🧐 Ancient Beat #58: Rethinking hunting and gathering, the Maya calendar, and the end of the Indus Valley civilization
Hi folks, welcome to issue #58 of Ancient Beat! The countdown to 2,000 members has begun! Today, we’re at 1,953. Think we can get another 47 ancient-world-loving peeps to join us by our next issue? 😀
Here’s the latest ancient news. 👇
🗞 Ancient News: Top 5
Mayan 819-Day Calendar is Linked to Visible Planets, Scientists Find — An 819-day cycle that features in Maya calendars has been a question mark for researchers ever since it was first deciphered in the 1940s, as the timespan didn’t seem to match anything. But new research has found that the 819 days may refer to the synodic periods of the visible planets. A synodic period is the amount of time it takes a celestial object to return to the same point in the sky. According to the study, “Although prior research has sought to show planetary connections for the 819-day count, its four-part, color-directional scheme is too short to fit well with the synodic periods of the visible planets. By increasing the calendar length to 20 periods of 819 days a pattern emerges in which the synodic periods of all the visible planets commensurate with station points in the larger 819-day calendar.” In other words, each planet has a different synodic period, but it turns out that each one has a synodic period that fits nicely into the number 819 when you look at 20 periods. For example, Mercury has a synodic period of 117, which goes into 819 exactly 7 times. And there’s even a link to the 260-day Tzolk’in calendar. Here’s the paper again, “Rather than limit their focus to any one planet, the Maya astronomers who created the 819-day count envisioned it as a larger calendar system that could be used for predictions of all the visible planet’s synodic periods, as well as commensuration points with their cycles in the Tzolk’in and Calendar Round.”
Secret Behind Ancient Durable Maya Plaster Discovered — The Maya had some of the most durable lime plasters there are, and these were a big part of how they built such impressive structures. But no one was quite sure how the plasters were created. A new study found organic material in the mix, indicating that the Maya added sap from the bark of local trees. How did they come up with this stuff?! Reminds me a bit of the secret of Roman concrete that I covered in issues #43. Anyway, according to the study, “It is intriguing, however, that some studied ancient Copan plasters do not include organics, while others do. We can only hypothesize that for specific purposes where a more elaborate plaster or finishing surface was required, organics were added by ancient Maya masons (e.g., in substrates for mural painting, stucco masks, or floors), whereas in coarser plaster elements, no organics were added, likely to make the process less complex and/or labor intensive.” Fun fact: Lime plasters go as far back as 12,000 BCE in the Levant. They were used in the Americas after 1100 BCE. Ever wondered how they’re created? Bake carbonate rock at 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, add water to create quicklime, then let it react with carbon dioxide in the air, and voila: Lime plaster or mortar.
Digesta: An Overlooked Source of Ice Age Carbs — According to a recent study, current foraging models and hypotheses don’t take into account an important source of calories and carbohydrates called “digesta”. Digesta is partially digested vegetable matter found in the stomachs and digestive tracts of large herbivores. Including this in one’s diet would increase calories and macro nutrients substantially. In fact, the study found that one bison’s digesta alone could provide enough proteins and carbs to sustain 25 adults for three days without any additional supplementation (though they note that supplementation would be necessary so as not to waste the meat that would last another 6 days after that). This would have a particularly big impact in areas with vegetable matter that is indigestible for humans. And if we begin to include this food source into foraging models, it will have a big impact. For example, it would make it so that hunting and gathering wouldn’t need to be done separately — women would have been more likely to be involved in hunting because high-energy resources could have been acquired with low risk. Also, less need for fresh plant foods would free up time and energy for other activities and even affect social organization. Fun fact: Grave goods show us that 30-50% of large-game hunters in North and South America between 8000 and 13,000 BP were female.
Wooded Grasslands Flourished in Africa 21 Million Years Ago – New Research Forces a Rethink of Ape Evolution — The traditional narrative of our ancestors emerging from forests into grassy savanna when the forests began to recede, which then led to bipedalism and all manner of other adaptations, is being challenged by new research. The researchers discovered that the ape, Morotopithecus, actually had shearing crests on its molars, which are ideal for eating leaves; not fruit. Crushing teeth would have been expected for fruit eaters, and fruit eaters would have been expected in a forest setting. The researchers then studied the chemistry of paleosols (fossil soils) and found that Moroto, Uganda, where the ape fossils were found, was actually an open woodland with tropical grasses, not a closed forest habitat. Furthermore, the data suggests that these grasses were present not 10 million years ago as was thought, but 21 million years ago. According to the researchers, “The realization that such a variety of environments, especially open habitats with C₄ grasses, was present at the dawn of the apes forces a reassessment not just of the evolution of apes but of humans and other African mammals. Although some studies had suggested such habitat variation was present across Africa, our project was able to confirm it, repeatedly, within the very habitats that early apes and their animal contemporaries occupied. Because the timing of the assembly of Africa’s grassland habitats underlies many evolutionary hypotheses, our discovery that they existed much earlier than expected calls for a recalibration of those ideas.”
Evidence Prolonged Droughts Ended the Bronze Age Indus Civilization and its Megacities — A stalagmite in a Himalayan cave has revealed a series of three droughts so severe and lengthy that they may have ended the famous Bronze-Age Indus Valley civilization. When I say lengthy, I’m talking 25-90 years each, with low rainfall in both winter and summer. This arid period started around 4,200 years ago and lasted for more than 200 years, right around the time when a reorganization of the Indus civilization took place. During this time, archaeology shows that urban sites depopulated as people moved to rural settlements and became more self-reliant. Crops also shifted to drought-tolerant millets. As a side note, I have a 2-year-old niece named Indie and we call her Indus. 😀
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🗞 Ancient News: Deep Dive
Searching for Ancient Bears in an Alaskan Cave Led to an Important Human Discovery — According to a new genetic study, some modern Alaska Natives still reside in the same spot that their ancestors did 3,000 years ago. The data comes from a human bone that was found in a cave near the Gulf of Alaska, which was originally thought to have come from a bear. This individual, now referred to as “Tatóok yík yées sháawat”, is closely related to the Tlingit people of the region. The research shows genetic continuity in Southeast Alaska for at least three millennia. Interestingly, the oral origin stories of the Tlingit people include an eruption of Mount Edgecumbe, which dates their presence to 4,500 years ago. I covered carvings by the Tlingit people in issue #56.
Stone Artifacts Reveal Long-Distance Voyaging Among Pacific Islands During the Last Millennium — Researchers analyzed the geochemical signatures of stone artifacts found in Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and the Caroline Islands. They found that six of the eight adzes analyzed actually originated 1,500 miles away in the Polynesian homeland. According to Aymeric Hermann, “Tatagamatau adzes were among the most disseminated items across West and East Polynesia, and the sourcing of Taumako and Emae adzes suggest bursts of long-distance mobility towards the Outliers similar to those that led to the settlement of East Polynesia.” Other stone artifacts that were analyzed had similarly distant origins. The study’s findings indicate deliberate, long-distance, inter-island voyaging in Pacific islands over the last millennium. Can you imagine? I find the capability and courage of these people absolutely astonishing.
Oldest Human Remains from Puerto Rico Contradict Idea of Simple Island Nomads — A new analysis of the oldest human remains ever found in Puerto Rico showed that multiple generations of dead were buried in a single place, and that they ate a varied diet. This goes against the belief that Puerto Rico’s earliest inhabitants were nomadic fishers. It seems that some of these people were permanently settled at the Cabo Rojo site. And they ate seafood, land-based animals, and plants that were high in carbon-4, like maize, indicating that they may have been domesticating plants. Dating showed that these individuals died at varying times between 1900 and 800 BCE.
Hidden Ancient Underground Necropolis Discovered Using Cosmic Rays — An underground necropolis was discovered in Naples, Italy using muon tomography. According to the researchers, “Remains of the ancient Neapolis with its buildings, streets, aqueducts, and necropolis made by the Greeks starting from the second half of the first millennium BC are interred approximately ten meters below the current street level of the city of Naples.” High population density will make it difficult (maybe impossible) to excavate.
20-Meter-Long Viking Ship Discovered in Salhushaugen Gravemound, Norway — Archaeologists discovered something in 2022, which has now been confirmed as a 60-foot Viking ship in the middle of Salhushaugen mound in Karmøy, Norway. An archaeologist excavated the mound over a hundred years ago and walked away disheartened since he didn’t find the ship he was looking for. Turns out he only needed to dig deeper! Ground-penetrating radar showed modern archaeologists exactly where it was. Apparently, the ship is wide and quite similar to the well-known Oseberg ship. It is presumed that the new ship dates to the late 8th century, but excavations have not yet begun. Two other ships have been discovered in Karmøy, and due to the number of burials and the early dates, it is possible that this is where the Scandinavian ship grave tradition began.
Archaeologists Find Evidence of ‘Lost’ Ancient Roman Campaign in Arabia — In what the Romans referred to as a peaceful conquest, Rome annexed the Nabatean kingdom in 106 CE. But archaeologists have now found a line of three Roman army camps in northern Arabia near the Nabatean capital of Petra. The camps may indicate a military campaign intended to cow the Nabateans. The camps were spotted last year, but this is the first I’ve heard of them. According to Michael Fradley, “The way they would build these temporary camps is the same in northern Britain as in the Near East. The design and everything about them is so standardized – and here are three in a straight line at almost identical distances apart. If they turned out to be anything else I’d eat my hat.”
Buddha Statue Found In Egypt Points To Ancient India Links — A statue of Buddha was found in the ancient seaport of Berenice in Egypt. It is 28 inches in height and has a halo around his head and a lotus flower by his side. The statue dates to the Roman era. According to Mostafa al-Waziri, “[The find has] important indications over the presence of trade ties between Egypt and India during the Roman era.”
Evidence Humans Have Visited Caves Of Nerja For 41,000 Years — According to a new study, humans have been visiting the Caves of Nerja in Spain for 41,000 years; 10,000 years earlier than previously thought. The study also found that it has the highest number of confirmed and recurrent prehistoric visits of any cave featuring Paleolithic art in Europe. In total, 35,000 years of visits were uncovered, in 73 different phases.
Wooden Festival Mask Found in Japan — A cedar mask dated to 1,800 years ago was discovered in flood sediment in Higashiosaka, Japan, along with a water bucket and a hoe-shaped tool. All of these were likely used in agricultural festivals during the Yamato Kingship, a tribal alliance of noble families who were ruled by a leader known as Okimi. According to Kaoru Terasawa, “I believe the mask represented a ‘spirit of a head,’ which was believed to be a god in the shape of a human and representing the authority of Okimi. I imagine that powerful people who were influenced by the ceremonies of the Yamato Kingship used the mask at festivals.”
Medical Equipment Found in Roman Burial — Medical equipment was discovered in the 1st-century burial of a Roman physician. The discovery was made in a cemetery from the Avar period. The tools are of Roman origin and included forceps, needles, tweezers, and decorated scalpels of copper alloy with replaceable blades. Drug residues were also found on a grinding stone that may have been used for making medicines. The physician was a man who was between 50 and 60 years of age. Only one other such kit has been found from the same period, and that was in Pompeii. I thought the replaceable blades were a pretty cool (and advanced) detail!
Wealthy Ancient Roman Suburb — With Huge Bathhouse — Unearthed in Germany — Ground-penetrating radar found structures and walls near the ancient Roman military camp of Vetera Castra in Xanten, Germany. Excavations revealed a wealthy civilian suburb dated to 2,000 years ago. They found two large buildings measuring roughly 65x195 feet — one of wood and one of stone. The stone building has been identified as one of the largest public bathhouses in the region at the time. The wooden structure has not been identified, but it does seem to have been destroyed by fire. The archaeologists say that the settlement matches the layout described by Tacitus of a town near a legionary camp that was deliberately destroyed by Roman soldiers so that it wouldn’t be captured during a rebellion.
Archaeologists Uncover 2,000-Year-Old Maya Burials with Decapitation Marks in Mexico — Thirteen human burials have been discovered at the site of Moral Reforma in Balancán, Mexico at the stairway of a pyramid creatively referred to as “Structure 18”. Eight of the skulls show indications of decapitation. The remains were found in two groups, with the oldest group dating to 2,000 years ago. The pyramid, however, is from between 600 and 900 CE. The more recent group showed signs of artificial cranial deformation, as well as dental modifications.
Hoard of 1,000-Year-Old Viking Coins Unearthed in Denmark — In one of the largest coin hoards found in Denmark in the last 50 years, 300 silver coins were discovered 5 miles from the Fyrkat Viking ringfort by a metal detectorist. It’s actually two deposits that were right next to each other, and modern disturbances have mixed them up. These Danish, Arab, and Germanic coins date to the 980s. Jewelry was also found. According to Torben Trier Christiansen, “The two silver treasures constitute a fantastic story in themselves, but to find them abandoned in a settlement only eight kilometers from Haralds Blåtand's Viking fortress Fyrkat is incredibly exciting.” Fun fact: Vikings believed that if they buried their treasure, they could find it again in the afterlife.
Archaeologists in Peru Find Adolescent Mummy Wrapped in Bundle — The mummified remains of an adolescent between 1,100 and 1,200 years old was discovered in an underground tomb at the site of Cajamarquilla in Peru. The individual was wrapped in a funerary bundle with ceramics and rope.
Ancient DNA Reveals Commercial Viticulture in Byzantine and Early Islamic Settlements — A new study of grapevine pips found at three sites has uncovered commercial viticulture in ancient Byzantine and Early Islamic settlements in the Negev Highlands of Israel. The pips are from a white grape — this is the first time that genetics have been used to identify the color of a grape. The oldest pip was dated to the 8th century CE. Another pip was related to modern Greek grapes as well as grapes traded across the Byzantine Empire. And it may be linked to a sweet white wine referred to as the “Gaza wine” in historical records.
Evidence of Earliest Chicken Breeding Found in Japan — Evidence of chicken breeding between the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE has been found on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. Chicken domestication began in Southeast Asia 3,500 years ago, but it wasn’t clear when it made its way to Japan until now. This is the earliest chicken breeding ever found in Japan, and according to the researchers, it’s actually the earliest that chickens could have been introduced to the archipelago. Ipso facto, this can be reliably declared the earliest chicken domestication in Japan. Chicken domestication has been a hot topic over the last year or so — I covered studies on it in issues #37 and #15.
Tableman Gaming Piece Discovered in Medieval Building — Archaeologists found a tableman made from a cattle mandible, along with a medieval timber-framed building and enclosure ditches in Bedfordshire, England. A tableman was a game piece used in a number of board games where two players would roll dice to move across a board. This one is decorated with concentric circles and a ring-and-dot design. According to the archaeologists, “It is not always possible to identify which game the gaming pieces recovered from archaeological excavations would have belonged to, because there is often no surviving board. It is however likely, due to the association with the medieval site, the style of decoration, and the size, that our gaming piece would have been used to play tabula during the medieval period.”
A Blinking Fish Reveals Clues to How Our Ancestors Evolved from Water to Land — A mudskipper is an amphibious fish that spends quite a bit of time out of water. And it blinks in a similar way (and for similar reasons) to us, but it evolved this ability separately from our ancestors. New research into these fish suggests that blinking is one of a suite of traits that evolved to aid the transition from water to land. According to Thomas Stewart, “The transition to life on land required many anatomical changes, including changes for feeding, locomotion and breathing air. Based on the fact that mudskipper blinking, which evolved completely independently from our own fishy ancestors, serves many of the same functions as blinking in our own lineage, we think that it was likely part of the suite of traits that evolved when tetrapods were adapting to live on land.” There’s a video of a mudskipper blinking in the article and it’s worth a look — they actually retract their eyes into their heads.
Ancient Sequences Provide Window Into Pict Population History, Modern-Day Relationships — A recent genetic study backed up the commonly-held idea that there was genetic continuity from the Picts right down to the Early Medieval period. According to Linus Girdland-Flink, “We find that the Pictish genomes share more of these [identity-by-descent] 'chunks' with present-day individuals from northern and western parts of Scotland, which we interpret as genetic continuity. But present-day populations all across the British Isles also share IBD with Anglo-Saxon genomes from more southern parts, suggesting gene flow and admixture from south to north across the isles.” The data also challenges the idea that Pictish succession was matrilineal.
‘Truly Gobsmacked’: Ancient-Human Genome Count Surpasses 10,000 — The ethics involved in the genetic testing of ancient remains are often discussed these days. Whatever your feelings on the matter, the practice has revealed some fascinating things. And now, 13 years after the first genome sequence of an ancient human was published, we’ve crossed the 10,000 mark — we have genome data from over 10,000 ancient individuals.
❤️ Recommended Content
Here are photos of some of the most important archaeological discoveries in North America.
Here’s an article about ancient Māori building techniques which have been shown to withstand earthquakes. The difference between securing a structure with rope and securing it with nails is quite interesting.
Here’s an article spotlighting female archaeologists.
Here’s an article about the 1,000-year-old city of Chan Chan in Peru. According to Gabriel, Prieto, “The Chimú transformed the landscape, created an entirely new society, and became the most powerful rulers in coastal Peru. Chan Chan was an experiment that worked for almost five hundred years.”
Onward and upward to 2,000, my friends! 🚀
And until next time, thanks for joining me.
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