Archive for the ‘Ancient North America’ Category

North American Burial Mounds- Remnants of a Sophisticated Society

By: The Scribe on March, 2011

Many people have heard of burial mounds that can be found in many countries around the world. One of the best examples of a burial mound complex can actually be found in the United States. Located near Collinsville, Illinois, the Cahokia Mounds archaeological site has been declared to be the largest earthen construction in the Americas that dates from the prehistoric era. The only prehistoric earthen constructions that are larger are found to the south in Mexico as well as elsewhere in Central and South America.

It is difficult to tell exactly when building began on the Cahokia site. This is because the people who lived in the area and built the mounds did not leave any written records behind. The only examples of their writing consisted of symbols that were found on copper, wood, stone and pottery. These have been found at the site and show that the area was lived in as well as used as a burial site. The city of Cahokia was settled around 600 CE and evolved into a sophisticated city with plazas, stockades and watchtowers. This was not surprising considering the fact that the city was a center for trade and, at one time, was the largest urban center north of the cities in Mexico. There may have been as many as 40,000 people living at Cahokia at the city’s peak.

This massive burial structure is found at CahokiaThe main feature that dominates the area is Monk’s Mound. This mound is ten stories or ninety-two feet high. It is a massive nine hundred and fifty one feet in length and eight hundred and thirty six feet long. The mound took several centuries to complete. While it is massive, it is not the only interesting feature that can be found in the area.

One of the most interesting features is actually the Grand Plaza that stretches out from Monk’s Mound. The Grand Plaza seems to be where ceremonies were held by the residents who were living at the mound. Studies have shown that while the landscape was originally undulating, the residents were able to level and fill it in order to make a flat area where they could worship, celebrate and play games. It was one of four large, flat areas that radiate out from Monk’s Mound.

Another example of the site’s sophistication includes the Woodhenge. This was a circle of This collection of wooden posts was used in astronomyposts that was used in astronomy. It was made up of a series of posts which were placed so that they marked equinoxes and solstices. The wooden posts served much the same purpose as the stones that made up Stonehenge. Archaeologists were able to prove that not only was Woodhenge rebuilt several times during the past, remnants of another Woodhenge were also found near another one of the area’s burial mounds.

Although Cahokia was home to a sophisticated civilization, it eventually began to decline. This began in 1300 CE and the site was completely abandoned by the time the Europeans arrived in the area although some indigenous tribes did continue to live in the area. There have been many theories as to why the site was abandoned, ranging from disease to over hunting, deforestation and environmental issues that may have caused the area to become uninhabitable.

A European Settlement in North America that Predates Columbus

By: The Scribe on December, 2010

Many people believe that when Columbus sailed the ocean in 1492, his discovery of the Americas marked the first time someone from Europe had set foot on the continent. But this was actually not the case. The Norse managed to beat Chris here by approximately 400 years and they left behind evidence of their life here that was not discovered until 1960.image

The settlement is known as L’Anse Aux Meadows and it was discovered in 1960. The ruins were discovered by Helge Ingstad, an explorer from Norway who was involved in a project to map Norse settlements. He and his wife discovered the site and were able to prove that the Vikings had settled here well before Columbus began his voyage. Although the precise age of the site is not known there are a lot of similarities between this site and others found in Greenland and Iceland which have been dated to around 1000 AD.

The settlement was discovered in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Due to its status as one of only two known North American Viking settlements the area was declared to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the remains of the settlement were not discovered until 1960, the name had been appearing on maps of the area ever since 1862. The area where the settlement is located is extremely open and has many meadows. This is one thing that may have made it appeimagealing to early Viking settlers.

There are a few theories as to why L’Anse Aux Meadows may have existed. One theory is that this was where Vikings who fled Greenland may have settled. It is close enough to Greenland that they would have been able to reach the area somewhat easily.

Another theory is that the settlement was part of a land known as Vinland. The Norse may have settled L’Anse Aux Meadows in order to get a foothold in Vinland, a land that was described as being to the west of Greenland. It is unknown why the Norse did not choose to settle in the area permanently. Evidence exists that shows the Vikings likely only lived in the area for a short time and then left to travel to other destinations.

There have been several periods of excavation at L’Anse Aux Meadows. The first was in the 1960’s and was conducted by the Ingstads. The second was in the 1970’s. During these two excavations a total of eight buildings were uncovered. The walls of the buildings were made of turf or sod that was placed over a framework of wood. Surprisingly, some of the largest dwellings have more than one room. A wide selection of tools was also discovered and remains of some of the foods that may have been eaten at the settlement.

This site is valuable because of the large number of artifacts that have been discovered as well as giving us an idea of what kinds of tools and equipment were used by the settlers in this area. Archaeologists have also managed to unearth a smithy that still contained a forge and some slag, an area where carpentry was performed and an area where boats could be repaired. This was important to the Vikings as travel by water was central to their way of life.

Life is a (Kelp) Highway (ca. 10,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007

Ancient humans coming to North America from Asia may have followed an ‘ocean highway’ made of densely packed kelp.One of the fascinating components and great mysteries of ancient migration movements is how people – without GPS or maps – managed to make their way from one continent to the next, without getting horribly lost, starving to death, or making fatal wrong turns in the process. As it turns out, ancient humans who came to North America from Asia may have managed to make their way across the ocean by following a highway made of densely packed kelp.

Typically, “coastal migration theory” has centered around the idea that early seafaring people moved from one island to another by boat, hunting the sea creatures that lived in kelp forests for food. The potential ‘kelp highway’ from Asia to America only lends strength to this theory, and certainly provides a rational explanation for how so many people moved themselves across such a vast distance.

Kelp forests are among some of the richest ecosystems in the world today – as they were in ancient times – and are home to an incredible number of living creatures: abalone, urchins, hundreds of varieties of fish, otters, seals, and more, all of which would have provided excellent nutrition value and practical materials for people moving across the ocean.

Often referred to as ‘maritime people’, the ancient humans who made the migration move are believed to have boated along the Kurile and Aleutian Islands from Japan to Alaska approximately 16,000 years ago – some settlements of around 12,000 to 9,000 years old have been discovered along the coastlines of these islands, and they also have rich kelp forests that ecologists believe existed tens of thousands of years ago.

A group of maritime people who lived in Japan’s Ryukyu Islands around 35,000 to 15,000 years ago are known to have had the ability to travel 90 miles or more at once while moving between islands, so at the very least, humans already knew how to cover vast distances in relatively simple boats. In a place called Daisy Cave in the Channel Islands, located off of southern California, remains of some kelp resources have been found that date to around 10,000 BC!

With kelp forests found right next to plenty of the Americas’ earliest known archaeological coastal sites, it certainly seems that the ability of ancient peoples to move such enormous distances across the ocean was dependent on these kelp forests – after all, even today, a nearly continuous ‘highway’ of kelp stretches from Japan all the way across Siberia, past the Bering Strait to Alaska, and then moves down along the coastline of California!

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Tomorrow: The last Pagan Emperor of Rome

CSI: New Mexico – Possible Genocide? (ca. 1275 AD)

By: The Scribe on July, 2007

CSI New Mexico

It was around 1100 AD that an obscure native culture, known as the Gallina, lived in a small area of New Mexico’s northwest. And it was around 1275 AD that the entire culture suddenly vanished without a trace.

Until recently, less than one hundred skeletons from the Gallina culture have been found, but a new cache of seven skeletons has added a twist to the tale of this vanishing group of people. The bones of five adults, one child, and one infant all show evidence of violent murder. One skeleton had a fractured skull, jaw, forearm, pelvis and thighbone, and several ribs were also cracked. Another body had cut marks on the upper arm, similar to the kind of marks made by an axe. The skull of the child, probably about two years old at the time of death, had been crushed.

Two of the bodies were also arranged in an unusual way: an adult male and a female were face down, on their knees, with their heads bent back far enough to rest between their shoulder blades. The female’s head had been snapped back so far that a piece of her vertebrae had been forced into the back of her skull. This could have been the result of a deliberate pose, or it is possible that the individuals were crouched defensively when their necks were broken. This kind of position also shows that whoever killed these people did not bother to bury them – they simply carried out the murders and moved on.

Another unusual feature of the murder scene was a burnt pit house quite near to where the bodies were found. According to reports from previous Gallina sites, in 90% of cases, attackers tended to throw their Gallina victims inside their own houses and then burn the houses on top of them. However at this site, the bodies had simply been thrown into a pile. According to archaeologists working at the site, it is extremely likely that more bodies and burnt houses are nearby – though whether they will show such evidence of brutal murder is uncertain.

Although very little is known about this culture, two of the adult skulls showed distinct evidence of culturally-induced cranial deformation – they have an unusual flattened shape which has not show up anywhere else in the American southwest. It is entirely possible that distinctive internal traits such as these were the cause of violent conflicts with other groups of Gallina people in the area, or it may have also been the result of drastic climate change in the region.

Gallina murder dig

In fact, one of the main theories on the massacre site is that the Gallina culture’s disappearance was the result of genocide. Around 1100 AD, shortly after the culture appears in the archaeological record, the southwest of New Mexico was struck with severe drought. By about 1150 AD, the water table had begun to drop, preventing inhabitants of the region from growing as much corn as was needed to survive – it is possible that this could have been the source of stress between villages, as they struggled to ensure each group had enough resources. With competition for water and arable land, it is possible that internal strife took a turn for the worse – resulting in mass killings for the sake of food and water.

A second theory rests on the known evidence that other established cultural groups in the area, such as the Anasazi, abandoned their own massive settlements during the drought. If established groups like the Anasazi saw the new Gallina people as a threat – new, alone, without any political allies – they may have done what they thought they needed to do to restore the land’s harmony. After all, if they had no problems growing their corn for hundreds of years – and then a new group of people came into the area, and all of a their sudden corn wasn’t growing anymore – who were they going to blame?

Although the fate of the Gallina culture remains undetermined, the horrendous violence inflicted on the most recent skeletons certainly shows that whatever happened, the conflict was swift and ruthless – and let toward a complete destruction of an entire culture.

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Tomorrow: 2000 year old noodles, yummy!

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