Archive for April, 2015

you will pardon the long wait for my post, I’m getting used to a new operating system! This desert is a favorite of mine, hard to imagine crops growing here, but at one time they did.

Chilean team members excavating ancient terraces(1)


High in the Atacama Desert, around 10,000 feet, anyone with a computer and Google Earth can look at the fields around Turi, Chile and see small neatly laid out fields, terraced and lined with rocks. No crops are growing there now, but it looks as though the farmers laid down their stone hoes and just walked away.

University of New Mexico Associate Professor of Anthropology Frances Hayashida says that is more or less what they did more than 500 years ago. The climate is so dry the fields and the elaborate irrigation systems are almost perfectly preserved.

“These are systems that were developed about 1,000 A.D. when people figured out how to divert water from springs which are recharged by snowmelt from the Andes,” says Hayashida. There wasn’t much water even then. Anthropologists haven’t yet tried to calculate exactly how much farmers had to work with, but farming was always marginal here.

It was conquest, first by the Incas, then by the Spanish that changed lifestyles of the indigenous people and made copper mining into a local industry. The Incas conquered this land in the early 1400’s.

“We think they brought in workers to work in the mines. They put in an extensive road system to be able to move ore and personnel back and forth,” says Hayashida. “But then they need to be able to feed everybody, right? So what happens to farming and water and farmers when they were conquered by the Inca and pulled into this bigger economy? That’s what our research is about.”

Hayashida is working with an international consortium of researchers from Chile, Spain and the United States. They have shared grant money from the Spanish Ministry of Culture, National Geographic, Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the National Science Foundation and its Chilean equivalent CONICYT so they can work together to understand how the forces of history and climate changed life in this very remote desert community.

Collaboration is a challenge since the researchers work on different continents and have conflicting work schedules. In April, they will have a rare chance to get together in Santa Fe where they will be hosted by the School for Advanced Research. “We can sit around a table and everyone can present their research and where they are at this point. Then we can start planning what we want to do next and what publications we want to get out.” The visit will be brief. Several members of the group will go on to present their latest findings at the Society of American Archeology meeting in San Francisco.

Hayashida says they are interested in understanding exactly what the farmers were growing. They are examining the stone hoes for fragments of plants and searching for plant remains in the local garbage heaps and packrat middens to identify what they grew and understand whether the local varieties of maize, quinoa, and potatoes were different from varieties grown in the region today.

They’ve found many grinding stones at the site. Chilean archeologists who have worked here since the 80’s think the stones might have something to do with producing maize beer.

“One of the things that the Inca did in their plazas throughout the length and breadth of the empire was have big feasts, for ritual purposes, but also to show how generous they were to the conquered people,” says Hayashida. “This is something you would normally do with your neighbors, if they were working for you. You provide food and drink. So they just took this practice and did it on an imperial scale.”

The archeologists led by the Spanish team members are working with students from Chile and the U.S. to map the sites with drones. There is no vegetation and the canals that the farmers used are so coated with calcium carbonate that it is easy to follow the mineral trail of the water.

Hayashida says it’s clear the farmers used every bit of land and every bit of water they could access just to make a living, and fields seem to be designed to carefully conserve water. There are still a few farmers here, and the archeologists are talking to them to understand how they are able to grow anything in this desert.

Most of the water in this part of the Atacama Desert now is used in the copper mines and to support the local population that is gathered in the nearby city of Calama. Hayashida says this is a fascinating project for her. “It’s just a spectacular landscape, with this spectacular archeology that is related to questions that I am interested in, which have to do with water management and agriculture.” She has spent years working in the coastal regions of Peru, researching the influence of the Incas and other societies on agricultural production on a much larger scale.

The archeologists are likely to return to the fields later this year. There is still a lot of work to be done on the ground.

Students interested in joining some of the field schools that faculty members of the UNM Anthropology Department conduct throughout the year can find out more at the department website.

By Karen Wentworth

March 25, 2015

Original Article:

University Of New Mexico


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It may not be an implausible leap to imagine a small band of hunter-gatherers composed of extended family and friends having a seasonal picnic on the beach about 100,000 years ago on what is today’s western South African Atlantic coast. It is a picture that could be painted with the help of results from a recent research study conducted by archaeologist Katharine Kyriacou of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and colleagues from the University of Tübingen and the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Following renewed excavations in 2011 under the University of Tûbingen’s N. J. Conard at the open-air coastal site of ‘Hoedjispunt 1’ (HDP1) located on a peninsula jutting out into the Saldanha Bay of South Africa’s southwestern Cape, Kyriacou and her colleagues performed extensive analysis and additional dating on assemblages of lithic artifacts and associated shellfish remains systematically collected from that site and other related sites in the region, such as the nearby sites of Lynch Point and Sea Harvest. These are sites that have yielded evidence of human occupation during the Middle Stone Age (MSA, or 280,000 – 50,000 BP), a time range within which anatomically modern humans (AMH), or early modern humans, were present on the African landscape. Their results showed clear collection and consumption/preparation of selected types of high meat-yielding shellfish using stone artifacts, some made locally and others transported from distant locales, within a pattern of short-term periodic encampments or stays. The HDP1site has been tentatively dated, based on past uranium series, infrared stimulated luminescence, and electron spin resonance dating, including new dating that is yet to be completed, to as early as 115 – 130 ka.

Kyriacou and colleagues reinforce an emerging view among scholars on the nature of early modern human habitation and movement in the coastal areas and their diets, which has significant implications for human evolution during this time period.

“Small groups of foragers engaged in the selective exploitation of a narrow range of mussels and limpets, particularly large species from the mid-intertidal, during relatively short excursions to the coast,” concluded the authors. “The integration of simple marine resources into the diets of people visiting the Atlantic west coast probably had major implications for the evolution of modern humans in this region. Shellfish represent an easily accessible and reliable source of nutrition on a landscape characterized by seasonal fluctuations in the availability of terrestrial resources [other prey further inland]. The consumption of even small quantities of mussels and limpets would have helped prehistoric people meet their requirements for essential nutrients, especially trace elements and polyunsaturated fatty acids [critical for brain development].”*

saldanha bay, South Africa



Original article:

Popular Archaeology

march 23, 2015

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A genetic study of papaya sex chromosomes reveals that the hermaphrodite version of the plant, which is of most use to growers, arose as a result of human selection, most likely by the ancient Maya some 4,000 years ago.

The study, reported in the journal Genome Research, homes in on a region of papaya’s male sex chromosome that, the study indicates, gave rise to the hermaphrodite plants. 

 “This research will one day lead to the development of a papaya that produces only hermaphrodite offspring, an advance that will enhance papaya root and canopy development while radically cutting papaya growers’ production costs and their use of fertilizers and water,” said University of Illinois plant biology professor Ray Ming, who led the research. Ming is a professor in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois. 

Papaya plants are either male, female or hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodites produce the desirable fruit that is sold commercially. Growing hermaphrodites is costly and inefficient, however, because one-third of hermaphrodite fruit seeds and one-half of female fruit seeds generate female plants, which are useless to growers. Farmers cannot tell which seeds are hermaphrodites until the plant has flowered, so they plant multiple seeds together to maximize their chances of getting at least one hermaphrodite plant. Once they identify the desired plant, they cut the others down. 

The Y chromosome in papaya hermaphrodites, which is called Yh, arises from an altered form of the male Y chromosome. Researchers are keen to understand the genetic basis for this alteration, so they can develop “true-breeding” hermaphrodite papaya, which will produce only hermaphrodite offspring, Ming said. 

“Identification of an ancestral male population that the modified hermaphrodite Yh evolved from will allow us to track down the mutation that caused the male-to-hermaphrodite sex reversal,” he said. 

The researchers sequenced and compared the “male-specific” and “hermaphrodite-specific” regions of the Y and Yh sex chromosomes, respectively, in 24 wild male papaya and 12 cultivated hermaphrodite plants. They found less than half of one percent difference between the male and hermaphrodite sequences, suggesting that the evolutionary event that caused them to diverge occurred in the not-too-distant past. 

“The sex chromosomes in other organisms, such as mammals, are ancient and the genes involved in their initial evolution cannot be identified because many subsequent changes, including gene gains and losses, have occurred,” the authors wrote. Human sex chromosomes, for example, are an estimated 167 million years old, while papaya sex chromosomes date to about 7 million years ago. This makes the papaya a good model for understanding sex chromosome evolution in general, Ming said. 

Among the male papaya plants, the team identified three distinct wild populations: MSY1, MSY2 and MSY3. Their analysis revealed that the MSY3 population was most closely related to the hermaphrodite sex chromosome. All of the MSY3 plants in the study were from the northwest Pacific coast of Costa Rica. 

“Our analyses date the divergence (of male and hermaphrodite papaya) to around 4,000 years (ago), well after the domestication of crop plants in Mesoamerica more than 6,200 years ago, and coinciding with the rise of Maya civilization about 4,000 years ago,” the authors wrote. 

Given that no wild hermaphrodite papayas have been found in Central America, “this strongly suggests that the (hermaphrodite papaya) resulted from papaya domestication by the Maya or other indigenous groups,” the researchers wrote. 

The National Science Foundation supported this research. 


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Happy April fools day


Topic: Pasta

On April 1, 1957 the British news show Panorama broadcast a three-minute segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland. The success of the crop was attributed both to an unusually mild winter and to the “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched video footage of a Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. The segment concluded with the assurance that, “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

The Swiss Spaghetti Harvest hoax generated an enormous response. Hundreds of people phoned the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree. To this query the BBC diplomatically replied, “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”


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