Category Archives: NORTH AMERICA

El Pital: A Massive Ancient Port City Home to 150 Pyramids

El Pital: A Massive Ancient Port City Home to 150 Pyramids

The remains of a huge, ancient port city believed to have flourished for 500 years during the decline of the Roman Empire have been discovered on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, the National Geographic Society announced Thursday.

With more than 150 earthen pyramids and other buildings, the biggest 100 feet high, the port seems to have been North America’s largest coastal city 1,500 years ago. The site, in the state of Veracruz, has been named El Pital for a nearby town.

Although digging has not begun at the site, an examination of the surface has already yielded artefacts and information that establish the city’s importance as a multiethnic political, commercial and agricultural centre from AD 100 to 600.

150 pyramids

El Pital could provide important clues to gaps in ancient Mexican history in areas bordering the seats of the Mayan and Aztec empires, said American archaeologist S. Jeffrey K. Wilkerson of the Institute for Cultural Ecology of the Tropics in Tampa, Fla. He is directing the exploration, which is partly funded by National Geographic.

El Pital residents probably traded with their contemporaries at Teotihuacan, the site of the famous pyramids north of the capital that was built by a civilization that predated the Aztecs.

The city is likely to have been an early rival of El Tajin, a later city 40 miles away that until now was the biggest archaeological site in northern Veracruz. El Pital appears to have been larger than El Tajin, controlling an area that included more than 40 square miles of suburbs and farmland and probably influencing an area several times that large.

The discovery could also have significant ecological implications because the ancient civilization seems to have supported more than 20,000 people–similar to the population of the area today–using farming techniques less harmful to the environment than the intensive chemical agriculture now practised there.

“The (population) density we’re seeing far exceeds anything that preceded it in this area and even those that follow until the end of the 20th Century,” Wilkerson said. “Something special was going on technologically that allowed that to happen and that has not occurred in the intervening 1,500 years.”

The fields around El Pital were made highly productive by some of the largest earth-moving projects of their time. Canals were dug to drain wetlands or to channel fresh water into rich estuaries that brackish water would otherwise have left infertile.

Residents also appear to have constructed an artificial island to guard the two slow-moving rivers that provided access to their city from the Gulf of Mexico. One of those rivers is the Nautla, Mexico’s 26th-largest river, notable because it floods every year, like the ancient Nile, leaving farmers a layer of rich silt.

The city’s demise may have been connected to a megacycle of El Nino, a climatic phenomenon that resulted in six months a year of the cold, windy rains known as nortes , Wilkerson theorized.

Some cocoa farmers still lived in the region at the time of the Spanish conquest, but the disease had mainly wiped them out by the end of the 16th Century. The jungle reclaimed the area until plantation owners cleared it again in the 1930s and 1940s.

Today’s farmers rely on chemicals to fertilize plantations in what is now one of Mexico’s most important banana and citrus regions. Those chemicals have stained ancient ceramic fragments–whose varied patterns led scientists to believe that the area was multiethnic–and even obsidian, an extremely dense volcanic material seldom penetrated, Wilkerson said.

Besides everyday ceramics, archaeologists have found a mask that resembles the image of the ancient rain god Tlaloc and a four-inch clay head believed to depict a sacrificed ballgame player. Residents of El Pital seem to have been major fans of ballgames: Eight courts have already been identified in the area.

“This is an extensive site with huge monuments for that period,” said Enrique Nalda, technical secretary of Mexico’s National Institute of Archeology and History, which granted Wilkerson a permit to explore the El Pital area.

Some of the pyramids at El Pital.

Ironically, Wilkerson discovered El Pital because the institute nearly two years ago refused to allow him to continue working in an area farther upriver, where he has carried out investigations over the last three decades.

‘Hellboy’ horned dinosaur species discovered in Canada

‘Hellboy’ horned dinosaur species discovered in Canada

The prehistoric creature, named Regaliceratops peterhewsi, is a close relative of the familiar Triceratops and belongs to Ceratopsidae, a group of large-bodied, plant-eating dinosaurs that evolved in the Cretaceous period and were largely restricted to western North America.

Artistic life reconstruction of Regaliceratops peterhewsi.

Ceratopsid dinosaurs are divided into two subgroups: chasmosaurines, which include Triceratops and the new species, and centrosaurines.

Centrosaurines went extinct several million years before the chasmosaurines, which went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous along with all the other dinosaurs.

Characteristically, chasmosaurines have a small nose horn, large horns over their eyes, and shield-like frills with simple scalloped edges.

Regaliceratops peterhewsi is unexpected because it shows the exact opposite pattern: large nose horn, small horns over the eyes, and elaborately decorated frills similar to centrosaurines. This demonstrates that at least one group of chasmosaurines evolved ornamentation similar to centrosaurines following their extinction.

“This new species is a chasmosaurine, but it has ornamentation more similar to centrosaurines. It also comes from a time period following the extinction of the centrosaurines,” said Dr Caleb Brown, lead author on the study published in the journal Current Biology.

“Taken together, that makes this the first example of evolutionary convergence in horned dinosaurs, meaning that these two groups independently evolved similar features.”

‘Hellboy’ horned dinosaur species discovered in Canada
Citizen palaeontologist Peter Hews with the skull of Regaliceratops peterhewsi that he found.

The nearly intact skull of Regaliceratops peterhewsi was discovered by Calgary resident Peter Hews, a geologist in the petroleum industry, in southeastern Alberta in 2005.

“The specimen comes from a geographic region of Alberta where we have not found horned dinosaurs before, so from the onset we knew it was important,” Dr Brown said.

Despite the formal name, Dr Brown and his co-author, Dr Donald Henderson, said they’ve taken to calling this dinosaur by the nickname ‘Hellboy’ (after the comic book character).

“It’s due to the difficulty collecting the specimen and for the challenging preparation process to remove it from the very hard rock in which it was encased,” the scientists said.

“Upon discovery, it was instantly noticeable that this specimen was something that had never been seen before, especially considering its unlikely location and unique features.”

The palaeontologists said they hope to uncover more specimens of Regaliceratops peterhewsi.

Dr Brown added: “This discovery also suggests that there are likely more horned dinosaurs out there that we just have not found yet, so we will also be looking for other new species.”

1,800-Year-Old Offering to the Gods Discovered Beneath Pyramid of Teotihuacan

1,800-Year-Old Offering to the Gods Discovered Beneath Pyramid of Teotihuacan

Several bouquets of offering flowers have been discovered 59 feet below the temple of the god Quetzalcóatl – a pyramid that still stands in the Mexican ruined city of Teotihuacan. 

Quetzalcóatl, or ‘Plumed Serpent’ was an important god during ancient Mesoamerica, a historical region that included central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica.

This deity was said to have given maize to humanity and was responsible for the creation of mankind, which may be why offering flowers were uncovered under the god’s temple.

Sergio Gómez, an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, said the stems are in good condition and still tied with the original cotton-made cords.

‘In total there are four bouquets of flowers in very good condition, they are still tied with ropes, probably cotton,’ Gómez told Mexican news outlet La Jornada.

‘This is a very important find because it speaks of the rituals that were carried out in this place.’

Gómez says it is too early to determine what kind they are – but he hopes to solve that mystery soon.

‘Although we do not know the exact date of when they were deposited, because we just took them out this week, they must be very old and correspond to the first phases of Teotihuacan, between 1,800 and 2,000 years ago,’ Gómez explained.

1,800-Year-Old Offering to the Gods Discovered Beneath Pyramid of Teotihuacan
The stems are in good condition and still tied with the original cotton-made cords
1,800-Year-Old Offering to the Gods Discovered Beneath Pyramid of Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan, with its huge pyramids of the sun and moon, is made up of a labyrinth of palaces, temples, homes, workshops, markets and avenues. The city is thought to have been built in 100BC and existed until the 8th century

‘We have found complete objects that were placed in this shot; the ceramics are also from the Zacuali and Miccaotli phases, from the beginning of our era, between years zero and 200 after Christ.’

Gómez has been working in the ruined city for nearly 12 years, sifting through ancient soil, rocks and pyramids looking for clues about those who once called the area home.

Some 30 miles (50km) north of Mexico City, Teotihuacan, with its huge pyramids of the sun and moon, is made up of a labyrinth of palaces, temples, homes, workshops, markets and avenues.

The city is thought to have been built in 100BC and existed until the 8th century. Archaeologists consider it one of the most influential in pre-Hispanic North America, with a population of 200,000 at its peak.

However, only 5 per cent of Teotihuacan has been excavated despite more than 100 years of exploration. During excavations, Gómez as recovered more than 100,000 artifacts within the ancient city and specifically under the three pyramids that are still standing.

However, the offering flowers are the first intact botanical materials every to be found at the site.

‘It is very relevant because it will give us indications of the flora that was used for ritual purposes,’ Gómez said.

In 2011, archaeologist uncovered other offerings at the base of the pyramid, including animal remains, three human figurines and a haunting, green mask that was used in rituals 2,000 years ago
The mask was carved from a single jade stone and is the only one of its kind to be discovered in thee ancient city

‘In this same context, while sifting the earth, several kilos of charcoal were found as a result of a ritual ceremony that included the burning of seeds and fruits.’

In 2011, archaeologists uncovered other offerings at the base of the pyramid, including animal remains three human figurines and a haunting, green mask that was used in rituals 2,000 years ago.

Perez Cortez, an investigator with the Zacatecas INAH Center, said in a statement when the mask was discovered: ‘We know [the offerings were] deposited as part of a dedication ceremony.’

The mask was carved from a single jade stone and is the only one of its kind to be discovered in the ancient city. 

Melting glacier reveals forest entombed by ice 1,300 years ago in southern Alaska

Melting glacier reveals forest entombed by ice 1,300 years ago in southern Alaska

Remnants of a grand forest that vanished 1,300 years ago have begun to reappear in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park.

The ancient trees that populated the forest are tumbling from the receding Exit Glacier, and they’re showing up along the banks of Exit Creek.

A photo shared by park officials shows one such tree was recently found lodged in rocks, its bark and limbs scraped away by centuries locked in ice.

Melting glacier reveals forest entombed by ice 1,300 years ago in southern Alaska
Remnants of a grand forest that vanished 1,300 years ago have begun to reappear in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park, and the return is so subtle that it is largely going unnoticed.

“The log pictured here might at first seem to be just another piece of driftwood coming down Exit Creek, but it tells a much more interesting story,” the park wrote in a Sept. 8 Facebook post.

“This section of wood was once part of an ancient forest that was entombed by Exit Glacier around 1300 years ago, sometime between AD 641-771. As the glacier has continued to melt back these pieces of wood are slowly being uncovered.”

Scientists refer to such debris as interstadial wood, from forests that “thrived prior to the last ice age.” The forests grew over decades-long periods “between glacial advances when local conditions were temporarily conducive to forest growth,” NPS officials say.  

The driftwood is often dismissed by tourists as recently fallen trees, but it offers “a unique opportunity to experience and understand the dynamic power of glaciers,” the park says.

Kenai Fjords National Park, created in 1980, describes itself as “a land where the ice age lingers.” “Nearly 40 glaciers flow from the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords’ crowning feature.

Wildlife thrives in icy waters and lush forests around this vast expanse of ice,” the park says. “Today, shrinking glaciers bear witness to the effects of our changing climate.” 

Exit Glacier has been receding since the 1800s at “roughly 3 feet a year, based on soil and tree-ring analysis,” according to a report in the Christian Science Monitor.

“Now the glacier is retreating faster, much faster, in winter and summer,” the site reported. The glacier is now receding nearly 300 feet annually, exposing sections of land that were covered for centuries, the NPS reports.

Fossil footprints show humans in North America more than 21,000 years ago

Fossil footprints show humans in North America more than 21,000 years ago

The question of when humans first migrated to North America has long been a matter of hot debate among researchers who have continually uncovered evidence of ever-earlier dates. Now, analysis of ancient fossilized human footprints in New Mexico has pushed the date back once again — to at least 21,000 years ago.

Fossilized human footprints showed at the White Sands National Park in New Mexico. According to a report published in the journal Science, the impressions indicate that early humans were walking across North America around 23,000 years ago.

Writing in the journal Science, a team of researchers led by Matthew Bennett of Bournemouth University in England examined a set of human footprints preserved on an ancient lakeshore in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park, a location now known for its expansive — and dry — chalk-coloured dunes.

They concluded that the footprints were made between 21,000 and 23,000 years old. The date would place human habitation in the Americas during the Last Glacial Maximum and at least 5,000 years earlier than widely accepted evidence has yet suggested.

The team has studied the footprints at White Sands National Park for years, excavating trenches and following the tracks with ground-penetrating radar.

The footprints were mostly made by children and teenagers

Bennett and his colleagues, whose paper was published Thursday, determined that the tracks belonged to numerous people, mostly children and teenagers. What’s more, the footprints spanned a significant time period, suggesting that humans frequented the area for at least a few thousand years.

“One of the beautiful things about footprints is that, unlike stone tools or bones, they can’t be moved up or down the stratigraphy,” Bennett says, according to Science News, referring to the layers where artefacts and fossils are found. “They’re fixed, and they’re very precise.”

Normally, rock layers are “a nightmare” to date, says Bennett, a professor of environmental and geographical sciences. But he says that two years ago, archaeologist David Bustos, a study co-author, discovered a site where human footprints were co-mingled with a layer of sediment containing seeds from the spiral ditch grass, an aquatic plant that could be carbon-dated. The results gave an estimate for the footprints.

Tom Higham, an archaeological scientist and radiocarbon-dating expert at the University of Vienna, who was not part of the study, called the latest findings “extremely exciting.”

“I am convinced that these footprints genuinely are of the age claimed,” he said, according to Nature.

The evidence for older dates for migration to the Americas is less solid

Although previous studies have suggested an even earlier migration of modern humans into North America — including a controversial 2017 paper suggesting that people lived in the Southern California region as long as 130,000 years ago — those claims have been largely discounted because of the “equivocality of the evidence,” Nature says. For instance, rocks were mistaken for tools, and marks on animal bones thought to be made by humans turned out to have a natural origin, the journal says.

“For decades, archaeologists have debated when people first arrived in the Americas,” says Vance Holliday, a University of Arizona archaeologist and co-author of the latest paper.

“Few archaeologists see reliable evidence for sites older than about 16,000 years. Some think the arrival was later, no more than 13,000 years ago by makers of artefacts called Clovis points.”

Last year, Nature published a paper by archaeologists who claimed to have found human artefacts in Mexico’s Chiquihuite Cave dating to at least 26,000 years ago.

But many fellow archaeologists were sceptical, pointing to the possibility that what the researchers had identified as stone tools were in fact naturally fractured rocks.

Ciprian Ardelean, who led the 2020 study at Chiquihuite, readily acknowledges that the discovery by Bennett and his colleagues “is very close to finding the Holy Grail.”

“I feel a healthy but profound envy — a good kind of jealousy — towards the team for finding such a thing,” Ardelean told National Geographic.

Researchers discover four dinosaurs in Montana

Researchers discover four dinosaurs in Montana

A team of palaeontologists from the University of Washington and its Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture excavated four dinosaurs in northeastern Montana this summer. All fossils will be brought back to the Burke Museum where the public can watch palaeontologists remove the surrounding rock in the fossil preparation laboratory.

A team of UW students, volunteers and staff excavate the Flyby Trike in northeastern Montana.

The four dinosaur fossils are the ilium—or hip bones—of an ostrich-sized theropod, the group of meat-eating, two-legged dinosaurs that includes Tyrannosaurus rex and raptors; the hips and legs of a duck-billed dinosaur; a pelvis, toe claw and limbs from another theropod that could be a rare ostrich-mimic Anzu, or possibly a new species; and a Triceratops specimen consisting of its skull and other fossilized bones.

Three of the four dinosaurs were all found in close proximity on Bureau of Land Management land that is currently leased to a rancher.

In July 2021, a team of volunteers, palaeontology staff, K-12 educators who were part of the DIG Field School program and students from UW and other universities worked together to excavate these dinosaurs.

The fossils were found in the Hell Creek Formation, a geologic formation that dates from the latest portion of the Cretaceous Period, 66 to 68 million years ago. Typical paleontological digs involve excavating one known fossil.

However, the Hell Creek Project is an ongoing research collaboration of palaeontologists from around the world studying life right before, during and after the K-Pg mass extinction event that killed off all dinosaurs except birds.

The Hell Creek Project is unique in that it is sampling all plant and animal life found throughout the rock formation in an unbiased manner.

The Hell Creek geologic formation.

“Each fossil that we collect helps us sharpen our views of the last dinosaur-dominated ecosystems and the first mammal-dominated ecosystems,” said Gregory Wilson Mantilla, a UW professor of biology and curator of vertebrate palaeontology at the Burke Museum. “With these, we can better understand the processes involved in the loss and origination of biodiversity and the fragility, collapse and assembly of ecosystems.”

All of the dinosaurs except the Triceratops will be prepared in the Burke Museum’s fossil preparation laboratory this fall and winter.

The Triceratops fossil remains on the site because the dig team continued to find more and more bones while excavating and needs an additional field season to excavate any further bones that may be connected to the surrounding rock. The team plans to finish excavation in the summer of 2022.

Called the “Flyby Trike” in honour of the rancher who first identified the dinosaur while he was flying his aeroplane over his ranch, the team has uncovered this dinosaur’s frill, horn bones, individual rib bones, lower jaw, teeth and occipital condyle bone—nicknamed the “trailer hitch,” which is the ball on the back of the skull that connects to the neck vertebrae.

The team estimates approximately 30% of this individual’s skull bones have been found to date, with more potential bones to be excavated next year.

Researchers discover four dinosaurs in Montana
A close-up view of the Flyby Trike’s occipital condyle bone—nicknamed the “trailer hitch”—the ball on the back of the skull that connects to neck vertebrae.

The Flyby Trike was found in hardened mud, with the bones scattered on top of each other in ways that are different from the way the bones would be laid out in a living animal.

These clues indicate the dinosaur likely died on a flood plain and then got mixed together after its death by being moved around by a flood or river system, or possibly moved around by a scavenger like a T. rex, before fossilizing. In addition, the Flyby Trike is one of the last Triceratops living before the K-Pg mass extinction. Burke palaeontologists estimate it lived less than 300,000 years before the event.

“Previous to this year’s excavations, a portion of the Flyby Trike frill and a brow horn were collected and subsequently prepared by volunteer preparators in the fossil preparation lab.

The frill was collected in many pieces and puzzled together fantastically by volunteers. Upon puzzling the frill portion together, it was discovered that the specimen is likely an older ‘grandparent’ triceratops,” said Kelsie Abrams, the Burke Museum’s palaeontology preparation laboratory manager who also led this summer’s fieldwork.

“The triangular bones along the frill, called ‘epi occipitals,’ are completely fused and almost unrecognizable on the specimen, as compared to the sharp, noticeable triangular shape seen in younger individuals. In addition, the brow horn curves downwards as opposed to upwards, and this feature has been reported to be seen in older animals as well.”

Amber and seed pods were also found with the Flyby Trike. These finds allow paleobotanists to determine what plants were living alongside Triceratops, what the dinosaurs may have eaten, and what the overall ecosystem was like in Hell Creek leading up to the mass extinction event.

Kelsie Abrams, the Burke Museum’s palaeontology preparation laboratory manager, opens the field jacket of a theropod ilium.

“Plant fossil remains from this time period are crucial for our understanding of the wider ecosystem. Not only can plant material tell us what these dinosaurs were perhaps eating, but plants can more broadly tell us what their environment looked like,” said Paige Wilson, a UW graduate student in Earth and space sciences. “Plants are the base of the food chain and a crucial part of the fossil record. It’s exciting to see this new material found so close to vertebrate fossils!”

Museum visitors can now see palaeontologists remove rock from the first of the four dinosaurs—the theropod hips—in Burke’s palaeontology preparation laboratory. Additional fossils will be prepared in the upcoming weeks. All four dinosaurs will be held in trust for the public on behalf of the Bureau of Land Management and become a part of the Burke Museum’s collections.

Burned Layer at Jamestown Linked to Bacon’s Rebellion

Burned Layer at Jamestown Linked to Bacon’s Rebellion

While placing lights at the front of Historic Jamestowne’s memorial church ahead of its 2019 reopening, Jamestown Rediscovery’s Senior Staff Archaeologist Sean Romo made an interesting discovery: burn deposits buried just below the surface.

The artefacts, including window leads, collected on top of the burn deposits, date to just after the 1676 fire.

With several recorded accounts of open fires at the settlement, Romo said there were three possible causes. It could be evidence of the January 1608 fort burning, the result of Confederate troops’ 1862 retreat or it could be evidence of Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676.

But the team could not definitively decide until they opened up the ground. But Romo had his doubts. While Confederate forces occupied the site, several spots around the island were disturbed in order to fortify the wall.

But, what the team uncovered was something of wonder: a square, 15-by-15 feet, filled with intact burn deposits along with several artefacts on the surface.

“We expected this space to be disturbed in some way, but once we took off the modern deposits, we were shocked. The fact that this site is really intact is incredible,” Romo said.

While historians have well-documented accounts of Nathaniel Bacon’s 1676 siege of Jamestown, there had never been any evidence identified as the burning of the island’s parish church.

But, nearly 345 years after the recorded event, the Jamestown Rediscovery’s team has definitively confirmed evidence of “one of the most unusual and complicated chapters in Jamestown’s history,” according to the National Park Service’s article.

While the team had several causes to consider, Romo said the artefacts, including window leads, collected on top of the burn deposits, date to just after the 1676 fire, proving that what they were looking at were from a wooden structure predating the rebellion.

On Sept. 19, 1676, Nathaniel Bacon led a siege on Jamestown, burning the site to the ground after several skirmishes with Gov. Sir William Berkeley over Native relations.

The rebellion is known as the first of its kind in the American colonies as Bacon, a wealthy landowner, gained the support of poor farmers.

Additionally, in a second dig site along the church’s eastern wall, there is definitive evidence of the construction of the existing brick church tower following its burning.

According to Director of Archaeology Dave Givens, this discovery is crucial in telling the complete story of Jamestown’s history and the team plans to continue their efforts to understand other artefacts at the site.

“We have positive evidence of Bacon’s Rebellion and the burning that took place,” Givens said. “The nice thing about this dig is that, as it evolves, it will help us understand more about the layers and what we’re seeing every day.”

“Truly Heartbreaking”: Osage Nation Decries Sale of Cave Containing Native American Art

“Truly Heartbreaking”: Osage Nation Decries Sale of Cave Containing Native American Art

An anonymous bidder has purchased Picture Cave, a Missouri cave system filled with 1,000-year-old Native American artwork, for $2.2 million. Held by St. Louis–based Selkirk Auctioneers & Appraisers, the sale went forward despite the Osage Nation’s efforts to block it, reports Jim Salter for the Associated Press (AP).

The Missouri cave featuring artwork from the Osage Nation dating back more than 1,000 years.

In a statement quoted by the AP, the Osage Nation—which had hoped to “protect and preserve” the site—described the auction as “truly heartbreaking.”

“Our ancestors lived in this area for 1,300 years,” the statement reads. “This was our land. We have hundreds of thousands of our ancestors buried throughout Missouri and Illinois, including Picture Cave.”

Selkirk’s website describes the two-cave system, located about 60 miles west of St. Louis, as the “most important rock art site in North America.” Between 800 and 1100 C.E., the auction house adds, people, used the caves for sacred rituals, astronomical studies and the transmission of oral tradition. 

“It was a collective commune of a very significant space and there is only speculation on the number of Indigenous peoples that used the space for many, many, many different reasons, mostly communication,” Selkirk Executive Director Bryan Laughlin tells Fox 2 Now’s Monica Ryan.

Husband-and-wife scholarly team Carol Diaz-Granados and James Duncan, who have spent 20 years researching the cave, opposed the sale. Diaz-Granados is an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, while Duncan is the former director of the Missouri State Museum and a scholar of Osage oral history.

“Auctioning off a sacred American Indian site truly sends the wrong message,” Diaz-Granados tells the AP. “It’s like auctioning off the Sistine Chapel.”

The art appears to depict supernatural beings, including a figure known as Birdman or Morning Star.
Some of the Picture Cave rock art is almost childish, as if it was sketched out by a child yesterday, has uncorrected C-14 date of AD 1000 +/- 100, Diaz-Granados et al. 2015.
An ancient almost black and white rock art example at Picture Cave, Missouri.

The scholar adds that the cave’s art, made largely with charred botanical materials, is more intricate than many other examples of ancient artwork.

“[Y]ou get actual clothing details, headdress details, feathers, weapons,” she says. “It’s truly amazing.”

Diaz-Granados tells St. Louis Public Radio’s Sarah Fenske that state archaeologists who first visited the cave decades ago thought the pictures were modern graffiti because of their high level of detail. But a chemical analysis showed that they dated back about 1,000 years. Duncan adds that the drawings hold clear cultural significance.

“The artists who put them on the wall did it with a great deal of ritual, and I’m sure there were prayers, singing—and these images are alive,” he says. “And the interesting thing about them as far as artists are concerned is the tremendous amount of detail and the quality of portraiture of the faces. Most of them are people—humans—but they’re not of this world; they’re supernatural.”

The artwork may represent an early achievement of the Mississippian culture, which spread across much of what’s now the southeastern and midwestern United States between about 800 and 1600 C.E., writes Kaitlyn Alanis for the Kansas City Star.

During this period, people in the region increasingly based their economies on the cultivation of corn and other crops, leading to the creation of large towns typically surrounded by smaller villages. 

Per Encyclopedia Britannica, Mississippian people adopted town plans centred on a plaza containing a temple and pyramidal or oval earth mounds. These designs were similar to patterns adopted more than 1,000 years prior in parts of Mexico and Guatemala. 

Among the most prominent surviving Mississippian sites are the Cahokia Mounds earthworks, which are situated just outside of St. Louis in Illinois. The city flourished from 950 to 1350 C.E. and was home to as many as 20,000 residents at its height. In 2008, Duncan told the Columbia Missourian’s Michael Gibney that the Picture Cave artists probably had ties to Cahokia. He argued that some of the drawings depict supernatural figures, including the hero known as Birdman or Morning Star, who was known to have been important in Mississippian culture.

The cave system and 43 acres of surrounding land were sold by a St. Louis family that had owned them since 1953. The sellers mainly used the land for hunting. In addition to its cultural significance, the cave system is home to endangered Indiana bats.

Laughlin tells the AP that the auction house vetted potential buyers. He believes the new owner will continue to protect the site, pointing out that, as a human burial site, the location is protected under state law. It’s also fairly inaccessible to would-be intruders.

“You can’t take a vehicle and just drive up to the cave,” Laughlin says. “You have to actually trek through the woods to higher ground.” Only then can visitors squeeze through the 3- by 3-foot cave opening.