyed by the Spanish and their indigenous allies, almost to their foundations,” INAH explained.

The institute added that the conquistador and his troops inhabited the new home for numerous years. It even became the first seat of their new government in 1525.

Now, nearly 500 years later, that same site serves as a national charity, pawnshop, and loan provider.

Excavations in Mexico continue to astound experts in the region. Recently, pre-hispanic sweat lodges used by the Mexica people to worship deities were unearthed in Mexico City.

Ultimately, these discoveries show how history can vanish in a blink — and resurface just as suddenly centuries later.