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Original article:

Washingtonpost.com

By Ben Gurino

New technology allows scientists to visualize ancient Maya cities like never before

In the autumn of 1929, Anne Morrow Lindbergh and her husband Charles flew across the Yucatán Peninsula. With Charles at the controls, Anne snapped photographs of the jungles just below. She wrote in her journal of Maya structures obscured by large humps of vegetation. A bright stone wall peeked through the leaves, “unspeakably alone and majestic and desolate — the mark of a great civilization gone.”

Nearly a century later, surveyors once again took flight over the ancient Maya empire, and mapped the Guatemala forests with lasers. The 2016 survey, whose first results were published this week in the journal Science, comprises a dozen plots covering 830 square miles, an area larger than the island of Maui. It is the largest such survey of the Maya region, ever.

The study authors describe the results as a revelation. “It’s like putting glasses on when your eyesight is blurry,” said study author Mary Jane Acuña, director of El Tintal Archaeological Project in Guatemala.

In the past, archaeologists had argued that small, disconnected city-states dotted the Maya lowlands, though that conception is falling out of favor. This study shows that the Maya could extensively “exploit and manipulate” their environment and geography, Acuña said. Maya agriculture sustained large populations, who in turn forged relationships across the region.

Combing through the scans, Acuña and her colleagues, an international 18-strong scientific team, tallied 61,480 structures. These included: 60 miles of causeways, roads and canals that connected cities; large maize farms; houses large and small; and, surprisingly, defensive fortifications that suggest the Maya came under attack from the west of Central America.

“We were all humbled,” said Tulane University anthropologist Marcello Canuto, the study’s lead author. “All of us saw things we had walked over and we realized, oh wow, we totally missed that.”

Preliminary images from the survey went public in February, to the delight of archaeologists like Sarah Parcak. Parcak, who was not involved with the research, wrote on Twitter, “Hey all: you realize that researchers just used lasers to find *60,000* new sites in Guatemala?!? This is HOLY [expletive] territory.

Parcak, whose space archaeology program GlobalXplorer.org has been described as the love child of Google Earth and Indiana Jones, is a champion of using satellite data to remotely observe sites in Egypt and elsewhere. “The scale of information that we’re able to collect now is unprecedented,” Parcak said, adding that this survey is “going to upend long-held theories about ancient Maya society.”

With support from a Guatemala-based heritage foundation called Pacunam, the researchers conducted the massive and expensive survey using lidar, or light detection and ranging. They mapped several active archaeological sites, plus well-studied Maya cities like Tikal and Uaxactun.

Lidar’s principles are similar to radar, except instead of radio waves lidar relies on laser light. From an aircraft flying just a few thousand feet above the canopy, the surveyors prickled each square meter with 15 laser pulses. Those pulses penetrate vegetation but bounce back from hard stone surfaces. Using lidar, you can’t see the forest through the invisible trees.

Beneath the thick jungle, ruins appeared. Lots and lots of them. Extrapolated over the 36,700 square miles, which encompasses the total Maya lowland region, the authors estimate the Maya built as many as 2.7 million structures. These would have supported 7 million to 11 million people during the Classic Period of Maya civilization, around the years 650 to 800, in line with other Maya population estimates.

“We’ve been working in this area for over a century,” Canuto said. “It’s not terra incognita, but we didn’t have a good appreciation for what was really there.”

Archaeologist Arlen Chase, a Maya specialist at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas who was not involved with this survey, said for years he has argued that the Maya society was more complex than widely accepted. In 1998, he and archaeologist Diane Chase, his wife, described elaborate agricultural terraces at the Maya city of Caracol in Belize. “Everybody would not believe we had terraces!” he said.

He gets much less push back now, he said. “The paradigm shift that we’ve predicted was happening is in fact happening” Chase said, which he credits to lidar data. He has seen lidar evolve from a “hush-hush type of technology” used by the military to map Fallujah streets to a powerful archaeological tool.

Chase, who previously used lidar at Caracol, where as many as 100,000 people lived, compares this technology to carbon-14 dating. Radiocarbon dating gives archaeologists a much more accurate timeline. Lidar is about to do the same for archaeologists’ sense of space, particularly in densely forested areas near the equator. Two years ago, researchers used lidar mapped dense urban infrastructure around Angkor, the seat of the medieval Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

“We’re just getting started in so many major sites around the world, whether it’s Angkor Wat, whether it’s Tikal in Central America or major sites in Egypt,” Parcak said.

For all its power, lidar cannot supplant old-fashioned archaeology. For 8 percent of the survey area, the archaeologists confirmed the lidar data with boots-on-the-ground visits. This “ground truthing” suggests that the lidar analysis was conservative — they found the predicted structures, and then some.

“There is still much more ground to cover and work to do,” said Acuña, who will continue to study the large ancient Maya city of El Tindal.

Could you imagine, Canuto said, what might be found through a lidar survey of the Amazon? With technology like this, no forested frontiers are final.

 

 

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A new study describes the earliest-known use of nutmeg as a food ingredient, found at an archaeological site in Indonesia.

Source: 3,500-year-old pumpkin spice? Archaeologists find the earliest use of nutmeg as a food

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Courtesy Prof. Danny Nadel

Jewishpress.com

 

The earliest evidence of alcohol production, some 13,000 years ago, was discovered in the Rakefet Cave in Mount Carmel, in a joint study by researchers from the University of Haifa and Stanford University. The alcohol, probably a kind of beer made from fermented grains, was produced by the Natufians, who lived in the region at that time. This brewery precedes by five thousand years the earliest site to date, in northern China.

The Epipaleolithic Natufian culture existed from around 13,050 to 7,550 BCE in the Levant. The culture was unusual in that it supported a sedentary or semi-sedentary population even before the introduction of agriculture. The Natufian communities may be the ancestors of the builders of the first Neolithic settlements in the region, which may have been the earliest in the world. The Natufians are believed to have founded Jericho, considered by many to be the oldest city in the world. Some evidence suggests deliberate cultivation of cereals, specifically rye, by the Natufian culture, at Tell Abu Hureyra, in northern Syria, the site of earliest evidence of agriculture in the world. The world’s oldest evidence of bread-making has been found at Shubayqa, a 14,500 year old site in Jordan’s northeastern desert.

Mount Carmel was one of the most important and crowded areas in the system of Natufian settlements, and sites in the Carmel and surrounding areas have been studied by archaeologists from the University of Haifa for decades.

“The Rakefet Cave does not stop offering new discoveries about the wonderful Natufian culture,” said Prof. Danny Nadel of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who leads the excavations. “We have already discovered that they buried their dead and that they lined the graves with a bed of flowers. We discovered their technological capabilities through a variety of tools and now we find that they produced beer and consumed it, apparently at special ceremonies.”

Another finding at the Rakefet Cave site were dozens of craters carved several centimeters deep in the rock, dating back 13,000 years.

The new study, a collaboration between Prof. Danny Rosenberg of the ancient stone tools laboratory at the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa and researchers from Stanford University, focused on a microscopic examination of the remains found in these three craters, of starches and phytoliths (rigid, microscopic structures made of silica, found in some plant tissues and persisting after the decay of the plant) containing traces of precipitation.

The first test showed evidence of several different grains stored in the same craters, including wheat, barley, oatmeal, legumes and flax.

A microscopic examination two of the three craters showed microscopic remains of starch grains that underwent morphological changes which correspond to changes in starch during fermentation. The evidence shows that the craters were used to store grains before and after fermentation.

In the third crater, evidence was found that it was used for storage, but also as a receptacle in which grain could be beaten and crushed, a necessary stage in fermentation.

According to the researchers, the grains were apparently stored in baskets that made it easier to remove and feed the grains into the craters, evidenced by the remnants of fibers found at the bottom of the craters. A microscopic examination showed evidence that the fibers were rotated and processed to fit the pattern of woven baskets.

“The creation of these craters in the stone, and then the necessary actions to produce alcohol required great effort and professionalism, which attests to the great ceremonial importance that the Natufian culture related to the production of alcohol,” Prof. Nadel concluded, speculating that “since they were the first to invest considerable effort in their burial rituals, it is not inconceivable that the production and consumption of alcohol were also part of the Natufian burial ceremonies.”

 

 

 

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Humans may have been cultivating plants on a narrow coastal strip in Brazil as far back as 4,800 years ago, according to a new study.

Source: Coastal strip in Brazil sheds new light on early farming

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Hikmet Budak, Winifred Asbjornson Plant Sciences Chair, is one of 200 international scientists who co-published an article this week detailing the description of the genome of bread wheat. The implications of the publication include greater food security.

Source: MSU plant sciences faculty part of international discovery in wheat genome sequence

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(Photo: Courtesy of Jean-Michel Ané)

Much of this article is about current and future agriculture practices but i’ve printed in bold the link to ancient farming and how farmers cultivated for this nitrogen trait. JLP

 

Original Article:

usatoday.com

By Anna Groves

Farmers in a small area of southern Mexico knew that a variety of corn grown in the area was special.

But a group of researchers believe the corn could ultimately transform the way the largest crop in America and the world is grown.

The potential improvements in water and air quality – not to mention financial savings – are staggering. In fact, the lead researcher acknowledged he and his colleagues spent a decade studying the corn before going public this month because the conclusions were “almost outrageous.”

And, like so much research in its early stages, there are still a lot of “ifs.”

But scientists at University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of California-Davis and Mars Inc. (yes, the candymaker) have determined that farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, have been growing corn that creates its own fertilizer for centuries, if not millennia.

Understanding the process requires a short course in biology.

The plants in Mexico have bizarre fingerlike roots sticking out of their stalks. The roots secrete a goopy mucus, in which bacteria live. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air – which plants can’t use – and convert it to a different form of nitrogen that they can use. The plants soak up the fixed nitrogen in the gel through the fingerlike roots.

The nitrogen is a critical nutrient for all plants; it’s the primary ingredient in chemical fertilizers.

The process is part of a cycle. The bacteria live on carbon, which the plant supplies in the form of sugar. The sugar is produced through photosynthesis. Through this odd trade agreement, the plant gets usable nitrogen, the bacteria get necessary carbon and both parties are happy.

Nitrogen fixation is best known for occurring in legumes like soybeans. The bacteria live in their roots and the surrounding soil. But this had not been demonstrated in grasses like corn.

A decade of research

The researchers found out about the corn from Howard-Yana Shapiro, the chief agricultural officer at Mars and adjunct professor at UC-Davis. Decades ago, he had the idea to look for unusual traits in crops that traditional farmers have adapted to their particular climate and soil. He hoped to find something that could improve crops globally.

When Shapiro came across 16-foot-tall cornstalks growing on an Oaxacan mountain slope where nutrient levels and fertilizer availability should have been low, he knew they deserved a closer look.

Jean-Michel Ané, professor in the UW-Madison Department of Agronomy, has been involved in the project since 2010. “They came to me and asked if I thought it was possible that corn could be associated with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and I thought, no way.”

The research group first collected samples from cornfields in the Sierra Mixe area of Oaxaca in 2010. When they noticed the goopy aerial roots, “We were like, that’s weird,” Ané said.

They tested the goopy gel, and it tested positive for one of the byproducts of the nitrogen fixation process.

But that alone didn’t prove the plant was getting nitrogen from the bacteria instead of the soil, Ané said. The researchers ran tests from every angle they could think of: Are any of the bacteria found in the gel known nitrogen-fixers? Does the corn soak up less nitrogen from the soil than a similar, non-nitrogen-fixing variety? Does the corn for sure soak up nitrogen from the gel?

The answers were yes, yes and yes.

“It took us several years to convince ourselves that it was true. That’s why it took us almost 10 years to publish that paper. It’s a big claim. We wanted to be sure,” Ané said.

An ancient trait

Researchers have spent decades trying to get corn to create its own fertilizer by partnering with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, with no luck. But these new findings show that nature had already given corn that potential.

The researchers decided to essentially turn back the clock and examine a type of grass native to Mexico and Central America thought to be the ancestor of corn. In the same way that modern dogs were bred from ancient wolves, corn had been bred from teosinte. 

They looked at species of teosinte to see if any had signs of the gel or the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that the Oaxacan farmers could have amplified over time, just like Midwestern farmers later amplified traits like kernel size and uniformity.

They did.

“I see this as a good argument for preserving biodiversity,” said Chase Mendenhall, tropical biologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Nature had innovated something we would never be able to innovate. The lab couldn’t have developed that on its own.”

A sustainable future?

The researchers found that the Mexican corn gets 29% to 82% of the nitrogen it needs from this partnership instead of the soil. Its nine-month growing season and other traits mean it’s not ready to grow as-is worldwide. But if that trait can be bred into other corn, it would mean an equivalent reduction of nitrogen fertilizer use globally.

Christopher Kucharik is associate professor and department chair of the UW-Madison department of agronomy. Not involved with this research, Kucharik studies agriculture issues related to land management, climate change and sustainability. He said the study has the potential to be a watershed moment.

Kucharik said that some people argue the energy use that will be saved from reducing fertilizer use on corn is “only” 1 percent to 2 percent. “But any little bit helps. … There’s no silver bullet to reduce our energy use. If we can come up with 30 or 40 things that each reduce our energy use 1%, that’ll add up.”

“It’s pretty encouraging and could be a game-changer,” Kucharik said.

Credit where credit’s due

Samples of the corn are now back in labs at UW-Madison, where Ané and his colleagues are putting it through more tests.

Ané said the people of Sierra Mixe agreed to the researchers publishing the findings and that the Mars company is working to make sure they are protected and will benefit from the discovery. “They and their ancestors are the ones that did the breeding to amplify that trait,” emphasized Ané.

“The people have a strong cultural attachment to that corn and they’re proud of that corn.” One interesting fact not in the (published research) paper is the farmers who are there actually collect the gel and keep it in their homes in jars. They use it in various rituals. They know that the gel is special – the more gel the corn is producing, the better the corn is producing.”

Scientists may have figured out a more environmentally friendly way to protect crops from bugs. But instead of pesticides, it involves fake caterpillars made of Play-Doh and fake larvae made of orange pinheads.

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The authors believe that the Teotonio waterfall is what attracted people to this location for over 9,000 years, as it was an extremely rich fishing location and an obligatory stopping point for people traveling by boat on this stretch of the Madeira river. It was the location of a fishing village (the village of Teotonio) until 2011, when residents were forced to move inland ahead of dam construction. The dam submersed the village and the waterfall. Eduardo Neves, 2011

 

Original Article:

popular-archaeology

 

Ancient people in the region began cultivating plants and altering forests earlier than previously thought.

PLOS—The remains of domesticated crop plants at an archaeological site in southwest Amazonia supports the idea that this was an important region in the early history of crop cultivation, according to a study published July 25, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Jennifer Watling from the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at the University of São Paulo, Brazil and colleagues.

Genetic analysis of plant species has long pointed to the lowlands of southwest Amazonia as a key region in the early history of plant domestication in the Americas, but systematic archaeological evidence to support this has been rare. The new evidence comes from recently-exposed layers of the Teotonio archaeological site, which has been described by researchers as a “microcosm of human occupation of the Upper Madeira [River]” because it preserves a nearly continuous record of human cultures going back approximately 9,000 years.

In this study, Watling and colleagues analyzed the remains of seeds, phytoliths, and other plant materials in the most ancient soils of the site as well as on artifacts used for processing food. They found some of the earliest evidence of cultivated manioc, a crop which geneticists say was domesticated here over 8,000 years ago, as well as squash, beans, and perhaps calathea, and important tree crops such as palms and Brazil nut. They also saw evidence of disturbed forest and a soil type called “Anthropogenic Dark Earths” which both result from human alteration of local environments.

These findings suggest that the people of this region transitioned from early hunter-gatherer lifestyles to cultivating crops before 6,000 years ago, much earlier than previously thought. Along with plant domestication also came the familiar human habit of landscape modification, suggesting that human impact on Amazonian forests in this region goes back many thousands of years. Altogether, these results point to the Upper Madeira as a key locality to explore the earliest days of crop domestication in the New World.

Watling notes: “This discovery at the Teotonio waterfall in Southest Amazonia is some of the oldest evidence for plant cultivation in lowland South America, confirming genetic evidence”.

*Watling J, Shock MP, Mongeló GZ, Almeida FO, Kater T, De Oliveira PE, et al. (2018) Direct archaeological evidence for Southwestern Amazonia as an early plant domestication and food production centrePLoS ONE 13(7): e0199868. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0199868

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