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Who were the Inca, South America’s largest ancient empire?

The world has been no stranger to empires, throughout all its continents. But the Inca Empire, or Tawantinsuyu, as it was known to its locals, was definitely one of the most peculiar. It grew to be a sprawling, well-administered place, despite lacking a writing system. Its armies conquered countless neighbors despite the Inca not working iron. And the empire was kept functioning by a massive system of highways and storehouses that allowed resource transport and distribution, even though neither the wheel nor currency was in use inside its borders.

Inca ruins at Machu Picchu.
Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Image credits Adam Hill.

For all its achievements, the Inca empire was relatively short-lived. Still, it left behind a rich heritage that still echoes to this day. The ruins of its cities still awe and inspire, its language is still preserved in South America, its customs are hard-baked into local Christian faiths.

So let’s take a look at this ancient South American powerhouse, and see how people lived in the only ancient empire to develop from north to south, instead of east-west like all the others.

Who were the Inca

South America can boast having the longest continuous mountain range in the world: the Andes. The Inca people were born in the western shadow of this mountain range.

To the best of our knowledge, they first made an appearance in the area around the 12th century A.D. By the 15th century, their empire included today’s Peru, western Ecuador, western and southern Bolivia, northwest Argentina, and parts of today’s Chile. They pretty much-controlled everything west of the Andes in central South America.

We don’t know a lot about the history of the Inca, especially their early history, as they had no system of writing. Knowledge was kept and passed on orally, through stories shared between generations. Much of that (most of it, really) was lost during the collapse of the empire and subsequent Spanish rule. What we do know of them was either recorded by Spanish conquistadores, preserved in fragments of oral history that still survive in some communities to this day, or direct archaeological evidence.

Starting out, the Inca weren’t that different from other peoples living in the area. They were a small tribe inhabiting a single village, tending to crops and the few livestock species native to the area. They grew maize, white and sweet potatoes, squash, quinoa, cocoa, peanuts, peppers, and looked after llamas, alpacas, ducks, and dogs. Cotton was also grown and used for textiles, along with llama and alpaca wool, and cloth would become a keystone of Inca culture throughout their history.

Inca terraces.
Inca terraces, used for farming, at Ollantaytambo. Image credits Sheep”R”Us / Flickr.

By the end, their empire would include over 12 million people from 100 different ethnic groups. Their expansion might have been expedited by infrastructure left over from previous empires according to Gordon McEwan’s The Incas: New Perspectives, but it remains an impressive achievement nonetheless.

Great stoneworkers and artisans, the Inca developed a building system that used interlocking stones to do away with the need for mortar altogether. Their architecture and public works were impressive even to the Europeans who came to conquer them. Their hydraulic systems (canals, cisterns, terraces, and aqueducts) and their roads (including paved highways and vine-supported bridges) were arguably more advanced and better quality than those in Europe at the time. Testament to their knowledge and skill is the fact that they managed not only to survive but to thrive in some of the steepest mountain landscapes in the world, where traditional farming is a fool’s errand.

They didn’t know how to work iron, but they were accomplished craftsmen. The wealth of gold in their temples and palaces impressed even the conquistadors. Their cities, too, were cleaner and seemed like nicer places to live in than most of those in Europe; although given the state of European cities at the time, the bar wasn’t set very high at all. Machu Picchu, one of the Incas’ most famous surviving archeological sites, is a great example of how their cities would have looked, their architectural style, layout, and overall Incan craftsmanship.

Still, the story of the Incas as we know it today revolves around the Spanish conquistadors. Their arrival in the 16th century directly led to the collapse of the empire, and caused massive cultural, ethnic, and social change after the fall. Local populations were displaced from their ancient lands and used as farmers and miners by the conquerors. The massive loss of life during this time, together with the changes brought about by the Spaniards, caused much of the Inca’s knowledge, history, culture, and religion to be lost to time. Our direct records of the Incas were written by these conquistadors.


Inca Sun Gate.
The Sun Gate, Inti Punku. It was the main entrance into Machu Picchu and dedicated to the Inca Sun god. Due to its position, it would frame the sun every year on the summer solstice. Image credits Adam Hill.

Similar to virtually every ancient culture, Incan religion touched on every facet of their lives. Their beliefs were a mixture of nature worship, fetishism, animism — these two mean they assigned spiritual power or essence to animate or inanimate objects, places, or phenomena — with sacrifices and elaborate rituals thrown in for good measure.

There was an official religion of the empire, but other religions and practices were tolerated as long as proper worship was given to the main god. So the customs of the peoples the Inca assimilated over time remained alive. We can still see traces of these customs mixed into local interpretations of Christianity to this day.

According to Inca mythology, the world was created by Viracocha, who made the earth, animals, and humans. Viracocha seems to have created, destroyed, and recreated either individual peoples or humanity as a whole several times. After fashioning them from stone one last time, he spread humans to the four corners of the Earth. This tidbit offers us an interesting glimpse into how the Inca perceived the world and their place in it. The name they gave their empire, “Tawantinsuyu”, roughly means “the four corners together” — symbolically, the world existed wherever there were Inca, and Inca spread as far as the world did. But it also hints at their desire for harmony and unity.

Far from being an absent god, however, Viracocha walked among men. He journeyed throughout the region, teaching people valuable skills, until finally setting out into the Pacific. Later, as the Inca capital Cuzco was being besieged, Viracocha is said to have appeared in a vision to their leader, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, presumably to guide them to victory. Afterward, a temple was raised in honor of Viracocha at Cuzco, which would later amaze the conquistadors with the sheer quantity of gold it contained — Qorikancha, the Enclosure of Gold.

“The religious complex of Coricancha (Qorikancha) in the Inca capital at Cuzco contained the Temple of the Sun which was not only the most sacred site or huaca in the Inca religion but was considered the very center of the Inca world,” explains Worldhistory. “The site was also known as the Golden Enclosure and was dedicated to the highest gods in the Inca pantheon.”

“Little remains today except some sections of its fine stone walls which hint at the site’s once massive size and the legendary stories which tell of the enormous quantity of gold used to decorate the temples and its golden garden.”

While Viracocha was the original creator god, the Inca themselves believed they were the sons of another deity entirely — Inti, the sun god. They believed Inti sent his son, Manco Capac, to Earth, where he killed his brothers and settled with his sisters in a valley near Cuzco sometime in 1200 A.D. The Incas believed that they were his lineage.

Inti, as the sun god, was the official deity of the empire, the one their religion revolved around. This isn’t very surprising given their ‘familial tie’ to the deity, nor unusual for civilizations at this developmental stage. Virtually every animist religion in history had its own flavor of sun god, as people intuitively understood that all life flowed from our star. Inti took the Moon, Mama-Kilya, as a wife.

Other important deities were Apu Illapu, a god that resided between the stars at night, from where he drew rain over the Earth; Pachamama, the Earth, and Cochamama, the sea. Still, it’s a bit unclear whether these last two were gods in the sense we understand the term today, more akin to personifications, or simply their words for ‘Earth’ and ‘sea’, which they also used symbolically. Several stars and constellations also seem to have played the role of minor deities or important spirits and would be called upon for different purposes.

Both men and women tended to the gods. Priests and their attendants took care of fetishes (the spiritual kind, not the ones you find online today) and various rituals, while Chosen Women, who lived in the temples under a vow of chastity, prepared ritual food, kept sacred fires, and weaved ritual garments. In general, as far as we know, temples weren’t really public spaces; ceremonies were conducted outside of their grounds, with all the faithful. We’re not completely certain that this is the case, however, as the sheer size of some ruined Inca temple complexes we’ve found make it hard to believe that they were completely forbidden to the public.

One temple complex which speaks of the way that Inca worshiped at is Vilcashuamán. For the Inca, this was an important administrative and religious center, Willka Waman (“Scared Hawk”). One of the altar buildings here — terraced pyramid-like structures known as ‘ushnu’ — is comprised of four platforms stacked over one another, with 36 stone steps leading to the top. Here sits an impressive double throne carved from a single block of stone for the ruling couple. Several other ritual and religious buildings litter the site.

Today, people live in Vilcashuamán pretty much exactly where the Inca did, with not one fence or archeologist’s rope separating the two. Some of the ushnus have been restored — a Catholic cathedral towers over the ruins of another. But even in their diminished state, these ruins show just how seriously the Inca took religion and ritual.

“Vilcashuamán is now a small village, remote on its hill-top, perched on the ruins of the great Inca city whose temples have been pillaged for building blocks” SAExpeditions quotes anthropologist and academic John Hemming.

Technology, economy, organization

Inca road.
One of the less nerve-wracking parts of the Inca Trail, a great example of the workmanship that they put into their road networks. Image via Wikimedia.

Perhaps one of the most striking of Inca achievements were their roads and public works. Their Qhapaq Ñan — “royal road” — network was the longest and most developed road network on the continent during its time.

The network was built around two main backbones, highways stretching from the north to the south, parallel to the Andes. One of these was closer to the sea, while the other was higher up in the mountains. Multiple branching roads connected these to population centers or other important sites. For their time, these roads were very advanced and sophisticated. Infrastructure such as retaining walls or drainage ditches ensured its stability. The roads were often paved with stone and had steps incorporated to help navigate steep areas. Bridges, usually vine-supported, allowed the Inca to navigate the arduous terrain.

We estimate that this network included around 40,000 kilometers (25,000 mi) of roads, parts of which are still around to this day and see use as tourist routes. As we’ve mentioned before, it’s possible that part or all of this network was inherited from previous kingdoms and empires in the area. So in the strictest sense of the word, they may not be an example of Inca technology and wealth (as it cost a fortune in resources and labor to build such roads).

But what I personally find most astonishing about the Inca roads was the infrastructure built around them. Infrastructure meant to turn a loose string of communities into an empire — an empire without pack animals, or wheels.

Map of Inca roads.
A map showing the main road network of the Inca. Image credits Koen Adams / Wikimedia.

The Inca didn’t know of, or chose not to use, the wheel. They also settled in a part of the world that has few native animals which lend themselves well to domestication. They had llamas and alpacas, which you can shear or eat, but do not make good pack animals. These aren’t grave concerns if you’re content to be a farmer in some peaceful mountain village. For an empire, however, lack of a simple mode of transportation can quickly become a catastrophic issue. Goods and people need to flow for economies to survive, and communities to flourish. Armies and messengers — the blood and sinew of empires — absolutely need to be able to move around quickly, or locals might get strange ideas like ‘independence’, ‘self-rule’, and ‘what if we stopped paying taxes?’.

So the Inca did the best thing they could: they carried the weight of empire on their own backs.

The roads were dotted at regular intervals with buildings to facilitate their use. Short-distance stops acted as relay stations for Inca runners (‘chasquis’), who acted as messengers. Alongside these, ‘tambos’ were spread apart roughly at the distance one could walk in one day, and acted similarly to inns in Europe, giving travelers (be they workers or soldiers) and their animals a place to rest safely. In newly-conquered areas or on the empire’s borders, forts called pukaras looked over the roads.

Inca fort.
A tambo at Qunchamarka. Image via Wikimedia.

The final bit of infrastructure one would see along the roads are, in my opinion, part of the most fascinating systems the Inca had in place, although on the face of it, they sound incredibly dull: administrative centers and state warehouses. And if there was one thing the Inca went full-out with, it was administering warehouses. These were the Qullqa.

Qullqa were placed in population areas (both for practicality and to show off to the plebeians, which never hurts) and along the road network, where they would support the activity of messengers and workers, and, most importantly, armies on the march. According to The Distribution and Contents of Inca State Storehouses in the Xauxa Region of Peru (D’Altroy, Hastoft, 2017):

“A centrally planned storage system played a pivotal role in the management of Inca staple finance. By staple finance, we mean the direct or indirect rendering of the state of measured amounts of key agricultural or craft goods, which were later used to pay for services rendered to the central authorities. Such goods were amassed at Cuzco and at provincial centers to support permanent personnel, to finance ceremonies, to fund labor projects, and to underwrite state security and political relations. The quantities of goods stored amazed the Spanish, who drew extensively from state warehouses for years. The generally reliable chronicler Cieza reported that, at the imperial posts along the road network, ‘once the lord was lodged in his housing and his soldiers nearby, nothing, from the smallest to the greatest, was left to be provided’.”

“The principal functions of centrally managed stockpiling in the Inca economy can be seen in (1) the regular maintenance of [permanent personnel] and the temporary support of corvee (the system of paying tax in labor) laborers; (2) provision for a buffer against fluctuations in state needs caused by both anticipated and unpredictable environmental, economic, and political changes; and (3) provision of a subsistence safeguard for local populations in the event of shortages.”

Qullqa ruins.
Ruins of a Qullqa at the Raqch’i site. Image via Wikimedia.

The Inca didn’t use coins. More to the point, they didn’t use money as we understand it at all. They probably bartered among themselves day-to-day, they were people after all. But, as a state, they were completely currency free. The way their system functioned was that individuals would pay their taxes in work by serving in the army, working in agriculture, or on public works. The empire would pay them back in kind — in the sense that it would provide its citizens with virtually anything they needed to perform their job, or to survive tough times — and through an agreement that festivals would be organized for the people at certain times of the year.

It might not sound like a reliable system at all, but it obviously worked for the Inca. Pedro Sánchez de la Hoz, the first Spanish chronicler to visit Cuzco, wrote of “storehouses full of blankets, wool, weapons, metals, and clothes and of everything that is grown and made in this realm”. Among other things, he recounts “a [ware]house in which are kept more than 100,000 dried birds, for from their feathers articles of clothing are made”. Yet other locations held “shields, beams for supporting house roofs, knives, and other tools; sandals and armor for the people of war in such quantity that it is not possible to comprehend”.

All of this, all over the empire, was produced and transported on the backs of people. The overwhelming majority of Inca were farmers, essentially, working to produce their food, clothing, and whatever other crafted goods they would need. They would pay their taxes in work, for which the state provided all the tools and resources necessary out of the storehouses. This work would, in turn, produce the items that the state distributed, ensuring further work could be carried out, and the safety and provision of the general population in hard times. It also ensured that there were enough laborers around to build and maintain the roads, terraces, and temples that kept the empire alive.

In essence, this created a redistributive wealth system (most modern economies operate under a transactional wealth system). The Incas called their corvee system mit’a, and every male aged 15 to around 50 or so was required to partake. While it definitely has a hint of oppressiveness to it, the mit’a system seems to have worked very well for the Inca. So much so that the average Incan family would only need to work their farms for an estimated 65 to 70 days a year to ensure their food supply. The rest of the time they devoted to the mit’a, as the state storehouses provided whatever they need. Overseers were tasked with extracting the labor tax, but they were also personally responsible to ensure that every person working the mit’a would have enough time to take care of their own land and family.

The only commoners who were exempt from the mit’a were craftspeople, but these worked directly for the state, so I guess the outcome was the same.

While the Inca didn’t use writing as we understand it today, they did develop an ingenious system of knotted strings that allowed them to keep track of their empire. These ‘khipu’ likely worked much like an abacus, although as with all things Incan, we can’t be too sure. Deciphering the reading of khipu has long been the holy grail of archeologists studying the empire, as it could give us access to a treasure trove of Inca knowledge that is currently beyond our grasp.

Fall from on high

The Inca empire grew from a simple village to the most powerful state on its continent through war. It also fell through war.

Given this, it might be a bit peculiar that I didn’t go into the history of who they fought, when, and where. Partially it’s because I don’t really have a clue, partially it’s because I was never particularly interested in that part of their history (hence me not having a clue). In my eyes, the way the Inca lived has always outshone the way they conquered. Still, any stories about the Inca must end the same way their empire did: with the Spanish conquistadors.

Like all other pre-Columbian empires, the Inca were strong enough to repel the conquistadors. They were, arguably, capable of withstanding a full-scale invasion from Europeans at the time. But, like all other pre-Columbian empires, they were devastated by the diseases these Europeans unwittingly brought to the Americas, chief among them being smallpox, which claimed as much as 90% of the empire’s subjects. They also had a bit of a civil war going on right before the Spanish invasion, which didn’t help at all.

The conquistadores arrived in South America around 1526. Fighting between the two really started in around 1535, but by now, the Inca were already a shadow of their former selves. Infighting, disease, political intrigue, and a general breakdown of the administrative systems that made them mighty in the first place plagued the empire. Their efforts to push back the Spanish from the lands they occupied were repeatedly beaten back, and they kept losing more.

The last embers of an independent Inca state survived in a remote mountainous area, Vitcos, in today’s Peru. It, too, would fall by 1572.

Ancient teeth confirm: people have been trading internationally for thousands of years

We often hear how we’re living in a more interconnected world than ever before — and that is true. But people have never lived in complete isolation from others. New research comes to support this view, by showing that long-distance trade in food and spices was already taking place between Asia and the Mediterranean region over 3000 years ago.

Image credits John Oliver.

Spices such as turmeric and foods including bananas were known and present in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age, the paper explains, much earlier than previously assumed. The authors further note that such plants were not endemic to the Mediterranean, so the only way they could get there was via long-distance trade.

Megiddo Mall

“Exotic spices, fruits, and oils from Asia had reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” says Philipp Stockhammer from LMU, who led the research. “This is the earliest direct evidence to date of turmeric, banana, and soy outside of South and East Asia.”

The international team of researchers analyzed the tartar (dental deposits) on the teeth of 16 people unearthed in excavations at the Megiddo and Tel Erani sites in modern-day Israel. This area mediated any ancient travel and trade between the Mediterranean, Asia, and Egypt. If you wanted to travel between these places in the 2nd millennium BCE, you had to go through the Levant.

What the researchers were looking for was food residue, such as proteins or plant microfossils, that remained preserved in the dental plaque over the last thousands of years. From there, they hoped, they could reconstruct the local diet.

Dental plaque or calculus is produced by bacteria that live in our mouth. As it forms it can capture small particles of food, which become preserved.

“This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” says Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

The techniques they used fall under the domain of paleoprotemics, a relatively new field of science concerned with the study of ancient proteins. The team managed to identify both “ancient proteins and plant residues” from the teeth, revealing that their owners had consumed foods brought from faraway lands.

It was quite surprising for the team as well. Such techniques are difficult to use, they explain, because you have to piece together what food people ate judging solely from the proteins they contained. The proteins themselves must also survive for thousands of years until analyzed, so there’s also quite a lot of luck required to pull it off.

The team confirmed the presence of sesame in local diets at the time (sesame is not an endemic plant to the Levant), suggesting that it had become a staple food here by the 2nd millennium BCE. The teeth of one individual from Megiddo showed turmeric and soy proteins, while one individual from Tel Erani showed traces of banana proteins — all of them likely entering the area through South Asia.

“Our analyses thus provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” says Stockhammer. “I find it spectacular that food was exchanged over long distances at such an early point in history.”

Naturally, the team can’t rule out that this individual traveled or lived in South Asia for a period of time, consuming local foodstuffs during this time. They also can’t estimate the scale of any trades going on, only find evidence that such networks probably existed.

Still, the findings showcase how early long-distance trade began, and they go to show that people have been living in and building an interconnected world for a very long time now. While definitely interesting and important from an academic point of view, such results also help to put our current social dialogues around globalization, trade, and immigration into perspective.

The paper “Exotic foods reveal contact between South Asia and the Near East during the second millennium BCE” has been published in the journal PNAS.

People used marijuana in rituals 2,500 years ago

East Asians grew cannabis over 6,000 years ago, but it’s not entirely clear what they did with it. Most evidence shows that they were consuming its oily seeds and making clothes and rope from the plant’s fibers, but evidence for inhalation and smoking remains limited. A cemetery from 2,500 years ago might help us better understand how ancient people used cannabis for its mind-altering properties.

The grave from above. Image credits: Xinhua Wu.

Jirzankal Cemetery lies some 3,000 meters above sea level, in the Pamir Mountains. It’s a rocky environment, riddled with circular mounts of earth covering tombs. The tombs themselves are outlined by one or two rings of stones, while black and white stone strips run across the site’s entire surface. It’s an important site that has remained remarkably intact over the centuries.

A team led by archaeologist Yimin Yang of the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing found and analyzed chemical residues on 10 wooden burners (braziers) found in eight tombs at the site. When they analyzed these burners, they found an unusually high level of THC (the psychoactive substance inside cannabis) inside nine of them, as well as two stones that had been heated to burn plants — a clear indication that ancient people were using marijuana for burial rituals.

Ancient cannabis plants have much lower THC content than today’s plants, which have been carefully selected for this purpose. For the plants meant to be used for clothes and rope, the THC quantity was virtually negligible, and even for the ancient plants such as those found at the Jirzankal Cemetery, the effects wouldn’t have been quite as strong. Nevertheless, it seems that high up in the mountains, ancient Chinese were using the plants to also get (ritually) high.

It’s not known whether these people grew the plants themselves or if they harvested them from the wild. But, what is known is that this marijuana smoking might also tell us a thing or two about trade at the time.

It’s a remarkable indication of how early humans were interacting with the surrounding environment.

“I think this is a wonderful example of how closely intertwined humans are and have been with the world around them,” said archaeobotanist Robert Spengler of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, who was also a co-author of the study.

“They impose evolutionary pressures on the plants around them, and in some cases this actually leads to domestication. Humans have always sought out plants with secondary metabolites that have an effect on the human body. Premodern humans had an intimate understanding of the plants around them.”

This is hardly the first ancient indication of cannabis usage. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote of cannabis smoking some 2,500 years ago in the steppes of central Asia. High-elevation mountain passes such as the area around Jirzankal were part of important trade routes along the early Silk Road, which linked China to Europe and the rest of Western Asia. Spengler, who works at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, says that cannabis may have been a significant trade commodity.

“Our study implies that knowledge of cannabis smoking and specific high-THC varieties of the cannabis plant were among the cultural traditions that spread along Silk Road exchange routes,” Spengler said at a recent conference.

In support of this theory, previous chemical analyses from bones and teeth found in the Jirzankal Cemetery indicated that people were eating plants grown outside of China, presumably brought along the Silk Road. Some items (including silk and a harp brought from West Asia) also supports this theory.

The research has been published in Science Advances.

Ancient plants reproduce in the UK as global warming increases

In what is being described as a sign of global warming, an exotic plant in the United Kingdom has produced male and female cones outdoors. This is believed to be the first time this phenomenon took place in 60 million years.

Credit: Flickr

Two plants of cycads, a primitive tree that used to dominate the planet 280 million years ago, have produced cones on the sheltered undercliffs of Ventnor Botanic Garden on the Isle of Wight.

Native to Japan, the species is usually only found indoors as an ornamental plant in Britain. Nevertheless, one of the garden’s plants has produced what is believed to be the first outdoor female cone on record in the UK.

“For the first time in 60m years in the UK we’ve got a male cone and a female cone at the same time,” said Chris Kidd, the curator of Ventnor Botanic Gardens. “It is a strong indicator of climate change being shown, not from empirical evidence from the scientists but by plants”.

Cycads used to live in what is now Britain millions of years ago in an era when the Earth’s climate had naturally high levels of carbon dioxide. Fossils of the plants were found in the Jurassic strata of rock stretching from the Isle of Wight to the Dorset coast.

Seven years ago a plant growing outside at Ventor had produced a male cone. But now different plants have produced flower-like male and females cones, giving botanists the opportunity to transfer pollen and generate a fertilized seed.

Kidd argued that the recent summer’s heatwave and the record-breaking temperatures have caused the plant’s production of cones, with a run of milder winters also helping. Records kept at the botanic garden show that the highest average temperatures for January 100 years ago were lower than today’s lowest average for the same month.

 “It’s not something that’s happened with a short-term mild spell. It’s a longer-term warming which is making these things happen,” he said. “The plant will have made the decision to commit to cone production in summer 2018, and that production is set in place to run through over winter and produce the following year.”

Cycad species are composed of three families, the only surviving members of an ancient and largely extinct lineage that has changed little since the Jurassic period, and so are considered “living fossils”. All cycads are native to warmer parts of the world, but are naturally absent from Europe and Antarctica.


The birth of forests helped drive two massive, ancient extinctions

The first forests on Earth may have caused massive extinctions of shallow marine life, a new study finds.


Image via Pixabay.

An international team of researchers led by members from The University of Alabama finds that the oldest forests in today’s southeastern North America popped up millions of years earlier than previously believed. At the time, North America was part of a minor supercontinent, which suggests that forests spread across all big land masses today at that time.

They also found evidence that this event happened around the same time as a massive extinction event of shallow marine life about 370 million years ago.

Wooden weapons

“This story is, I think, ironic because today trees are the symbol of eco-friendly green life,” said Dr. Takehito Ikejiri, a paleontologist with UA’s Alabama Museum of Natural History and one of the study’s co-authors.

“But, when they first appeared in Earth’s history, they seemed to be harmful and caused big trouble for other life.”

The work offer insight into the global extinctions 370 to 360 million years ago. It also lends some weight to the theory that these events were caused by a lack of oxygen in the ancient waters, as early forests dumped massive quantities of nutrient-rich soils into the oceans, leading to eutrophication.

We call this period in Earth’s history 393 to 382 million years ago the Devonian era. At the time, Earth’s surface was dominated by supercontinents. Present-day North America was meshed with Greenland and much of Europe into a minor supercontinent known as Euramerica. Here, to the best of our knowledge, the first trees (defined as plants with wood tissues) appeared near today’s New York 393 to 382 million years ago and spread across the continent.

Not long after this (in geological time), almost all of the day’s shallow-water species (such as trilobites, corals, and plankton) experienced two massive die-offs. The reason why was unknown, but our running theories included global cooling, extensive volcanism, asteroid impacts, and marine anoxia — the rapid drop of oxygen levels in the seas.

The team believed that this anoxia could be caused by the newly-spawned forests eroding soils with their deep roots, which would then wash into the sea and create an overabundance of nutrients.

They tested their theory by analyzing an outcrop of black shale from the period from northeastern Alabama. This outcrop lay on the southernmost margin of the Appalachian Basin. Geochemical and microscopic data show that forests first appeared in the region 370 million years ago, then spreading to the southern Euramerica landmass. Man Lu, a UA doctoral student in geological sciences and lead author on the paper, analyzed the samples from these shales and reports finding tiny wood fragments in this Devonian formation where no macro-fossils were reported previously.

Further geochemical data also suggest that these forests became an important carbon source to these black shales during the Late Devonian, providing a rough timeline of how fast these forests evolved during the era.

“Our data show the global forestation occurred in a relatively short time,” Ikejiri said. “Trees spread rapidly in very large areas across the Euramerica continent and likely caused a series of drastic environmental changes.”

It’s not a smoking gun, but the evidence does seem to point to a link between the extinctions and these early forests. Dr. YueHan Lu, UA associate professor of geological sciences and corresponding author of the paper, believes the timing of this rapid forestation is interesting considering it occurs near the time of the marine life extinctions.

The paper “Geochemical Evidence of First Forestation in the Southernmost Euramerica from Upper Devonian (Famennian) Black Shales” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Ancient tool pushes history of tattooing in the western US by over a thousand years

Archaeologists from the Washington State University (WSU) report finding the oldest tattooing tool in western North America.

Tattoo tool.

Yucca leaf strips on the Turkey Pen tattoo artifact and on the replica.
Image credits Andrew Gillreath-Brown et al., 2019, JASR.

The Ancestral Pueblo people living in Utah around 2,000 years ago were big on tattoos, new research suggests. A team from the WSU led by Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology Ph.D. candidate, discovered a pen-sized instrument used to apply tattoos — the tool has been sitting in storage at the WSU Museum of Anthropology for 40 years.

Ancient ouch

Andrew found the item by chance while reviewing archaeological materials from the Turkey Pen site in southeastern Utah. This tool was made around 2,000 years ago by the Ancestral Pueblo people of the Basketmaker II period in what is now southeastern Utah, they report, pushing back the history of tattooing in western North America by more than a millennium.

“Tattooing by prehistoric people in the Southwest is not talked about much because there has not ever been any direct evidence to substantiate it,” says Gillreath-Brown.

“This tattoo tool provides us information about past Southwestern culture we did not know before.”

Tattooing is an art, a form of cultural expression, and practical skill with ancient roots that many people worldwide enjoy even today. However, we don’t know a lot about how, when, and where this practice began. Its history is especially-muddy in areas like the southwestern US, the team adds, where written accounts are lacking and no tattoos have been preserved on human remains.

In such cases, researchers rely almost fully on ancient artwork for depictions of tattoos and the implements used to create them. As far as archaeological evidence goes, we’ve found bundled and hafted (or handled) cactus spine tattoo tools in Arizona and New Mexico that were used to apply tattoos sometime between AD 1100-1280.

The tool Gillreath-Brown found was very similar in structure to these previously-uncovered tattooing tools. It consists of a 3.5 inch (roughly 9 cm) wooden handle — made from skunkbush wood — and two parallel cactus spines stained black at their tips.

“When I first pulled it out of the museum box and realized what it might have been I got really excited,” he said.

“The residue staining from tattoo pigments on the tip was what immediately piqued my interest as being possibly a tattoo tool.”

Scanning electron microscopy and X-ray fluorescence analysis showed that the crystalline structure of the black pigment showed that the inks likely contained carbon — a common element in body and tattoo paints around the world. Gillreath-Brown also created a few test tattoos using a replica of the tool on pig skin using ink “made using wood charcoal, ground using a mortar and pestle and mixed with water to a slurry-like consistency.” The tool performed quite well, he reports, inserting pigment deep enough into the skin to create tattoos (about 2 mm deep, corresponding to the epidermis).

“[The discovery] has a great significance for understanding how people managed relationships and how status may have been marked on people in the past during a time when population densities were increasing in the Southwest,” Gillreath-Brown reports.

The paper “Redefining the age of tattooing in western North America: A 2000-year-old artifact from Utah” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.


Neanderthal diet revolved around meat, new study finds

Neanderthals may have enjoyed their meat — often.


Image via Pixabay.

An international research effort has found that Neanderthals were predominantly meat-eaters. The findings come from isotope analysis performed on Neanderthal remains recovered in France.

Haute cuisine

Our understanding of the Neanderthals has changed profoundly over time. At first, we simply assumed they were brutish, more ape than human. Among other characteristics, the prevailing theory was that their diets were primarily vegetarian — big apes are largely vegetarian, this line of thinking went, so Neanderthals must have been the same, right?

We’ve come a long way since then. Archeological evidence revealed that far from being simple-minded and lacking in general skills and finesse, these ancient humans were quite capable. They enjoyed beauty for beauty’s sake, they developed refined tools, established cultural and spiritual practices, and — as they managed to woo our ancestors into bed/the cave — some were probably quite dashing, as well.

The new study comes to flesh out our understanding of what Neanderthals liked to dine on. The team analyzed proteins from preserved collagen in Neanderthal bones found at two dig sites in France: the remains of a one-year-old baby found at Grotte du Renne, and a tooth from Les Cottés. The results show that Neanderthals were neither vegetarian nor simply content with scavenging meat from the kills of other beasts. In fact, they probably killed said beasts and ate them.

The team reports that the ratios of nitrogen-15 to nitrogen-14 isotopes in the collagen samples are similar to what we’d see today in major meat eaters — wolves or lions, for example. The findings, the team explains, add to the body of evidence pointing to the Neanderthals being predominantly meat eaters.

Nitrogen ratio analysis is a widely-used tool for diet reconstruction in ancient species. Nitrogen is a reliable indicator of an organism’s position in a food chain, as organisms obtain it solely through diet. Higher N-15 to N-14 ratios are indicative of carnivores — who concentrate nitrogen from lower trophic levels through diet. The ratio the team found in the Neanderthal collagen is slightly higher than that found in carnivore remains at Neanderthal sites, which the team takes as evidence the Neanderthal’s high position in their local food webs.

There’s also a growing body of indirect evidence supporting this view, the authors note. Previous discoveries of spears found alongside their remains, as well as evidence of butchered animal bodies, suggests that they were quite adept at hunting and processing game. Neanderthals also likely had a bulkier, thicker thorax than modern humans (that’s us). This constitution allowed for larger kidneys and livers compared to our own, a feature common among animals whose diets are heavy in animal protein.

They note that another possibility is that the high ratios were owed to a diet heavy in mammoth meat, putrefying meat (I hope it was the mammoth), or fish. The team used a novel technique called compound-specific isotope analyses (CSIA) to separately analyze each amino acid found in the collagen. The exact isotope composition of amino acids is heavily influenced by diet.

“Using this technique, we discovered that the Neandertal of Les Cottés had a purely terrestrial carnivore diet: she was not a late weaned child or a regular fish eater [fish was not readily accessible at either site], and her people seem to have mostly hunted reindeers and horses”, says Klervia Jaouen, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and first author of the study.

“We also confirmed that the Grotte du Renne Neandertal was a breastfeeding baby whose mother was a meat eater”.

Another finding was that Neanderthal diets were likely very stable over time, primarily meat, even after they had started to refine tool-processing techniques (possibly as a consequence of interacting with modern humans).

Taken as a whole, the study explains, these tidbits support the view that meat, particularly that obtained from herbivorous animals, was the main constituent of the Neanderthal diet. Small game was likely predominant on the menu, given that bones of fawns and other similarly-sized animals have been found at numerous Neanderthal dig sites and that smaller game is more readily killed with spears — but, as this study reveals, local food resources likely altered what Neanderthals ate in various areas.

The paper “Exceptionally high δ15N values in collagen single amino acids confirm Neandertals as high-trophic level carnivores” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Stone pattern.

Painted rock points to higher cognitive function in humans 73,000 years ago

A painted rock shows that humans tried their hand at symbolism as early as 73,000 years ago, pointing to the roots of modern cognition patterns.

Stone pattern.

Image credits Christopher S. Henshilwood et al., 2018, Nature.

International researchers report discovering the oldest evidence of abstract drawing to date. The artifact in question is a fragment of polished rock painted with a crosshatch pattern of nine fine lines, unearthed from a 73,000-year-old archaeological stratum at the Blombos Cave in South Africa.

“Do you do portraits, too?”

It’s not easy determining symbolism from art when dealing with some of the earliest graphic productions humanity has ever created. The main difficulty lies in determining whether the splotches of pigment were applied deliberately or not. After intentionality is established, the next step is to determine whether the images you’re dealing with are doodles or storytelling crutches, or whether they held particular meaning.

Needless to say, across the huge divides of time and culture that separate us from our ancestors, both points can be very tricky to handle.

The oldest known sample of art we’ve found before now is the shell of a freshwater mussel engraved with a zigzag pattern discovered in Tirnil, Java, in a 540,000-year-old archaeological layer. Decorated trinkets discovered in several archeological sites in Africa, likely used for personal adornment, have been dated to roughly 70,000 years ago.


A rendition of the crosshatched pattern seen on the fragment of stone.
Image credits Christopher S. Henshilwood et al., 2018, Nature.

Still, art does not necessarily a symbol make. A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that represents an idea, another object, or a relationship. While the main trait of art is beauty or its ability to encapsulate an emotional message, a symbol is, foremost, an abstraction. As such, accurately telling apart art and symbolism is very important for anthropology. Both art and symbols “are a prime indicator of modern cognition and behavior”, the team writes — the latter especially so, since abstraction requires that extra bit of intellectual brawn to handle.

Well, we have new evidence pointing to the roots of abstract thinking at least 30,000 years earlier than previously discovered works suggested.


The artifact, detailed by an international team that includes scientists from Norway, France, South Africa, and Switzerland, is a fragment of siliceous rock (silcrete) adorned with nine fine lines in a crosshatch pattern. It was found during excavations at the Blombos Cave, South Africa, in a 73,000-year-old archeological stratum. According to the team, the lines were drawn using an ocher (the iron ore from which the eponymous color is derived) pencil.

Ocher and silcrete implements.

Ocher and silcrete implements used in the reconstruction efforts.
Image credits Christopher S. Henshilwood et al., 2018, Nature.

Determining whether the pattern was deliberately drawn fell primarily on the shoulders of the team’s French members, who have a background in the chemical analysis of pigments.

They started by trying to reproduce the lines through various techniques — an approach known as experimental or experiential archeology, as it relies on direct experience gained from experimentation — that were available to the people living around the cave at the time. These included whittling ocher fragments to a point or an edge to see which shape better recreates the lines, as well as applying watery solutions of ocher powder using brushes.

Closeup original.

Closeup of the original markings.
Image credits Christopher S. Henshilwood et al., 2018, Nature.

They then compared the lines against their ancient counterparts from a microscopic, chemical, and tribological (the science of friction and wear) standpoint. According to the team, the lines were intentionally drawn with a pointed ocher implement (akin to a pencil). As such, the pattern represents the earliest known abstract drawing to date.

Closeup reconstruction

Closeup of the reconstructed lines.
Image credits Christopher S. Henshilwood et al., 2018, Nature.

With intentionality established, the next step was to decide whether the team was looking at a symbol or just pretty doodles. This step was surprisingly simple, however. Blombos Cave is the site of an ongoing excavation by teams from the University of Bergen (Norway) and the University of Witwatersrand (South Africa) that began in 1991. Over the years, many other objects with symbolic markings — including ocher fragments that feature very similar crosshatched engraving — were uncovered in the same archaeological stratum in which the present artwork was discovered.

The team writes that by using various techniques to produce similar patterns on different materials suggests that the marks serve a symbolic function.

The paper “An abstract drawing from the 73,000-year-old levels at Blombos Cave, South Africa” has been published in the journal Nature.

Running man.

One broken gene made us very good runners

A genetic fluke two to three million years ago turned humans into the best endurance runners around.

Running man.

Image via Pixabay.

A new paper published by researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine reports that our ancestors’ functional loss of one gene called CMAH dramatically shifted our species’ evolutionary path. The loss altered significant metabolic processes, with impacts on fertility rates and risk of developing cancer.

The same change may have also made humans one of the best long-distance runners on Earth, the team adds.

These genes were made for runnin’

Our ancestors were presumably quite busy two to three million years ago transitioning from living in trees to live on the savannah. They were able to walk upright by this time, but they weren’t particularly good at it.

However, soon after this, some of our ancestors’ physiology starts undergoing some striking changes. Most relevant are shifts we see in their skeletons, resulting in long legs, big feet, and large gluteal muscles (butts) — all very good for walking around. These shifts were also accompanied by the evolution of sweat glands with much the same layout and capacity as ours which, according to the team, is quite expansive and much better at dissipating heat than that of other large mammals.

In other words, humanity received powerful legs and one of the most solid cooling systems in one fell swoop.

Our ancestors proceeded to use their new toys to hunt and eat anything they could bring down. They did so by adopting a hunting pattern unique among primates (and very rare among animals in general) known as persistence hunting: they would go out in the heat of the day, when other carnivores were resting, relying on their legs and sweat glands to chase prey until — exhausted and overheated — it couldn’t physically run away anymore.

We didn’t know much about the biological changes that underpinned this radical change, however. The first clues were uncovered around 20 years ago — when Ajit Varki, a physician-scientist at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and colleagues unearthed one of the first genetic differences between humans and chimps: a gene called CMP-Neu5Ac Hydroxylase (CMAH). Other species of primates also have this gene.

We, however, have a broken version of CMAH. Varki’s team calculated that this genetic change happened 2 million to 3 million years ago, based on the genetic differences among primates and other animals.

More recent research has shown that mice models with a muscular dystrophy-like syndrome exhibit more acute symptoms when this gene is inactivated. This hinted to Varki that the faulty gene might be what led to the changes our ancestors experienced in the savannahs.

“Since the mice were also more prone to muscle dystrophy, I had a hunch that there was a connection to the increased long distance running and endurance of Homo,” said Varki.

UCSD graduate student Jonathan Okerblom, the study’s first author, put the theory to the test. He built mouse running wheels, borrowed a mouse treadmill, and pitted mice with a normal and broken version of CMAH to the task.

“We evaluated the exercise capacity (of mice lacking the CMAH gene), and noted an increased performance during treadmill testing and after 15 days of voluntary wheel running,” Okerblom explained.

The two then consulted Ellen Breen, Ph.D., a research scientist in the division of physiology, part of the Department of Medicine in the UC San Diego School of Medicine. She examined the mice’s leg muscles before and after running different distances, some after 2 weeks and some after 1 month.

After training, mice with the human-like version of CMAH ran 12% faster and 20% longer than the other mice, the team reports. Breen adds that the mice displayed greater resistance to fatigue, increased mitochondrial respiration and hind-limb muscle, with more capillaries to increase blood and oxygen supply. Taken together, Varki says the data suggest CMAH loss contributed to improved skeletal muscle capacity for oxygen utilization.

“And if the findings translate to humans, they may have provided early hominids with a selective advantage in their move from trees to becoming permanent hunter-gatherers on the open range.”

The most likely cause of this change was evolutionary pressures associated with an ancient pathogen, the team explains.

The version of the gene we carry determines the loss of a sialic acid called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), and accumulation of its precursor, called N-acetylneuraminic acid or Neu5Ac, which differs by only a single oxygen atom. Sialic acids serve as vital contact points for cell-to-cell interaction and cellular interactions with the surrounding environment. This change likely led to enhanced innate immunity in early hominids, according to past research.

Sialic acids may also be a biomarker for cancer risk, and the team has also reported that certain sialic acids are associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes; may contribute to elevated cancer risk associated with red meat consumption, and trigger inflammation.

“They are a double-edged sword,” said Varki. “The consequence of a single lost gene and a small molecular change that appears to have profoundly altered human biology and abilities going back to our origins.”

The paper “Human-like Cmah inactivation in mice increases running endurance and decreases muscle fatigability: implications for human evolution” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Infant skeleton sheds new light on early Native American populations

The remains of a six-week-old infant cast new light upon the Native American founding population.

Scientists divided the ancient American populations into two categories: the Southern and the Northern Native Americans. The two groups are related, but a link between them and an ancient Siberian population was missing, until now.

Pictures were taken at Upward Sun River site. Credit: Ben Potter

“It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event.” said evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge in the UK, the research team leader, in a press release.

Researchers named this population “Ancient Beringians” after Beringia, the land bridge that connected northeast Asia with northwestern North America, during the Pleistocene epoch — sometimes called the Ice Age.

Via Wikipedia

The girl was named Xach’itee’aanenh t’eede gaay, or Sunrise Child-girl, by the local Native community. Her skeleton was discovered at the Upward Sun River archaeological site in Alaska in 2013. Scientists say the child lived 11,500 years ago, long after the first wave of migration occurred, but her genome was consistently different from the two types of ancient Native Americans.

“The Ancient Beringians diversified from other Native Americans before any ancient or living Native American population sequenced to date. It’s basically a relict population of an ancestral group which was common to all Native Americans, so the sequenced genetic data gave us enormous potential in terms of answering questions relating to the early peopling of the Americas,” Eske Willerslev said.

The excavation site from Alaska. Credit: Ben Potter

This is the first ancient skeleton ever discovered in Alaska — acidic soils make bone tissue and DNA preservation very difficult.

“We were able to show that people probably entered Alaska before 20,000 years ago. It’s the first time that we have had direct genomic evidence that all Native Americans can be traced back to one source population, via a single, founding migration event.” said Professor Willerslev.

The Northern and the Southern branches are thought to have separated somewhere between 17,000-14,000 years ago. The two groups probably went separate ways as they passed through or around the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets that covered present-day Canada and a part of northern United States.

Scientists believe that the Ancient Beringians were left behind the ice sheets and remained in Alaska. Next, the population was absorbed by other Native groups derived from the Northern branch, that migrated back after the ice had melted away.

“One significant aspect of this research is that some people have claimed the presence of humans in the Americas dates back earlier – to 30,000 years, 40,000 years, or even more. We cannot prove that those claims are not true, but what we are saying, is that if they are correct, they could not possibly have been the direct ancestors to contemporary Native Americans”, added Willerslev.

The paper was published in the Nature journal on the 3rd of January 2018.


Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

Mysterious 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth likely belong to unknown ancient European primate

Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

Ancient molar (left) and canine (right) belonging to a yet unidentified ancient ape found in Germany. Credit: Naturhistorisches Museum Mainz.

In a former riverbed of the Rhine, near the town of Eppelsheim, a region famous for a treasure trove of fossils, German scientists found two fossilized teeth with contradictory features. The molar and left canine belonging to the same individual are nearly ten million years old and bear a resemblance to hominin species such as Australopithecus afarensis. The conundrum lies in the fact that A. afarensis is no more than 3 million years old and no human ancestor was found in Europe earlier than 100,000 years ago. This puts the entire debate under a whole new light.

The real planet of the apes

The findings were made in 2016 but the team led by Herbert Lutz, a paleontologist at the Mainz Natural History Museum in Germany, delayed publishing due to the controversial nature of the two fossilized teeth. What’s certain, says Lutz, is that the teeth dated to 9.7 million years ago belong to a primate and signify “the northernmost occurrences of Miocene primates in Europe.”

“Both teeth, the crowns of an upper left canine and an upper right first molar, are exceptionally well preserved and obviously come from the same body of unknown sex. Their sedimentological environment and the accompanying faunal elements point to an age shortly before the Mid-Vallesian crisis at ca. 9.7 Ma. While the molar shares characters with various other taxa, the canine reveals intriguingly potential hominin affinities: its lingual outline is clearly diamond-shaped; its ratio of lingual height / mesiodistal length is within the range of Australopithecus afarensis, Ardipithecus ramidus, Ardipithecus kadabba, and females of Pan troglodytes,” the authors reported in a paper, which appeared in pre-print. 

In the aftermath of the discovery, some have haphazardly painted this whole event into something far more spectacular than it really is, which in reality, is just ambiguous at this point. For instance, during a press conference announcing the discovery, the mayor of Mainz said he doesn’t want to “over-dramatize it” but “we shall have to start rewriting the history of mankind after today.” One can only wonder what the fine mayor’s view of overly dramatic looks like in this case.

The dig site in Eppelsheim. Credit: Bastian Lischewsky

The dig site in Eppelsheim. Credit: Bastian Lischewsky

Scientists are, of course, far more reserved. Despite the resemblances to hominin groups, it’s far likelier, as Lutz and colleagues themselves reported, that the molar and canine belong to a broader group called hominoids. In other words, “apes”.

As far back as 12 million years ago, Europe was a sort of an ape paradise. There’s no doubt that apes originated in Africa, or that our more recent evolution happened there, but up to eight million years ago they also flourished in Europe around the Mediterranean when climate change forced these populations to gradually disappear.

One of these apes was Oreopithecus, first unearthed in the 19th century in Italy. Though it does not belong to our branch of the ape evolutionary tree, Oreopithecus, one of the last surviving species from this ‘golden age’ of European apes, oddly looked a lot like an early member of our lineage. Perhaps, Eurasian primate bearing these teeth and its distant African relatives encountered similar environmental pressure, independently leading to very similar tooth configurations. There are many examples of convergent evolution, after all.

Maybe it’s not even an ape

The isolated discovery of two teeth, which are far less interesting than most other body parts such as a femur or skull, can’t “rewrite history”. However, it’s fascinating that ancient apes could have lived this far north in Europe, but speculating any further is just thoughtless sensationalism. What’s more, the fossils might not even belong to an ape.

Speaking to National Geographic,  Bence Viola, who is a paleoanthropologist at the University of Toronto and an authority on the teeth of extinct human relatives, says the fossils likely belong to some pliopithecoid species — an extinct superfamily of catarrhine primates that inhabited Asia and Europe during the Miocene. Pliopithecoids are very far away, evolutionary speaking, from humans, having diverged from the common ancestors of Old World monkeys and apes long before the two branches split.

“I think this is much ado about nothing,” Viola said. “The second tooth (the molar), which they say clearly comes from the same individual, is absolutely not a hominin, [and] I would say also not a hominoid.”

In other words, the teeth might belong to some primate species which is less related to modern humans than a baboon. However, the German scientists are still working on their paper, so the last word may yet to come.

“Hopefully, in one or two years, we’ll know a lot more about what we’ve got on our hands,” Lutz told ResearchGate. “It’s definitely a fantastic, exciting story.”

Megalolamna paradoxodon had grasping-type front teeth and cutting-type rear teeth likely used to seize and slice medium-sized fish and it lived in the same ancient oceans megatoothed sharks inhabited. (Image by Kenshu Shimada)

New ancient car-sized species identified by paleontologists. It was related to Megalodon

Megalolamna paradoxodon had grasping-type front teeth and cutting-type rear teeth likely used to seize and slice medium-sized fish and it lived in the same ancient oceans megatoothed sharks inhabited. (Image by Kenshu Shimada)

Megalolamna paradoxodon had grasping-type front teeth and cutting-type rear teeth likely used to seize and slice medium-sized fish and it lived in the same ancient oceans megatoothed sharks inhabited. (Image by Kenshu Shimada)

Some 20 million years ago, both the Atlantic and the Pacific were haunted by a huge shark the size of a car. The new species, called Megalolamna paradoxodon, was just discovered and researchers think it was related to the biggest shark that ever lived, Megalodon.

It’s very difficult to find shark fossils and it’s not that surprising if you know they’re made of cartilage, not bones. Paleontologists sometimes can find fossils of those parts of the shark made of denser cartilage like the centers of the vertebra, jaw cartilage, and the rostral node in a shark’s snout. However, maybe 99% of all known shark fossils are the teeth. In the case of  Megalolamna p., five tooth samples collected from California, North Carolina, Japan, and Peru were all that scientists had at their disposal.

Shark teeth, however, are enough to learn an awful lot. Each sharks species’ teeth have a unique shape — in the case of Megalolamna p., these are shaped in a mosaic-like pattern. It helped that both front and rear teeth were found, the former used for grasping while the latter for slicing.

The geographical distribution of the new ancient shark's teeth. Credit: Kenshu Shimad

The geographical distribution of the new ancient shark’s teeth. Credit: Kenshu Shimad

Megalolamna p. lived in the Miocene period, about 20 million years ago, and likely ate medium-sized fish. That’s judging from its estimated size, about 12 feet long. The researchers from DePaul University in Chicago who were responsible for the find compared the teeth to those belonging to other extinct and currently living species to come with this estimate.

“The fact that such a large …shark with such a wide geographic distribution had evaded recognition until now indicates just how little we still know about the Earth’s ancient marine ecosystem,” said Kenshu Shimada, the lead author of the study and a paleobiologist at DePaul University in Chicago.

Its size makes the ancient the shark actually smaller than the great white shark, which can grow between 15 and 20 feet in length. However, at this point, it’s very difficult to judge just how big Megalolamna p. could grow. A shark might have smaller or bigger teeth in its jaw which might not reflect the true size of the fish. More fossilized teeth might help settle it.

Megalolamna p.’s cousin, the beast of the ancient high seas called Megalodon, could grow to 60 feet in length and its bite was more powerful than T-Rex’s. Megalodon seemed to have disappeared about 65 million years ago, so that makes the two species 45 million years apart. We know little to nothing about what happened in between this time frame, how Megalodon evolved, what it turned into etc. There are a lot of unanswered questions which only more fossil findings might help settle.

Findings appeared in the journal Historical Biology.