Archive for the ‘Ancient North America’ Category

Have You Hugged a 380-Million-Year-Old Tree Today? (ca. 380,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on June, 2007

it probably looked something like this, but tallerSomething North America seems to be famous for is revealing ancient flora… very, very ancient, in fact. In 2007, archaeobotanists working near Gilboa, Ohio, found what may be the world’s oldest known tree – a giant palm that lived around 380 million years ago.

Hearkening back 140 million years before the dinosaurs, and earlier than the Wollemia pine from Australia that may have lived with the dinosaurs, the Wattieza tree fern had a thin palm-like trunk with a top that resembled the fronds of a modern palm tree. It was likely only around 10 meters high during maturity, though this would have been high enough to reach sunlight through the dense forest canopy.

Archaeogeologists have identified this period of time as the Middle Devonian Period, between 397 and 385 million years ago, which is thought to have been an incubator period that saw the development of new reproductive strategies for land plants. Other life at the time included small insects, spiders, and oceanic crustaceans, as identified through fossil remains.

With the rise of land plants, the atmosphere and ecosystem of the entire Earth would have shifted, creating new micro-environments that could have sustained additional smaller plants and insects, eventually storing enough carbon to support an extensive amount of land life.

Previously, the oldest known tree was a plant called Archaeopteris, which had leafy twigs and long roots and branches, very unlike the small fern-leaves and reproductive spores from Wattieza. Archaeopteris was placed in the Late Devonian Period, around 359 million years ago.

The discovery of the world’s oldest tree has managed to shed significant insight into how the Earth’s landscape developed over the course of time, as well as helping to understand how much impact a forest’s growth can have on the rest of an area’s environment. So far, archaeobotanists have realized that it was the growth of these early forests and plant systems that must have paved the way for the sustainable development of early reptilian and mammalian life.

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Tomorrow: Nostradamus…OoOoOoooh

Cahokia – City of Birdmen (ca.1050 AD)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

The Bird Man City

The site of Cahokia is located near Collinsville, Illinois, and was home to an ancient Native American city between 650-1400 AD. It is made up of a series of earthen mounds, which were constructed by the city’s inhabitants around 1050 AD, when the city’s population suddenly exploded at the beginning of the Mississippian cultural period.

The most interesting aspect of this city is a giant hill called the Monk’s Mound, which was built with four levels of terraces and is the largest man-made earthen mound known in North America. On top of the mound, there seems to be some evidence for a large building, possibly a temple or ceremonial center for the city’s religious leader. It would have been visible to the entire city, and so it seems that the religion of these people was a focal point of their daily existence.

To the west of Monk’s Mound, archaeologists have identified a series of postholes forming what has affectionately been coined as “Woodhenge”, since it is likely that this area was used for astronomical observations such as seasonal equinoxes and solstices. During the 300-year occupation of the site, it seems that Woodhenge was rebuilt several times, and therefore must have played an integral role in the community.

Cahokia, artist's  rendition

Although it was visible to the rest of the city, the Monk’s Mound was also surrounded by a wooden stockade and a series of watchtowers placed at regular intervals. This stockade seems to have separated the religious district or ceremonial center from the rest of the city itself, which was settled in a diamond-shape of about a mile long. There are about 120 additional mounds within the city area, and they are of varying shape, such as: conical pyramid, platform style, or ridge-top.

One intriguing find at Cahokia was the burial of a 40-year-old man who seems to have been an important community figure, possibly a religious leader or respected warrior. His grave-bed was an arrangement of more than twenty thousand seashell disc beads in the shape of a falcon – and the man’s body was placed on the falcon so that his head, arms, and legs aligned with those of the bird. This kind of burial must have held a very powerful significance for the inhabitants of the city. He was also found with a large cache of arrowheads from across North America, which demonstrates the extensive trade that must have been conducted at the site.

A number of other burials in the city were simply mass graves, and many of the skeletons here were missing hands and heads, which has led to the speculation of human sacrifice at the city.

Cahokia’s high point as a major urban center held a population of around 40,000 inhabitants, making it the largest prehistoric site in North America – a close rival to the great cities of Mesoamerica in Central Mexico. Its decline was likely caused by the depletion of natural resources as a result of climate change, and by 1400 AD the city was completely abandoned.

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Tomorrow: State of the art siege weaponry, diseased corpses?

A Coal Miner’s Rainforest (ca. 300,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on May, 2007

coal miner's forest

Inside of a coal mine near the town of Danville in eastern Illinois, it appears that there once existed a very large rainforest – 300-million years ago, that is. Spanning a thousand hectares and preserved by what must have been an incredible earthquake, the hundreds of fossilized plants found in the coal mine bear very little resemblance to today’s American forests.

Giant leaf impressions, large trunks of extinct trees, and tree-sized horsetail plant fossils were found 300 meters below the surface, and geologists have surmised that this ancient forest was once hot, wet, and very humid. The forest would have consisted of a very light upper canopy, with plenty of room for sunlight to enter and nourish the plants below. The trunks found were likely from 12-meter plants that formed a sub-canopy, though some club mosses were over 40 feet tall, judging by the fossilized remains.

Very few insect remains have been found, however it is thought that forest insect and animal life was significantly different – consisting of creatures like dragonflies as big as seagulls, and millipedes around three feet long.

The earthquake that buried this rainforest would have been significant enough to cause the entire section of land to drop below sea level, immediately encasing and preserving the entire ecosystem in mud – since a rapid burial is the only explanation for such extensive and widespread preservation. The fossils themselves look very much like leaf pressings in a scrapbook – just a whole lot bigger.

Not only will this enormous fossilized rainforest provide information about ancient ecosystems and extinct plant species, but it should also help scientists to learn about the formation of coal, which is actually formed by different plants in different settings. The way coal burns depends on its formation processes, so it is suspected that extensive testing will be conducted to see if the coal here has any different properties than coal found in other areas of the country – namely, where there aren’t giant fossilized rainforests overhead.

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The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples

Tomorrow: The history of toilet paper!

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