Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

Periods of Drought May Be Linked to Fall of Maya Capital

Periods of Drought May Be Linked to Fall of Maya Capital

Periods of Drought May Be Linked to Fall of Maya Capital
Ruins of the monumental centre of Mayapan.

Prolonged drought likely helped to fuel civil conflict and the eventual political collapse of Mayapan, the ancient capital city of the Maya on the Yucatán Peninsula, suggests a new study in Nature Communications that was published with the help of a University at Albany archaeologist.

Mayapan served as the capital to some 20,000 Maya people in the 13th through mid-15th centuries but collapsed and was abandoned after a rival political faction, the Xiu, massacred the powerful Cocom family. Extensive historical records date this collapse to sometime between 1441 and 1461.

But new evidence shows the drought in the century prior may have played a larger role in the city’s demise than was previously known. The study authors note this is relevant today as humans grapple with a future of increased climate change.

Marilyn Masson, an archaeologist and professor and chair of UAlbany’s Department of Anthropology, helped design and is a co-author of the study, which was assisted by an international team of interdisciplinary researchers. They studied historical documents for records of violence and examined human remains from that area and time period for signs of traumatic injury.

Map of the ancient Mayapan settlement site.

Masson, who serves as principal investigator for the Proyecto Económico de Mayapan, said she and the team found shallow mass graves and evidence of the brutal massacre at monumental structures across the city.

“Some were laid out with knives in their pelvis and rib cages, and other skeletal remains were chopped up and burned,” she said. “Not only did they smash and burn the bodies, but they also smashed and burned the effigies of their gods. It’s a form of double desecration basically.”

But that was hardly the most shocking discovery for the researchers.

That came when Douglas Kennett, the lead study author with the University of California Santa Barbara’s anthropology department, dated the skeletons using accelerator mass spectrometry, an advanced form of radiocarbon dating technology and found they dated some 50 to 100 years earlier than the city’s storied mid-15th century downfall.

“So then we started asking why? Because this is a case where archaeology reveals something that’s not told in history,” Masson said.

Plenty of ethnohistorical records exist to support the city’s violent downfall and abandonment around 1458, she said. But the new evidence of massacre up to 100 years earlier, together with climate data that found prolonged drought around that time, led the team to suspect environmental factors may have played a role. 

Paleoclimate scientists were able to calculate annual rainfall levels from that period using a dating process that relied on calcite deposits in nearby caves and found evidence of a drying trend throughout the 1300s. In particular, researchers found a significant relationship between a period of drought and substantial population decline from 1350 to 1430.

The Maya depended heavily on rain-fed maize but lacked any centralized long-term grain storage. The impacts of rainfall levels on food production, then, are believed to be linked to human migration, population decline, warfare and shifts in political power, the study states. 

“It’s not that droughts cause social conflict, but they create the conditions whereby violence can occur,” Masson said. 

The study authors suggest the Xiu, who launched the ultimate fatal attacks on the Cocom, used the droughts and ensuing famines to foment the unrest and rebellion that led to the mass deaths and outmigration from Mayapan in the 1300s.

“I think the lesson is that hardship can become politicized in the worst kind of way,” Masson said. “It creates opportunities for ruthlessness and can cause people to turn on one another violently.”

Following this period of drought and unrest, however, the city appears to have bounced back briefly with the help of healthy rainfall levels around 1400, the authors wrote. 

“Mayapan was able to bend pretty far and then bounce back before the droughts returned by the 1420s, but it was too soon,” Masson said. “They didn’t have enough time to recover, and the tensions were still there and the city’s government just couldn’t survive another bout like that. But it almost did.”

As food insecurity, social unrest and drought-driven migration in parts of the world continue to be of great concern, Masson said there are lessons in how other empires have handled environmental hardships. The Aztecs, for example, survived the infamous “Famine of One Rabbit,” which had been fueled by a catastrophic drought in the year 1454.

The emperor emptied out stores of food from the capital to feed citizens and when that ran out, encouraged them to flee, Masson said. Many sold themselves into slavery on the Gulf Coast where conditions were better but eventually bought their way out, returned to the capital, and the empire was stronger than ever.

This strategy enacted by the Aztec imperial regime is likely what allowed for their recovery, Masson said.

“Overall, we argue that human responses to drought on the Yucatan Peninsula…were complex,” the study concludes. “On the one hand, drought stimulated civil conflict and institutional failure at Mayapan. However, even after Mayapan fell, despite decentralization, intervals of mobility, temporary impacts on trade, and continuing military conflict, a resilient network of small Maya states persisted that were encountered by Europeans in the early 16th century. These complexities are important as we attempt to evaluate the potential success or failure of modern state institutions designed to maintain internal order and peace in the face of future climate change.”

Ice Age human footprints found in Utah desert, thanks to a chance glance out of a moving car: “Lost oasis”

Ice Age human footprints found in Utah desert, thanks to a chance glance out of a moving car: “Lost oasis”

In total, 88 footprints were discovered, including both adult and child footprints. These footprints provide insight into family life during the Pleistocene.

Cornell researcher Thomas Urban discovered footprints on the salt flats of the Utah Testing and Training Range (UTTR) believed to date from the end of the last ice age.

A footprint discovered on an archaeological site is marked with a pin flag on the Utah Test and Training Range, July 18, 2022.

During a trip to UTTR, Urban and Daron Duke of Far Western Anthropological Research Group noticed what Urban thought were “ghost tracks” – tracks that can appear for a short period and then disappear when moisture conditions are right.

When Urban stopped to look, he recognized what was familiar to him: unshod human footprints, similar to those in White Sands National Park, considered the oldest known human footprints in the Americas.

“It was a truly serendipitous find,” said Urban, a research scientist in the College of Arts and Sciences and with the Cornell Tree Ring Laboratory.

A ground-penetrating radar survey of one of the two visible trackways was conducted by Urban the day after they returned to the site. He quickly identified what was hidden from his previous experience applying geophysical methods at White Sands, including radar.

Urban explained that the ghost tracks visible at White Sands were only part of the story. “Radar detected several additional invisible prints.”

During Duke’s excavations, he confirmed that the prints were made barefoot and that there were additional prints that had not been seen.

In total, 88 footprints were discovered, including both adult and child footprints. These footprints provide insight into family life during the Pleistocene period.

A press release from the Air Force reported that excavations of several prints showed evidence of adults leaving bare footprints with children between the ages of five and 12 years old.

“People appear to have been walking in shallow water, the sand rapidly infilling their print behind them – much as you might experience on a beach – but under the sand was a layer of mud that kept the print intact after infilling.”

Duke said the prints are likely older than 12,000 years, as there haven’t been wetland conditions in this remote area of the Great Salt Lake desert for at least 10,000 years.

To confirm the discovery, further research is being conducted.

Anya Kitterman, the Air Force Cultural Resource Manager for the area, said, “We found so much more than we bargained for.”

In the UTTR, Urban found two open-air hearths from the Ice Age dating back to the end of the Ice Age at the request of Duke. One of these hearth sites contained the earliest evidence of tobacco use by humans. The recently discovered footprints were about a half-mile away from those hearths.

According to Urban, the site is important on a broader scale. “We have long wondered whether other sites like White Sands were out there and whether ground-penetrating radar would be effective for imaging footprints at locations other than White Sands since it was a very novel application of the technology,” he said. “The answer to both questions is ‘yes.’”

While the Utah site is not as old and may not be as extensive as White Sands, Urban said there might be much more to be found.

Twin ‘grumpy mouth’ reliefs of Olmec contortionists discovered in Mexico

Twin ‘grumpy mouth’ reliefs of Olmec contortionists discovered in Mexico

Archaeologists in Mexico have uncovered two Olmec reliefs chiselled into large, circular stones that are thought to depict local rulers performing ritual contortion.

Twin 'grumpy mouth' reliefs of Olmec contortionists discovered in Mexico
Carved into limestone, the two reliefs depict rulers from the ancient Olmec civilization in what is now Mexico.

The twin pieces were found in Tenosique, a town located in the state of Tabasco, near Mexico’s southern tip, and are believed to feature rulers from the ancient Olmec civilization, whose name comes from the Aztec (Nahuatl) word “Ōlmēcatl,” which means “rubber people.”

The Olmec reigned between 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C. and are considered the first elaborate pre-Hispanic civilization in Mesoamerica(opens in new tab). Today, they’re best known for their sculptures of colossal heads.

Constructed of limestone, the massive 3D sculptures measure approximately 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) in diameter and weigh 1,543 pounds (700 kilograms) each.

The two carved monuments portray the faces of local rulers with their “grumpy mouth[s]” agape and their arms crossed, according to a translated statement. Each piece is punctuated by footprints, a diadem, corncobs, an Olmec cross and glyphs of jaguars, with the leaders’ open mouths alluding to the “roar of the jaguar.”

Researchers from the Ministry of Culture of the Government of Mexico, part of the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) Tabasco Center, the organization that recovered the pieces, noted that what’s most striking about the reliefs is the positioning of the figures’ mouths, since they’re carved as though they’re “ajaw.” This signals to archaeologists that the portraits, which date to between 900 B.C and 400 B.C., were that of important figureheads within the Olmec community. 

It’s possible that this style of Olmec carving evolved into the later Maya ajaw altars, according to the INAH statement. “The word ‘ajaw’ means ‘he who shouts,’ ‘he who sends’ [and] ‘the one who orders,’ and in these [later] Maya monuments the mouth stands out, a feature that must come from Olmec times, especially from these reliefs circulars of ‘contortionists’ that are portraits of local chiefs,” Carlos Arturo Giordano Sánchez, the director of the INAH Tabasco Center, said in the statement. Some of the Maya ajaw altars are found at the Caracol Maya archaeological site in Belize, “which tells us about the permanence of this theme for more than three centuries,” Giordano Sánchez said.

The newfound carvings look strikingly similar to five different reliefs of contortionists attributed to the Olmec that were found elsewhere in the region, including in Balancán and Villahermosa, two other cities in Tabasco; Ejido Emiliano Zapata, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco; and in Tenosique.

Based on those similarities, the researchers believe that the portraits depict rulers performing ritual contortion. This practice involves “adopting a stance that reduces the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain to achieve a trance-like state,” Heritage Daily(opens in new tab) reported.

Doing so allegedly “gave them powers,” Tomás Pérez Suárez, an archaeologist at the Center for Mayan Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said in the translated statement. 

He also said that he believes that the newfound reliefs originated from the Middle Usumacinta region bordered by the Chacamax River to the north and the mouth of the San Pedro River to the south.

The INAH first learned about the reliefs in 2019 after an anonymous tip reported their discovery on a property in Tabasco’s capital.

The sculptures will be housed at the Pomoná Site Museum in Tenosique, which counts the aforementioned Ejido Emiliano Zapata piece as part of its collection. 

A sleeve button set from the 1780s discovered at Colonial Michilimackinac

A sleeve button set from the 1780s discovered at Colonial Michilimackinac

A set of joined sleeve buttons, believed to be from the 1780s, was recently discovered on Colonial Michilimackinac.

Sleeve button

According to a press release from Mackinac State Historic Parks, archaeologists continue to uncover incredible artefacts late into the 2022 archaeological field season.

“We are still finding interesting artifacts,” said Dr. Lynn Evans, Mackinac State Historic Parks Curator of Archaeology, in a press release.

“This set of joined sleeve buttons, like a modern cufflink, was found in the 1781 demolition rubble layer.

The green glass paste ‘stones’ are set in brass.”

The current excavation site is House E of the Southeast Rowhouse at Colonial Michilimackinac.

The house, according to Mackinac State Historic Parks, was first occupied by Charles Henri Desjardins de Rupallay de Gonneville.

Other finds this season have included a red earthenware bowl, a one-ounce brass weight marked with a crown over GR, for the king, a second brass weight from a set of nesting apothecary weights, stamped with a fleur-de-lis, and a King’s 8th button.

The dig at Michilimackinac began back in 1959; it’s reportedly one of the longest-running archaeology programs in North America.

U.S. Repatriates Looted Artifacts to Cambodia

U.S. Repatriates Looted Artifacts to Cambodia

(This August story corrects the 6th paragraph to state that Douglas Latchford was a dual citizen of Thailand and the United Kingdom, not Thailand and the United States)

The United States will return to Cambodia 30 looted antiquities, including bronze and stone statues of Buddhist and Hindu deities carved more than 1,000 years ago, U.S. officials said on Monday.

The Southeast Asian country’s archaeological sites – including Koh Ker, the capital of the ancient Khmer empire – suffered widespread looting in civil conflicts between the 1960s and 1990s.

Cambodia’s government has since sought to repatriate stolen antiquities sold on the international market.

Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said the items being returned were sold to Western buyers by Douglas Latchford, a Bangkok dealer who created fake documents to conceal that the items had been looted and smuggled.

Williams said the antiquities, including a 10th-century sandstone statue depicting the Hindu god of war Skanda riding on a peacock, were voluntarily relinquished by U.S. museums and private collectors after his office filed civil forfeiture claims.

U.S. Repatriates Looted Artifacts to Cambodia
Seized items are displayed during an announcement of the repatriation and return to Cambodia of 30 Cambodian antiquities sold to U.S. collectors and institutions by Douglas Latchford and seized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 8, 2022.
A person looks at a seized 10th Century Khmer sandstone statue of Skanda on a Peacock following an announcement of the repatriation and return to Cambodia of 30 Cambodian antiquities sold to U.S. collectors and institutions by Douglas Latchford and seized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 8, 2022.
A 10th-century Koh Ker-style sandstone sculpture of a Yaksha is prepared ahead of an announcement of the repatriation and return to Cambodia of 30 Cambodian antiquities sold to U.S. collectors and institutions by Douglas Latchford and seized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 8, 2022.
Lee Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. State Department delivers remarks as he stands with seized items during an announcement of the repatriation and return to Cambodia of 30 Cambodian antiquities sold to U.S. collectors and institutions by Douglas Latchford and seized by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., August 8, 2022.

“These statues and artefacts… are of extraordinary cultural value to the Cambodian people,” Williams said at a ceremony in Manhattan announcing the return of the antiquities.

U.S. prosecutors in 2019 charged Latchford, a dual citizen of Thailand and the United Kingdom, with wire fraud and smuggling over the alleged looting. He died in Thailand in 2020.

The antiquities will be displayed at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s U.S. ambassador Keo Chhea told Reuters at the ceremony.

In 2014, federal prosecutors returned the Duryodhana, a looted 10th-century sandstone sculpture, to Cambodia after settling with auction house Sotheby’s Inc, which had acquired it.

Last year, the Manhattan district attorney’s office returned 27 looted antiquities to Cambodia.

1,000-year-old bison skeleton unearthed in Mitchell

1,000-year-old bison skeleton unearthed in Mitchell

What a completely unusual find. Two students found the bones of an ancient bison while digging last week at the Prehistoric Indian Village. The estimated 1,000-year-old bones discovered by the University of Exeter students help reveal how the Ame…

1,000-year-old bison skeleton unearthed in Mitchell
Two students from the University of Exeter discovered the pelvis, spine and tail of a bison. The rib slabs were removed, but the portions of the pelvis, spine and tail the students found were intact. They did not find the head, but they hope, as they continue digging, that they will find it.

What a completely unusual find.

Two students found the bones of an ancient bison while digging last week at the Prehistoric Indian Village.

The estimated 1,000-year-old bones discovered by the University of Exeter students help reveal how the American Indians butchered the animals they hunted.

Amy Chamberlain-Webber, 18, and Megan Stealey, 20, thought finding the bison bones was exciting. The women found the bones in a cache pit where American Indians stored food, weapons and other valuables.The cache pit later became a trash pit that the bones were thrown into.

Chamberlain-Webber and Stealey uncovered the pelvis of the bison, and they found other bones as they continued digging. The group found portions of the bison since its arrival in mid-June, but Friday realized the magnitude of the find.

It is unusual to find large portions of the animals still in tact, said Alan Outram, professor of archaeological science at the University of Exeter, located in South West England, United Kingdom. The pelvis, spine and tail were intact, as were the feet bones.

“It revealed itself slowly to us,” Outram said. “There were hints of it, and we sort of slowly discovered it.”

In total, the group found the pelvis, spine, articulations of the ribs, some ribs, portion of the tail, in-tact foot bones and the leg bones. The group did not find all of the ribs or the skull while they were excavating the trash pit.

According to Outram, the way a group butchers an animal reveals a lot about the group’s culture.

“That sort of food culture is really a part of their identity,” he said.

Outram believes the bison was killed in the summer and the bones were thrown into the pit after it was butchered. The meat of the bison was likely cooked using hot rocks.

This discovery, Outram said, brings understanding into the “daily activities” of the past. He notes that it is common to find remains mixed in with other objects, but this particular bison, found in the pit, is from “one day’s activities.”

“It’s a day frozen in time,” said Cindy Gregg, executive director of the Prehistoric Indian Village. “… It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

Stealey hopes the next part of the bison to be found is the skull, but Outram is unsure if it will be found. Many times, American Indians would cut off the head of the animal because it was heavy.

The group will continue searching the trash pit in hopes of finding the skull until its final day at the Prehistoric Indian Village on Aug15.

(Left) Amy Chamberlain-Webber and Megan Stealey (right) discovered the bison pelvis during their time at the Prehistoric Indian Village. Both women are studying archaeology and forensics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. (Katherine Clayton/Republic).
(Left) Amy Chamberlain-Webber and Megan Stealey (right) discovered the bison pelvis during their time at the Prehistoric Indian Village. Both women are studying archaeology and forensics at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

Maya rulers’ ashes turned into pelota balls – expert

Maya rulers’ ashes turned into pelota balls – expert

Some Maya rulers may have been incinerated and their ashes mixed with rubber to make the balls used in the game of pelota, an archaeologist says. Burnt human remains uncovered at the ruins of a Maya city have led to a new theory about the death rites of the ancient civilisation.

Descendants of the Maya have been trying to revive the ball game
Descendants of the Maya have been trying to revive the ball game

Archaeologist Juan Yadeun Angulo came up with the hypothesis after finding urns containing human ashes, rubber and roots at a Maya temple in Mexico.

Pelota is among the oldest team sports.

Mr Yadeun, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), has been studying a recently uncovered crypt underneath the Sun Temple at the Toniná archaeological site in southern Mexico.

Inside the underground crypt and its antechamber, archaeologists found 400 urns containing a mixture of human ashes, coal, rubber and plant roots.

Vases containing human ashes and rubber were found in a crypt 8m (26ft) underground

Mr Yadeun believes the crypt was used to burn the bodies of the dead in a religious ritual.

The ashes were then added to other organic material to make the heavy balls used in pelota, the team game played in Mesoamerica thousands of years ago, the theory goes.

The Toniná archaeological site may not be as well-known as that of Mayan ruins in Palenque but it is an impressive complex built on a hill in the jungle of Chiapas.

Among the constructions preserved to this day is the sunken ballcourt where the Maya played pelota.

The sunken ballcourt at Toniná is well preserved

According to Mr Yadeun, stone carvings at key locations inside the ballcourt offer clues that back up his theory.

He says the stone carvings suggest that three rulers, all of whom died between 722AD and 776AD, were taken to the “cave of the dead” for their “transmutation”.

“Just as Egyptians tried to preserve [bodies], we know here they were transformed in another way,” Mr Yadeun told Reuters news agency.

The archaeologist thinks that the Maya wanted the bodies of their rules to “be converted into a life force, something to stimulate their people” and therefore worked their ashes into the rubber used to make balls for the game.

“We have evidence they were incorporated into balls, during the Classic Period the balls were gigantic,” Mr Yadeun explained.

A carved stone disc found at a different site in Chiapas suggests the size of the pelota ball in the 6th Century and how players propelled it with their hips.

The disc of Chinkultic, which dates back to 590, depicts a Maya ball player

Possible Hessian Remains Found at Revolutionary War Battlefield

Possible Hessian Remains Found at Revolutionary War Battlefield

Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.

Possible Hessian Remains Found at Revolutionary War Battlefield
Shown is a King George III gold guinea, discovered in an excavation site at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.

The remains, found at the site of Fort Mercer and the 1777 Battle of Red Bank, rested for 245 years until a human femur was found in June during an archaeological dig of a trench system that surrounded the fort, scientists said.

The additional excavation yielded more skeletal remains and items including pewter and brass buttons and a King George III gold guinea, which would have been a soldier’s pay for a month.

A team of scientists from Rowan University and officials from Gloucester County presented their preliminary findings during a news conference at Red Bank Battlefield Park, just south of Philadelphia.

Officials believe the remains are part of a mass grave of Hessian soldiers—German troops hired by the British—who were part of about 377 troops killed by Colonial forces during the Battle of Red Bank. Americans lost 14, historians said.

The victory allowed Americans at the fort to delay the British from moving supplies up the Delaware River.

“Based on everything we’ve found and the context of what we’ve found, these appear to be Hessians,” Wade Catts, principal archaeologist for South River Heritage Consulting of Delaware, said in a statement.

Shown is a soldiers knee buckle discovered in an excavation site at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.
Shown is a casting made of human remains discovered in an excavation site at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.
Flags indicate the location of human remains discovered at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.

The remains have been turned over to forensic anthropologists at the New Jersey State Police forensic unit to extract DNA from the bones and teeth to identify their origin. Additional studies are being conducted to examine life history, health and disease.

The scientists hope they can identify the remains and find their descendants.

“We’re hoping that eventually, perhaps, we can find some of these individuals,” Rowan University public historian Jennifer Janofsky said in a statement.

“If we can extract their stories, and if we can tell their stories, it lets us put a name to a face. And that, to me, is a very powerful moment in public history.”

Officials said the remains were excavated with “extraordinary attention” to preserving the dignity of the war dead.

Wade Catts, the principal archaeologist for South River Heritage Consulting of Delaware, speaks with members of the media and officials at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.
Rowan University public historian Jennifer Janofsky speaks with members of the media at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.
Rowan University public historian Jennifer Janofsky speaks during a news conference at the Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, N.J., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Researchers believe they have uncovered in a mass grave in New Jersey the remains of as many as 12 Hessian soldiers who fought during the Revolutionary War, officials announced Tuesday.

When the study is complete, they will be interred at another site, and the trench will be refilled. The land will be incorporated into the park on a bluff overlooking the river.

“Archaeology is helping us better understand what happened on the battlefield,” Janofsky said.