Tag Archives: civilization

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.

If civilization collapses, researchers say, try to be in one of these five countries

If you’re planning on thriving while civilization worldwide crumbles, New Zealand is probably the best place to be, says new research.

Bridal Veil Falls, New Zealand. Image credits Holger Detje.

Friday is upon us, and that can only mean one thing: it’s time to ponder the collapse of modern human civilization, as a treat. New research at the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) comes to help us along our merry way, by estimating which countries today would be most resilient to future systemic threats posed by climate change and other globe-spanning problems.

The paper itself examined which factors could lead to such a scenario, focusing on a combination of ecological destruction, resource depletion, and population growth. It then looked at today’s countries and gauged which would fare the best during the “de-complexification” we’d be bound to see after such a collapse. De-complexification refers to the gradual or sudden breakdown of the multiple overlapping systems that maintain the world as we know it, including the collapse of supply chains, international agreements, and global financial structures. In essence, globalization but in reverse.

At the end of the world

The study was carried out by Nick King and Professor Aled Jones at the ARU, and they identified New Zealand as likely the best place to weather the storm. Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia (specifically Tasmania), and Ireland were the runner-ups.

The authors explain that the challenges which face us in the future, ecological destruction, limited resources, and population growth, could trigger a reduction in the complexity of our civilization — in essence, collapse — especially with climate change acting as a “risk multiplier” that makes these trends harder to deal with. Whether this will be a very rapid breakdown taking place in less than a year, or whether this will be a longer, more gradual descent, the paper doesn’t aim to answer. It could even be a hybrid of the two, according to the authors, starting as a gradual decline that picks up speed through “feedback loops”, leading to an abrupt collapse.

Since we live in such an interconnected and interdependent world today, any localized decline will quickly ripple across the world and affect us all.

So, where do you go to weather something like that? The researchers tried to determine that by looking at the self-sufficiency (energy and manufacturing infrastructure), carrying capacity (land available for arable farming and overall population), and isolation (distance from other large population centers which may be subject to displacement events) of countries around the world. The next step was to assess each candidate’s individual and local potential for agriculture and energy production.

According to them, New Zealand, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Australia/Tasmania, and Ireland are the countries that have the most favorable conditions to survive a global collapse while maintaining high levels of societal, technological, and organizational complexity (i.e. civilization) within their borders. All five of them are islands or island continents, have a strong oceanic climatic influence, as well as a low variability in regards to temperature and precipitation. Taken together, these conditions will likely allow the countries to remain quite stable despite the effects of climate change.

New Zealand came in first due to its low population, high geothermal and hydroelectric potential, and wide swathes of agricultural land. Iceland, Australia/Tasmania), and Ireland also have favorable characteristics, but to a lesser extent. The UK is put at risk by its complicated energy mix and high population density. Although it does have a high agricultural output today, it has low per capita availability of agricultural land, meaning each square foot of land needs to feed a lot of people. This may make it impossible to achieve self-sufficiency.

“Significant changes are possible in the coming years and decades. The impact of climate change, including increased frequency and intensity of drought and flooding, extreme temperatures, and greater population movement, could dictate the severity of these changes,” explains Professor Aled Jones.

“As well as demonstrating which countries we believe are best suited to managing such a collapse—which undoubtedly would be a profound, life-altering experience—our study aims to highlight actions to address the interlinked factors of climate change, agricultural capacity, domestic energy, manufacturing capacity, and the over-reliance on complexity, are necessary to improve the resilience of nations that do not have the most favorable starting conditions.”

The paper “An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity'” has been published in the journal Sustainability.

Cocaine, ayahuasca, and DMT — South Americans had hardcore rituals 1,000 years ago

Archaeologists working in South America have discovered a shamanic pouch which contained traces of powerful hallucinogenic substances including cocaine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and harmine — key active compounds in ayahuasca, a mind-blowing brew commonly associated with the Amazon jungle.

“This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca,” said Melanie Miller, a researcher with UC Berkeley’s Archaeological Research Facility who uses chemistry and various technologies to study how ancient humans lived.

Ritual bundle contents include a leather bag, carved wooden snuff tablets, and a snuff tube with human hair braids. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Ayahuasca may be enjoying a recent surge in popularity in some circles, but the hallucinogenic concoction goes back a long time. In the 16th century, Christian missionaries from Spain first encountered native South Americans in the western Amazonian basin using ayahuasca. Of course, they considered this to be the “the work of the devil”, and given the situation, you can’t really blame them.

Ayahuasca, a strongly hallucinogenic brew, is considered to be a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. People who have consumed ayahuasca often report having mystical or religious experiences and spiritual revelations and claim a cathartic, rebirth-like experience.

Recently, archaeologists uncovered one of the oldest pieces of evidence regarding the usage of this brew. The remarkably well-preserved ritual bundle was found by archaeologists at a high elevation of 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) in southwestern Bolivia, where llamas and alpacas roam the land. The leather kit includes a purse made from three fox snouts sewn together and dates back to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization. The Tiwanaku dominated the southern Andean highlands from about 550 to 950 A.D. Miller and colleagues also found intricately carved wooden “snuffing tablets” and a “snuffing tube” with human hair braids attached, llama bone spatulas, a colorful woven textile strip, and dried plant material. No human remains were uncovered at the site, but all these objects were well-preserved, due to the dry conditions of the Andean highlands.

The Cueva del Chileno in Bolivia where the bundle was found. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Researchers believe this to be a ritual site, probably used by experienced shamans since the substances involved produced quite serious effects.

“A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous,” Miller said. “So, whoever owned this bundle would need to have had great knowledge and skills about how to use these plants, and how and where to procure them.”

At the very best, “tryptamine DMT produces strong, vivid hallucinations that can last from minutes to an hour, but combined with harmine, you can have prolonged out-of-body altered states of consciousness with altered perceptions of time and of the self,” Miller said.

This pouch was made from three fox snouts. When Miller scraped the inside, she found evidence of hallucinogenic substances. Image credits: Juan Albarracin-Jordan and José M. Capriles.

Many South American civilizations believed that you can embody the soul of an animal, which is probably why the pouch was made particularly from fox snouts. For Miller, who undertook a two-day journey to reach the excavation area, it was thrilling to study the artifacts.

“We were amazed to see the incredible preservation of these compounds in this ritual bundle,” said Miller. “I feel very lucky to have been a part of this research.”

She and her lab provided the technology needed to conduct toxicology tests on the samples, which included liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, two technologies used to identify and quantify the components of a mixture. At first, archaeologists were unsure what to make of the stash, but when the lab results came in, everything clicked: everything was used for spiritual purposes — or to consume drugs, depending on how you see things.

The study indicates that ayahuasca and other similar substances have been consumed for over a thousand years in the Amazon basin. Nowadays, ayahuasca is experiencing an unexpected revival in places such as California, where some claim that it has become “as common as a cup of coffee.” Recent studies have also found that ayahuasca may help in treating conditions such as depression.

The study “Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America” by Miller et al. has been published in PNAS.

Christ statue.

Divine punishment didn’t goad us into building civilization — it was the other way around

New research is looking into the interplay between society and moralizing, ‘big gods’ — the latter seem to be a consequence, rather than a driver, of the former.

Christ statue.

Jesus upon hearing you tipped less than 20%.
Image credits Patrick Neufelder.

Prevailing theories today, the paper explains, hold that ‘big gods’ nurtured cooperation between large groups of genetically-distinct people, in effect underpinning societies as we know them today. These deities are defined as having a powerful moralizing effect over societies — being perceived as entities that punish ethical faux-pas — thereby acting as the common moral glue holding large groups together. However, the study we’re discussing today finds that this isn’t the case. Rather, the team suggests, it’s these complex societies that produced their complex gods, not the other way around.

Of gods and men

“It has been a debate for centuries why humans, unlike other animals, cooperate in large groups of genetically unrelated individuals,” says Peter Turchin from the University of Connecticut and the Complexity Science Hub Vienna, one of the paper’s co-authors.

The earliest bunches of people lived in close-knit family units. They would cooperate because doing so would help ensure that their bloodline — and thus, their genes — would survive. People would try their best to keep themselves and their families alive, even if that meant raiding other family-groups (with whom they shared no genes, thus making it a-OK). It’s a very straightforward, very intuitive approach to survival and cooperation.

Since then, things have changed. We work with and for people who have no blood ties to ourselves. We share residential buildings with people we sometimes never even meet. We help fund charities for causes half the world away. If we applied the ‘me and mine’ mentality of yore, it would make perfect sense to protect our kin-group even at the expense of others. But we don’t do that. Society would run amok, and we like society. The million-dollar question (or whatever currency it is that anthropologists use; knucklebones, maybe?) is why.

Agriculture, warfare, and religion have been proposed as the main driving forces behind our need to cooperate. Such pursuits hinge on a community’s ability to work together in large numbers. Tilling the fields requires many able hands, as do raids or defense; gods, in turn, provide the moral incentives (i.e. eternal punishment) needed to hold communities together when blood-ties don’t apply.

Lord Shiva.

Nobody wants to make the boss mad. Especially when the boss is the god of war and can thus really mess up eternity for you.
Image credits Bishnu Sarangi.

But, the team wasn’t convinced. Working with data from the Seshat Global History Databank, “the most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place” according to their website, they pitted these theories against statistical rigor. The databank contains about 300,000 records on social complexity, religion, and other characteristics of 500 past societies over 10,000 years of human history, which the team used to analyze the relationship between religion and social complexity.

If ‘big gods’ spawned complex societies, then logic dictates that they appeared in these peoples’ collective imaginations before their societies increased in complexity — or, in other words, that the fear of divine retribution coaxed people into behaving in a socially-acceptable way. The team, however, reports that this wasn’t the case.

“To our surprise, our data strongly contradict this [big god] hypothesis,” says lead author Harvey Whitehouse. “In almost every world region for which we have data, moralizing gods tended to follow, not precede, increases in social complexity.”

“Our results suggest that collective identities are more important to facilitate cooperation in societies than religious beliefs.”

The complexity of a society can be estimated by social characteristics such as population, territory, the sophistication of its institutions and information systems, the team explains. Religious data used in the study included the presence of beliefs in supernatural enforcement of reciprocity, fairness, and loyalty, as well as the frequency and standardization of religious rituals.

Big gods may not have spearheaded communities, the team explains, but ritual and religion definitely had a large part to play. Standardized rituals tended to appear, on average, hundreds of years before the earliest evidence of moralizing gods, they report. Where such deities would have been the proverbial stick, these rituals acted like the carrot — they gave people a sense of belonging and group identity that allowed cooperation.

Gabillou Sorcier.

Picture of a half-animal half-human in a Paleolithic cave painting in Dordogne, France. Paleoanthropologists Andre Leroi-Gourhan and Annette Michelson take the depiction of such hybrid figures as evidence for early shamanic practices during the Paleolithic.
Image and caption credits José-Manuel Benito / Wikipedia.

The Seshat database proved invaluable in this study. It has been founded by data and social scientist Peter Turchin, together with Harvey Whitehouse and Pieter François from the University of Oxford (also a co-author of this study) in 2011. It aimed to integrate the expertise from various fields into an open-access database specifically to allow researchers to tease out cause from effect in social and historical theories, they say. Through the work of dozens of researchers the world over — who compiled data on social complexity and religious beliefs and practices from polites (communities) from 9600 BCE up to today — Seshat grew into the first databank of standardized, quantitative historical knowledge in the world.

“Seshat is an unprecedented collaboration between anthropologists, historians, archaeologists, mathematicians, computer scientists, and evolutionary scientists”, says Patrick Savage, corresponding author of the article. “It shows how big data can revolutionize the study of human history.”

“[It] allows researchers to analyze hundreds of variables relating to social complexity, religion, warfare, agriculture and other features of human culture and society that vary over time and space,” explains Pieter François. “Now that the database is ready for analysis, we are poised to test a long list of theories about human history.”

One of the biggest questions the team wants to tackle (of which the present paper is the first step) is why we came to work together in societies in excess of millions of people despite lacking any genetic incentive to do so.

The paper “Complex societies precede moralizing gods throughout world history” has been published in the journal Nature.

What if we’re not the first advanced civilization on Earth — How would we know?

A new study raises an intriguing question: are we really the first ones to develop a civilization on Earth? Before you start thinking about aliens or wacky conspiracy theories, think about it this way: if another civilization had developed on the planet at some point in the geological past, how would we know about it? The new research explores that avenue; they call it “The Silurian hypothesis.”

Archaeological Site of Harappa. Image via Wikipedia.

Ancient life

Homo sapiens as we know it evolved some 315,000 years ago. You might think that’s a very long time and in one sense, it is. But at a geological scale, it’s nothing. Primates, as a group, emerged some 55 million years ago, while mammals came to be over 200 million years ago. Reptiles have been on this planet for more than 300 million years ago, and fish popped up more than 500 million years ago. The history of life on Earth is so incredibly long it’s difficult to comprehend it at the human scale.

What we know about these ancient living creatures, we know through fossils. Sure, we complement findings with computer models and the ecological principles we’ve discovered, but fossils are still the pillar of our knowledge of ancient life. But it takes special conditions for a fossil to form, and the results we’ve discovered so far are few and far between compared to the mind-blowing diversity our planet has witnessed.

To make matters even worse, our planet is an active environment and tectonic movement (and other geological processes) can destroy fossils and other clues about ancient environments. So to sum it up, remnants of life are rare, and even those rare bits are often destroyed by the Earth’s geology. Now, think about it this way: wouldn’t the same thing happen to evidence of an ancient civilization?

Remnants of a civilization

If humanity went extinct tomorrow, what would be left of us? The buildings, roads, and all the infrastructure — for a while. They would be engulfed by vegetation in a few years, and almost everything would be destroyed in a few centuries. After a million years, you probably won’t see any evidence that mankind ever existed — at the surface, anyway.

A diligent scientist one million years in the future might be able to tell that a civilization once existed. He’d find isotopic evidence of atomic explosions, an unnatural rise in CO2 emissions, perhaps even some remnants of former structures — but all these have essentially happened in the past century. In their new study, Gavin A. Schmidt (a climatologist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies) and Adam Frank (an astronomer from the University of Rochester) address this conundrum: are we the first civilization on Earth, and what does this mean for finding life on other planets?

Based on recent astronomical findings, we know that there is a huge number of stars in the galaxy, many of them harboring stars in the habitable zone. The number of planets capable of hosting life might be very high, thus also increasing the chances of intelligent life forms emerging. Scientists are looking for extraterrestrial life more and more — but what about here on Earth, what if there is a previous civilization we’ve still yet to discover? What if we are the scientists million of years in the future, hunting for an ancient industrialized civilization, what would we find?

You’d start with the air, researchers write.

“Since the mid-18th Century, humans have released over 0.5 trillion tons of fossil carbon via the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, at a rate orders of magnitude faster than natural long-term sources or sinks. In addition, there has been widespread deforestation and addition of carbon dioxide into the air via biomass burning.”

You’d move on to geomorphological features, like increased rates of sediment flow in rivers and its deposition in coastal environments, as a result of agricultural processes, deforestation, and the digging of canals. Then, you’d move on to biology, looking for evidence of domesticated animals. But the biggest smoking gun would be synthetic materials. The presence of synthetic materials, plastics, and radioactive elements (caused by nuclear power or nuclear testing) could also leave a significant mark on the geological record, and isotopes could last for millions of years. Finally, you’d look for extinctions caused by the rise of said civilization.

“The clearest class of event with such similarities are the hyperthermals, most notably the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (56 Ma), but this also includes smaller hyperthermal events, ocean anoxic events in the Cretaceous and Jurassic, and significant (if less well characterized) events of the Paleozoic,” researchers continue.

A comparison between the Earth and Mars.

After tightening these constraints for Earth, they move on to what we might potentially see on other planets. Mars and Venus might have been habitable millions of years ago, and if we want to see if this was the case, we need to know what to look for.

“We note here that abundant evidence exists of surface water in ancient Martian climates (3.8 Ga), and speculation that early Venus (2 Ga to 0.7 Ga) was habitable (due to a dimmer sun and lower CO2 atmosphere) has been supported by recent modeling studies,” they state. “Conceivably, deep drilling operations could be carried out on either planet in future to assess their geological history. This would constrain consideration of what the fingerprint might be of life, and even organized civilization.”

Journal Reference: The Silurian Hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record? arxiv.org/abs/1804.03748

Stupa mound and Great Bath in Mohenjo daro.

What was the Indus Valley Civilization: the forgotten superpower of the ancient world

One of the most advanced and mysterious ancient society, the Indus River Valley civilization, was completely lost to history until the 1920s.

Stupa mound and Great Bath in Mohenjo daro.

The ruins of Mohenjo daro (“Hill of the Dead”), one of the jewels of the Indus Valley Civilization and the ancient world.

Some five millennia ago, a people settling the lands between today’s Afganistan, northwest India, and Pakistan rose to the forefront of civilization, knowledge, and sophistication at the time. The echoes of their achievements still awe us to this day, betraying a level of civilization almost unimaginable for a society that had, ultimately, risen directly from the Stone Age.

But this beacon of antiquity crumbled and was forgotten, likely under the weight of issues that fall worryingly close to those of today: food and water insecurity powered by climate change.

Who were the Harappans?

The Indus River Valley civilization, also known as the Harappan civilization after the first site of their discovery, is a Bronze Age culture that spanned roughly from 3300 to 1300 BC. It stood toe to toe with the three other ancient heavyweights of the world — Egypt, Mesopotamia, and ancient China — often surpassing their scientific achievements; out of the four ancient cradles of civilization, the people of the Indus Valley could claim to be the largest and arguably most prosperous.

Their success was built on a solid agricultural base (they grew various crops, from dates to cotton, in the fertile soils of the valley) and cutting-edge technologies, including indoor plumbing, sophisticated city-planning and public sewage systems, breakthroughs in crafting techniques, writing, and one of the most advanced understandings of metallurgy at the time. They also seem to have been a peaceful people; despite their skill with metal, we’ve found strikingly few Harappan weapons. Not the same thing can be said about their children’s toys, however, of which they seemingly couldn’t get enough of, both in quantity and variety.

The Harappans were one of the most mysterious groups to, tragically, never truly make it out of antiquity. Despite its status as an economic, technological, and social powerhouse, the Harappan civilization simply fell apart in a span of two or three centuries. The reasons as to why this happened are still a subject of passionate debate and they may be more relevant now than ever before.


Ten Indus Scripts.

The Ten Indus Scripts, discovered near the northern gateway of the Dholavira citadel in India. Image via Wikipedia.

In 1856, British colonial officials in India were busy overseeing a railway construction project between the cities of Lahore and Karachi (today part of Pakistan), right along the valley of the Indus River. Digs performed as part of this effort stumbled upon an incredible stash of artifacts — hundreds of thousands of fire-baked bricks, buried in the dry terrain. They looked quite old, but some were nevertheless used for the railway’s track ballast or its roadbed. Soon, exquisitely-carved soapstone (steatite) artifacts were also making an appearance throughout the bricks. Unwittingly, these workers had unearthed the first slivers of a civilization lost in the depths of time.

Despite the sheer size of the discovery, major excavations didn’t start until much later. This is quite vexing, as the first recorded notes regarding the civilization come from 1826, penned by a British army deserter named James Lewis/Charles Masson, who noticed the presence of mounded ruins at the small local town of Harappa while posing as an American engineer. Partly, this exploratory lag came down to archaeologists assuming the bricks and ruins were crafted during the Maurya Empire, which dominated India between 322 and 185 BCE. It was only after excavation works started at the site in 1920 under John Marshall, then the director of the Archaeological Survey of India, that it became clear they were dealing with another culture altogether.

The newly re-discovered civilization would receive its name from this site at Harappa, and pushed the known history of India back by at least 1,500 years. In the meantime, archaeologists have scrambled to understand the Indus River Valley civilization — but we’ve been able to confirm frustratingly little from all we’ve found.

Size and origin

Late Harappan.

The Harappans at their peak.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Harappans seem to hail from a town named Mehgarh, nestled in the foothills of a mountain pass in today’s western Pakistan. Evidence points to human habitation in the area as far back as 7000 BC. Archaeologists have broken their evolution down into three steps or phases:

  • Early Harappan from 3300 to 2600 BC,
  • Mature Harappan from 2600 to 1900 BC, towards the end of which the civilization starts going into decline, and
  • Late Harappan from 1900 to 1300 BC, marked by violence, breakdowns in social order, the abandonment of most settlements, and the eventual extinction of the Indus Valley people.

But while things were going well for the Harappans, they were really good. So far, more than 1,052 Harappan cities and settlements have been found, mainly in the general region of the Indus River and its tributary rivers. At their peak, they are estimated to have numbered five million souls.

Culture, language, and beliefs

One of the reasons why we can’t figure out what the Harappans were up to that well is because of their writing. We know they had a system of writing, because we found some of their texts, etched on clay and stone tablets dated between 3300-3200 BC, at Harappa. These appear to have been written right to left in a script which we, unfortunately, don’t understand. The symbols resemble plant and trident-like shapes and are completely unlike anything we’ve ever seen. This has led many researchers to believe that Harappan script evolved independently of those in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or China.

It also means that we don’t actually know any Harappan words, the name of their cities, or what they called themselves. We refer to them by names we ourselves have given them — just something to keep in mind as you read further on.

Indus script.

Samples of Indus script.
Image via omniglot.

In the absence of any known names or words, without any bi-lingual texts or clear cultural ties to compare or infer from, it’s nigh-impossible to understand the script of a dead language. But it does have the hallmarks of a language, researchers have found, a conclusion that is sure to goad curiosity further.

“At this point, we can say that the Indus script seems to have statistical regularities that are in line with natural languages,” said Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington researcher who led a study in 2009 analyzing if Indus script shows ‘conditional entropy’, a structural semi-predictability that underlies functional languages.

Indus Valley religion also eludes our understanding. Unlike their Egyptian and Mesopotamian counterparts, the Harappans didn’t build any temples or palaces (that we know of), so we don’t have any evidence pointing to specific deities or their religious practices. However, many of their artifacts (in the form of seals) showcase animals. Some depict them being carried in a ceremony, while others include downright mythological creatures such as unicorns. Thus, some researchers have speculated that religion in the Indus Valley centered, in some way, on animals. Others have suggested that the animals on these seals instead signified one’s membership to a group such as a clan, social class, so forth. Until more evidence is gleaned, neither can be fully supported or refuted.

We have, however, found ample evidence of Harappan art and culture, including sculptures, seals, pottery, gold jewelry, as well as anatomically detailed figurines in terracotta, bronze, and steatite.

Indus valley artifacts.

Left: Indus priest or king statue. The statue is 17.5 cm high and carved from steatite. It was found in Mohenjo-daro in 1927. Right: A collection of Indus valley seals with their molds.
Images via Wikimedia, modified.

The evidence points to a flourishing culture, but their inscrutable texts, in particular, spell doom for our understanding of how these people ruled themselves — legal codes, procedures, and systems of governance, after all, are rooted in written documents. This, again, is highly frustrating, as we’re going to see that the Harappans were extremely adept at ordering and coordinating their society, for the benefits of all those it harbored.

Science and know-how

One of the most striking features of Harrapan society was their propensity for standardization. Pottery and seals use surprisingly similar proportions. Bricks are virtually identical in size, shape, weight, and material, even among different cities. Weighs used in trading are also virtually identical. The level of standardization is so high, in fact, that some researchers claim it could only be the product of a single state authority enforcing them on all communities in the area. However, the pointed scarcity of weapons makes it more likely that the Indus Valley people were led by a number of leaders representing each major community or cluster of communities, all working together voluntarily. This view is supported by studies on Indus graves and human remains that show everyone enjoyed similar health. The relative scarcity of elite burials suggests they had no rulers, as we understand the term, and that everyone enjoyed equal status.

Lothal Drainage System.

Remains of a washroom drainage system in Lothal. Notice the quality bricks, millennia old, used for its construction.
Image via Wikimedia.

While most of the Harappan settlements were only villages or small towns, the civilization had several large urban centers. Among those we’ve found are Harappa, Ganeriwala, and Mohenjo-daro in modern-day Pakistan and Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar, and Lothal in modern-day India. Out of the lot, Mohenjo-daro became the largest city of the Indus Valley Civilization and holds the multiple distinction of being one of the world’s first major urban centers, as well as, at the time, one of the most sophisticated cities in the world and a global architectonical and engineering masterpiece.

The Harappan fire-baked brick was produced and used on a massive scale in construction. Not only were they surprisingly standardized, as we’ve seen, but they also took a lot more time, effort, specialized know-how, and resources to produce than sun-baked bricks, which were the norm at the time. One undeniable advantage that fire-baked bricks had (apart from being sturdier than sun-dried ones) was that they were perfectly water-proof — a quality we’ll see the Harappans putting to good use. It’s possible that this ability to carry water is what warranted, at least in part, the use of more costly and harder to produce fire-baked bricks in the Indus Valley.

The ruins of their major cities show that a lot of effort went into urban planning. Houses, workshops, and trading spots each formed distinct neighborhoods, and cities had well-organized wastewater drainage and trash collection systems, granaries, even public baths. This efficient layout further suggests that local governments were present and of high quality, working with great efficiency and aiming particularly to maintain public hygiene (or possibly, religious ritual).

Both Harappa and Mohenjo-daro featured citadels, heavily fortified areas thick with defensive structures — a feature other important and well-off cities likely shared. They had administrative (or, again, possibly religious) centers that were also fortified. The walls are speculated to have played a double role, protecting the Harappans both from invasions and floods.

Another distinctive feature of the Indus people was that they didn’t really build to awe. We know they were able to build impressive structures, as they show an advanced understanding of architecture with dockyards, granaries, cisterns, warehouses, and fortifications. But there’s no conclusive evidence that they ever built any palaces. Neither of temples. In fact, the largest Indus buildings we’ve found so far were likely granaries. The nearest thing we’ve found to a ‘monument’ is in Mohenjo-daro — the Great Bath, a public bathing and social area.

Great Bath.

Why build a mountain of limestone for one dude to be buried in when you can have a bath for everyone to enjoy? I like how these Harappan people roll.
Image via Pinterest.

In addition to architecture and urban theory, Harappans made repeated breakthroughs in metalworking (which was the day’s rocket science), working copper, tin, lead, and bronze. They were skilled craftsman, as shown by their intricate works in stone, carnelian, bone, ivory, and a wide range of other common, precious, and semi-precious materials. Harappans are also considered the heralds of wheel-turned pottery in India.

They also made important advances in transport technology, being a contender for the “first civilization to use the wheel” prize, in the form of oxcarts that are pretty much identical to those seen today throughout South Asia. Sailing was also, by all evidence, serious business for the Indus Valley people, who built boats and sea-worthy ships. This is supported by the discovery of a massive dredged canal and a suspected docking facility in Lothal, on the Indian Ocean’s coast, and the use of seashells in their arts and crafts.

Money and economy

The Harappans nurtured one of the most impressive ancient trade empires. Drawing on their improved transport technologies, they maintained maritime trade networks extending from the Middle East to Central Asia. Evidence for these networks includes Harappian shellwork, found as far as the Arabian Gulf in Oman, as well as seals and jewelry found at archaeological sites in regions of Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq-Kuwait-Syria area). There’s also speculation that Harappian traders traversed long distances over water in ships made of planks, with a single mast and a sail of cloth or woven rushes.

Ceramics from the area show similarities to those from northern Iran between 4300 and 3200 BC, suggesting trade between these areas during that time. Similarities in pottery, seals, figurines, and ornaments from Central Asia and the Iranian plateau during the Early Harappan suggests land trade was established to these areas during the time.

Trade focused mostly on securing raw materials which were used to fuel Harappan workshops. Imports included minerals from Iran and Afghanistan, lead and copper from other parts of India, jade from China, and cedar wood floated down rivers from the Himalayas and Kashmir. Other traded items included terracotta pots, processed metals, gold and silver, tool-grade flints, as well as jewelry and its associated materials: beads, seashells, pearls, and colored gemstones, such as lapis lazuli and turquoise.


By around 1800 BC, the Indus Valley Civilization was starting to crack. A widely-accepted theory is that they fell to a nomadic Indo-European tribe called Aryans, which invaded and subsequently conquered the Harappians. Evidence in support of this comes from the fact that cities were being abandoned at the time and an increase in the apparent incidence of violence and violent death — which both fit with what you’d expect to see in a war zone.

More recent evidence, however, contradicts this theory. Some experts believe that the collapse was caused by climate change. By 1800 BC, the whole area grew colder and drier, and it’s suspected that tectonic movements in the area heavily disrupted or diverted the rivers on which the Harappans relied. The drying of the Saraswati River, which began around 1900 BC, is believed to be a major driver of these local changes. Combined with monsoon-associated periods of flooding and drought, these changes in river patterns splintered the once-monolithic block of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Farmers fled eastwards, towards the basin of the Ganges. While the river allowed them to re-establish villages and farms, these communities could not dream to produce the same agricultural surplus as the Indus River basin and the extensive irrigation systems built there. Faced with starvation, large cities tore themselves apart or vacuated for rural settings. Without their craftsmen, trade with Egypt and Mesopotamia shriveled and then ended altogether.

This latter theory is supported by the presence of Indus Civilization elements in later cultures, called Harappan cultures, more in line with a slow decline than a fast disappearance at sword-point.

Whatever the reason, by around 1700 BCE, most of the Indus Valley Civilization cities had been abandoned. With them, the Harappan people’s stars waned, never to recover.

4000 years of human civilizations charted, the Histomap

Created by John B. Sparks and first printed by Rand McNally, the Histomap started selling in 1931 for the price of US$1. Folded in a green cover that advertised it as “clear, vivid, and shorn of elaboration,” and promising to  “hold you enthralled”, the 5-foot-long work of historic awesomeness aims to deliver big:

The actual picture of the march of civilization, from the mud huts of the ancients thru the monarchistic glamour of the middle ages to the living panorama of life in present day America.


The original green cover of the Histomap Image via library.yale.edu


And it does so splendidly.

This giant, ambitious chart fit neatly with a trend in nonfiction book publishing of the 1920s and 1930s in which all-encompassing subjects were refined into a form comprehensible even to the most uneducated layman. The chart emphasizes domination, using color to show how the power of various “peoples” ebbed and flowed throughout history.

The Histomap. Image via slate.com

While the Y axis clearly represents time,  what does the X axis (marked “relative power of contemporary states, nations, and empires”) represent? What does “Power” mean to mister Sparks, and how does one determine the absolute measure of it in a system as complex as human civilizations? Is it a zero sum game, where countries and empires vie for control of as many “shares” of a finite resource (i.e. power) as possible? Is power measured in swords, in gold coins, in acres of land or head of cattle or written words?

Regardless of exactly how the mapmaker determined the power of each civilization, the Histomap is a work of stunning beauty and a good (if possibly subjective) glimpse of the efforts and success of civilizations in human history. Sparks followed up on the success of this Histomap by publishing at least two more: the Histomap of religion (which I’ve been unable to find online) and the Histomap of evolution.

Huge floods might have spelled doom for prevalent American civilization

Megafloods likely wiped out one of the most significant American civilizations, a new study has concluded. Until now, the reason of their demise remained a mystery.

A modeled map of Cahokia and present-day St. Louis after the historic 1844 flood of the Mississippi River.(Samuel Munoz)

The Cahokias were a pretty big deal in the 1100s. Their civilization featured dashing plazas, a complex social structure, and developed cultural practices. They had a huge economic power, dominating the area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and at their peak, their main city hosted tens of thousands of people. But its population started to decline quickly in 1200, and by 1350, its former glory was forgotten, and it was mostly a ghost town. So what happened?

Publishing their findings in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers extracted sediment cores up to 5.5 metres in length from the Horseshoe Lake, representing 2,000 years of deposition. They immediately noticed that something was off – a series of light band fine sediments popped up, something the team dubbed “lake butter” because of their unusually fine and silky texture.

“We had these really strange layers in the core that didn’t have any pollen and they had a really odd texture,” Munoz says. “In fact, one of the students working with us called it ‘lake butter.'”

Samuel Munoz, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and his colleagues dated buttery bands using radiocarbon techniques, and they concluded that they represent periods of massive flooding along the Mississippi River.

“We call the river the ‘Big Muddy’ for a reason,” he adds. “This sediment is essentially the sediment that makes the water muddy and brown.”

To validate the findings, the team also collected sediments from Grassy Lake, roughly 120 miles downstream from Cahoki – they found the same traces. Sissel Schroeder, a professor of anthropology accompanied the researchers to help provide historical and archaeological context for the findings. She said that the geology and radiocarbon dating is consistent with the archaeological finds.

The people of Cahokia built large earthen mounds that survive today. Ira Block/NG Creative

“We see some important changes in the archaeology of the site at this time, including a wooden wall that is built around the central precinct of Cahokia,” she said. “There are shifts in craft production, house size and shape, and other signals in material production that indicate political, social and economic changes that may be associated with social unrest.”

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the floods caused the demise of the Cahokias – it’s just a temporal fit, but there’s no indication of causality. Munoz said:

“Can we say that this flood at 1200 caused the abandonment of Cahokia? No. We can’t say that with any certainty,” he adds. “All we can show is that there is a correspondence in time.”

Larry Benson, adjunct curator of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Natural History Museum has published several papers in which he argued that drought was responsible for their downfall – but it may actually be a combination of the two, adding more stress on the civilization’s agriculture.

“We are not arguing against the role of drought in Cahokia’s decline, but this presents another piece of information,” says Munoz.

“It also provides new information about the flood history of the Mississippi River, which may be useful to agencies and townships interested in reducing the exposure of current landowners and townships to flood risk,” says Williams, a professor of geography and director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Climatic Research.

All in all, this seems to be an important piece of the puzzle – maybe even the decisive one.

“We hope archaeologists can start integrating these flood records into their ideas of what happened at Cahokia and check for evidence of flooding,” says Munoz, who plans to continue studying flood records in lakes around the country once he graduates this year.

Journal Reference: Samuel E. Munoza, Kristine E. Gruley, Ashtin Massie, David A. Fike, Sissel Schroeder, and John W. Williams. Cahokia’s emergence and decline coincided with shifts of flood frequency on the Mississippi River. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1501904112


Spectacular Archaeological Discovery: Lost City Belonging to Mysterious Culture Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest

An expedition in the Honduras has emerged from the jungle with a spectacular announcement: they have discovered the remains of a lost city belonging to an unknown, mysterious culture.

A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.

The team was investigating a lead regarding the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”  La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) is a legendary settlement said to be located in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. Interest in Ciudad Blanca grew in the 1990s as numerous explorers searched for it and news of archeological work in the area was chronicled in popular media but today, many archaeologists and historians doubt it exists. Over 200 archeological sites have been discovered and documented in Mosquitia during the last century, with no palpable indication of the White City… but archaeologists are still giving it a shot.

An unknown culture

The team, which returned from the site less than a week ago, reported finding an entire city from an unknown culture; they surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid, as well as numerous spectacular stone statues. All the findings show that the culture thrived for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of years before disappearing.

nat geo 3

Anna Cohen, a University of Washington anthropology grad student, documents a cache of more than 50 artifacts discovered in the jungle. Following scientific protocol, no objects were removed from the site. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


Contrary to the nearby Maya civilization, which is well known and studied, we don’t even have a name for this one – until recently, no one even knew they existed. Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.”

“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”

No less than 52 artifacts were found peeking from the earth, while even more potentially lie below, buried; they may have been an offering or part of a ritual. Out of all of them, the most spectacular find is a type of “were-jaguar”, depicting what seems to be a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. It could also be a part of a ritualized ball game that mesoamerican cultures are known to have played.

“The figure seems to be wearing a helmet,” said Fisher. Team member Oscar Neil Cruz, head archaeologist at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), believes the artifacts date to A.D. 1000 to 1400.

Needless to say, the location has not been disclosed to the public, to protect the site from looters.

Surveying the unknown

The ruins were first identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, which is basically a network of swamps, rivers, mountains and rainforests. The survey was done with a LIDAR scanner, a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. The LIDAR is able to map the ground and identify man-made structures even through (or in some cases, under) the thick rainforest.

A unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God.

As scientists were analysing and processing the images, they started to observe an emerging pattern – unnatural features stretching for more than a mile through the valley. They quickly learned that the entire terrain had been altered by humans, and this could only mean one thing – a long lasting civilization reshaped the environment by hand. Ceremonial architecture, giant earthworks and house mounds, possible irrigation canals and reservoirs, all led Fisher to conclude that the settlement was, indeed, a pre-Columbian city.

But nothing in archaeology is confirmed until it is observed on the ground level, so the team set to find and observe the place for themselves.

“The ground exploration team consisted of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and support personnel. Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security. The National Geographic Society sent a photographer and a writer,” writes National Geographic.

The expedition confirmed the LIDAR expectations, and found even more spectacular features. While they may have not found the White City, they found something which can be even more important – a lost civilization.

“This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America,” said the expedition’s ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, who spent 30 years in Amazonia. “The importance of this place can’t be overestimated.”

Indeed, it seems very likely that the rainforests both in South and Central America harbor ancient, yet undiscovered civilizations. In 2013, archaeologist and professor Martti Pärssinen from the University of Helsinki found evidence of an entirely new, unknown civilization in the rainforests in Brazil. But the problem is that these clues might not be around forever. Deforestation is running rampant throughout the entire continent, with huge swaths of forests being cleared out illegally, to make way for agriculture or cattle (or simply for wood sale).

In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.

Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the Institute for Anthropology and History (IHAH) made a grim estimate about the future of the area:

“If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”

Hopefully, the removal of the rainforests can be stopped or at least heavily slowed down soon – if not for these amazing cultures, then for the planet.

Source: National Geographic.


Schools not inspiring students to participate in civic life


  • Schools in the US are failing on teaching children civic involvement
  • Simply learning facts about democracy (for example) is not nearly enough
  • Educators should get their hands dirty and focus more on controversial issues



More and more researchers, teachers and educators are starting to support the idea of a major revolution in education. Now, a new report argues for an overhaul in civics education, saying students aren’t being taught how to become engaged in society.

It’s been understood by many for quite a while that focusing on professional skills in schools is simply not enough – school has a major social component, its main purpose is helping and/or enabling students to become useful members of society in the best way they can. Stanford Graduate School of Education Professor William Damon explains that the U.S. educational system is falling down on its job.

William Damon.

William Damon.

“It’s an urgent issue if this country wants to succeed as a democracy,” said Damon, who directs the Stanford Center on Adolescence, which published the report with the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington-Seattle. Heather Malin, a research associate with the Center on Adolescence, is also one of the co-authors.

His report stresses that being prepared for civic life is not about learning facts about democracy, civil rights and history. Curriculum must also incorporate a sense of belonging and involvement in the civic and even political matters, instilling the true values of democracy.

“A common grounding in the history, values and workings of the American constitutional tradition is essential to ensure access and dedication to citizenship for all students in our increasingly diverse society,” the report says.

The report suggests more emphasis on ideas and concepts such as liberty, equality, opportunity, justice, independence and interdependence. Another thing that is underlined is the importance of understanding power – who has it, what does this mean – and what this means for the general society.

Moreover, educators shouldn’t shy away from delicate subjects that may involve political and ideological controversy, urging them to ‘get their hands dirty’. However, they shouldn’t inspire their own ideas and beliefs, leaving the children to form their own opinions and discussions.

“Democracy in practice is emotionally exhilarating and often conflict-ridden. Civic education should reflect this,” the report says.

Active participation is a must; opportunities for involvement in civic and politic matters form an integral part of this type of education.

“This revitalized view of civics is all about inspiring and motivating kids to internalize the values of democracy and get involved,” Malin said. “Learning about how they can be part of the power structure and influence society is empowering for them.”

You can read the full report here: “Youth Civic Development and Education“.

Finnish archaeologist digs up ancient civilization in Brazil

Archaeologist and professor Martti Pärssinen from the University of Helsinki has made a sensational find: he found signs of a unknown ancient civilisation in the Amazonian area, unearthing several unique artefacts, including entirely new forms of ceramics.

civilization 1

As bad as the clearing of Amazonian rainforests is, Pärssinen took advantage of it and studied some mysterious patterns in the earth. The large-scale patterns are best visible from the air, and he took several pictures from up above. The geometrical patterns mostly consisted of mounds and moats, many of them being huge, with sides measuring a few hundreds of meters; over 300 such structures were found in the Brazilian state of Acre alone. The construction feat has been compared by archaeologists to the pyramids in Egypt – Pärssinen believes just as much work (if not more) has been put into it.

“We are talking of enourmous structures, with diameters ranging from 100 to 300 meters, connected by straight orthogonal roads. They are strategically located on plateaux tops above the river valleys. Their builders took advantage of the natural topography in order to construct spaces that were full of symbolic meaning.”, said Denise Schaan, co-author of the study and anthropologist at the Federal University of Pará, in Belém, Brazil.


The find has been a sensation and it put the entire Amazon basin in an entire new different light, as it was previously thought that only a few wandering tribes inhabited it – no significant civilization. Graduate student Ivandra Rampanelli from Spain’s University of València says the patterns are rewriting the history of habitation of the Amazon – an area which was thought to be sparsely populated. The finding also demolished the idea that soils in the upper Amazon were too poor to support extensive agriculture.

[Also Read: The most fascinating unexplained artifacts]

Radiocarbon dating conducted on the construction show that the earliest ones were built some 2.000 years ago, and the civilization hit an abrupt decline, virtually disappearing some 700 years ago, possibly due to diseases carried by Europeans.

civilization 3

“The geoglyphs are an astonishing discovery. They do not represent the ancient city full of gold long sought by the early explorers of the Amazon, but they are indeed an El Dorado to archaelogists: they are the vestiges of a sophisticated pre-Columbian monument-building society.”, added Denise Schaan.

Among the recovered artefacts archaeologists noted 300 kilograms of pot shards, some of which feature ornamentation totally unknown to science, while some suggest distant connections to civilizations in the Andes. Pärssinen couldn’t be more happy, as the discoverer of this long lost civilization.

Full Article.