Archive for the ‘Ancient South America’ Category
An anthropology professor from Trent University recently put together a study on the diets of the Inca who lived in ancient Peruvian town. By studying the remains of 500-year-old Incan mummies, she was able to reconstruct what kinds of foods they ate, how much they consumed, and when the food was eaten.
A number of Incan mummies were uncovered at the coastal town of Tupac Amaru, in the midst of an ancient cemetery. Since this area of Peru is extremely dry throughout the entire year, the preservation conditions for organic materials is very good – many of the ancient mummies are so well preserved that parts such as skin, hair, eyelashes, and fingernails remain on the bodies. In some cases, tattoos have even survived the decomposition process and are still visible.
Tissue samples taken from the mummies – including pieces of hair, nail, skin, bone, muscle and tendon – were tested in order to obtain the chemical signatures that are left behind when human beings consume foods. Typically, a piece of bone will record the diet of an individual over the past fifteen years, due to its extremely slow growth rate. Also, since hair averages a growth rate of one centimeter per month, it can record an individual’s dietary habits during the weeks before death.
The study revealed that the Inca had rather extreme seasonal fluctuations in their diet: in the winter, the Inca ate mostly tubers, which includes items like potatoes, while in the summer their primary subsistence was on corn. For the mummies from this area of Peru, that was quite an odd find – historians have known that the Inca normally had an excellent ability to maintain a healthy stash of food stores and supply the food to their surrounding populations, but it appeared that the people here were relying heavily on cultivated foods in their diet.
That means that the Inca from this region were in a rather precarious position – for some reason or another, they weren’t getting access to stored food in any significant quantities from the centralized distribution of the Incan capital cities, and thus these people had no fallback plan for surviving crop failures. Also, the evidence gleaned from the mummies showed that most of the people died during the summer, which was contrary to typical thinking. Normally, ancient populations lost more people during the winter’s harsh conditions than in the summer – but for this group of Inca, the summer’s lack of dietary choices caused malnutrition and a susceptibility to disease.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard
In the spring of 2007, archaeologists discovered a rare cache of gold artifacts inside of a Bolivian pyramid – not to mention a 1,300-year-old skeleton alongside it. Strangely untouched by looters, the skeleton and the gold were fully intact, and have revealed more information about the ancient Tiwanaku people who lived in the area between 400 and 1200 AD.
The skeleton is believed to have been an elite member of the Tiwanaku, possibly a priest or governmental figure, primarily because the bones at this burial – unlike some bones found elsewhere in the pyramid in past years – had no physical markings on them that would indicate the person was a victim of ritual sacrifice. In addition, the body was buried near the top of the pyramid instead of near the bottom, which was where other bones from sacrificial victims were previously found.
The pyramid in which the bones and gold were found was the Akapana pyramid, which was one of the largest pre-Columbian structures in South America. It was heavily looted long ago, which was why finding a burial with an inordinate amount of gold was such an unexpected discovery. The Bolivian archaeologists working here also found evidence of the individual having been buried with a llama by his side – apparently llamas were believed to assist someone in their transition to the afterlife.
A gold headband, a fist-sized gold pendant, and several gold figurines were part of the gold trove that was buried with the body. The figurines were very carefully crafted and had defined faces with correctly proportioned features – evidently, the culture was doing well enough at the time to bury their important people with an array of riches… however, a study done on the bones seems to indicate that he had suffered from malnutrition at some point during his life, and was approximately 25 years old at the time of death.
This was highly unusual – after all, if someone was of high status within the society, he should have been well cared for throughout his life, which means that he would have eaten well, regardless of whether or not it caused a common citizen to starve. This seems to point to a period of cultural stress wherein there was a resource shortage.
Why does that matter? Since the history of the Tiwanaku is still a bit unclear, knowing that they went through a period of decline and then potential resurgence helps to piece together their history – after all, if their decline was because of food shortages or war with other people, it should show up in the records of the surrounding cultures during the same time. This small bit of information then helps to piece together a full history of the whole of South America during pre-Columbian times.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: Book covers… made of human skin! oooooh scary!
Although the popularly held belief is that Columbus discovered America… it seems that he wasn’t actually the first to make it there from across the ocean. That’s right – the chickens beat him to it.
Well, actually both the chickens and the Polynesians arrived at the same time, according to ancient DNA evidence. It turns out that the ancient Polynesians were much better sailors than anyone gave them credit for, and somehow managed to beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas by at least a century, arriving in the early 1400s, if not before.
So, not only did the Polynesians colonize nearly every island in the South Pacific – and there’s plenty of evidence for their existence on these islands – but they apparently figured that journeys of several thousand miles weren’t enough. They wanted to sail even further, which brought them to: South America.
Ancient chicken bones found along the coast of Chile were DNA analyzed and compared with the DNA of other chickens found at archaeological sites across the Polynesian islands. The results? The chickens’ genetic stock was Polynesian and not European… and since chickens have a bit of problem when it comes to sailing across the open Pacific on their own, they must have arrived on the ships of Polynesian sailors.
The chicken bones dated to sometime between 1320-1410 AD, which fits with the time when Polynesians probably would have been expected to reach the American continent, although until now, there was no evidence that they actually did so. It is likely that they traveled here from Easter Island, and made their way across the ocean to Chile.
The Mapuche people living in Chile today, coincidently, have quite a number of Polynesian words in their language, and some of their tools are very similar to Polynesian items. While this may be a direct link between these people and the ancient sailor, there is not enough evidence to be %100 certain.
At the very least, there can be no doubt that Polynesian chickens – and humans – discovered America well before Christopher Columbus ever knew of its existence.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: Sailing Obelisks
About a thousand years ago, the Wari people living at the town of Cerro Baul in southern Peru evacuated their city… but before they left, they had a few tasks to fulfill:
1) Get completely plastered on spicy corn beer.
2) Set the brewery, temple, and palace on fire.
Naturally, this was simply the course of action taken to fulfill a ‘ceremonial destruction’ of where they used to live – since both the Wari nation and the neighboring Tiwanaku state were in decline, the Wari people of Cerro Baul probably figured that they had better plans for helping their people survive than to simply continue living up on their flat-topped mountain.
The Wari people and their Tiwanaku neighbors were both agriculturally-based societies, and the Wari had lived since 600 AD on top of a 2,000-foot-high mesa – which might seem somewhat counterproductive, since any traded goods would have needed to be hauled up and down the side of the mountain, a rather dangerous task no matter how you look at it.
However, the most likely explanation was that the Wari wanted to show off their prowess to the Tiwanaku – establishing themselves with a bit of ‘king of the castle’ bravado, since the nearest Tiwanaku city was only 5 miles away and would have been able to see the Wari’s town rather clearly from their vantage point. Mind you, there is no evidence for the two groups ever fighting each other – it seems that the Tiwanaku were more focused on their religious devotion – and both seem to have worshipped the same gods… can you say ‘sibling rivalry’?
Another thing both the Wari and the Tiwanaku shared was a deep appreciation for something called ‘chicha’, which was a fermented alcoholic drink made from corn – it was quite similar to modern day beer, and it was consumed in excessive quantities during their necessary drinking rituals.
Michael Moseley, an anthropologist at the University of Florida, had this to say about the Wari and Tiwanaku’s love for beer: “You couldn’t have a ceremony without intoxication; people would drink until they fell down, then get up and start drinking again.” Considering this perspective, perhaps the sudden decline of both cultures around 1000 AD isn’t so inexplicable after all…! Though, of course, it actually seems that a long-term drought was to blame.
Thus, if the drought caused severe problems for these agricultural societies, the Wari probably saw their inconvenient settlement location as less important than it had originally seemed to be – and so, the Wari people brewed up one last batch of beer and promptly set fire to the entire city. Archaeological evidence shows that the roofs of buildings were deliberately burnt and many drinking cups were ‘ritually smashed’.
Since chicha takes a week to brew, the people had time to get themselves organized for the event – evidence shows that there were not only 28 local tribe leaders assembled in the courtyard at the time of the drinking party, but the presence of many, many animal bones shows that the people had quite the feast before heading out to burn the town.
So, after eating too much, and getting far too drunk, the local men went out into their former hometown and set everything in the palace, temple, and brewery that could possibly be combustible on fire – then they threw their beer mugs into the flames, and walked away to start new lives elsewhere… presumably, they had actually taken that part into consideration.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: Racism in ancient Rome (or the lack thereof)
Previous page | Next page