Archive for the ‘Ancient South America’ Category
If there is one thing that is essential to a culture’s survival it is the availability of water. A constant water source is necessary not only for drinking but for irrigating crops as well. In the arid conditions found in the Andes Mountains, how was it then that some ancient cultures such as the Chavin and the Incas were able to flourish?
Archaeologists have now found evidence that several ancient cultures built canals in order to irrigate crops and carry a steady supply of water to areas where water was not normally available. Four canals have been found that date from between 5400 and 6700 years ago, showing evidence that South America was the sight of irrigated agriculture long before any other region in the Americas.
The canals were found on the south side of the Nanchoc River in an area known as the Zana Valley. The valley is an area where some of the oldest civilizations have been found in South America. The canals were shallow and quite narrow. They were lined with pebbles and larger stones and measured anywhere from less than one mile to more than two miles long. The fact that these canals were found near the remains of stone hoes, charred plants and other examples of agricultural life strongly points to the fact that the canals were used to water crops.
Evidence shows that the canals were not built all at one time. The earliest canal seems to have been built when there was a higher amount of rainfall. Water travelled along the canal all year long. Other canals were not used as frequently and were even abandoned at one point. Scientists think that this may have meant the site was abandoned at some point.
Instead of fighting gravity and working against their surroundings, it was clear to archaeologists that the canals used positioning in order to allow gravity to move the water from its source to the crops. The slopes allowed the water to travel easily and reliably to the crops in order to make sure they had the water they needed in order to flourish.
Before the canals were found, scientists were finding it difficult to explain how a complex society based on agriculture could flourish in such an arid area. Some societies flourished in South America as much as 5,000 to 6,700 years ago and without a steady supply of water, this would have been incredibly difficult to accomplish.
The water that travelled along the canals was drawn from small streams. Crops had been planted in areas that were lower than the rivers although they were not naturally wet. This showed that the civilizations which utilized the canals were organized enough to notice their surroundings and use the geography to their advantage, rather than simply choosing random areas to plant their crops.
Although the canals only date back by as much as 6,700 years, many scientists believe that there may have been an organized system of irrigation as much as 9,000 to 10,000 years ago although they feel that evidence of these very early canals will be hard to find.
It was around 4,000 years ago that an advanced civilization lived in the northern coastal desert of Peru, pre-dating the Inca and building massive, complex structures to their deities. Who were the people of this advanced civilization? Currently, the question of who they were remains unanswered – however, they left behind a large, colorful temple for future historians to admire.
The temple is massive, and was constructed in an unusual way for the people of ancient Peru – whoever built the temple created their own mud bricks to use for building the structure, instead of using carved stones or rocks as most Peruvian civilizations did. The ability to create mud bricks from local sediment is considered an advanced function of society – so whoever constructed this temple knew exactly what they were doing.
What the temple was used for isn’t too difficult to surmise – on the front of the building there was a staircase leading up to an altar. The kind of altar here, and the location of the altar on the building, point directly to its use for making offerings to deities and engaging in fire worship.
The fire temple had several of its walls painted as well, which makes these murals possibly the oldest wall paintings known in the Western Hemisphere. One of the red and white murals shows a deer being hunted and trapped in a net, which makes this fire temple a place of very different iconographic and architectural tradition than what was previously known to be the case in the area.
With a size of approximately 2,500 square meters – nearly half the size of a football field – the Peruvian fire temple is close to the modern city of Lima, about 755 kilometers away. Adding to the curiosity factor of the building is a skeleton of a monkey and a piece of turquoise, as well as the way which the dirt was burying the building – it appeared as though once the people finished using this building, they deliberately buried it! The monkey skeleton and turquoise, found near ritual areas of the temple, were probably ceremonial offerings to commemorate the building.
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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard
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.
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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.
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Tomorrow: Book covers… made of human skin! oooooh scary!
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