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Original article:

Nature.com

Changes to flowering times helped the staple crop spread into new areas thousands of years ago.

Genome sequences from nearly 2,000-year-old cobs of maize (corn) found in a Utah cave paint a portrait of the crop at the dawn of its adaptation to the highlands of the US southwest. That maize, researchers found, was small, bushy and — crucially — had developed the genetic traits it needed to survive the short growing seasons of high altitudes.

The team’s study1, published on 3 August in Science, is remarkable in how it tackles complex genetic traits governed by the interactions of many different genes, say researchers. It uses that information to create a detailed snapshot of a crop in the middle of domestication. Such insights could help modern plant breeders to buffer crops against global climate change.

Geneticists of both modern and ancient crops have poured tremendous effort into understanding maize, which was one of the most important subsistence crops in the New World thousands of years ago, and is a cornerstone of global agriculture today.

Maize originated in Mexico and rapidly spread into the lowlands of the southwest United States about 4,000 years ago. But communities at higher altitudes did not fully embrace the crop until 2,000 years later — a delay that has long puzzled archaeologists studying the region, says Kelly Swarts, a quantitative geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. “There was always the question: why wasn’t this catching on? Why weren’t people doing agriculture in the uplands?” she says.

Swarts and her colleagues turned to a site in a Utah cave called Turkey Pen Shelter, where a farming community lived about 2,000 years ago. Inhabitants of the cave raised turkeys, wove intricate baskets and shoes, and had the resources needed to store and process corn. Maize, which they probably served in soups and stews, comprised about 80% of their diet.

Complex crops

Swarts’s team sequenced the genomes of fifteen 1,900-year-old maize cobs found in the shelter and compared their sequences to those in a database of genomes and physical traits from some 2,600 modern maize lines. The researchers then used that information to extrapolate the physical characteristics of the Turkey Pen maize plants, including complex traits such as flowering time. The analysis revealed a crop that was shorter and more branched than modern varieties. “More like little bushes,” says Swarts, though the role of these traits is unclear. The crop also flowered more quickly than lowland varieties — an important adaptation to life in the highlands, which have a shorter growing season than lower elevations.

The analysis could open the way for similar studies of complex traits in other plants and animals, including humans, says Matthew Hufford, who studies evolutionary genomics in maize at Iowa State University in Ames. “We just now have the genetic tools and the analytic tools to make really good use of them.”

Plant evolutionary biologist Robin Allaby of the University of Warwick, UK looks forward to seeing the same approach applied to earlier stages of maize domestication. “That stuff was 1,900 years old, and a lot of the whistles and bangs had already happened,” he says. “It’s going to be really cool to see what a full 5,000-year-old maize phenotype looks like.”

A key finding from the study, says Hufford, was the realization that the genetic variants needed to adapt to highland life were already circulating in maize populations thousands of years ago “The diversity needed for high altitudes was there, but getting it in the right combination took 2,000 years,” he says.

And that diversity could be crucial for breeders as they try to adapt modern maize to a rapidly changing climate, says Swarts. “It’s really promising for maize’s future that it has so much standing variation — assuming we can conserve that diversity,” says Swarts. “If we needed to do this, it wouldn’t take 2,000 years. We could do it a lot faster now.”

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These are preserved maize cobs from the El Gigante rockshelter, Honduras, directly dated by AMS 14C. The largest cob, pictured at middle, is roughly 10 cm (4 in) in length. The first four cobs from the left date to the Late Formative period (approximately 2,200 years BP), while the cob at the far right dates to the Late Archaic, nearly two millennia older (approximately 4,100 years BP). Research on specimens from El Gigante reveals that ancient farmers selected for numerous traits, developing and cultivating a wide array of maize

This is the El Gigante rockshelter in the western highlands of Honduras.

 

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Mid-summer corn on the cob is everywhere, but where did it all come from and how did it get to be the big, sweet, yellow ears we eat today? Some of the answers come from carbon dating ancient maize and other organic material from the El Gigante rock shelter in Honduras, according to a team of anthropologists who show that 4,300 years ago maize was sufficiently domesticated to serve as a staple crop in the Honduran highlands.

Source: Maize from El Gigante Rock Shelter shows early transition to staple crop

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Original article:

News.psu.edu

A’ndrea Elyse Messer
April 10, 2017

 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Reconstructed food webs from the Ancestral Puebloan southwestern United States show the complexity and interconnectedness of humans, other animals, crops and the environment, in an area of uncertain climate and resources, according to researchers, who think climate change and human decisions then, may shed light on future human choices.

“As southwestern archaeologists, we know that Ancestral Puebloan people were intrinsically connected to the environment,” said Stefani Crabtree, postdoctoral fellow in human behavioral ecology in the Department of Anthropology, Penn State. “But, most food webs have omitted humans.”

Traditionally, food webs, while they map the interaction of all the animals and plants in an area, usually do not emphasize the human component. Crabtree and colleagues created a digital food web that captures all categories of consumers and consumed, can be defined for specific time periods and can also represent food webs after major food sources or predators disappear from the area. If an area suddenly becomes devoid of deer or humans or corn, for example, a food web of that situation can show where predators went to find prey, or which prey thrived for lack of a predator.

These knockout food webs — webs missing a specific predator or prey — show the changes and pressures on the food sources substituted for the missing ones, or the changes that occur when pressure is removed by removing a major consumer. The researchers report the results of their study today (Apr. 10) in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

“When people show up in the area around A.D. 600 they bring corn,” said Crabtree. “It takes a while for critters to get used to it, but eventually, everything that eats vegetation, eats corn and prefers it.”

Humans bringing corn into an area is a major disruption of the existing food web. Planting corn means clearing fields to displace whatever plants and animals were there, creating a high-energy plant source of food and switching plant eaters to the preferred higher-calorie food source.

In the American Southwest, the Ancestral Puebloan people eventually preyed on their deer population enough so that they deer were no longer a reliable source of food. To compensate for this, they began to domesticate turkeys for food. Turkeys need to be fed corn if they are captive and that competes with corn for human consumption. At this time, corn made up 70 to 80 percent of Ancestral Puebloans’ food and so feeding turkeys altered the food web.

To create the food web, the team identified all the common, noninvasive species in the area. They then added species that were found in archaeological sites, but were absent from the modern lists. In some food webs, components are identified by their function, so all humming birds are considered flying pollinators, but in this case each type of humming bird received its own place in the web, linked to what it ate and what, if anything, ate it. This produced a very complicated web, but supplied exceptional redundancy.

 

“In the insect world it is harder to get at the data,” said Crabtree. “We have not been able to get at good databases so we aggregate at the functional level— pollinators or bloodsuckers for example.”

The exception to individual web entries then are invertebrates — insects, spiders, snails, etc. — that were classified by their function. Invertebrates are organized to the level of order and then grouped by function. With insects, for example, the researchers would group butterflies and moths that pollinated and sipped nectar, together in one group.

The overall food web had 334 nodes representing species or order-level functional groups with 11,344 links between predator and prey.

The researchers realize that there are differences in the environment between now and the Ancestral Puebloan period, but many things, such as pinon-juniper woodlands and sage flats are the same. Enough similarity exists for this approach to work.

The team did not produce just one overall food web, but also food webs corresponding to three archaeological locations and three time periods of Ancestral Pueblo occupation in the area — Grass Mesa Pueblo for Pueblo I, Albert Porter Pueblo for Pueblo II and Sand Canyon Pueblo for Pueblo III. They began with using archaeological assemblages from these sites incorporating all human prey and all human predators into the food web. Then they included the prey of the primary prey of humans and then predators of these human-prey species. Prey, in this case, includes animals, insects and plants.

When creating knockout food webs, the researchers included only those species that were found in reasonable quantities in the archaeological assemblages at those times.

“Knockout food webs are one of the best ways to understand how people interact with the environment,” said Crabtree. “Because we can remove something, predator or prey, and see what would happen.”

When major changes in climate variables such as drought, heat and lack of snowpack are factored in, the balance in the food web may become unstable. When food becomes scarce, most mobile creatures, animals and insects move to another location. During the time of the Ancestral Puebloans, this was possible and eventually, these people moved to the area of the Rio Grande in New Mexico and other places in New Mexico and Arizona.

“We didn’t have a long-term plan during the 600 years of Ancestral Pueblo habitation in the Mesa Verde region,” said Crabtree. “We don’t have a long-term plan today either. We don’t even have a four-year plan. Some people are pushing us to look closely at climate change.”

In the past, people migrated, said Crabtree. Unless we figure out better strategies, where are we going to migrate out to? We do not have a place to go, she said.

What people plant and eat has a great effect on the environment and on ecosystems. In the end, those choices will impact human survival, according to the researchers.

This work is part of a collaboration of researchers creating resolved food webs from a variety of places. Crabtree believes that she can compare this project to others that include humans in other geographical areas to help understand ecosystems with humans in them.

Also working on this project were Lydia J.S. Vaughn, graduate student, energy and resources group, University of California, Berkeley; and Nathan T. Crabtree, U.S. Forest Services.

The National Science Foundation and the Chateaubriand Fellowship funded this research.

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This is another Article on crops and the Chaco Culture published in January with expanded information.

JLP

chaco-supernova-pictograph-730x438

Original Article:

by Blake de Pastino

western digs.org

For more than a century, researchers have been studying the intricacies of Chaco Canyon — the cluster of settlements and multi-story “great houses” in northwestern New Mexico that, at its peak around the year 1100, may have been home to hundreds, if not thousands, of people.

Recently, researchers have been at odds over a simple, central question in the history of this monumental community:

How did the people of Chaco manage to grow food in such an arid environment?

According to new research, the answer is even simpler.

They didn’t.

Dr. Larry V. Benson, a former hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and an anthropologist at the University of Colorado, has studied soil and other environmental records from the region, and concludes that Chaco Canyon was both too dry and too salty to grow corn or beans, two of the staple crops of the Ancestral Puebloans who lived there.

As a result, Benson proposes a new theory about how Chacoans fed themselves: They imported their food.

“The important thing about this study is that it demonstrates you can’t grow great quantities of corn in the Chaco valley floor,” Benson said of his new findings, in a press statement.

“And you couldn’t grow sufficient corn in the side canyon tributaries of Chaco that would have been necessary to feed several thousand people.

“Either there were very few people living in Chaco Canyon, or corn was imported there.”

Benson is the scientist behind many sometimes contentious anthropological findings around the West.

In 2013, he played a role in the discovery of petroglyphs in Nevada that were determined to be the oldest on the continent.

More recently, he concluded that the circular masonry feature at Mesa Verde National Park known as Mummy Lake wasn’t a reservoir, as many had thought, but a ceremonial structure.

Benson’s new research is a riposte to a study released in September that promised to “shake up” the field of Southwestern archaeology with its findings that Chaco Canyon’s soil was not too salty to farm, as Benson and others had previously asserted.

In fact, this research concluded, Chaco’s soil was rich in certain mineral salts, like calcium sulfate, that actually made it especially fertile for growing plants such as corn.

“One thing we can say with a great degree of certainty: The Ancestral Puebloans did not abandon Chaco Canyon because of salt pollution,” said Dr. Kenneth Tankersley, an anthropologist and geologist at the University of Cincinnati, in a press statement at the time.

But in his new paper, currently being published by the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Benson answers Tankersley’s study with new data and arguments of his own.

First, he draws on tree ring data.

Cross-sections of trees are considered natural records of annual rainfall, with thick and thin rings corresponding to wet and dry years.

Using data from tree-core samples spanning 1,100 years, Benson notes that Chaco only experienced sufficient rainfall for growing corn about 2 percent of the time.

Regardless of the soil’s salt content, Benson writes, “this implies that an exceptional wet period did not prevail during Chaco’s heyday.”

As for the benefits of sulfur on maize crops, Benson argues that, while sulfur is an important nutrient in agriculture, it’s mainly useful in treating metallic sulfates in acidic soil, a condition that Chaco Canyon doesn’t have.

“The principal usefulness of sulfur in maize agriculture is its ability to reduce aluminum toxicity that often accompanies soil acidity, a problem that does not occur in the high-pH soils of the Chaco Canyon region,” Benson writes.

Moreover, in his own analysis of soil samples taken from the valley bottom and the side canyons that feed into it, Benson finds that levels of salt were indeed very high — at some points, higher than those found in seawater.

Considering that Chaco’s soil chemistry likely hasn’t changed much over the past 800 years, Benson concludes that Chaco Canyon was simply never suitable for farming on a scale large enough to have fed its population.

“I don’t think anyone understands why it existed,” he said of the cultural complex, in the press statement.

“There was no time in the past when Chaco Canyon was a Garden of Eden.”

In turn, Benson offers an alternative explanation for how the communities of Chaco got their food: It was imported from the Chuska Mountains, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.

The eastern slope of the Chuskas is known to have been home to a robust Ancestral Puebloan presence, he said, their numbers aided in part by the ample water provided by snowmelt.

Previous studies have estimated that as many as 17,000 people made their home on the Chuska Slope before the year 1100, and recent research has even found that those mountains were the source of the Chaco Canyon’s huge building timbers.

Given the other cultural connections between the two communities, Benson said, it’s plausible that the Chuskas served as what he called “Chaco’s breadbasket.”

“There were timbers, pottery and chert coming from the Chuska region to Chaco Canyon, so why not surplus corn?” Benson said in the statement. [Read more about trade of exotic goods in Chaco: “Bones of Exotic Macaws Reveal Early Rise of Trade, Hierarchy in Chaco Canyon”]

The nature of Chaco’s agricultural environment, and how Ancestral Puebloans managed to thrive within it, remain open questions for now.

But Benson suggests that, in addition to Chaco’s natural chemistry, the relationship between these two communities in pre-contact New Mexico also deserves closer study.

“Perhaps it is time to reassess Chaco Canyon as a self-sustaining bread basket and turn to new studies of the prehistory of the Chuska Slope and its connection to Chaco Canyon,” he writes.

Tankersley and his colleagues have not yet been contacted for a response.

 

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123705_web

CREDIT: KENNETH BARNETT TANKERSLEY

 

Despite long-held assumptions, UC researchers find the diversity of salts in water and soil beneficial — not harmful — for cultivating maize in ancient New Mexico.

 

Original Article:

eurekalert.org

A team of University of Cincinnati researchers had to go deep to uncover brand new knowledge that they say will “shake up” the archaeological field in the southwestern United States.

Various salt compounds found deep in the soil of New Mexico’s desert may be the key to understanding how crops were cultivated in ancient Chaco Canyon — despite the backdrop of what seems an otherwise arid and desolate landscape, according to a University of Cincinnati study.

Prior studies on the canyon’s environment suggest that water management techniques used by the Ancestral Puebloans during periods of drought eventually resulted in toxic levels of salinity (salt) in the water. This left scientists doubting any viability of the soil for growing corn, which they believe eventually led to the abandonment of the Chaco culture.

But recent research at the University of Cincinnati finds the contrary is true.

In fact, the researchers found that together with volcanic minerals already indigenous to the area, the calcium sulfate mixture actually increased the soil’s fertility for cultivating maize. This find, they say reveals further evidence for the development and maintenance of a thriving agricultural urban center.

“One thing we can say with a great degree of certainty — the Ancestral Puebloans did not abandon Chaco Canyon because of salt pollution,” says Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, UC associate professor of anthropology and geology. “Previous investigations of this area only looked at surface soil samples and found what they thought were toxic levels of salt, but the studies lacked an in-depth chemical analysis of the type of salt found in the water and soil and an anthropological look at how the culture lived.”

By investigating modern Puebloan culture as well as looking at the geological environment, the researchers used a holistic approach to investigate how the culture flourished. Analyzing 1,000-year-old sediment, water and salt compounds and examining the water management technology of early Chaco Canyon dwellers led the research to conclusions that Tankersley described as remarkable.

All salts are not created equal

“What we have found regarding water management, salt issues and salt contamination will shake up southwestern archaeology anywhere in the world for any era,” Tankersley contends. “Harsh salts such as chloride minerals can indeed be deleterious to plants such as maize, however, not all salts are chlorides, and not all salts are harmful to plants.”

The UC interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students from the departments of geology, anthropology and geography published the conclusions and details of the study this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science titled, “Evaluating soil salinity and water management in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.”

In contrast to earlier studies that suggested the salts were toxic, the researchers exhumed samples from deeper in the earth and found that salts in the canyon’s water and soil from 1,000 years ago were instead non-deleterious sulfate minerals.

Looking back, according to the researchers, Ancestral Puebloans flourished in this area from the ninth to 12th centuries in the arid, yet fertile land they referred to as an oasis. But during this time the Puebloans suffered severe droughts in the canyon on several occasions, leaving them searching for other ways to manage water.

Early bottled water

Described by Tankersley as an unprecedented structural endeavor by pre-Columbian Native Americans, Chaco Canyon is characterized by the construction of monumental great houses and ceremonial Kivas surrounded by mountain chains dotting the horizon.

He describes them as multistory, planned structures comprised of millions of pieces of dressed sandstone and thousands of roof beams — some functioning as residences and others as sacred and ceremonial centers.

“The settlement was surrounded by mountains, which would provide water in the spring after the snow melted,” says Tankersley. “During the rainy season when floodwaters hit, the Puebloans would capture runoff water from small canyons known as the Rincons and local arroyos (periodic streams) such as Chaco Wash and the Escavada Wash.

“This process helped the water gather essential minerals along the way providing a rich fertilizer and an efficient irrigation system.”

Moreover, the researchers found evidence for water from ponds and puddles collected in ceramic jars during periods of drought, which the Puebloans stacked and stored in thickly walled rooms inside the great houses.

Tankersley explains this as an efficient way to keep the water at a constant cool temperature for drinking during dry periods.

Not only were these early denizens ahead of their time for such sophisticated infrastructure in these early mesa lands, but Tankersley describes the Ancestral Puebloans as master artisans who loved color.

“Among our research we also found evidence for sulfates being used as a base for paint pigments,” says Tankersley. “We already know that sulfate mineral salts were among the most important and sacred raw materials of past and present Puebloan cultures. They even influenced the selection of Pueblo sites such as the Santa Domingo Pueblo, chosen because of its close proximity to a deposit of calcium sulfate referred to as gypsum.

“When ground up and mixed with water, gypsum created a whitewash to paint the inside and outside of their homes.”

After uncovering a range of decorated crafts, ceramics and refined stone artifacts, he says scientists have unearthed strong evidence for amalgams made of sulfate gypsum and other local minerals to create a variety of pigments to decorate objects and paint murals on walls.

Many of their painted designs were stylized birds, deer, snakes, goats and ceremonial designs in story-form pictographs — illustrations Tankersley describes as the earliest known form of writing.

Kinship mobility

One of the most valuable resources the researchers had while combing through the desert was the friendships they built with the Puebloans and Navajo who still live in the immediate vicinity of the canyon, Tankersley said.

“The first president of our flagship organization, the Society for American Archaeology, was a Native American and since then somehow archaeologists got away from talking to indigenous people,” says Tankersley. “This brings back what we call ethnoarchaeology — comparing past human livelihoods with those of the modern direct descendants.

“When compared to what their ancestors did, the great thing about the Puebloans is that they have a high degree of cultural continuity.”

Further dialogue with the Native Americans helped shed light on how corn grown in different regions was found among the local samples the researchers investigated. Comparing the chemical isotope signatures in various corncobs to the same chemical signature in water from the areas outside Chaco Canyon, the researchers found specimens from sites as far as 300 km away.

“We explain this movement of maize into Chaco Canyon from significant distances away in terms of ‘kinship mobility,'” says Tankersley. “This is the distance goods and services, ceremonial or economic, moved between extended families.”

He further describes Ancestral Puebloans as a sharing culture — families gathering over great distances to share produce, exchange wares and participate in seasonal feasts and celebrations.

Understanding human behavior and culture is something the researchers value as much as analyzing the chemical and geological environment and Tankersley says that without this holistic approach much of research is left unsolved or misguided, in his opinion.

While the focus of this research was on Chaco Canyon, the researchers found the conclusions for water management systems and kinship mobility relevant to modern urban centers built in arid environments anywhere and anytime in the world.

Furthermore, the theory — that Ancestral Puebloan water management systems built in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, had led to catastrophic salt pollution and ultimately the abandonment of the area — can no longer be supported, the researchers contend.

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Researchers involved in this project: Kenneth B. Tankersley, UC Department of Anthropology and Geology; Vernon L. Scarborough, UC Department of Anthropology; Lewis A. Owen, UC Department of Geology; Warren D. Huff, UC Department of Geology; Nicholas P. Dunning, UC Department of Geography; Christopher Carr, UC Department of Geography; Jessica Thress, UC Department of Anthropology; Samantha G. Fladd, University of Arizona-Tucson, School of Anthropology; Katelyn J. Bishop, UCLA, Department of Anthropology; Stephen Plog, University of Virginia-Charlottesville, Department of Anthropology and Adam S. Watson, American Museum of Natural History, Department of North American Archaeology.

 

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Among the 370 projectile points found at the site are examples of A) Midland, B) Milesand, C) Plainview, D) Lerma, E) Abasolo, F) Ventana, G) San Pedro, and H) Dátil. (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al.)

Among the 370 projectile points found at the site are examples of A) Midland, B) Milesand, C) Plainview, D) Lerma, E) Abasolo, F) Ventana, G) San Pedro, and H) Dátil. (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al.)

 

he cranium of a 12 to 15 year old girl was found just below the surface of the site. Radiocarbon analysis of three teeth dated the burial to 1360 BCE . (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al. May not be reproduced.)

he cranium of a 12 to 15 year old girl was found just below the surface of the site. Radiocarbon analysis of three teeth dated the burial to 1360 BCE . (Photo courtesy Gallaga et al. May not be reproduced.)

 

Original article:

Western digs

BY BLAKE DE PASTINO ON FEBRUARY 26, 2016

 

Archaeologists working in the borderlands of northern Mexico have uncovered a camp used by ancient hunters as much as 10,500 years ago, revealing insights into some of the earliest human history in the Greater Southwest.

On a ranch near the Santa Maria River in northern Chihuahua, researchers have unearthed more than 18,000 artifacts, including thousands of stone flakes, cores, and hammers, along with 370 projectile points, and a dozen stone ovens.

But the most surprising find has been the grave of a teenage girl, who was interred among the rocks, alone and unadorned, some 3,200 years ago.

Her remains, researchers say, may help unlock the history of the people who brought agriculture to this arid region, and who were the first known farmers of corn in the Chihuahuan Desert.

“The importance of this find is in knowing more of the early steps of humans on this land, to remind us that whatever the geographical characteristic of this region, humans were able to make a living here, to make this region their home,” said Dr. Emiliano Gallaga, who led the research.

Gallaga and his colleagues discovered the site while investigating a patch of desert about 70 kilometers [45 miles] south of the New Mexico border that was being developed for a solar energy plant.

“At this point the [energy] company had two options: leave the areas of the site untouched, or pay for a salvage project,” said Gallaga, a research fellow with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which conducted the research.

“The company choose the latter. So in the summer of 2014, we performed a one-season project where we registered the site, mapped it, collected all archaeological material, and performed several excavation units.”

fter investigating nearly 7.5 acres, the researchers found no evidence of any structures and also no ceramics.

But they did uncover 12 stone ovens, along with an incredibly dense concentration of tools and stone fragments, suggesting that the site had been used as a kind of tool-making camp intermittently over thousands of years.

The camp consisted of several separate working areas, each scattered with a variety of stone chips, cores, and tools.

In all, 18,488 artifacts were recovered, including hundreds of stone points that were fashioned in recognizable styles that date back more than 10,000 years.

“We have evidence of Late Paleoindian occupation around 8,000 BCE, based on the material we found,” Gallaga said, “particularly projectile points such as 8 Plainview points [made from around 8150-8000 BCE], 15 Midland points [8700-8500 BCE], and 3 Milnesand points [8200-7200 BCE].”

In all, he said, the 370 points represent 30 different styles, spanning the Paleoindian and Archaic periods.

But the most striking find came when the team turned its attention to a heavily eroded slope.

“When we were doing the surface collection, we noticed an interesting feature on the surface: a circle of bones coming out,” Gallaga said.

“We thought it could be a turtle shell, but we decided to make an [excavation] unit there, just in case.

“And there it was.

“We just cleaned a little bit, and a human cranium appeared.”

About 20 centimeters [about 8 inches] below the surface, the researchers uncovered the remains of a girl between 12 and 15 years old.

The circumstances of her death are unclear, her bones showing no obvious signs of trauma nor immediate evidence of disease.

She was buried in a flexed position, with no grave goods or other offerings.

Radiocarbon analysis of three of her teeth revealed that the burial dated to around 1360 BCE — a significant date range for Gallaga and his colleagues.

That’s because, about a day’s walk from the Santa Maria ranch sits an even more impressive site from the same period.

A hilltop settlement known as Cerro Juanaqueña, it’s the most important site of its kind in northern Chihuahua, Gallaga said.

In the late 1990’s, archaeologists investigated Cerro Juanaqueña and found more than 400 basalt terraces built onto its hillsides, some of them likely used for farming, and about 100 stone circles thought to be the foundations of houses.

But, most importantly, archaeologists also found the remnants of corn dated to 1150 BCE — the earliest evidence of maize ever found in Chihuahua.

No human remains were found at Cerro Juanaqueña, but if the girl discovered at Gallaga’s campsite was a member of its culture, she could hold a wealth of data about the high desert’s first known corn farmers.

“It’s possible that this burial could have some relation with Cerro Juanaqueña … that was occupied at the same time of the burial,” Gallaga said.

“Currently we are performing DNA analysis on the bones … to see if we can have a better idea where this burial fits in the region.”

Still other studies will focus on the ratios of strontium isotopes found in the girl’s teeth, which can shed light on where she was born and raised, as well as her diet.

“[Other archaeologists] would like to see if the young girl ate corn, which could be a good indicator that this site is related to Chihuahua’s Archaic Cerro [Juanaqueña] tradition,” Gallaga said.

As research continues into the life and death of the girl buried in the remote desert grave, her resting place will remain largely as it is, Gallaga reported.

“Due to the relevance of the findings, we recommended to INAH Chihuahua that they could give the permission for building the solar plant in the area, with the exception of the [camp] site,” he said.

“So it has been protected.”

“This finding is only a little piece of the puzzle of the human evolution and adaptation,” he added, “and it is important to be preserved for future generation and to be studied properly by researchers.”

 

 

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(Collections of the R.S. Peabody Museum, Photo: Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution)Maize cobs (5,300 to 1,200 years old), Tehuacan, Mexico

(Collections of the R.S. Peabody Museum, Photo: Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution)Maize cobs (5,300 to 1,200 years old), Tehuacan, Mexico

 

Original Article:

archaeology.org

By ZACH ZORICH, April 2015

By about 6,000 years ago, people in Mexico had domesticated a tropical grass called teosinte, beginning a process that would radically alter the plant, turning it into maize, responsible for feeding people across the world today. A team of archaeologists and biochemists recently documented the genetic changes the plant underwent in the southwestern United States. Their results show that the earliest maize in the region was a drought-resistant variety that came from the highlands of Mexico about 4,000 years ago. Sometime between 2,000 and 750 years ago, that highland maize was either accidentally cross-pollinated or intentionally bred with a starchier coastal maize variety, which likely improved its nutritional value. According to Rute da Fonseca, a biochemist at the University of Copenhagen, understanding maize evolution can help us understand how the cultures that consumed maize changed along with it. Cultivated maize can be stored and eaten year-round and requires less work to farm than most other crops. “It frees you, it gives you more free time for other things,” says Fonseca. “Maize allowed for the development of more complex societies.”

 

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