Unprecedented 3D reconstruction of pre-Columbian crania from the Caribbean and South America

Unprecedented 3D reconstruction of pre-Columbian crania from the Caribbean and South America

The CENIEH Digital Mapping and 3D Analysis Laboratory has participated in the reconstruction of 13 crania from an exceptional collection at The Montané Anthropological Museum in Cuba
3D reconstruction pre-Columbian crania
Crania with oblique tabular deformation. Credits: G. Rangel de Lázaro et al

Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Digital Mapping and 3D Analysis Laboratory at the Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has participated in the 3D reconstructions of a representative selection of 13 pre-Columbian human crania specifically from Cuba and Peru, which are part of the osteological collection of the The Montané Anthropological Museum in Cuba.

The sample studied comprised crania with tabular oblique artificial deformation, annular deformation, and undeformed specimens. The 3D models generated were used to produce prints and 3D animated videos.

The deformed and undeformed crania were digitized with the Artec Space Spider structured blue light scanner, which created three-dimensional models based on the real samples. The resulting 3D models were used to produce 3D printed replicas and animated videos. “These 3D models of the Cuban pre-Columbian skulls have been made with microns precision,” says Alfonso Benito.

The 3D reconstruction of the crania will allow its precise systematic investigation and dissemination in different audiovisual media and online platforms, and they are also a perfect means to publicize the associated intangible resources, such as the experiences, rites and stories that surround these crania.

This study lead by Gizéh Rangel-de Lázaro (Natural History Museum in London and IPHES-URV) is published in the journal Virtual Archaeology Reviewwith the collaboration of researchers from CENIEH, University of Valladolid and The Montané Anthropological Museum in Cuba.

Full bibliographic information

Rangel de Lázaro, G., Martínez-Fernández, A., Rangel-Rivero, A., & Benito-Calvo, A. (2020). Shedding light on pre-Columbian crania collections through state of the art 3D scanning techniques. Virtual Archaeology Review (0). doi: 10.4995/var.2021.13742.
Press release on 3D reconstruction of pre-Columbian crania from CENIEH

Barbados peccary pigs

Archaeological discovery upends a piece of Barbados history

True identity of imposter 'pigs' on 17th century map overturns early colonial history of Barbados

Barbados peccary pigs
Map of Barbados published in A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) by Richard Ligon. (A) smooth form “pig”; (B and C) hairy form “pig”. © 2019 Giovas et al., CC BY 4.0

Which came first, the pigs or the pioneers? In Barbados, that has been a historical mystery ever since the first English colonists arrived on the island in 1627 to encounter what they thought was a herd of wild European pigs.

A recent discovery by an SFU archaeologist is shedding new light on the matter. Christina Giovas uncovered the jaw bone of a peccary, a South American mammal that resembles a wild pig, while researching a larger project on prehistoric animal introductions in the Caribbean.

"I didn't give it much notice at the time, but simply collected it along with other bones," says Giovas, the lead author of a study just published in PLOS ONE. "It was completely unexpected and I honestly thought I must have made a mistake with the species identification."

Giovas and collaborators George Kamenov and John Krigbaum of the University of Florida radiocarbon-dated the bone and conducted strontium isotope analysis to determine the age and whether the peccary was born on Barbados or had been imported from elsewhere.

The results showed the peccary was local and dated to 1645-1670, when the English wrote their account of finding wild European pigs on the Caribbean island. The researchers were not only able to show there had been a previously undetected historic peccary introduction but that the region's earliest celebrated maps depicted peccaries that had been mistaken for pigs by the English.

Giovas says the findings upend Barbados' accepted colonial history and reflect how quickly Europeans began to alter New World environments by altering species distributions.

"Checking historical and archaeological records, we determined the most likely source of peccary introduction was from Spanish or Portuguese ships passing the island in the 16th century--and most likely left as a source of meat for future visiting sailors," she says.

Barbados peccary pigs
Right partial mandible of a peccary (Tayassuidae) collected from the Chancery Lane site, Barbados. © 2019 Giovas et al., CC BY 4.0

Press release from the Simon Fraser University


South American population decline populations Patagonia

Abrupt climate change drove early South American population decline

Abrupt climate change drove early South American population decline

Abrupt climate change some 8,000 years ago led to a dramatic decline in early South American populations, suggests new UCL research.

South American population decline populations Patagonia
Patagonia. Photo by Céline Harrand, Public Domain

The study, published in Scientific Reports, is the first to demonstrate how widespread the decline was and the scale at which population decline took place 8,000 to 6,000 years ago.

"Archaeologists working in South America have broadly known that some 8,200 years ago, inhabited sites in various places across the continent were suddenly abandoned. In our study we wanted to connect the dots between disparate records that span the Northern Andes, through the Amazon, to the southern tip of Patagonia and all areas in between," said lead author, Dr Philip Riris (UCL Institute of Archaeology).

"Unpredictable levels of rainfall, particularly in the tropics, appear to have had a negative impact on pre-Columbian populations until 6,000 years ago, after which recovery is evident. This recovery appears to correlate with cultural practices surrounding tropical plant management and early crop cultivation, possibly acting as buffers when wild resources were less predictable," added Dr Riris.

The study focused on the transition to the Middle Holocene (itself spanning 8,200 and 4,200 years ago), a period of particularly profound change when hunter-gatherer populations were already experimenting with different domestic plants, and forming new cultural habits to suit both landscape and climate change.

While the research shows that there was a significant disruption to population, the study highlights that indigenous people of South America were thriving before and after the middle Holocene.

Co-author, Dr Manuel Arroyo-Kalin (UCL Institute of Archaeology), said: "In the years leading up to population decline, we can see that population sizes were unharmed. This would suggest that early Holocene populations, probably with a social memory of abrupt climate change during the Pleistocene-Holocene transition, developed successful strategies to deal with climate change.

"Abandonment of certain regions and the need to adapt quickly to new circumstances may have promoted the exploration of alternative strategies and new forms of subsistence, including the early adoption of low scale cultivation of domestic plants. Viewed in the context of at least 14,000 years of human presence in South America, the events of the Middle Holocene are a key part of indigenous South Americans' cultural resilience to abrupt and unexpected change."

In this new study, archaeologists examined data from nearly 1,400 sites consisting of more than 5,000 radiocarbon dates to understand how population changed over time, and cross-referenced this information with climate data.

Dr Riris explained: "We studied ancient records of rainfall such as marine sediments for evidence of exceptional climate events. Within windows of 100 years, we compared the Middle Holocene to the prevalent patterns before and after 8,200 years ago. Normal patterns of rainfall suggest on average an unusually dry or wet year every 16-20 years, while under highly variable conditions this increases to every 5 years or so. This puts in perspective the challenge that indigenous communities would have faced."

The authors believe that the research offers crucial historical context on how ancient indigenous South American populations dealt with climate change.

Dr Arroyo-Kalin concluded: "Our study brings a demographic dimension to bear on understandings of the effects of past climate change, and the challenges that were faced by indigenous South Americans in different places. This understanding gauges the resilience of past small-scale productive systems and can potentially help shape future strategies for communities in the present."

###

The research was funded by a UCL CREDOC grant, the Sainsbury Research Unit at University of East Anglia and a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at UCL.

 

 

 

Press release from University College London


Pachacamac Incas Inca tombs

Archaeological discovery at the site of Pachacamac

A cemetery dating back over 1000 years has recently been discovered at the legendary site of Pachacamac, on the Pacific coast of Peru. The project is exploring a new area of this enormous site, and found a cluster of burials in foetal positions, wrapped in numerous layers of plant materials, nets and textiles.

“These burials were interred in groups” says Professor Peter Eeckhout (Université libre de Bruxelles, ULB) – director of the Ychsma Project – “interred in deep pits sunk into the sand, accompanied with ceramics and other offerings, then covered with wood and rushwork roofs”.

The cultural remains have been studied by archaeologists, while the mummies were assessed by the physical anthropologists, headed by Dr. Lawrence Owens (Birkbeck, UCLondon; UNISA). “These chaps were in a bit of a state, unfortunately for them, but fortunately for us” he laughs. “Most of the people at the site had hard lives, with various fractures, bad backs, bad hips…but the individuals from this cemetery show a higher than usual concentration of tuberculosis, syphilis and really serious bone breaks that would have had major impacts on their lives. Still, the fact that most of these are healed – and that disease sufferers survived for a long time – suggests that they were being cared for, and that even in the sites’ early history people felt a duty of care towards those less fortunate than themselves”. The team has also used CT to explore unusual mummies, including one made almost solely from vegetal fibres. “This is different from what we are used to, and may represent an older tradition”, he added.

“All these mummies were disturbed by the construction of a large building directly above the cemetery, dating to the Incas’ arrival in the late 15th century”, says project co-director Milton Lujan Davila, “although the patterns are far from random…almost as if the bundles have been deliberately targeted”. The consistent absence of skulls and other elements may be connected to the Incas’ religious beliefs.

“Ancestor relationships were fundamental to ancient Andeans” concludes Professor Eeckhout, “but while the Inca seemed to have revered their own dead, they had no relationship with these more ancient individuals and destroyed them…yet seem to have taken parts of them away. Why? We don’t know…but we are still looking for them!” he smiled.

Pachacamac is on Unesco's World Heritage list. The Ychsma Project is funded by the ULB, the ULB Foundation, and the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research. Excavations are authorised by the Ministerio de Cultura del Perú.

 

Pachacamac Incas Inca tombs
Mamacones Enclosure (Recinto de Mamacones). Picture by Ingo Mehling, CC BY-SA 3.0. The picture is unrelated to the press release.

Press release from the Université Libre de Bruxelles 

 


New study shows people used natural dyes to color their clothing thousands of years ago

New study shows people used natural dyes to color their clothing thousands of years ago

Samples like these were examined by the chemists from MLU. Credit: Annemarie Kramell

Even thousands of years ago people wore clothing with colourful patterns made from plant and animal-based dyes. Chemists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) have created new analytical methods to examine textiles from China and Peru that are several thousand years old. In the scientific journal Scientific Reports they describe their new method that is able to reconstruct the spatial distribution of dyes, and hence the patterns, in textile samples.

Chemists Dr Annemarie Kramell and Professor René Csuk from MLU examined two ancient textile samples. One comes from the ancient Chinese city of Niya and was probably once part of a shirt. It is over 2,000 years old. The other sample comes from Peru and dates back to 1100 to 1400 AD. It was produced by the Ichma people who lived in Peru at that time. Today, there is often little evidence of the colourfulness of such ancient clothing. "Time has not treated them well. What was once colourful is now mostly dirty, grey and brown," says René Csuk. Over time, the natural dyes have decomposed as a result of the effects of light, air and water, explains the chemist. In the past, only natural dyes were used. "The roots of a genus of plants called Rubia, for example, were used to create the red colours, and ground walnut shells produced the brown tones," says Annemarie Kramell. Even back then, people mixed individual materials to create different shades.

natural dyes imaging mass spectrometry
With the help their new method the researchers were able to reconstruct the distribution of the dyes. Credit: Annemarie Kramell

The researchers have developed a new analytical method that allows them to detect which materials were used for which colours. With the aid of modern imaging mass spectrometry, they have succeeded in depicting the dye compositions of historical textile samples as isotopic distributions. Previously, the dyes had to be removed from the textiles. However, that previous method also destroyed the pattern. This new approach enables the chemists from MLU to analyse the dyes directly from the surface of the textile samples. To do this, the piece of material under investigation is first embedded in another material. "The piece is placed in a matrix made up of a material called Technovit7100. Slices are produced from this material that are only a few micrometres thick. These are then transferred to special slides," explains Csuk. Similar methods are used, for example, in medical research to examine human tissue. The advantage is that this method can be used to study very complex samples on a micrometre scale. "This enables us to distinguish between two interwoven threads that held originally different colours," says Csuk.

This is chemist René Csuk inspecting a textile sample. Credit: MLU / Michael Deutsch

As part of the new study, researchers were able to detect indigo dyes in the samples. However, the method can also be applied to many other dye classes and provides insights into the process of textile production in past cultures, the two scientists conclude.

The research was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research as part of the project "Silk road fashion: Clothing as a means of communication in the 1st millennium BC, Eastern Central Asia". The Hans Knöll Institute in Jena and Dr Gerd Hause from MLU's Biocentre were also involved in the project.

 

About the study: Kramell A. E. et al. Mapping Natural Dyes in Archeological Textiles by Imaging Mass Spectrometry. Scientific Reports (2019). doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-38706-4

 

Press release from the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg / Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg


ceramic beer vessels chicha Wari Peru Field Museum Cerro Baúl

The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt

The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn't hurt

Archaeologists recreate ancient brewing techniques to learn how beer kept an empire afloat

A replica of a chicha vessel used in Cerro Baúl. Credit: Field Museum

A thousand years ago, the Wari empire stretched across Peru. At its height, it covered an area the size of the Eastern seaboard of the US from New York City to Jacksonville. It lasted for 500 years, from 600 to 1100 AD, before eventually giving rise to the Inca. That's a long time for an empire to remain intact, and archaeologists are studying remnants of the Wari culture to see what kept it ticking. A new study found an important factor that might have helped: a steady supply of beer.

"This study helps us understand how beer fed the creation of complex political organizations," says Ryan Williams, an associate curator and Head of Anthropology at the Field Museum and the lead author of the new study in Sustainability. "We were able to apply new technologies to capture information about how ancient beer was produced and what it meant to societies in the past."

Lead author Ryan Williams doing excavation work at the brewery site in Cerro Baúl. Credit: Field Museum

Nearly twenty years ago, Williams, Nash, and their team discovered an ancient Wari brewery in Cerro Baúl in the mountains of southern Peru. "It was like a microbrewery in some respects. It was a production house, but the brewhouses and taverns would have been right next door," explains Williams. And since the beer they brewed, a light, sour beverage called chicha, was only good for about a week after being made, it wasn't shipped offsite--people had to come to festivals at Cerro Baúl to drink it. These festivals were important to Wari society--between one and two hundred local political elites would attend, and they would drink chicha from three-foot-tall ceramic vessels decorated to look like Wari gods and leaders. "People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state," says Williams. In short, beer helped keep the empire together.

To learn more about the beer that played such an important role in Wari society, Williams and his co-authors Donna Nash (Field Museum and University of North Carolina Greensboro), Josh Henkin (Field Museum and University of Illinois at Chicago) and Ruth Ann Armitage (Eastern Michigan University) analyzed pieces of ceramic beer vessels from Cerro Baúl. They used several techniques, including one that involved shooting a laser at a shard of a beer vessel to remove a tiny bit of material, and then heating that dust to the temperature of the surface of the sun to break down the molecules that make it up. From there, the researchers were able to tell what atomic elements make up the sample, and how many--information that told researchers exactly where the clay came from and what the beer was made of.

"The cool thing about this study is that we're getting down to the atomic level. We're counting atoms in the pores of the ceramics or trying to reconstruct and count the masses of molecules that were in the original drink from a thousand years ago that got embedded into the empty spaces between grains of clay in the ceramic vessels, and that's what's telling us the new information about what the beer was made of and where the ceramic vessels were produced," says Williams. "It's really new information at the molecular level that is giving archaeologists this new insight into the past."

To check that the ingredients in chicha could indeed be transferred to the brewing vessels, the researchers worked with Peruvian brewers to recreate the brewing process. "Making chicha is a complicated process that requires experience and expertise. The experiments taught us a lot about what making chicha would look like in the ruins of a building and how much labor and time went into the process," says Donna Nash, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum and professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who led the brewing recreation. (Incidentally, the Field Museum and Chicago's Off Colour Brewing released a beer based on Nash's work, a pink ale infused with pepper berries, called Wari Ale; it's being re-released in Chicago-area stores and bars in June.)

By looking at the chemical makeup of traces of beer left in the vessels and at the chemical makeup of the clay vessels themselves, the team found two important things. One, the vessels were made of clay that came from nearby, and two, the beer was made of pepper berries, an ingredient that can grow even during a drought. Both these things would help make for a steady beer supply--even if a drought made it hard to grow other chicha ingredients like corn, or if changes in trade made it hard to get clay from far away, vessels of pepper berry chicha would still be readily available.

The authors of the study argue that this steady supply of beer could have helped keep Wari society stable. The Wari empire was huge and made up of different groups of people from all over Peru. "We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together," says Williams.

The study's implications about how shared identity and cultural practices help to stabilize societies are increasingly relevant today. "This research is important because it helps us understand how institutions create the binds that tie together people from very diverse constituencies and very different backgrounds," says Williams. "Without them, large political entities begin to fragment and break up into much smaller things. Brexit is an example of this fragmentation in the European Union today. We need to understand the social constructs that underpin these unifying features if we want to be able to maintain political unity in society."

ceramic beer vessels chicha Wari Peru Field Museum Cerro Baúl
The team worked with Peruvian brewers to recreate the ancient chicha recipe used at Cerro Baúl. Credit: Donna Nash

Press release from Field Museum

 


four-legged whale Peregocetus Peru Cetaceans

Ancient, four-legged whale with otter-like features found along the coast of Peru

Ancient, four-legged whale with otter-like features found along the coast of Peru

four-legged whale Peregocetus Peru Cetaceans
This illustration shows an artistic reconstruction of two individuals of Peregocetus, one standing along the rocky shore of nowadays Peru and the other preying upon sparid fish. The presence of a tail fluke remains hypothetical. Credit: A. Gennari

Cetaceans, the group including whales and dolphins, originated in south Asia more than 50 million years ago from a small, four-legged, hoofed ancestor. Now, researchers reporting the discovery of an ancient four-legged whale--found in 42.6-million-year-old marine sediments along the coast of Peru--have new insight into whales' evolution and their dispersal to other parts of the world. The findings are reported in the journal Current Biology on April 4.

The presence of small hooves at the tip of the whale's fingers and toes and its hip and limbs morphology all suggest that this whale could walk on land, according to the researchers. On the other hand, they say, anatomical features of the tail and feet, including long, likely webbed appendages, similar to an otter, indicate that it was a good swimmer too.

"This is the first indisputable record of a quadrupedal whale skeleton for the whole Pacific Ocean, probably the oldest for the Americas, and the most complete outside India and Pakistan," says Olivier Lambert of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.

Some years ago, study co-author Mario Urbina of Museo de Historia Natural-UNMSM, Peru, discovered a promising area for digging fossils in the coastal desert of southern Peru, named Playa Media Luna. In 2011, an international team, including members from Peru, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium, organized a field expedition, during which they excavated the remains of an ancient whale they've since named Peregocetus pacificus. It means "the traveling whale that reached the Pacific."

"When digging around the outcropping bones, we quickly realized that this was the skeleton of a quadrupedal whale, with both forelimbs and hind limbs," Lambert says.

This figure shows the bones of Peregocetus, including the mandible with teeth, scapula, vertebrae, sternum elements, pelvis, and fore- and hind limbs. Credit: A. Gennari

With the help of microfossils, the sediment layers where the skeleton was positioned were precisely dated to the middle Eocene, 42.6 million years ago. Anatomical details of the skeleton allowed them to infer that the animal was capable of maneuvering its large body (up to 4 meters long, tail included), both on land and in the water. For instance, features of the caudal vertebrae (in the tail) are reminiscent of those of beavers and otters, suggesting a significant contribution of the tail during swimming.

The geological age of the new four-limbed whale and its presence along the western coast of South America strongly support the hypothesis that early cetaceans reached the New World across the South Atlantic, from the western coast of Africa to South America, the researchers report. The whales would have been assisted in their travel by westward surface currents and by the fact that, at the time, the distance between the two continents was half what it is today. The researchers suggest that, only after having reached South America, the amphibious whales migrated northward, finally reaching North America.

The international team continues to study the remains of other whales and dolphins from Peru. "We will keep searching in localities with layers as ancient, and even more ancient, than the ones of Playa Media Luna, so older amphibious cetaceans may be discovered in the future," Lambert says.

###

This work was supported by the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris, and the Italian Ministero dell'Istruzione dell'Università e della Ricerca.

Current Biology, Lambert et al.: "An amphibious whale from the middle Eocene of Peru reveals early South Pacific dispersal of quadrupedal cetaceans" https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(19)30220-9

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. Visit: http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, contact [email protected].

 

Press release from Cell Press


Rise of religion pre-dates Incas at Lake Titicaca

Rise of religion pre-dates Incas at Lake Titicaca

Tiwanaku Incas Lake Titicaca
The team found ritual offerings consisting of ceramic feline incense burners; sacrificed juvenile llamas; and gold, shell and stone ornaments. Credit: Teddy Seguin

An ancient group of people made ritual offerings to supernatural deities near the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, about 500 years earlier than the Incas, according to an international team of researchers. The team's findings suggest that organized religion emerged much earlier in the region than previously thought.

"People often associate the Island of the Sun with the Incas because it was an important pilgrimage location for them and because they left behind numerous ceremonial buildings and offerings on and around this island," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "Our research shows that the Tiwanaku people, who developed in Lake Titicaca between 500 and 1,100 AD, were the first people to offer items of value to religious deities in the area."

The Incas, Capriles noted, did not arrive in the Lake Titicaca region until around the 15th century AD.

A team lead by Christophe Delaere, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oxford Centre for Maritime Archaeology and research associate at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, conducted underwater archaeological excavations in the Khoa Reef near the Island of the Sun. The archaeologists used sonar and underwater three-dimensional photogrammetry to scan and map the reef. They used a water-dredge to excavate the sediment and measured and weighed all the archaeological materials they uncovered. Their results appear today (April 1) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In particular, the team found ritual offerings consisting of ceramic feline incense burners; sacrificed juvenile llamas; and gold, shell and stone ornaments.

"The findings, and especially the ceramic puma-shaped incense burners, are significant because they help us gain a broader understanding of the ritual behavior and religion of the Tiwanaku state -- a society that preceded the Incas by several hundred years," said Delaere.

The puma was an important religious symbol to the Tiwanaku, Delaere added.

Systematic underwater archaeological excavations from an underwater ceremonial location near the Island of the Sun in Lake Titicaca, Bolivia. Credit: Teddy Seguin

Another observation made by the team was that the religious offerings appear to have been made intentionally to be submerged underwater.

"The presence of anchors near the offerings suggests that officiating authorities may have deposited the offerings during rituals held from boats," said Capriles.

According to Capriles, the Island of the Sun was likely important to the Tiwanaku people because of its natural beauty, but also because of its location at the center of the Andes Mountains.

"It was a strategic and ritually charged place," said Capriles. "At the Island of the Sun and the Khoa Reef, religious specialists could come together for sacred ceremonies. The ritual offerings they made here demonstrate the transitioning of societies from more local-based religious systems to something that had a more ambitious geopolitical and spiritual appeal."

In turn, he added, this emergence of organized religion likely led to consolidation of the groups of people living around the lake and the emergence of the Tiwanaku state, characterized by political hierarchy.

###

Other authors on the paper include Charles Stanish, member, Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture and the Environment, University of South Florida.

Findings, such as this bowl, allowed the researchers to reconstruct the structure and significance of repeated state rituals by the Tiwanaku people. Credit: Teddy Seguin

Press release from Penn State University


Campo Laborde Pampas megafauna extinction giant ground sloth

Evidence for human involvement in extinction of megafauna in the late Pleistocene

Evidence for human involvement in extinction of megafauna in the late Pleistocene

Campo Laborde: A Late Pleistocene giant ground sloth kill and butchering site in the Pampas

Campo Laborde Pampas megafauna extinction giant ground sloth
Lithic tool associated with giant ground sloth bones. Credit: Gustavo Politis and Pablo Messineo

By re-dating giant ground sloth remains found in the Argentinian Pampas region using more advanced technology, scientists say they have provided evidence that humans hunted and butchered this animal near a swamp during the end of the Pleistocene. Based on their radiocarbon dates of this specimen, the authors say that their report challenges the popular hypothesis that megamammals from South America survived well into the Holocene in the Pampas, instead suggesting they took their last breaths in the Pleistocene. Loss of up to 90% of large animal species on ice-free continents occurred during the end of the Pleistocene, and many megafauna went extinct. To date, studies have suggested that humans and/or climate-driven events could be to blame for megafauna loss, but the causes and dynamics of megafauna extinction are hard to determine, and direct evidence of human predation on megafauna is scarce. The Argentinian archeological site Campo Laborde has produced many megafauna fossils, but accurate radiocarbon dating has been difficult on these bones because the fossils have very little collagen, making it hard to extract. Dating is also challenging because the collagen is heavily contaminated with sedimentary organic matter. To overcome this contamination, Gustavo G. Politis and colleagues thought to apply XAD purification chemistry, which can isolate the amino acids in a bone's collagen, resulting in a more accurate radiocarbon date, they say. Only one bone from a giant ground sloth found at Campo Laborde contained collagen. This specimen was first dated in 2007 as being around 9,730 years of age (pegging it to the Holocene, which began around 11,650 years ago). Using accelerator mass spectrometry to radiocarbon date the amino acids of the specimen, Politis determined that the giant ground sloth bone better dated to around 10,570 years of age, plus or minus 170 years. According to the authors, contaminated collagen was the reason for the previous "younger" (Holocene) dates. In addition to the previously discovered lithic artifacts that were found around the giant ground slot and dated to around 11,800 and 10,000 years before present, this study "solidly dates" the killing and exploitation of the giant ground sloth to the late Pleistocene and does not support extinct megamammals surviving into the Holocene at Campo Laborde, the authors say.

Press release by AMERICAN ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE

 


Hundreds of children and llamas sacrificed in a ritual event in 15th century Peru

Hundreds of children and llamas sacrificed in a ritual event in 15th century Peru

The largest sacrifice of its kind known from the Americas was associated with heavy rainfall and flooding

Mummified children. Credit: John Verano (2019)

A mass sacrifice at a 15th century archaeological site in Peru saw the ritual killing of over 140 children and over 200 llamas, according to a study released March 6, 2019 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Gabriel Prieto of the National University of Trujillo, Peru and colleagues. This is the largest known mass sacrifice of children - and of llamas - in the New World.

Human and animal sacrifices are known from a variety of ancient cultures, often performed as part of funerary, architectural, or spiritual rituals. Very little evidence of this practice is known from the northern coast of Peru, however. The Huanchaquito-Las Llamas site was part of the Chimú state, which was a dominant culture along the Peruvian coast in the 15th century.

This study reports the findings of excavations between 2011 and 2016 that revealed hundreds of bodies buried in an area of approximately 700 square meters. The human remains were almost entirely children, and the animal remains, all juvenile, were identified as most likely llamas, but possibly alpacas. Anatomical and genetic evidence indicates the children included boys and girls between 5 and 14 years old. Cut marks transecting the sternums and displaced ribs suggest both the children and llamas may have had their chests cut open, possibly during ritual removal of the heart.

The remains were radiocarbon dated to around 1450 AD, during the height of the Chimú state. A thick layer of mud overlaying the burial sediments indicates that this mass killing was preceded, and perhaps inspired, by a major rainstorm or flood. The authors note that this sacrifice was clearly a large investment of resources for the Chimú culture. Through future study, they hope to better understand the ritual through its victims, by analyzing the life histories and cultural origins of the sacrificed children.

Author Verano adds: "This archaeological discovery was a surprise to all of us--we had not seen anything like this before, and there was no suggestion from ethnohistoric sources or historic accounts of child or camelid sacrifices being made on such a scale in northern coastal Peru. We were fortunate to be able to completely excavate the site and to have a multidisciplinary field and laboratory team to do the excavation and preliminary analysis of the material. This site opens a new chapter on the practice of child sacrifice in the ancient world."

Huanchaquito-Las Llamas mass sacrifice Peru Chimú
Mummified children. Credit: John Verano (2019)

Read more