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Ancient pottery confirms people made and drank a milky alcoholic concoction at one of the largest cities in prehistory, Teotihuacan in Mexico, researchers say.

This liquor may have helped provide the people of this ancient metropolis with essential nutrients during frequent shortfalls in staple foods, scientists added.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan, whose name means “the city of the gods” in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, was the largest city in the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. At its zenith, Teotihuacan encompassed about 8 square miles (20 square kilometers) and supported an estimated population of 100,000 people, who raised giant monuments such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

Much about Teotihuacan remains unknown, including the origin and language of the people who lived there. To shed light on the mystery of this ancient city, scientists investigated what the people there might have eaten and drank. [In Photos: Human Sacrifices Discovered in Ancient City of Teotihuacan]

Corn, also known as maize, was a key crop for the people of Teotihuacan, but the low rainfall and limited groundwater resources of the area made growing maize there risky. In addition, while maize is high in calories, it contains only low concentrations of several vital nutrients, such as iron, calcium and B vitamins.

Murals in Teotihuacan depict agave plants, which are also known as maguey plants and physically resemble aloe. A number of these paintings may also depict scenes of people drinking a milky alcoholic potion known as pulque, which is made from maguey sap. (Tequila is also made from agave plants, but these liquors are made from the baked hearts of these crops, not the sap.)

Original article:
livescience

Prior studies hinted that pulque might have helped keep people in Teotihuacan alive. Maguey withstands frost and drought better than maize, and pulque could have provided vital calories, most essential nutrients and probiotic bacteria.

To learn more about the diet and culture of the people of Teotihuacan, scientists analyzed more than 300 sherds, or fragments, of pottery from within and nearby the city that dated to between about A.D. 200 and 550. The researchers cleaned and ground up the potsherds, and then scanned the resulting powder for any materials that the gotten unglazed ceramic might have absorbed. They focused on residues of the alcohol-making bacterium Zymomonas mobilis, which gives pulque its punch.

“This project pushed the detection limits of absorbed organic residue analysis,” said lead study author Marisol Correa-Ascencio, an archaeological chemist at the University of Bristol in England.

The scientists discovered 14 sherds with the earliest direct chemical evidence for the making of pulque in Central America. Researchers found that this fermented maguey sap may have been stored in distinctive, vaselike pottery vessels that were sealed with pine resin, as well as in other less-specialized vessels.

“These findings are a critical first step in providing new information about the subsistence patterns of the inhabitants at Teotihuacan that could not have been gathered using traditional archaeological methods,” Correa-Ascencio said.

In its future research, the teamwill analyze ancient potsherds from other areas in Central America for similar residues, Correa-Ascencio said. She and her colleagues detailed their findings online Sept. 15 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles.

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Suddenly there was a word for chili peppers. Information about archaeological remains of ancient chili peppers in Mexico along with a study of the appearance of words for chili peppers in ancient dialects helped researchers to understand where jalapeños were domesticated and highlight the value of multi-proxy data analysis. Their results are from one (Kraig Kraft et al.) of nine papers presented in a special feature issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on plant and animal domestication edited by Dolores Piperno, staff scientist emerita at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Curator of South American Archaeology at the National Museum of Natural History and Greger Larson of Durham University in England.

Humans evolved about 200,000 years ago. We spent 95 percent of human history as hunter-gatherers. Why did agriculture begin to emerge in human cultures about 12,000 years ago? Was it the result of a prime mover: divine inspiration, environmental change or population growth? What cultural and natural processes led to the domesticated species that supply most of the world’s foods today? The complexity of these questions requires multidisciplinary research. Bringing together scientists from a wide range of disciplines involved in domestication studies, Larson and Piperno organized a meeting funded and hosted by the National Evolutionary Synthesis Centre in 2011. The PNAS special feature is a result of the meeting.

“Having archaeologists and geneticists talking to and collaborating with each other and a suite of new techniques to play with is radically changing the way we think about domestication,” said Piperno.

The overview paper (Larson and Piperno et al.) that introduces the special issue emphasizes the need to use both archaeological and genetic evidence to sort out the unique processes of domestication that occurred at about the same time around the world from “predomestication cultivation”—plants cultivated over many generations that still have features of wild plants—and the presence of animals in association with humans to truly domesticated organisms that exhibit very specific traits like large seeds, bigger flowers, reduction in physical and chemical defenses in plants and altered coat color, floppy ears and baby faces (facial neotony) in animals.

Papers in the special feature cover both older and more recent issues in the study of domestication. New genetic screening techniques and the ability to sequence DNA from ancient specimens led Greger Larson and his group at Durham University (Linus Flink et al.) to caution that using modern genetic data alone to guess which genes may have been involved in domestication origins may be misleading. They compared DNA from 80 chickens excavated from 12 different archaeological sites in Europe dated from 280 BC to the 18th Century to modern chicken DNA. Sequencing revealed that yellow-skinned chickens were probably not common early in the domestication process. Their work suggests that yellow skin became the norm only about 500 years ago, probably as a result of global commerce.

Addressing a long-debated question—why hunters and gatherers became farmers—Gremillion, Barton, and Piperno review theories and explanations for agricultural origins, making the case that evolutionary approaches are essential because they offer coherent, empirically testable reconstructions of human behavior.
The authors of the overview paper (Larson and Piperno et al.) expect more exciting results as researchers from around the world and from many disciplines work together to nail down the environmental and ecological contexts of domestication and the shift from hunting and gathering to cultivation and herding. As they say in the paper abstract: “It is difficult to overstate the cultural and biological impacts that the domestication of plants and animals has had on our species. … the next decade will yield even more substantial insights not only into how domestication took place, but also when and where it did, and where and why it did not.”

Original article:

Phys.org

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Smithsonian archaeologist, Dolores Piperno, measures a teosinte plant growing under past climate conditions. Credit: Sean Mattson, STRI

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Birthplace of Chili Pepper Farming Revealed

Chili peppers reign as the world’s most widely cultivated spice crop; farmers grow them in bulk, and self-described chili-heads breed ever-spicier varieties of the fruit. But before they conquered cuisines around the globe, chili peppers were domesticated in Central and South America.

Now, scientists say they’ve found the hotspot where ancient farmers first cultivated Capsicum annuum, the most common kind of chili pepper.

By drawing on genetic, archaeological, linguistic and ecological evidence, the researchers found that chili farming was born in central-east Mexico. [Myth or Truth? 7 Ancient Health Ideas Explained]

“Identifying the origin of the chili pepper is not just an academic exercise,” senior author of the study Paul Gepts, a plant scientist at the University of California, Davis, said in a statement. “By tracing back the ancestry of any domesticated plant, we can better understand the genetic evolution of that species and the origin of agriculture — a major step in human evolution in different regions of the world.”

Genetic material from dozens of samples of farm-raised and wild chili peppers seemed to point to northeastern Mexico as the origin of domestication for C. annuum, the researchers found. But the scientists also looked at archaeological evidence for the peppers and ecological predictions of where the plant might have grown in climates of the past. They even looked at which ancient vocabularies included words for chili peppers. When these factors were taken into consideration, the birthplace of chili agriculture shifted farther south, to Mexico’s central-east region.

Christine Hastorf, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies ancient humans’ use of plants, says combining multiple data sets and drawing on four different fields of study greatly enriches the research.

“But the weakest link is the archaeological data by far,” Hastorf, who was not involved in the study, but reviewed it, told Live Science. She noted the authors only have two data points for their map of archaeological evidence of Capsicum annum: one from Romero Cave in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas and the other from Coxcatlán Cave, farther south, in the state of Puebla, both estimated to be around 7,000 to 9,000 years old based on contextual evidence. These two samples might not be representative of the origin of chili pepper domestication, but rather chance findings from where archaeologists happened to dig and look for traces of ancient plants, Hastorf said.

Hastorf also thinks it is interesting that the genetic data pointed to northeastern Mexico as the origin for chili farming. She thinks it’s possible the peppers could have easily been transported farther south.

“The thing that’s nice about chili peppers is that they can be eaten raw, they can be dried, they’re light — they’re very transportable,” Hastorf said. “You can imagine how fairly easily the chili pepper could spread.”

Hastorf also pointed out that the new research on Capsicum annuum fills in just one part of the history of domestication: There are four other species of Capsicum that originated in South America and may have been domesticated much earlier than their Mesoamerican cousin. Hastorf is publishing a study on Peru’s Huaca Prieta, an ancient site on the Pacific coast where archaeologists have found traces of all four of South America’s native chili peppers. These plants were likely domesticated elsewhere in the continent — in the Andes and eastern Amazon — but seem to have been brought to Huaca Prieta more than 7,000 years ago.

The results of the new study were published online today (April 21) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Follow Megan Gannon on Twitter and Google+. Follow us @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Original article on Live Science.

Original article

livescience

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(Courtesy the Smithsonian Institution)

Topic: Corn

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, the ancestor plant of modern corn has many long branches tipped with tassels, and its seeds mature over a period of a few months. But when cultivated in a greenhouse under the environmental conditions of 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, teosinte grows into a something recognizable as a corn plant. “Intriguingly, the teosinte plants grown under past conditions exhibit characteristics more like corn: a single main stem topped by a single tassel, a few very short branches tipped by female ears and synchronous seed maturation,” Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History told Science Daily. The Holocene climate, recreated in the greenhouse, was two to three degrees Celsius cooler than today’s temperatures, and the carbon dioxide levels were approximately 260 parts per million. Current carbon dioxide levels are 405 parts per million. “When humans first began to cultivate teosinte about 10,000 years ago, it was probably more maize-like—naturally exhibiting some characteristics previously thought to result from human selection and domestication,” she said. Piperno and colleague Klaus Winter of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute add that past environmental conditions should be taken into consideration by scientists researching evolutionary change and the process of domestication.

For more information: science daily.com

Original article:
archaeology.org
Feb 6, 2014

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  Topic: Early agriculture evidence in Mexico

Ancient corn husks

Ancient corn husks

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The first evidence of proto-agricultural activity in what is now the state of Nuevo Leon in northeastern Mexico, is estimated to date from 3500-3000 BC, based on new research by archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). This proto-agriculture was practised by hunter-gatherers who collected wild variants of what later became the staple domesticated crops of the region. The evidence for this activity comes from seeds, corn cobs and husks found at the small rock shelter site of El Morro. “In Nuevo Leon archaeologists have never before identified any site with this type of evidence. After two seasons in El Morro , Municipality of Aramberri, we recovered approximately a thousand cobs and fragments, ” said Dr. Araceli Rivera Estrada, an INAH researcher for the region. Exploring various rock shelters Araceli Rivera, who in recent years has been devoted to exploring the various rock shelters in the area, highlighted the relevance of this finding saying, “evidence that hunter-gatherers of the region had already begun the initial process of farming from the Archaic period will lead us to reassess the categories to denote indigenous groups in the south of the state. ” The researcher explained that the oldest records of the three major crops domesticated in Mexico (corn, squash and beans) come from only five caves which were excavated in the 1950s and 60s – Romero and Valenzuela near Ocampo (Tamaulipas); Coxcatlán and San Marcos, in the Tehuacan Valley (Puebla) and Guilá Naquitz (Oaxaca), with dates ranging from 7000 to 3000 years BC. A small rock shelter The INAH specialist reported that the recent investigation was conducted in the rock shelter which also contained a large amount of rock art representing human and animal figures. “Inside, systematic excavations have recovered a large quantity of seeds, leaves, stems, fruits and even flowers as well as various species of corn ” said Rivera. The archaeologists also found fragments of basketry and cordage. Middle Archaic period Rivera said “charcoal samples obtained at different stratigraphic levels of the El Morro deposit are in the process of being dated at the Laboratory of the Division of Studies and Academic Support INAH “. He added that by association with two lithics that were recovered in the earlier layers, the agricultural material could be dated to the Middle Archaic period (3000-1500 BC). Original article: Past Horizons November 28, 2013

 

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This photo shows the vessels that tested positive for Capsicum. Each vessel had a culinary use. Credit: Roberto Lopez and Emiliano Gallaga Murrieta

Topic Early use of peppers

Chili peppers may have been used to make spicy beverages thousands of years ago in Mexico, according to new research published November 13 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Terry Powis at Kennesaw State University and colleagues from other institutions.

Capsicum species are usually referred to as chili peppers, and their uses are well known in the history of Spain and Portugal. There are relatively few sites in Mesoamerica, Central America, and South America that contain remains of Capsicum, and therefore, we know little about how groups such as the Mayans and the Mixe-Zoquean, inhabitants of the site studied here, used chili peppers in those regions.

In this study, the authors used chemical extractions to reveal the presence of Capsicum residues in pottery samples from a site in southern Mexico. Some of these pottery vessels were over 2000 years old, dating from 400 BC to 300 AD.

They found Capsicum residue in multiple types of jars and vessels, which suggests that those cultures may have been using chili peppers for many different culinary purposes. For instance, Capsicum was found in a vessel called a sprouted jar, which is used for pouring a liquid into another container. The authors suggest that chili peppers may have been used to prepare spicy beverages or dining condiments. Powis elaborates, “The significance of our study is that it is the first of its kind to detect ancient chili pepper residues from early Mixe-Zoquean pottery in Mexico. While our findings of Capsicum species in these Preclassic pots provides the earliest evidence of chili consumption in well-dated Mesoamerican archaeological contexts, we believe our scientific study opens the door for further collaborative research into how the pepper may have been used either from a culinary, pharmaceutical, or ritual perspective during the last few centuries before the time of Christ.”

More information: Powis TG, Gallaga Murrieta E, Lesure R, Lopez Bravo R, Grivetti L, et al. (2013) Prehispanic Use of Chili Peppers in Chiapas, Mexico. PLoS ONE 8(11): e79013. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079013

Original article:
Phys.org
November 13, 2013

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