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Archive for July, 2011

Topic Ancient mutation-

Brassica-member of the mustard family

Brassia-oilseeds

For  the first time, scientists have identified a mutation in plants that was  selected twice – during both natural evolution and domestication.

The  mutation has been identified as the source of variation in the evolution of  fruit morphology in Brassica plants and it was also the source of key changes during  the domestication of rice.

“We  have shown that the genetic source of both natural and man-made changes was the  same,” said one of the authors on the findings, Dr Robert Sablowski from the  John Innes Centre, which is strategically funded by the BBSRC.

“These  insights indicate that evolutionary development may have more to offer plant  breeders than previously anticipated,” he said.

Wild  rice scatters its seeds easily to maximise dispersal, so an important part of  domestication was to select for cultivars that retain seeds that can then be  harvested. Previous studies identified the mutation – a single nucleotide  change – that reduced seed dispersal. John Innes Centre scientists were  surprised to find that the same nucleotide change was behind variation in the  evolution of fruit morphology in the Brassica plants.

The  Brassica family and rice are separated by 140 million years of evolution and  the anatomies of their fruit are very different. However, this work, published  in the journal Current Biology, shows that the same genetic tools are  applicable over a large evolutionary distance and that evolution can offer  insights into the tools that might be useful to breeders.

“Ever  since Darwin used domestication as a model for evolution there has been debate over  whether the same type of variation is relevant to both domestication and  natural evolution,” said Dr Sablowski.

“In  this study we have shown that the same type of variation is relevant to both  processes. In addition, we saw that a surprisingly simple genetic change is  enough to explain differences between the fruits of different Brassica  relatives.  Now further examples will be  needed to show whether the simplicity of the regulatory change in our case is  exceptional.”

Original article:

jic.ac.uk

July 2011

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Topic: More on Chocolate

 

 

Molinillo- Chocolate frothing tool

 

 

 

Chocolate finds its way onto even the most simplistic dessert menus today to satisfy the sweetest sweet-tooth.  In ancient Mesoamerica, chocolate was deemed a specialty food, achieving a sacred status.

 

The Maya and the Aztecs believed that cacao was discovered by the gods in a mountain and was to be given to the people following their creation. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him. Although sustaining the high possibility that is was not a native Mesoamerican crop, the cacao tree was one of the ancient Maya and Aztec’s most prized.

 

The warm, liquid form of the chocolate consumed was very different from today’s hot cocoa, being laden with chili powder and other spices making it a hot and sultry treat popular with royalty while lay people occasionally enjoyed its healing qualities. The Spanish who moved into Mesoamerica were unfamiliar with the ‘savage’ flavors of the spicy chocolate and determined that it would not be popular as it stood and was not to sent back home without proper adjustments like the elimination of many spices and the addition of sweetening ingredients. While archaeological evidence for cacao use by the Aztecs and Maya is rather limited, pictorial and iconographic evidence is quite substantial. The goal of this poster is to demonstrate the many ways in which the cacao tree was especially important ritually, medically and spiritually to the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica..

For nearly 3500 years the world has indulged in chocolate; chocolate bars, candy kisses, hot cocoa, chocolate ice-cream and numerous other forms.  The idea of a chocolate treat is far from a modern one. The use of chocolate began in the New World with the ancient Olmec civilization (1500 BC-500 BC) in Mesoamerican and continued on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs before making its trek across to the Old World in the 16th century.  The formulation and serving techniques of the chocolate were somewhat different than today. Mainly consumed as an unheated liquid by the Aztecs and generally heated by the Maya, chocolate was the drink of choice for the elites and with the addition of hot chilies, maize, spices, peanut butter, vanilla and other flavor and texture enhancers, made the chocolate beverage a spicy and sultry drink enjoyed only by those who are able to afford it or by those who are specifically chosen to enjoy its benefits.  Over the years, cacao, its components and chocolate in one form or another, have been used in more ways that just for a pleasure drink.  It is known to have healing and preventative properties and has been documented in both ancient and modern medical journals.

History of the Cacao Tree and its Cultivation:

The cacao (Theobroma cacao) tree is a member of Sterculiaceae family of evergreens. Today, we find the wild trees at various elevations (200-400m) in the Amazon Rainforest as well as the Orinco River basins.  The tree produces fruits approximately the size and shape of an American football. Each pod contains an average of 40 seeds (commonly referred to as ‘beans’), which are what is used to make cocoa powder, cocoa butter and chocolate (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The cultivation of a cacao tree and its seeds is a rather involved and time-consuming process.  In the wild, the trees can grow to a height of over 60 feet; however in a plantation setting it is typical to see them only at a maximum of 20 feet to ease the harvesting labour.  The planted trees take four or five years to flower. Once pollinated, each flower begins to produce a pod with will grow to be about one pound in weight and contain about 40 seeds surrounded by a naturally sweet white pulp. The pods are unable to open on their own accord and must so be done with human (or animal) intervention. The pods will ripen throughout the year and there are normally two main harvests. The pods are opened by hand and the pulp and are seeds extracted  According to Coe and Coe (1996) the four steps needed to produce the cacao ‘nibs’ (shelled and de-germed beans) are: fermentation, drying, roasting and winnowing. These steps are still followed in today’s modern chocolate making cultures, regardless of the technologies available to them. The four stages are summarized below.

Fermentation is a confusing word choice as the cacao is not fermented into an alcohol, although it could be.  As performed by the ancient people of Mesoamerica, the beans (seeds) are fermented for anywhere from three to six days, depending on the type of bean. During this time, chemical processes are occurring; the pulp liquefies, and drains away as the temperature increases and the seeds begin to germinate but are soon killed by the high temperature and acidity which is the desired effect as the chocolate will fail to taste like chocolate if this does not occur (Coe and Coe 1996, 24).  Once fermentation is complete, the beans are dried on flat mats left out in the sun for one to two weeks. Roasting the beans for approximately 70-115 minutes at temperatures of around 215 degrees F is vital for the drawing out of the chocolate flavour. The beans are roasted at a slightly higher temperature in order to produce cocoa powder. The final step is the removal of the outer shell of the bean (winnowing). Once winnowing has occurred, the beans can be ground into a paste, commonly known as ‘cacao liquor’, which is non-alcoholic (Coe and Coe 1996, 25). The process is time consuming and minimal chocolate is retrieved from each pod, but the value is so great and the time used in order to prepare the chocolate adds to the sacredness of the end product.

Cacao butter is made up of the fat inside the nib. It is extracted during the drying process and the fat was and still is used not only as an addition to quality chocolate, but as an ingredient in many cosmetics and skin-care products. The word cacao most likely originated with the Olmecs who resided in the lowland region of Mexico on the eastern gulf coast (Dillinger et al. 2000 and Coe & Coe 1996). The tree obtained its modern name from the eighteenth century Swedish biologist, Carolus Linnaeus. While developing a system for classifying living organisms, he assigned the botanical name Theobroma cacao to the chocolate tree. Theobroma, in Latin, means “food of the gods,” while cacao refers to the native word for the plant (Coe and Coe 1996, 17).

In the most basic of terms, cacao is a culturally edible material which grows on trees in Central and South America. To the ancient lay people of Mesoamerica, it was so much more than a food item. Cacao seeds were actually so valued as to be used for currency, while the subsequent beverages were used as offerings to the gods and as the champagne-of-the-time.  A 1545 Nahuatl (Mayan language) document provides a list of the prices of food items; a turkey hen is worth 100 cacao beans, a hare or forest rabbit or is worth 100 cacao beans, a large tomato is one bean and one turkey egg is worth three beans, among other food items (Coe and Coe 1996, 98-99).

There is doubt as to whether or not the cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica.  Specific climatic conditions are required for the needy cacao tree to grow.  Surprisingly, the trees have been reported to have grown and thrived in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula where the climate would normally be far too harsh.  The area has a long, hot and dry season yielding a mere 50mm of rainfall a year.  Cacao trees require year round humidity and plenty of rainfall (2000mm) into well-drained soil in order to grow and propagate (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 247-249).  Being a shade-loving species, the cacao is usually found growing under the canopy of taller, tropical trees and basking in the nutrient-rich soil made up of the abundant organic materials falling from the protective canopy-trees.   It is exceedingly difficult to recognize what the original properties of the wild populations of cacao trees prior to the Spanish contact were.  South America has been considered to be the center of origin for cacao, but the question of when the transfer of the tree to Mesoamerica occurred still sparks controversy upon Mayanists as well as other archaeologists and historians (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990, 249).  However, there is absolutely no proof of South American usage of cacao prior to modern times and, according to Gomez-Pompa et al. (1990), it is unrealistic to assume that someone traveling from South America to Mexico could have (or would have) successfully brought the cacao seeds, while keeping them viable for the two-week trek, to be planted and cultivated in Mexico.  The seeds germinate quickly and will surely die if not kept moist and cool in the hot air that blankets the South American and Mesoamerican areas. It is therefore somewhat safe to assume that the trees do, in fact, grow naturally in the Mesoamerican area, but how?   Unfortunately, at present, it unknown for certain whether or not these cacao groves occurred naturally or with human assistance. The answer may well lie in cenotes, (underground caves), or collapsed above-ground caves.  These types of environments are similar to sinkholes and house a damp microenvironment virtually perfect for cacao growth.  Groundwater in the cenotes is generally the food for the trees, which are by and large untouched by rainwater for half the year.  Unfortunately, whether cacao trees naturally form and prosper or were originally brought into the area and planted in these sinkholes and cenotes, is still under investigation.

Iconographic and Archaeological Evidence:

Chocolate became popular as a drink among the Aztec upper classes, who could afford it. The custom was to serve chocolate after a feast, in a special cup (xicalli) made out of a calabash gourd. Royalty and upper elites ritualistically used elaborately painted pottery from which to drink the frothy concoction (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An impressive Mayan example of this is from a royal tomb in north-eastern Guatemala. It contained seven cylindrical containers, including a pot with a stirrup handle and screw-on lid. The notable piece was painted with hieroglyphs reading, “a drinking vessel for witik cacao, for kox cacao,” the still un-deciphered Mayan words which likely denote chocolate flavours (Coe and Coe 1996, 49 and Hall 1990). Laboratory analysis of its inner surface by came back positive for chocolate. All seven containers likely held varieties of the cacao beverage. There are thousands of these cylindrical vessels in collections, and the vast majority say right on them, ‘This is a vessel for chocolate,’ (Coe and Coe 1996).

Spouted vessels are a rare elite drinking vessel of the Preclassic Maya. Colha, in northern Belize, has yielded several of these types of drinking vessels. Dry-residue analysis using liquid-chromatography show chocolate use as early as 600BC. These vessels were only manufactured in the Preclassic period (900BC-AD250) (Hurst et al. 2002, 289).

Residue analyses on several vessels from ancient Maya burial sites indicate offerings of chocolate to the deceased (Dillinger 2000, Hurst et al. 1989 and Hall et al. 1990).  In fact, a majority of the pottery assemblages from Maya sites of the Postclassic (prior to the Spanish conquest) era contained vessels used to hold chocolate for the dead to utilize during his/her afterlife. Analysis if the residues of four Maya tomb vessels at the site of Rio Azul in Guatemala have shown that the vessel once contained theobrommine and/or caffeine which are both contents of cacao (Hall et al. 1990, 139).  Hall and his researchers surveyed the literature provided by the laboratories of the Hershey Foods Corporation Technical Center and determined that cacao is the only Mesoamerican food source which contained both theobrommine and caffeine.  Therefore it has been deemed safe to conclude that any vessel which tests positive for these ingredients likely contained cacao in one form or another.  Another 15 vessels which had a sort of locking mechanism, deemed by Hall (1990) to be a ‘child-proofing’ system, seemed to have once contained foods and liquids on which the deceased would subsist in the afterworld.  As Hall (1990) states, many of the vessels had obvious inner rings of residue, some of which were slightly slanted, as if the pot was not entirely flat on the bottom. This indicates the presence of a liquid having been stored.  The glyphic writing on the outside of the vessels clearly display the Maya word for cacao along with additional un-deciphered glyphs, possibly eluding to the recipe of the contents, the maker of, or other general information about the contents which were once housed in the vessel (Hall, 1990, 139).

As suggested by the residue analysis, as well as iconographic evidence, the elites began frothing the chocolate to create a thick, foamy head using a Spanish invention called a molinillo. Prior to Spanish contact, the method mostly used to froth the liquid was pouring from extended heights into another vessel on the floor (Coe and Coe 1996).

Archaeological evidence from Mesoamerica, points to chocolate use beginning with the ancient Olmecs and carrying on through the time of the Maya and Aztecs.  Evidence is sparse but comes from various parts of Mesoamerica. Whole cacao beans were recovered from Uaxactun, Guatemala, while in Belize, wood from ancient cacao trees has been uncovered along with ceramic vessels which tested positive for chocolate residues (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

An example of a piece of iconographic evidence of the importance of cacao is a jadeite plaque uncovered inside a cenote in the town of Chichen Itza. The carved jade shows a man holding onto the trunk of a cacao tree covered with protruding cacao pods. The carving also contains the phonetic glyph for the word cacao pronounced ka-ka-w(a), or kakaw (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990).  An incense burner from the Late Classic period (AD 600-900) depicting a god surrounded by many cacao pods was uncovered in the Rio Bec region of Campeche (Gomez-Pompa et al. 1990 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The only surviving written evidence from the Classic era Maya, are the extravagantly decorated vessels which joined the elite in their tombs. There is little else known about the peasants who actually grew and cultivated the trees, or how the May ate or drank their chocolate (Coe and Coe 1996, 45-46).

Ritual Use:

The use of chocolate had many ritualistic, spiritual and political meanings for the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica.  According to similar creation stories of both the Aztec and the Maya, the gods discovered the cacao in a mountain named the Mountain of Sustenance (named by the Maya), along with other delectable foods. The Maya version tells the story of the Plumed Serpent (a god), who gave the people, recently made from maize by the divine grandmother goddess, Xmucane, the cacao on which to feast (Dillinger et al. 2000).  The gods also provided maize, fruits and other desired foods.

When it comes to ritual use of chocolate, usually, only the male, elite and royals consumed cacao in a liquid form (Rissolo per. comm 2005), making the sweet treat one of high status individuals. Perceived as being an intoxicating food, the chocolate drink was a forbidden food for both women and children in a ritual setting (Dillinger et al. 2000, 2057s).

Priests would often prepare chocolate as a drink for religious ceremonies or offer cacao seeds to the gods. The Maya held a yearly festival to honor the cacao god Ek Chuah, which included several offerings and rituals to him; chocolate beverages, blood, dancing and other gifts such as the sacrifice of cacao-colored dogs and feathers, incense and cacao seeds (Rissolo per. comm.. 2005). According to Aztec history, a similar yearly festival in the capital city of Tenochtitlan took place with the sacrifice of a warrior captured from an enemy group during battle. For forty days he was dressed up in the colorful feathers and jewels of the god Quetzalcoatl and ordered to dance for the appeasement of the god of war and the sun; Huitzilopochtli, all the while being treated like a god, but being caged at night. If he appeared agitated or nervous due to his impending doom, the captive would be fed a relaxing drink. He consumed a thick reddish liquid which would enable him to put his fears of eminent death aside and continue to entertain the god.  The drink was an intoxicating chocolate blend with the color of blood. His dancing and movements seemed to welcome the death to come, as if he was offering himself willingly. Soon after which, his heart was carved out of his body to be offered to the god that would ensure the rising of the morrows sun (Coe and Coe 1996, 102 and Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The offering of blood also occasionally consisted of priests lancing their own earlobes or kings lancing their penises with obsidian blades drizzling their own blood to cover cacao and offering it to the gods whom they were honoring (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).  There are many, strong ethnographic sources (Thompson 1956) which demonstrate the importance of these two liquids; blood and chocolate among the Aztecs and the late Post-Classic Maya. They were both considered sacred and were thus regularly offered during ritual practices.

Baptisms of newborn babies and marriages required the ritual use of chocolate as well. The pre-Spanish Maya baptismal ritual consisted of cacao seeds ground up with flowers and pure water was used to anoint the heads, feet, hands and faces of the children, whole chocolate mixed with corn gruel was offered in special clay pottery to be used during wedding ceremonies (Rissolo per comm. 2005).  There were several types of drinks prepared for different occasions as well. Depending on the person for whom the drink was prepared, different ingredients were added or not added. Given the abundance of different types of chilies in the region, the drink could have been anywhere from mild to scalding and given the grinding techniques of various other additives, the drink may be thick, lumpy, or watery. Many recipes for chocolate drinks have made their way around the world. For example, Sahagun’s (who will be discussed in the next section) native informants give him a ‘menu’ of chocolate drinks which are suitable to be served to the ruler (Coe and Coe 1996, 89). Also, medicinally, drinks were prepared to have desired effects on the human body, which leads us into the medicinal use of the cacao and chocolate.

Medicinal Use:

Not only was chocolate used for ritual purposes but it was avidly used for medicinal reasons as well. Healing and preventative medicines as well as a tool for administering foul-tasting medicines were the two primary medicinal uses for the chocolate.  Ancient Aztec sources can trace the use of the chocolate as a medical tool.  Sources include the Badianus Manuscript, the Princton Codex and the Florentine Codex.  The Florentine Codex (1590 AD) contained an enormous list of medical uses for chocolate.  It was prepared by priest Bernardino de Sahagun from Spain who lived and worked in the ‘New Spain’ for 60 years, collecting vital medicinal information regarding the use of chocolate for the body both internally and externally (Dillinger et al. 2000).  Chocolate lessens agitation (Quelus 1730, 51), reduces angina and asthma (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 231 and Hughes 1672, 153-154), reduces cancer (Villanueva y Francesconi, 1890, 239) and has a calming affect (Brillat-Savarin 1825, 100).  It reduces emaciation (Hernandez 1577, 305), improves energy (Stubbe 1662, 3), relieves hoarseness (Quelus 1730, 76), reduces fever (Hernandez 1577, 305) and quenches thirst (Quelus 1730, 46). It is also known to clean the teeth (Dillinger et al 2000, 2061s); of course modern-day dentists may disagree.  The increase in sexual appetite, fertility and abetted longevity were other benefits of the chocolate. It is stated that Montezuma, prior to visiting his grand harem, would consume up to 50 goblets of a hot chocolate drink to ensure a suitable visit to each member in the group (Aguilera 1985, 119 and Dillinger et al. 2000, 2062s). Another benefit is that of consuming cacao-tree bark. It assists in reducing abdominal pain (Morton, 1981, 556-557).   Externally, cacao was helpful in soothing burns, bronchitis and in disinfecting cuts.  One can facilitate childbirth by eating the fruit pulp of the cacao pod.  Even the leaves of the cacao tree act as antiseptics for external wounds (Morton, 1981, 556-557).   Aztec soldiers marching off to battle were often given chocolate beverages to fortify and sustain them during battle (chocolate.org, Rissolo per comm. 2008).  There are nearly 300 medicinal uses on de Sahagun’s list for the versatile cacao tree; however, he also added a warning label of sorts;

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one.  When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’ (Sahagun 1590, 119-120)”.

The Spanish Influence:

The arrival of Christopher Columbus and his officers brought an ignorance of the importance of cacao to the new world.  Upon his return to Spain, Columbus toted a mere handful of cacao seeds. Only after Hernan Cortes came upon the chocolate, did its popularity in the Old World increase (Coe and Coe 1996). The bitter, spicy taste of the drink did little to satisfy Columbus and his men. They were unaware of the importance of the drink and could not bear to even choke it down.  Upon its arrival in Spain, it was re- flavored with cane sugar (previously unavailable in Mesoamerica), allspice and honey to a sweet, smooth beverage. Whilst in Spain, it too, was an elite-only drink but eventually ‘chocolate saloons’ began to open, making it available to all people (Rissolo per. comm. 2005).

The Spanish, who prepared the chocolate drink for their own pleasure, did so quite differently from the ancient Mesoamericans and without the knowledge of the rest of Europe. The addition of hot and spicy additives was not palatable to the Spanish consumer and therefore substituted them with sweet additions such as cane sugar, cinnamon, honey and other flavor enhancers. In his History of the New World (1575), Girolamo Benzoni negatively states: “It seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity………But then, as there was a shortage of wine, so as not to be always drinking water, I did like the others. The taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country (Benzoni 1575)”

The chocolate was reserved for the higher classes as well and the Spanish government went to great lengths to ensure only the wealthy could indulge.  They increased taxes on cacao product greatly to ensure only the elite could afford its benefits. Spain and Portugal kept it hidden from the rest of the world and at first only used it for medicinal purposes but the allure soon caught on.  The allure was in fact so high that arguments as to whether or not chocolate could be considered a food or a beverage arose. To some, it satisfied and nourished the body like a solid food and therefore it must not be consumed during times of fasting.  Eventually, much of the population, including the popes, agreed that it was not a solid food and therefore did not break the fast.  By the late 17th century, chocolate became available to most of Europe and accessible to the general populations.  Its popularity only increased and chocolate manufacturing companies like Hershey’s, Fry’s and Cadbury’s began opening around the globe to satisfy the people’s need for chocolate.

Conclusion:

The love for chocolate has not dwindled since its discovery. It is still a favorite among many cultures, societies, elites, royals and everyday people.  The technologies, flavors, additives and reasons for consuming it have changed to allow for an increase and ease in production.  Once a sacred liquid from ancient Mesoamerica; chocolate has found its way onto the dinner tables of the entire world.  One need only look at the heart-shaped box of chocolates received on Valentine’s Day or the chocolate Easter egg found during a yearly egg-hunt to understand its importance in society today.

Original article:

archnews.co.uk

By Julie St Jean 24/02/2011 16:46:00

 

 

 
 

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Topic: Banana’s, Ancient fruit-gone the way of modern man

 

Geographical distribution of M. balbisiana and subspecies of M. acuminata, the wild ancestors of cultivated bananas.

 

Bananas have
been an important food for humans for at least 7,000 years, but the most popular
types are sterile varieties that make farming easy but hold little genetic
diversity – a recipe for disaster in the face of plant disease, a paper by
scientists from Australia and Europe finds.

The researchers, writing in this week’s edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, traced
early banana cultivation to the Kuk swamp of New Guinea around 5,000 BC. The plants spread
throughout southeast Asia and into Africa, almost certainly via human
intervention.

Bananas are a crucial source of food for tropical and sub-tropical nations,
especially Africa, ranking after rice, wheat and corn in importance. More than
85% of bananas are grown for local consumption. Most are not the sweet dessert
varieties eaten in the west, but starchy plantain-style bananas that must first
be cooked.

The banana probably arose in the islands around Southeast Asia and western
Melanesia. It was hybridized into subspecies that could not have been created
without human intervention – the only way to grow more of these bananas is to
take a shoot from a banana plant, as the seeds are generally not viable.

This means that most banana plants are clones, with no genetic variety. A
good example is today’s Cavendish, the main banana sold in the United States and
Europe. All come from clones of the same tree and all are genetically
identical.

The problem with having so many people rely on a few strains of an important
food crop is that they are very venerable to disease. For example, up until the
1950s most bananas eaten in the United States were the Gros Michel
type, which was wiped out by a fungal disease known as Panama disease.

As the researchers say in their paper:

Current global production of more than 100 million tons is based on
large-scale vegetative propagation of a small number of genotypes, which derive
from only a few ancient sexual recombination events. These genetically
restricted and inflexible clones are particularly susceptible to diseases,
pests, and current ecological changes.

Plant breeders need to understand the “sequence of crossings and selections
that occurred minimally during the past 6,500 years” so that they can find other
crosses that can withstand disease and pest outbreaks that might hit this
important plant, they say.

Original Article:

usatoday.com

By Elizabeth Weise

 

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Topic: Food finds of prehistoric nomadic tribes.

stone midden Wednesday June 22, 2011 where archaeologists believe ancient people cooked food in large in-gound ovens somewhat similar to a modern pig roast or luau. The month-long field school is being held in Val Verde County North of Comstock near the Devil's River

Texas State University archaeology students work Wednesday June 22, 2011 at the excavation site of the archaeology field school near the Devil's River North of Comstock in Val Verde County. (William Luther/wluther@express-news.net)

More pictures to view via the link at the bottem of the article.

COMSTOCK — Near the end of another brutally hot day in the desert of the  Lower Pecos Canyonlands, there finally was something to cheer about among the  crew digging at the Little Sotol archaeological site, hidden in a far-flung  corner of a ranch north of here.

For a month, students under the guidance of Texas  State University archaeologist Stephen Black and his two grad students had  been nosing around in a pair of holes at the bottom of Dead Man’s Creek Canyon  in search of food scraps in an earthen oven more than 5,000 years old.

After seven hours of delicately wielding brushes, dustpans and trowels in a  choreographed dance of discovery, Jacob  Combs hit prehistoric pay dirt: a wafer-thin piece of charcoal, found near  the Little Sotol oven.

A tiny sliver of charcoal doesn’t seem like much, but in the world of  archaeology, it’s huge. When that piece of charcoal — possibly petrified food — is catalogued and carbon-dated, it will work in concert with other items found  here, as well as finds from other sites in this region, to help fill major holes  in the story of nomadic tribes in prehistoric North America.

Black climbed into the small, square hole — roughly a meter wide and a meter  deep — with Combs and surveyed the walls. He asked Combs pointed questions about  the precise moment he found the matchbook-size piece of coal. After they  discussed the find, they bagged it, gingerly climbed out, gathered up their  tools and knocked off 30 minutes early.

For decades, archaeologists and tourists have come to this region, located  just this side of the Trans-Pecos,  to marvel at ancient paintings that dot cave walls in some of the roughest  landscape in Texas.

While cave art is a breathtaking representation of early life, these  scientists say Little Sotol — which gets its name from the plant most often  cooked in the ovens — represents the nuts and bolts of everyday life.

“Cave art is sexy,” said Charles  Koenig, a graduate student surveying the lands around the Little Sotol site. “But we’re trying to see how they worked the landscape.”

Tiffany Osburn, a Texas  Historical Commission archaeologist who came to visit Black’s field  school, agreed.

“People tend to go for ritual and mystical stuff,” she said. “And cave art  captures the imagination more than the practical domestic matters.”

The prevailing story, Black said, is that groups of hunter-gatherers roamed  this landscape 7,000 years ago, subsisting on berries and venison. They moved  from canyon to canyon, seeking locations where shelter, water and food were  easily accessible. When one site was depleted, they moved to the next. They  cooked when they had to do so because it was labor-intensive and took a  long time.

But at some point, cooked plants took over as the mainstay of their diet. And  a large part of that diet was sotol, a desert shrub that grows in West  Texas canyons.

The earthen ovens were rings of elaborately stacked stones. Hot stones were  placed in the bottom, cooking the plant underneath layers of plants  and dirt.

The question, to be determined by what Black’s students uncovered in a  monthlong field school that ended Friday, is how often the Little Sotol oven was  used, which radiocarbon dating will help pin down.

One theory, Black said, holds that a major drought decimated the easily  gathered berries and deer populations, which in turn forced the tribes to eat  more sotol. Another holds that the population outgrew the surroundings, which  also would explain more sotol cooking.

And that’s why finds such as Combs’ piece of charcoal are important.

This is the life of an archaeologist, where work always is painstakingly  slow, small items have large implications and success is measured in  tiny increments.

“The depth of prehistory and the way we have to piece it together is the only  way we have to fill in the blanks in history,” said Osburn, who visited the site  in mid-June. “Archaeology is incremental and cumulative.”

And tedious. The 14 students each paid Texas State $2,300 for the privilege  of working long hours in the hot sun, getting covered in dust and dirt and then  spending their evenings sorting and logging the charcoal, flint, bone, organic  matter and stone tools that they found.

“We’re looking for charcoal, bones and seed,” student Sean  Zimmerman  said as he helped sort one day’s haul.

While Koenig supervised the hunt for other sites, fellow graduate student Ashleigh  Knapp led the Little Sotol dig.

Every day ended with a swim in the pristine Devils River, followed by a  45-minute drive back up the jagged canyon roads to the base camp.

In this case, “camp” is a hunters’ compound, complete with houses, running  water, electricity and air conditioning.

“We really lucked out with this arrangement,” Knapp said.

A lot of field schools and archaeological digs are far from the conveniences  of modern life, meaning sleeping bags, tents and complete isolation.

This site even has satellite television, though Black removed the dish upon  arrival. He wanted students focused and bonding without  digital distractions.

The students took turns cooking and cleaning. They slept in bunkhouses  separated by gender. Black and Koenig shared a room. Two of the students opted  to sleep in tents, one of which was outfitted with a window  air conditioner.

Little Sotol was discovered in January when the ranch owner was using a  front-end loader to scoop dirt to fix potholes. After grabbing one load, he  noticed a ring of black rock. He recognized the significance — black rock  indicates stone that was burned — and called Black, a specialist in  this region.

That site was too damaged to study, but within minutes, Koenig stumbled upon  Little Sotol, a ring of blackened stone, at the entrance of a low-hanging cave,  on the banks of a dry creek bed.

The field school, which was the first month of the project, was funded by  foundation grants, private donations and some money from Texas State,  Black said.

From here on, however, funding is iffy.

While the field school has ended, grad students Koenig and Knapp will remain  for the rest of the summer, working with any students who volunteer to stay  behind to finish the dig. Both grad students draw a salary as  teaching assistants.

After that, however, comes data crunching and lab work, which isn’t cheap. A  Comstock botanist has volunteered to study the organic matter for free, Black  said, but it will cost $600 to carbon date each individual piece  of charcoal.

Success is the ultimate lure for more funding.

“You never have enough money going into a project,” he said. “But you hope  you do enough good work at the beginning — and I believe we have done that here — so you can make a compelling argument to get more  funding later.”

Original Article:

mysanantonio.com

By Roy Bragg

7/3/2011

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Topic:Aztec God of rain

 

Monotith of the Aztec God of Rain

 

 

Archaeologists in Mexico made a dramatic discovery in the state of Morelos when they uncovered an 8th century monolith featuring an Aztec God weighing 60 tonnes.

With agricultural images engraved on its side, the massive stone is believed to have been used by the Aztecs to call on the god of rain.

“These signs on the rock are fundamentally associated with agriculture and water. We think it’s highly probable that it (the monolith) was used during rituals to ask for rain and it was placed in a position facing Popocatepetl,” said archaeologist Raul Gonzalez.

With the ritual stone also bearing the image of the Aztec god Tlaloc, experts are connecting the massive monolith to the nearby archaeological site of Xochicalco.

We have numbered them (hieroglyphics) all and those we have been able to decipher include a corn figure and one of Tlaloc,” added Gonzalez. “We also have others which are anthropomorphous and others which are amorphous, which are four-legged animals. We don’t know the exact definition or what they represent but they are there.”

Reforma newspaper reports that construction workers building a shopping centre in the area first encountered the priceless artefact and notified authorities.

Further investigations by Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) unearthed the massive monolith near a highway connecting to the nearby city Cuautla. The scientists hope the 60-tonne monolith will have its final resting place at the UNESCO-listed Xochicalco zone.

The Aztecs, a warlike and deeply religious people who built monumental works, ruled an empire stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean – encompassing much of modern-day central Mexico.

Their often bloody reign ended when they were subjugated in 1521 by the Spanish, led by Hernan Cortes.

Original article:

3news.co.nz

July 11, 2011

For those who follow my blogs-since I was on vacation I am postponing my post of the Mead bottling until next week-Just a little behind!

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Topic: Ancient Spirits-Beer and Wine

By analyzing ancient pottery, Patrick McGovern is resurrecting the libations that fueled civilization

via The Beer Archaeologist.

I’m on a short vacation-post next Tuesday on bottling my Blackberry Mead!!!

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Topic Summer is for BBQ-or not

A 7,700-year-old fire pit is revealing how our ancestors put on a BBQ.

Around 8,000 years ago, prehistoric hunters killed an aurochs and their
grilling techniques were frozen in time.

THE GIST

  • Remains of a butchered and cooked female aurochs (a prehistoric cow) have
    been identified from a Stone Age Netherlands site.
  • The hunters appear to have cooked the meat over an open fire, eating the
    bone marrow first and then the ribs.
  • Aurochs hunting was common at the site for many years, but humans drove the
    large horned animals to extinction

Stone Age barbecue consumers first went for the bone marrow and then for the
ribs, suggest the leftovers of an outdoor 7,700-year-old meaty feast described
in the July issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The remains, found in the valley of the River Tjonger, Netherlands, provide
direct evidence for a prehistoric hunting, butchering, cooking and feasting
event. The meal occurred more than 1,000 years before the first farmers with
domestic cattle arrived in the region.

Although basic BBQ technology hasn’t changed much over the millennia, this
prehistoric meal centered around the flesh of an aurochs, a wild Eurasian ox
that was larger than today’s cows. It sported distinctive curved horns.

Another big difference is how meat was obtained then.

“The animal was either caught in a pitfall trap and then clubbed on the head,
or shot with a bow and arrow with flint point,” co-author Wietske Prummel, an
associate professor of archaeozoology at the University of Groningen, told
Discovery News.

Prummel and colleague Marcel Niekus pieced together what happened by studying
an unearthed flint blade found near aurochs bones. These show that after the
female aurochs was killed, hunters cut its legs off and sucked out the
marrow.

According to the study, the individuals skinned the animal and butchered it,
reserving the skin and large hunks of meat for carrying back to a nearby
settlement. Chop marks left behind by the flint blade show how the meat was
meticulously separated from the bones and removed.

Burn marks reveal that the hunters cooked the meaty ribs, and probably other
smaller parts, over an open fire. They ate them right at the site, “their reward
for the successful kill,” Prummel said.

The blade, perhaps worn down from so much cutting, was left behind and wound
up slightly scorched in the cooking fire.

Niekus told Discovery News, “The people who killed the animal lived during
the Late Mesolithic (the latter part of the middle Stone Age). They were
hunter-gatherers and hunting game was an important part of their subsistence
activities.”

The researchers suspect these people lived in large settlements and
frequented the Tjonger location for aurochs hunting. After the Iron Age, the
area was only sparsely inhabited — probably due to the region becoming
temporarily waterlogged — until the Late Medieval period.

Aurochs must have been good eats for Stone Age human meat lovers, since other
prehistoric evidence also points to hunting, butchering and feasting on these
animals. A few German sites have yielded aurochs bones next to flint tool
artifacts.

Aurochs bones have also been excavated at early dwellings throughout Europe.
Bones for red deer, roe deer, wild boar and elk were even more common, perhaps
because the aurochs was such a large, imposing animal and the hunters weren’t
always successful at killing it.

At a Mesolithic site in Onnarp, Sweden, for example, scientists found the
remains of aurochs that had been shot with arrows. The wounded animals escaped
their pursuers before later dying in a swamp.

The aurochs couldn’t escape extinction, though.

“It became extinct due to the destruction of the habitat of the aurochs since
the arrival of the first farmers in Europe about 7500 years ago,” Prummel said.
“These farmers used the area inhabited by aurochs for their dwellings, arable
fields and meadows. The aurochs gradually lost suitable habitat.”

The last aurochs died in 1627 at a zoo in Poland.

Original article:

discoverynews.com

By Jehhifer Viegas

6/27/2011

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