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News articles on ancient civilizations
Mongabay.com news articles on ancient civilizations in blog format. Updated regularly.
(07/05/2012) A study last month in the journal Science argued that pre-Columbian peoples had little impact on the western and central Amazon, going against a recently composed picture of the early Amazon inhabited by large, sophisticated populations influencing both the forest and its biodiversity. The new study, based on hundreds of soil samples, theorizes that indigenous populations in much of the Amazon were tiny and always on the move, largely sticking to rivers and practicing marginal agriculture. However, the study raised eyebrows as soon as it was released, including those of notable researchers who openly criticized its methods and pointed out omissions in the paper, such as no mention of hundreds of geoglyphs, manmade earthen structures, found in the region.
Humans drove rainforest into savannah in ancient Africa
(02/09/2012) Three thousand years ago (around 1000 BCE) several large sections of the Congo rainforest in central Africa suddenly vanished and became savannah. Scientists have long believed the loss of the forest was due to changes in the climate, however a new study in Science implicates an additional culprit: humans. The study argues that a migration of farmers into the region led to rapid land-use changes from agriculture and iron smelting, eventually causing the collapse of rainforest in places and a rise of grasslands. The study has implications for today as scientists warn that the potent combination of deforestation and climate change could flip parts of the Amazon rainforest as well into savannah.
Evidence mounts that Maya did themselves in through deforestation
(12/08/2011) Researchers have garnered further evidence for a smoking gun behind the fall of the great Maya civilization: deforestation. At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference, climatologist Ben Cook presented recent research showing how the destruction of rainforests by the Mayan ultimately led to declines in precipitation and possibly civilization-rocking droughts. While the idea that the Maya may have committed ecological-suicide through deforestation has been widely discussed, including in Jared Diamond's popular book Collapse, Cook's findings add greater weight to the theory.
Scientists confirm ancient Egyptian knowledge: Nile crocodile is two species
(09/20/2011) DNA has shown that the Nile crocodile is in fact two very different species: a bigger, more aggressive crocodile and a smaller, tamer species that today survives only in West Africa. While the taxonomy of the Nile crocodile has been controversial for over a century, the new study points out that the ancient Egyptians recognized the differences in the species and avoided the big crocodile for its rituals.
Destructive farming practices of early civilization may have altered climate long before industrial era
(08/31/2009) William Ruddiman has become well known for his theory that human-induced climate change started long before the Industrial Age. In 2003 he first brought forth the theory that the Neolithic Revolution-when some humans turned from hunter-gathering to large-scale farming-caused a shift in the global climate 7,000 years ago.
Chocolate has been a delicacy north of Mexico for a thousand years
(02/02/2009) Chocolate, produced from cacao beans, has been a part of American culture for a thousand years according to new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Analyzing chemical residue from jars of native peoples in New Mexico, researchers Patricia Crown and Jeffrey Hurst discovered theobromine, a chemical signature of cacao. The jars have been dated from 1000 to 1125 AD, well over three hundred years before Columbus and the earliest recorded discovery of cacao north of Mexico. The cacao jars are from Pueblo Bonito, an archaeological site in Chaco Canyon, which is located in northwestern New Mexico. Chaco Canyon, once home to 2,000-5,000 inhabitants, was composed of a dense group of pueblos, of which Bonito was the largest. Incorporating 800 rooms, Pueblo Bonito was the center of a number of towns and villages in Chaco Canyon.
European conquest of the Americas may have driven global cooling
(12/18/2008) Recovery of forests following the collapse of human populations in the Americas after the arrival of Europeans may have driven the period of global cooling from 1500-1750 known as the Little Ice Age, report researchers speaking at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. By some estimates, diseases introduced by Europeans may have killed more than 90 percent of population on the New World within a century of first contact. The rapid depopulation led to large-scale abandonment, and subsequent reforestation, of agricultural lands in the Americas. Analyzing charcoal found in soils and lake sediments at sites across the Americas, Richard Nevle and Dennis Bird found evidence to suggest that this forest regeneration sequestered enough carbon to trigger global cooling.
Pre-Colombian Amazonians lived in sustainable 'urban' society
(08/28/2008) Researchers have uncovered new evidence to support the controversial theory that parts of the Amazon were home to dense "urban" settlements prior to the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century. The study is published this Friday in the journal Science. Conducting archeological excavations and aerial imagery across a number of sites in the Upper Xingu region of the Brazilian Amazon, a team of researchers led by Michael Heckenberger found evidence of a grid-like pattern of 150-acre towns and smaller villages, connected by complex road networks and arranged around large plazas where public rituals would take place. The authors argue that the discoveries indicate parts of the Amazon supported "urban" societies based around agriculture, forest management, and fish farming.
Heavily-populated Amazon was decimated by old world disease
(06/09/2008) Ecologists and archaeologists agree that when Columbus struck the Americas in 1492 everything changed, but questions persist over the kind of world Columbus and his followers would soon transform. Recently the state of the pre-Columbian Amazon has been under increasing debate among scientists across numerous fields. In a lecture given at the ATBC conference (Association of Tropical Biology and conservation) in Paramaribo, Suriname, Dr. Francis Mayle weighed in on the debate.
Ancient Amazon fires linked to human populations
(02/20/2008) Analysis of soil charcoal in South America confirms that from a historical perspective, fire is rare in the Amazon rainforest, but when it does occur, it appears linked to human activities. The research, published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, is based on dating of soil carbon, which provides a good indication of when fires occurred in Amazonia, according to lead author Mark Bush, head of the Department of Biology at Florida Institute of Technology.
Chocolate first used more than 3100 years ago
(11/12/2007) Cacao, the source of chocolate, was in use at least at least 3000 years ago according to evidence found by archaeologists working in Honduras. The discovery pushes back the earliest known use of cacao by 500 years.
Crop domestication originated in compost piles
(08/19/2007) New research lends support to the theory that backyard gardens and refuse heaps played an important role in early crop domestication.
Failing water supply destroyed lost city of Angkor Wat
(08/13/2007) The ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia was larger in extent than previously thought and fed by a single water system, according to a new map published by an international team of researchers. The study, published in the early online edition of the journal Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, suggests that the urban settlement sustained an elaborate water management network extending over more than 1,0000 square kilometers.
Killers of renowned anthropologist sentenced in Brazil
(07/12/2007) The men charged with the 2005 killing of University of Vermont anthropology professor James Petersen in the Amazon rainforest were sentenced Tuesday to nearly 30 years in prison, close to the maximum under Brazilian law.
Peanuts, cotton, squash first farmed in Peru 6,000-10,000 years ago
(06/28/2007) Anthropologists have discovered the earliest-known evidence of peanut, cotton and squash farming. The study, which show that the crops were grown in the Peruvian Andes 5,000-10,000 years ago, is published in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
Polynesians brought chickens to Americas before Columbus
(06/04/2007) New DNS analysis shows that Polynesians introduced chickens to South America well before Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World. The evidence supports the theory that the Americas were visited by sea-faring groups from the East prior to the arrival of Europeans. Using carbon dating and analysis DNA to determine the origin of chicken bones discovered at El Arenal, an archaeological site in Chile, a team of researchers led by Alice Storey of the University of Auckland found that the birds were descended from Polynesian stock and were introduced at least 100 years before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. The findings undermine claims that chickens were native to South America or that they were introduced by Spanish or Portuguese explorers.
Maize cultivated at least 7,300 years ago in Mexico
(04/09/2007) Anthropologists have found the earliest known evidence of maize cultivation in Mexico. The discovery, published in the April 9-13 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, pushes back farming of the ancestor of modern corn to about 7,300 years ago.
Amazon rainforest fires date back thousands of years
(03/14/2007) Fires are nothing new to the Amazon reports a study published in the journalBiotropica. Analyzing soils in the eastern Amazon, a team of scientists led by David S. Hammond of NWFS Consulting, has found evidence of forest fires dating back thousands of years. While the origin of these fires is unclear, the authors propose intriguing scenarios involving pre-Colombian human populations and ancient el Nino events which could have so dried rainforest areas that they became more prone to forest fires.
Pre-Colombian Amazon rainforest not heavily populated
(03/06/2007) Much of the Amazon rainforest was not heavily populated by pre-Colombian indigenous cultures argues a new paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The work challenges an increasingly accepted theory -- popularized in Charles C. Mann's 1491: 'New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus' -- the Amazon supported dense, sedentary populations prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Archeologists find oldest solar observatory in the Americas
(03/01/2007) Archeologists from Yale and the University of Leicester have identified an ancient solar observatory at Chankillo, Peru as the oldest in the Americas with alignments covering the entire solar year, according to an article in the March 2 issue of Science.
Chili peppers came from Ecuadorian rainforests 6,100 years ago
(02/15/2007) Chili peppers were first cultivated 6,100 years in South America according to research published in the current edition of the journal Science.
Lost civilization found in Peru
(01/20/2007) Explorers have found ruins of a little known civilization deep in the cloud forests of the Peruvian Amazon. The Chachapoya, as the group is known, was a fierce tribe that battled the mighty Inca empire before the arrival of European conquistadors in the 16th century.
Amazon Stonehenge suggests advanced ancient rainforest culture
(05/14/2006) The discovery of an ancient astrological observatory in Brazil lends support to the theory that the Amazon rainforest was once home to advanced cultures and large sedentary populations of people. Besides the well-known empires of the Inca and their predecessors, millions of people once lived in the forests and shaped the environment to suit their own needs. Archaeologists with the Amapa Institute of Scientific and Technological Research said they uncovered the ruin near Calcoene, 390 kilometers (240 miles) from Macapa, the capital of Amapa state, near Brazil's border with French Guiana.
Evidence of early maize cultivation and agricultural trade uncovered in Peru
(03/07/2006) Maize, better known as corn in some parts of the world, was cultivated by people living in the Peruvian Andes of South America about 1,000 years earlier than previously believed reported a team of researchers last week.
Large Maya mural showing ancient mythology uncovered in Guatemala
(12/13/2005) Archaeologists at an ancient Maya ceremonial site in Guatemala have uncovered the final wall of a large Maya mural dating from 100 B.C. that shows the mythology surrounding the origin of kings and a highly developed hieroglyphic script. Before the excavation of the vividly painted mural, there was scant evidence of the existence of early Maya kings or of their use of elaborate art and writing to establish their right to rule.
Easter Island's demise caused by rats, Dutch traders says new theory
(12/06/2005) Rats and Dutch traders may be responsible for the mysterious demise of Easter Island according to research presented last week during an American Anthropological Association meeting by a University of Hawaii anthropologist.
Archaeologists make ancient Maya discovery in Guatemala
(12/05/2005) Researchers working in Guatemala have unearthed a monument with the earliest-known depiction of a woman of authority in ancient Mayan culture, according to an archaeologist at the University of Calgary. Kathryn Reese-Taylor said the 2-meter high limestone monument has a portrait of a female who could be either a ruler or a mythical goddess and dates 4th Century A.D. The statue, called a stela, was found at Naachtun, a Mayan city 90 km (55 miles) north of Tikal.
Elite women were alcoholic brewers in pre-Inca Peru
(11/14/2005) If the ancient mountaintop city in southern Peru was the vanished Wari empire's unique imperial showplace, the brewery was its piece de resistance.
Pre-Columbian Amazon supported millions of people
(10/18/2005) Controversial evidence uncovered over the past decade suggests that the Amazon rainforest was once home to large sedentary populations of people. Besides the well-known empires of the Inca and their predecessors, the Huari, millions of people once lived in the forests and shaped the environment to suit their own needs.
Evolutionary history of the origin of potatoes revised -- study
(10/04/2005) Humans have cultivated potatoes for millennia, but there has been great controversy about the ubiquitous vegetable's origins. This week, writing in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, a team led by a USDA potato taxonomist stationed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has for the first time demonstrated a single origin in southern Peru for the cultivated potato.
Easter Island Mystery revealed using mathematical model
(09/01/2005) The history of Easter Island, its statues and its peoples, has long been shrouded in mystery. Some have suggested that aliens marooned on earth planted the statues as signals to their fellow aliens to rescue them. Others have said that the statues were constructed by a great race of guilders that were stranded on the island and built them before being rescued. Still others are convinced that an ancient society with the capability of flight constructed them along with the Nazca lines in Peru. However new evidence based on pollen analysis supports a much simpler theory, that the Easter Island inhabitants destroyed their own society through deforestation.