Tag Archives: maya

Archaeologists find 1,000-year-old Mayan canoe in underwater cave in Mexico

The canoe is dated to between 830 CE and 950 CE. Credit: INAH.

Divers found a perfectly preserved wooden canoe used by the ancient Maya submerged in an underwater cavern in southern Mexico. The almost completely intact canoe is believed to be almost 1,000 years old and is now recognized as the most well preserved Mayan boat ever found.

According to archaeologists from the Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) in Mexico, the canoe was likely used to transport water from the cenote near the ruins of Chichén Itzá or deposit ritual offerings. A cenote is basically a sinkhole filled with freshwater, thousands of which dot the Yucatán peninsula.

The extraordinary discovery was made almost by accident while archaeologists were surveying the area before it might get destroyed by a controversial train project. The so-called Maya Train is supposed to connect Mexico’s poorest southern states with richer regions and promote tourism. But critics, among them prominent native figures, believe the new railroad will do more harm than good, potentially threatening hundreds, maybe thousands of archaeological sites like the cenote at Chichén Itzá.

The cenote where the ancient Mayan canoe was found. Credit: INAH.

While diving in the cenote, archaeologists found a cave about 4.5 meters (15 feet) below the water level. Inside the cave, they found the canoe. But they also explored an ancient well and nearby deep valley where they discovered mural paintings, a ceremonial knife, and fragments of 40 pottery vessels that were likely intentionally broken as part of ritual events. Collectively, these artifacts suggest that the canoe was also involved in ritualistic activities.

The canoe is over 1.6 meters (5 feet) long and 80 centimeters (2.5 feet) wide, and preliminary research suggests that it dates to between 830 CE and 950 CE. However, a sample was sent to Sorbonne University in Paris where scientists there will perform a dendrochronological analysis (tree ring counting) to provide a more precise dating.

Archaeologists also found pottery and a knife close to the Mayan boat. Credit: INAH.

If the currently estimated dating is confirmed, that would mean the canoe was employed very close to the height of Maya civilization. During this zenith, there were dozens of cities scattered across southern Mexico and Central America, which were home to as many as ten million people, and the Maya made important achievements in math and art.

According to INAH, archaeologists have already commissioned a 3-d model of the canoe, which they hope to release soon in order to facilitate further research and the manufacturing of full-scale replicas.

Ancient Maya ruins digitized by laser aerial survey

Archaeology in the 21st century looks radically different than what you might expect. While archaeologists still get their boots wet and perform fieldwork, trowels and picks in hand, their modern toolkit also includes artificial intelligence algorithms that reveal new hidden statistical patterns in ancient samples or state-of-the-art lasers that shoot billions of beams per minute from an aircraft onto the ground. It’s this latter combination of lasers, known as LIDAR, and AI that allowed researchers to uncover hidden ancient Maya ruins that had been obstructed by vegetation and the wear of the passing centuries.

3D image of Labna, an ancient Maya structure in the Puuc region. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

Thanks to LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology, archaeologists don’t have to wander endlessly through the jungle in search of artifacts and hidden ruins. By strapping LiDAR to a low-flying aircraft, it’s possible to survey thousands of square kilometers of terrain at a time.

LiDAR or 3D laser scanning was developed in the early 1960s for submarine detection from an aircraft. It works by generating a laser pulse train that can travel through the gaps of dense vegetation. By calculating the time it takes for the laser pulse to reflect back to its source, researchers can determine the elevation of the ground. This way, archaeologists can identify human-made features on the ground, such as walls, roads, and buildings.

Archeologists have put LIDAR to good use while surveying Mayan sites before. In 2018, LIDAR revealed more than 60,000 hidden Maya structures at the site of Tikal in Guatemala. In 2020, the laser-based tech led to the discovery of the largest and oldest Maya monument, found in the Mexican state of Tabasco.

Now, LIDAR has been deployed to the northern Yucatán Peninsula, at an area of limestone hills and valleys known as the Puuc region, in present-day Mexico. Appropriately, Puuc is the Maya word for “hill”.

It was at Puuc that one of the greatest Mayan cities, Uxmal, evolved, reaching its apogee between AD 600 and 900. William Ringle, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Davidson College in North Carolina, has spent over 20 years doing groundwork in the Puuc region, which is home to four large acropolises that had been documented since the 1940s. But thanks to a few LIDAR aerial surveys in 2017, Ringle’s team discovered more about the Maya site than in the past two decades.

Ruins of a two-story Maya palace. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
Another Maya ruin from Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
A ruined structure that used to divide the Plaza Icim from the Plaza Yaxche in the Puuc region. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

Writing in a study published this week in the journal PLOS One, Ringle and colleagues described how they identified over 1,200 ovens, about 8,000 platforms for dwellings, artificial reservoirs, terraces for farming, and a rock quarry for construction materials.

3D overview of Labna palace at Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.
A ruin east of Kiuic built by the Maya in Puuc. Credit: Proyecto Arqueológico Regional de Bolonchén.

According to the researchers, a large number of circular ovens were likely used to heat sandstone in order to extract lime, an essential material used for mortar and to help soften maize. Before the LIDAR survey, archaeologists identified around 40 ovens. “Now, with lidar, we have a sample of over 1,230,” Ringle told Live Science.” They’re all over the place. And that indicates that it was a pretty big industry in the Puuc.” 

The area was also home to a burgeoning stoneworking industry. Most of the buildings identified by the researchers were masonry houses, suggesting that Puuc was highly prosperous. These included civic buildings known as early Puuc civic complexes, which involved several buildings with a plaza that were connected via elevated causeways.

LIDAR of houses at the Maya sites of Acambalam (B) and Kiuic (C). Credit: Ringle et al, PLOS ONE.
LIDAR of Middle Preclassic civic instructures. Credit: Ringle et. al, PLOS ONE.

The civic and religious structures erected had a distinctive style: stone facades embellished with mosaics and friezes and the prolific depiction of Chac, the Mayan rain god. 

One by one, after about AD 900, the Puuc cities were abandoned and swallowed up by the forest until they were“discovered” by later explorers and archaeologists.

Ancient 2,500-year-old mural depicts exchange of salt as a commodity

At the ancient Maya site of Calakmul in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, archaeologists have found a striking 2,500-year-old mural depicting an exchange of salt between a vendor and a buyer. It is the earliest record of salt as a commodity.

The mural was found at Calakmul, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Credit: Rogelio Valencia, Proyecto Arqueológico Calakmul.

Salt has always been an important resource across the ancient world. As far back as 6050 BC, salt has occupied a central role for countless civilizations from China to Egypt.  It served as currency at various times and places, and it has been the cause of bitter warfare.

In addition to its very practical role, salt has also played a vital part in religious rituals in many cultures, symbolizing purity. It is one of the most effective and most widely used of all food preservatives, which is why salt — also referred to as “white gold” — has always had crucial importance economically.

Although we now see salt as a cheap food ingredient, its rich history still touches our daily lives in more ways than we realize. The word “salary”, for instance, is derived from the word “sal”, the Latin word for salt. That’s because in ancient times, salt was so valuable that soldiers in the Roman army were sometimes paid with salt instead of hard currency. This monthly allowance was called “salarium”.

It’s no wonder to learn that salt occupied a central economic role among the ancient Maya as well. Archaeologists headed by Heather McKillop from Louisiana State University recently documented an ancient mural from Calakmul in which a salt vendor is shown handing out a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person. The latter is holding a large spoon over a basket.

The salt was transported by canoe up the river. Credit: Heather McKillop, LSU.

Since 2004, Mckillop has uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence related to ancient Maya salt trade networks. These include the remnants of ‘salt kitchens’ — buildings made of pole and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in the saltwater lagoons of the mangrove forests in Belize. 

The Maya would use these spots to extract salt by boiling brine in pots over fires. So far, the researchers have mapped 70 sites that comprise an extensive network of rooms and buildings known as the Paynes Creek Salt Works.

This must have been an industrial-scale operation, as the archaeologists have identified 4,042 submerged architectural wooden posts, a canoe, an oar, a high-quality jadeite tool, stone tools used to salt fish and meat, and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

Fragment of pottery that was used thousands of years ago to boil brine and extract salt. Credit: Heather McKillop, LSU.

Alongside this recently described mural, this evidence suggests that salt cakes were transported in canoes along the coast and up rivers in southern Belize, the researchers wrote in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

“I think the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-vendors and they would take the salt by canoe up the river. They were making large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. This was their living,” said McKillop in a statement.

Two of McKillop’s students even replicated some of the ancient Maya pottery using a 3d printer based on scans taken in Belize of some of the hundreds of pieces of pottery investigated at the site. This confirmed that the ceramic jars in which the Maya boiled the brine were standardized in volume.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” McKillop said.

Largest and oldest Maya monument forces archaeologists to rethink how the civilization evolved

From ground level, you wouldn’t realize what you’re standing on. But laser data gathered by archaeologists reveals a stunningly large monument.

The monument measures nearly 4,600 feet in length (1,400 meters), is up to 50 feet (15 meters) high, and includes nine wide causeways.

Lidar data revealing the monument, along with the location of excavations. Credits: Inomata et al / Nature.

The Mexican state of Tabasco, close to the border with Guatemala, is known for its cuisine, culture, and archaeology. Much of that is owed to the Maya and Olmec civilizations that inhabited the area centuries ago.

But archaeologists had no idea that such a huge monument was hiding beneath the surface. The fact that it was so huge only worked to hide it even better.

Oftentimes, buried or half-buried archaeological features aren’t visible to the naked eye, but they can easily reveal their secrets to lidar — or light detection and ranging — technology. Laser beams are sent from a plane or drone, penetrating the forest canopy and revealing the surface features on the ground in three-dimensional form. It is exactly this approach that revealed the sprawling Mayan monument.

3D image of the site of Aguada Fenix based on LIDAR. Credits: Inomata et al / Nature.

University of Arizona professors in the School of Anthropology Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan noticed something was off when they looked at lidar data from the Mexican government, but couldn’t really assess what they were dealing with. So they went and carried a more detailed lidar survey.

“Using low-resolution lidar collected by the Mexican government, we noticed this huge platform. Then we did high-resolution lidar and confirmed the presence of a big building,” Inomata said. “This area is developed—it’s not the jungle; people live there—but this site was not known because it is so flat and huge. It just looks like a natural landscape. But with lidar, it pops up as a very well-planned shape.”

The immense Mayan platform is a remarkable find in itself, but it also has significance for the overall history of the Maya civilization. It was thought that the early Mayans only lived in small villages up until about 350 BC, but this new monument might force us to rethink that timeline.

The team excavated the site and radiocarbon-dated 69 samples of charcoal to determine that it was constructed sometime between 1,000 to 800 BC, which makes this not only the largest Mayan monument ever found — but also the oldest.

The monument is also similar to those produced by the older Olmec civilization center of San Lorenzo to the west in the Mexican state of Veracruz. This seems to add more weight to the idea that the two civilizations are somehow related, researchers say.

“There has always been debate over whether Olmec civilization led to the development of the Maya civilization or if the Maya developed independently,” Inomata said. “So, our study focuses on a key area between the two.”

Seriously, how could you have guessed such a huge monument is hidden here? Image credits: Takeshi Inomata.

Large ancient structures aren’t necessarily just for pharaohs

It’s not fully clear why the role of the monument was. The period in which this was built marked a gap in power — after the decline of the Olmec San Lorenzo complex, and before the rise of another one. It was a period when different cultural ideas were exchanged in the area, and the monument seems to feature multiple cultural influences. This, along with its sheer size, suggests that it was meant to be used by many people. It is very likely ceremonial in purpose, but the researchers stop short of speculating.

It’s also noteworthy that the monument appeared in a period when there was less inequality in Mayan society. These large-scale monuments typically appear in stratified ancient societies, such as that of the Egyptians, for instance. This changes the assumption that it’s only that type of society that can produce monuments, spurring archaeologists to rethink the construction process.

“It’s not just hierarchical social organization with the elite that makes monuments like this possible,” Inomata said. “This kind of understanding gives us important implications about human capability, and the potential of human groups. You may not necessarily need a well-organized government to carry out these kinds of huge projects. People can work together to achieve amazing results.”

“During later periods, there were powerful rulers and administrative systems in which the people were ordered to do the work. But this site is much earlier, and we don’t see the evidence of the presence of powerful elites. We think that it’s more the result of communal work,” he said.

Examples from archaeological digs. Image credits: Inomata et al.

The Maya had a larger environmental footprint than initially thought

The Mayans advanced urban and rural infrastructure altered ecosystems within globally important tropical forests, increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane through burn events and farming, according to a new study.

Impressive ruins, oart of the Maya civilization in Guatemala. Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Understanding agricultural subsistence is vital for understanding past complex societies. Wetland agriculture was often crucial to ancient cultures, and this is particularly what researchers looked at here. While not the first study to look at the environmental footprint of the ancient Maya, this one combined airborne lidar (light detection and ranging) imagery with excavation and dating evidence in wetlands. This allowed researchers to get a birds-eye view of the anthropogenic impact of the Mayans, which they were then able to confirm using data taken from the field.

Researchers concluded the Maya had earlier, more intensive and more wide-ranging anthropogenic impacts on globally important tropical forests than previously known, adding to the evidence for an early and more extensive Anthropocene — the period when human activity began to greatly affect Earth’s environment.

“We now are beginning to understand the full human imprint of the Anthropocene in tropical forests,” said Tim Beach, the study’s lead author. “These large and complex wetland networks may have changed climate long before industrialization, and these may be the answer to the long-standing question of how a great rainforest civilization fed itself.”

The team acquired 250 square kilometers of high precision laser imagery to map the ground beneath a swamp-forest canopy, unveiling the expansive ancient wetland field and canal systems in Belize that the Maya depended on for farming and trade through periods of population shifts, rising sea levels, and drought.

The Birds of Paradise (BOP) ancient Maya wetland field system and parts of the nearby Maya sites of Gran Cacao (bottom-left) and Akab Muclil (top-left) in Northwestern Belize, represented in a digital elevation model that emphasizes anthropogenic features. Credits: T. Beach et al. (University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas).

The Maya faced a set of environmental pressures, including rising sea levels in the Preclassic and Classic periods — 3,000 to 1,000 years ago — and droughts during the Late/Terminal Classic and Early Postclassic periods — 1,200 to 900 years ago. The Maya responded to such pressures by converting forests to wetland field complexes and digging canals to manage water quality and quantity.

“These perennial wetlands were very attractive during the severe Maya droughts, but the Maya also had to be careful with water quality to maintain productivity and human health,” said Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, the study’s co-author.

The researchers believed that the Maya responded to large population shifts and changing demands for food production by expanding their network of fields and canals in areas accessible by canoe to the broader Maya world. Within the fields, the researchers uncovered evidence of multiple ancient food species, such as maize, as well as animal shells and bones, indicating widespread protein harvesting.

Expanding the wetland complexes added atmospheric CO2, through burning events; and methane, through the creation of wetland farming, the study showed. Indeed, the largest premodern increase of methane, from 2,000 to 1,000 years ago, coincides with the rise of Maya wetland networks, as well as those in South America and China.

“Even these small changes may have warmed the planet, which provides a sobering perspective for the order of magnitude greater changes over the last century that are accelerating into the future,” Beach said.

The researchers believe the Maya wetland footprint could be even larger and undiscernible due to modern plowing, aggradation, and draining. Additional research on the region and its surrounding areas is already revealing the extent of wetland networks and how the Maya used them, painting a bigger picture of the Maya’s possible global role in the Early Anthropocene.

“Our findings add to the evidence for early and extensive human impacts on the global tropics, and we hypothesize the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane from burning, preparing and maintaining these field systems contributed to the Early Anthropocene,” Beach said.

Journal Reference: “Ancient Maya wetland fields revealed under tropical forest canopy from laser scanning and multiproxy evidence,” by Timothy Beach et al.

Did the Maya civilization really use chocolate as currency? New study suggests so

Talk about black gold — chocolate was used as coin by the Maya people, and that may have a lot to do with the civilization’s decline.

A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate. Image via Wikipedia.

At the height for their achievements, the Maya developed in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. The culture is known for art, architecture, mathematics, calendar, and astronomical system, as well as its hieroglyphic script — the only known fully developed writing system of the pre-Columbian Americas. But we also owe something else to the Maya, something much more important in our day to day lives: chocolate.

The Maya elite prized chocolate, which they served as an unsweetened beverage. Spanish colonial accounts from the 16h century even mention that the Maya sometimes used cocoa beans — the basis for chocolate — as currency. But was this really the case?

To find out, Joanne Baron, an archaeologist with the Bard Early College Network, started analyzing Mayan artwork from about 250 C.E. to about 900 C.E. The objects she used — murals, ceramic paintings, and carvings — are a valuable source of information even when written accounts aren’t present.

She found that in the earliest periods, no mention of cocoa or chocolate as currency exists. The earliest reference of such goods being used for exchange comes from the mid-7th century: In a painted mural displayed in a pyramid near today’s Guatemalan border, a woman offers a bowl of hot chocolate to a man, in exchange for dough. However, this only shows that chocolate was being bartered — not that it was used as currency, Baron says.

However, things change from about 691 C.E. through 900 C.E. During this period, a number of artistic pieces show commodities delivered to Maya leaders as a tribute or tax. At some point, Mayan kings started receiving cacao and woven cloth as tax, showing that both had become a form of currency.

“They are collecting way more cacao than the palace actually consumes,” she says, adding that the surplus was probably used to pay palace workers or to buy things at the marketplace.

Since cocoa was universally loved by all Mayans, it makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that the drink was used in rituals and important ceremonies, but it was much more prized than maize since cacao trees are susceptible to crop failure and didn’t grow well near Maya cities.

Some researchers speculated that this may have caused significant problems — whenever there was a crop failure, it may have caused cascading economic problems. Baron’s research supports this idea, but while this would have been problematic, it’s unlikely that this was instrumental in the decline of the Maya. They used several types of currencies and would have likely been able to substitute one with the other.

The results have been published in Economic Anthropology.

LiDAR or 3D map of Tikal. Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto.

Scientists find over 60,000 new Maya structures (thanks to LIDAR)

LiDAR or 3D map of Tikal. Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto.

LiDAR or 3D map of Tikal. Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto.

More than 61,000 ancient Maya structures have been uncovered in Guatemala by a team comprised of only 18 researchers. Their secret? Laser tech known as LiDAR that can peer through the dense jungle and create a topographic map of thousands of square miles.

X-raying the jungle for ruins

Tikal (tee-KAL) is a ruined Maya city located in the northern Petén province of Guatemala, which used to be a very important and influential city during the heyday of the Maya Empire (1000 BCE-1500 CE).

The first archaeologists who arrived at Tikal during the late 19th century had to trek several days through the steamy jungle in order to reach the long-lost city.

Today, most of Tikal’s major buildings have been excavated, including structures such as the Plaza of Seven Temples, the Palace at the Central Acropolis and the Lost World complex. However, many other temples, buildings, and roads still lie hidden.

But thanks to modern technology, modern archaeologists don’t have to wander endlessly through the jungle in search for artifacts and hidden ruins.

To peek through the dense vegetation, an international team of researchers strapped LiDAR (light detection and ranging) technology on a low-flying aircraft which surveyed 2,100 square kilometers of terrain around Tikal.

Top: Tikal seen above the trees. Bottom: same view, this time stripped of vegetation by LiDAR. Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto/PACUNAM.

Top: Tikal seen above the trees. Bottom: same view, this time stripped of vegetation by LiDAR. Credit: Luke Auld-Thomas and Marcello A. Canuto/PACUNAM.

LiDAR or 3D laser scanning was developed in the early 1960s for submarine detection from an aircraft. It works by generating a laser pulse train which can travel through the gaps of dense vegetation. By calculating the time it takes for the laser pulse to reflect back to its source, researchers can determine the elevation of the ground. This way, archaeologists can identify human-made features on the ground, such as walls, roads, and buildings.

According to Marcello A. Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane, and Francisco Estrada-Belli, a research assistant professor and director of the Holmul Archaeological Project, the team was able to identify more than 60,000 structures in the Petén forest of Guatemala.

LiDAR map of another Maya settlements north of the ancient city of Tikal. Creidt: Luke Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM.

LiDAR map of another Maya settlements north of the ancient city of Tikal. Creidt: Luke Auld-Thomas/PACUNAM.

The breathtaking video below offers a glimpse of the power of LiDAR and the intricate Mayan structures hidden beneath the canopies.

The new findings suggest that the Mayans used more advanced agriculture practices than previously thought. Roads linking many of the urban centers of the time also suggest that Mayan cities were more closely connected than earlier thought.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Canuto in a statement. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

“Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” Estrada-Belli added.



Chocolate files: from the early days to today’s dark pleasure

Chocolate is… who am I kidding — we all know what chocolate is. It’s sweet, delicious pleasure. But chocolate, this seemingly simple product has a rich and complex history which stems for almost 4,000 years. Before it took the beloved form we know today, chocolate had medicinal and ritualistic uses.

Image via Wikipedia.

The Early Mesoamerican days

The Aztecs and the Maya believed that chocolate was discovered by the gods in the mountains and given to the people — and many people would agree with its divine nature. The Aztecs prized seeds so much they could be used as currency, while the Maya had a cacao god called Ek Chuaj. But the first mentions of chocolate go way back, much more than the Aztecs and the Maya.

This Maya representation of the two gods Chac and IxChel exchanging Cacao provides evidence for the mesoamerican idea of divinity in Chocolate. Image via Oregon State University.

The first ground beans of the Theobroma cacao (cacao tree), can be traced to the Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people, with evidence of chocolate beverages dating back to 1900 BC, almost 4 millennia ago. However, the warm, liquid form of chocolate they enjoyed back then is very different to what we’re familiar with. Back then, the drink wasn’t sweet and was laden with chili powder and other strong spices; yes, the drink — chocolate was prepared as a drink for most of its history.

The Mayan glyph for cacao.

The Mayan glyph for cacao.

There are indications that from the very beginning, chocolate was regarded as curative and played an important cultural role. While researchers don’t agree which Mesoamerican culture first domesticated the cacao tree, it seems safe to say that people have been doing this since at least 1900 BC.

In November 2008, anthropologists from the University of Pennsylvania announced the discovery of cacao residue on pottery excavated in Honduras that could date back as far as 1400 B.C.E. But what’s even more spectacular about their discovery is that the sweet pulp of the cacao fruit, which surrounds the beans, was fermented into an alcoholic drink – that’s right, people got drunk on chocolate over 3,000 years ago!

“Who would have thought, looking at this, that you can eat it?” said Richard Hetzler, executive chef of the café at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, as he displayed a fresh cacao pod during a recent chocolate-making demonstration. “You would have to be pretty hungry, and pretty creative!”

We don’t have much information about what happened to chocolate after that, until the Aztecs and the Maya. We know that people enjoyed it, because archaeologists have found chocolate residue on numerous pots and vases, but little evidence remains as to how the beverage was prepared. The Olmecs used it for religious rituals or as a medicinal drink, with no recipes for personal use. But they, like the Aztecs, left almost no little written evidence behind. So almost everything we know about it, we had to infer from indirect evidence. The Aztecs actually couldn’t grow cacao themselves, so they had to import

The Aztecs actually couldn’t grow cacao themselves, so they had to import it or ask for it as tribute from the people they conquered. It seems that they drank their chocolate cold, using as an aphrodisiac or as a treat for men after banquets. It was also included in the soldiers’ rations.

Chocolate was consumed by most Mesoamerican civilizations. Notable are the Pueblo people, who unlike the others, considered chocolate a common drink and enjoyed it often, without any deeper purpose.

Ritualistic and medicinal use

Rio Azul Chocolate Pot (glyph for cacáo at left on vessel lid; color courtesy of Denver Museum of Natural History; B&W, George Stuart)

But with the Maya, there’s a different story — the Mayans actually do leave some surviving writings about cacao which confirm the identification of the drink with the gods. They also explain how they prepare it: seasoned with chile peppers and cornmeal, transferring the mixture repeatedly between pots until the top was covered with a thick foam. We know this from glyphic writing found in burial grounds. The Maya prepared bowls of chocolate to be enjoyed in the afterlife. In fact, priests would often prepare chocolate for ritualistic purposes — chocolate and blood were among the most common offerings for the gods. In some festivals, priests would cut their ear lobes and kings would cut their penises with obsidian blades; the blood would drip, covering the chocolate and honoring the gods (Rissolo per. comm. 2005). Baptisms of newborn babies also often included a chocolate ritual, and for different events, there was a different cocoa recipe.

But it wasn’t just for rituals – chocolate was given medicinal credit as well. Both the Mesoamericans and the Europeans who then adopted and changed chocolate believed in its curative properties – everything from reducing fever to helping clean the teeth was attributed to the cacao wonder.

The Florentine Codex (1590 AD) is one of the richest resources on chocolate history. The ethnographic research project was created by Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagún, who lived and worked in the ‘New Spain’ for 60 years, collecting valuable recipes and documenting chocolate’s properties. Here’s a translated excerpt:

“[Green cacao] makes one drunk, takes effect on one, makes one dizzy, confuses one, makes one sick, deranges one. When an ordinary amount is drunk, it gladdens one, refreshes one, consoles one, invigorates one. Thus it is said: ‘I take cacao. I wet my lips. I refresh myself’ (Sahagun 1590, 119-120)”.

But the Europeans had a different take on chocolate, and Sahagún’s motivation was to convert locals to Christianity. Sahagún conducted research for several decades, edited and revised it over several decades, created several versions of a 2,400-page manuscript, and addressed a cluster of religious, cultural and nature themes. Ironically, the document didn’t play much of a role in the evangelization of the Mesoamericans, but it is a valuable source of chocolate recipes. The book was forgotten for some 200 years before it was rediscovered by Italian scholars.

But the Europeans found little pleasure in the original chocolate — they couldn’t even chug it down; they hated it. It wasn’t until they took it back to the continent and sweetened it that they started to see its appeal.

European Chocolate

We’re getting there. Image via The Dish.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés may have been the first European to encounter chocolate when he observed it in the court of Montezuma in 1519. He didn’t like it. Neither did Columbus, when he encountered it on his fourth expedition to the Americas. So they changed it.

Some would argue that the Europeans actually ruin chocolate, and we may never know if that’s true or not. Upon their return to Spain, they also brought home some chocolate. Respiced with honey and cane sugar, it became a different drink — one that the Europeans loved. But not all of them did.

Typical 17th-century scene showing the preparation of chocolate. Image via Wikipedia.

In his History of the New World (1575), Girolamo Benzoni ingloriously states:

“It seemed more like a drink for pigs than a drink for humanity………But then, as there was a shortage of wine, so as not to be always drinking water, I did like the others. The taste is somewhat bitter, it satisfies and refreshes the body, but does not inebriate, and it is the best and most expensive merchandise, according to the Indians of that country (Benzoni 1575)”


“Pocillo» chocolate with its “grinder” (a wooden stick). A common way to make chocolate in Spain during the eighteenth century. Image via Wiki Commons.

Again, chocolate became a drink for the upper classes. The Spanish and Portuguese explorers kept it well hidden from the rest of the world, praising its medicinal capabilities. While the Aztecs and the Maya were in full decline, conquered by European explorers, chocolate was living a different kind of glory.

Fast forward one century and chocolate is now enjoyed by many Europeans. A newly found craze for chocolate brought it (still as a drink) to the Netherlands, England and France. But there was a dark side to this development — the lucrative industry of chocolate brought with it a lucrative industry of slavery, the remnants of which can still be seen today. With the depletion of Mesoamerican workers, largely to disease, cacao production was handled mostly by African slaves. Wind-powered and horse-drawn mills were utilized to speed production, but there was only so much that could be done. The world had discovered chocolate, and it wanted more.

Innovating chocolate

It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that chocolate could be produced at acceptable speeds, thanks to the steam engine. The first steam-driven chocolate mill was created by a man named Debuisson in the early 18th century. But the real chocolate innovation came in 1815, when Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten introduced alkaline salts to chocolate, significantly reducing its bitterness. A few years later, he created a press that removed half of the natural fat (cacao butter) from chocolate, which made it easier and cheaper to produce, while making it easier to obtain a consistent quality. You could even call Van Houten the father of modern chocolate.

Chocolate melanger mixing raw ingredients. Image via Wikipedia.

After that, the innovations kept pouring. Most notably, in 1875 Daniel Peter invented milk chocolate. He used a powdered milk developed by Henri Nestlé, and this very invention ultimately led to Nestlé being the biggest food company in the world today. But Nestlé isn’t the only man who’s early experimenting with chocolate left behind huge companies. In 1893, Milton S. Hershey purchased chocolate processing equipment, and a man named Cadbury was manufacturing boxed chocolates in England by 1868. Even today, they are some of the biggest chocolate companies in the world – their legacy is extremely strong to this day.

Chocolate and modern slavery

Not much has changed in the past decades when it comes to chocolate. We mass produce it now, so the entire process has become much more efficient – and cheaper. There are more varieties, plenty of non-chocolate chocolates, but the basic product has remained the same. However, as much as we like chocolate, we should open our eyes and see the truth behind the product.

Yes, your chocolate likely comes from here. Image via Confectionery News.

Some 70% of global chocolate production comes from West Africa, which hosts some of the poorest and underdeveloped areas in the world; half of that comes from Côte d’Ivoire, a country with a saddening history of child exploitation and modern slavery. Kids work on cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire; about 200,000 of them do. Thirty percent of children under age 15 in sub-Saharan Africa are child laborers and more than 1.8 million children in West Africa are involved in growing cocoa. Major chocolate producers, such as Nestle, buy cocoa at commodities exchanges where Ivorian cocoa is mixed with other cocoa. Generally speaking, they have little interest in maintaining a fair trade and eliminating child labor and exploitation – after all, that’s what keeps the prices down.

A 2006 investigation revealed startling figures: 90% of cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire use some form of slave labor. When cocoa prices drop, farmers can’t afford to pay workers, so they just buy them; and cocoa prices can vary dramatically, from £500 ($945) to £3,000 ($5,672) per ton in just a couple of years.

All these factors, a poor area where people are desperate to work, high market volatility and a lack of ethics from big producers, have created a new, modern type of slavery. We, the end consumers, are as much to blame for this as anyone.

The future: a chocolate crisis?!

Take a good look at it - it may become a rare sight. Image via Pixabay.

Take a good look at it – it may become a rare sight. Image via Pixabay.

Yes, the world is running out of chocolate, and fast. We may be experiencing a major chocolate shortage in less than a decade. As we wrote in a previous article, the Swiss Barry Callebaut Group, the world’s largest chocolate producer, has joined a host of industry experts in expressing concerns about “a potential cocoa shortage by 2020”. We are already seeing the effects, as chocolate prices have gone up by more than 25% in the past couple of years alone. The Barry Callebaut Group sold more than 1.7 million tonnes of chocolate in 2013/14, an increase of over 11% from the past year; they also announced that they expect to continue this growth, but that the cocoa shortage is becoming more and more imminent.

For the first time in human history, chocolate is no longer a luxury, an expensive product that only some people can afford. Today, most of the planet’s population – pretty much everyone except for the very poorest – can afford it, and that’s quite a problem. We’re simply eating more chocolate than is sustainable. In South America, the market for chocolate expanded by a massive 7 per cent just in 2013! Brazil went from being one of the world’s leading exporters to consuming more than it produces. There is also the political turmoil in West Africa where the cocoa is grown, the recent Ebola outbreak, El Nino predictions and also financial speculation.

The demand is growing more and more. Couple that with the factors above and you get a pretty dire picture. In Europe, the price of cocoa butter is up 70 percent from the beginning of 2014. The same thing is happening in the Americas, and in Asia. In Asia, chocolate prices are up 30 to 40 percent this year. Just as we got used to it, chocolate may become rare and expensive once more.

Chocolate used to be a special, expensive treat, with no sugar and chili powder. Soon, it might become like that again, except with sugar and no chili.

If you want to encourage the sustainable production of chocolate, pay attention where you buy it from. Don’t support child labor and exploitation. Try to buy fair trade products, from workers that have been properly paid. I know it costs a bit more, but you’ll help develop a better for people working in the chocolate industry – and for chocolate itself. For all its past, it definitely deserves a rich future!

Pueblo Bonito from above. Credit: WikiTravel.

How ancient water management by the Chaco or Maya can help modern strategies in the face of climate change

Water is the most important resource on the planet. Luckily, it’s also abundant in many parts of the world but as the recently ended Californian drought reminded us, plentifulness can be an ephemeral illusion. Humans are putting more pressure on fresh water resources than ever before and the uncertainties of man-made climate change will only make conservation strategies more complex.

Pueblo Bonito from above. Credit: WikiTravel.

Pueblo Bonito from above. Credit: WikiTravel.

Scientists studying water conservation are preoccupied with finding the most efficient practices to capture, replenish, and ultimately distribute water to communities. But although the challenges we face today are very complex, they’re not unprecedented. Taking cues from the past to better understand the present and predict the future, a cross-disciplinary team of archaeologists, engineers, and geographers from the University of Cincinnati traveled to the arid American Southwest and humid rainforests in Central America and Southeast Asia to explore how ancient communities like the Chaco or Maya managed their water resources.

“When we look at the trajectory of our changing climate, we realize that the issue is not just climate change but also water change. Climate and water work synergistically and can affect one another in critical ways,” says Vernon Scarborough, professor and department head in UC’s Department of Anthropology. “Given the current climate patterns, in this and the next century, we will likely face further rising sea levels, less potable water and a compromised availability of freshwater as a result of drought in many areas and unusually heavy rains and runoff in others.”

“So we are looking at how the past can inform the present,” adds Scarborough.

For more than two decades, the researchers have been investigating remote areas known for their seasonal water and environmental challenges. One of the focus on their investigation is the ancestral Puebloan community in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico —  a civilization that dominated the southwestern United States from the mid-9th to early 13th centuries. According to a paper published earlier this year by researchers from the  American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, Chaco was a state-level society or kingdom with a clear chain of command. The most surprising find following DNA sequencing of the remains of the ruling elite was that the Chaco was a matriarchal lineage, essentially a people ruled by women. It’s one of the few examples of civilizations ruled by women in an ocean of patriarchal hegemonies.

The AMNH study ended a life-long debate debunking those scholars who had previously suggested the Chaco was an egalitarian society with no clear chain of command. Another long-standing debate is whether the Chaco was truly a sustainable community that knew how to manage its limited local resources or, given the arid condition, merely a seasonal gathering place for ritualistic purposes that depended on imported resources such as food and water.

To answer this question, the researchers exploited all the tools in their arsenal. To know where to start digging, the whole area around the Chaco Canyon was surveyed by helicopters equipped with light, imaging, detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology. The LIDAR measurements were used to construct a map of the canyon’s surface morphology which provided valuable hints like how the water flows off the mesa tops into the drainage ditches and into the valley floors.

LIDAR images of the elevation levels in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico reveal ancient dunes, canals, building structures and rincon watershed areas. Credit: Christopher Carr.

LIDAR images of the elevation levels in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico reveal ancient dunes, canals, building structures and rincon watershed areas. Credit: Christopher Carr.

Geologists then got their boots dirty on the ground where they drilled deep for sediment cores. Later in the lab, these samples showed how the soil looked like in the past based on its geochemistry. For instance, during the Chaco reign, the scientists found the soil was used for growing maize (corn), which is a highly water-intensive crop. The team uncovered this fact after they found high levels of salt in the soil, previously thought to be a bad omen. But closer investigation showed the salts are actually a form of a calcium sulfate mineralization that may have functioned to enhance the soil for the maize (corn) grown in that area.

Chaco Wash Flood, July, 2006. Credit: NPS.

Chaco Wash Flood, July, 2006. Credit: NPS.

A Rincon pothole holding water in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Credit: Kenneth Tankersley.

A Rincon pothole holding water in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Credit: Kenneth Tankersley.

Even today, Chaco canyon has very unpredictable weather. Chaco is located at 6,200 feet in elevation, and unexpected changes in temperature or precipitation are common occurrences. About 1,000 years ago, things weren’t all that different so the Puebloans learned to exploit these patterns. During the rainy season when the floodwaters hit, they would capture runoff water from small canyons known as rincons but also from local periodic streams.

“When it rained in one spot over here the Ancestral Puebloans took advantage of it, and when it rained over there they took advantage of that,” Scarborough says.

Interestingly, the researchers think the matriarchal leadership helped in this respect.

“To effectively manage water requires flexibility and creativity as rainfall is unpredictable in the Southwest,” says Samantha Fladd, an advanced doctoral student from the University of Arizona, also working on the Chaco project here at UC. “The presence of a hierarchical matriline helps to explain how Chaco residents coordinated these activities in order to practice successful water management and agriculture.”

Aerial view of present-day Tikal's ancient building structures in Guatemala, Central America, alongside an illustration of water management canals and reservoirs at the ancient site. Credit: David Lentz / Vern Scarborough.

Aerial view of present-day Tikal’s ancient building structures in Guatemala, Central America, alongside an illustration of water management canals and reservoirs at the ancient site. Credit: David Lentz / Vern Scarborough.

Farther south, in the Guatemalan rainforests around Tikal, ancient Mayans had different challenges to face. Using similar methods as those used to explore the Chaco, the researchers found evidence of elaborate water storage systems which captured runoff during the rainy season. Like the Chaco, the Tikal Mayans had rich fields of corn as evidenced by geochemical signals from the soil.

The Maya learned to alter their surroundings to exploit their water resources as best as possible. It went very well for them having flourished for more than three centuries. However, bad oversight brought their demise.

Ultimately, the Maya collapsed because of climate change. According to a team led by paleoclimatologist Douglas Kennett of Pennsylvania State University, between 660 and 1000 C.E. the Maya went through a drying trend which exacerbated tensions. Finally, a long drought lasting between 1020 and 1100 C.E. occurred in the midst of the population collapse, marking an end to the great civilization.

“Essentially, they may have affected a change in their own climate,” says Scarborough. “After several years of deforestation — clearing out trees and forests to make room for crops — the Maya unintentionally, but perhaps dramatically upset their annual rainfall, which precipitated degrees of drought that ultimately forced them to abandon the once fertile environment. Sound familiar?”

Some think because we’re far more tech savvy, a similar fate can’t fall upon us. It is true that modern irrigation and water infrastructure works like dams dramatically favor our civilization and lessens the risks but climate change is happening very fast today and many communities in impoverished regions are highly vulnerable. It may be several years before the damage caused by contemporary climate change becomes apparent and future water management will have to adapt to constantly shifting conditions.

“If you don’t design for that appropriately, you can be building management networks and ways to capture and control water that will wind up getting buried like the build-up behind modern dams, or plans can get abandoned altogether as a river changes,” said the UC researchers who will present their findings at the upcoming Society for Applied Anthropology, (SFAA), 77th annual meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“How past populations dealt with variable precipitation like that identified at Tikal, Chaco Wash or drainage patterns overall has been very dynamic. Such investments in building massive dam projects today is a costly expenditure of money and time that might well benefit from views of the past.

“We don’t want to waste that money on high-priced water infrastructure if we can engage in smaller scale, lower investment strategies like our ancestors did.”

Mayans may have been better at math and astronomy than we thought

Anthropologists have shown that Mayan tablets of math and astronomy have been greatly underestimated and the civilization’s astronomical knowledge may have been significantly greater than we thought.

The Preface of the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex, first panel on left, and the first three pages of the Table. Image courtesy of University of California – Santa Barbara

Ever since the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex was discovered 120 years ago, scientists have appreciated its significance. The accuracy of astronomical observations, especially those regarding ‘leap years’ was impressive, and archaeologists wondered how the Mayan civilization developed such a keen sense for astronomy. But in a new article, UC Santa Barbara’s Gerardo Aldana, a professor of anthropology, found that the importance and finesse of the Venus Table may have been underestimated.

He says he “discovered a discovery”:

“That’s why I’m calling it ‘discovering discovery,’ ” he explained, “because it’s not just their discovery, it’s all the blinders that we have, that we’ve constructed and put in place that prevent us from seeing that this was their own actual scientific discovery made by Mayan people at a Mayan city.”

Using a multidisciplinary approach which blends in archaeology, astronomy, linguistics and anthropology, Aldana was able to present a new interpretation of the Venus Table, which tracks the movement of the second planet from the Sun. He uncovered a surprising mathematical precision to the astronomical observations and predictions, likely developed at the city of Chich’en Itza during the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-1000). The calculations were likely done under the patronage of K’ak’ U Pakal K’awiil, one of the city’s most prominent historical figures.

K’ak’ U Pakal K’awiil  is the most widely mentioned personal name in the surviving Maya inscriptions at Chichen Itza, and also appears on monumental inscriptions at other Yucatán Peninsula sites such as Uxmal. He was likely a scientist or a scholar of the time.

“This is the part that I find to be most rewarding, that when we get in here, we’re looking at the work of an individual Mayan, and we could call him or her a scientist, an astronomer,” Aldana said. “This person, who’s witnessing events at this one city during this very specific period of time, created, through their own creativity, this mathematical innovation.”

Venus has an irregular cycle of 583.92 days. So if you construct your astronomical calendar based on that period, it’s really easy to make errors – and any error accrues year after year. Scholars figured out the math for the Venus Table’s leap in the 1930s, Aldana said, “but the question is, what does it mean? Did they discover it way back in the 1st century BC? Did they discover it in the 16th? When did they discover it and what did it mean to them? And that’s where I come in.”

Intriguingly, their calendar wasn’t based on numerology, but rather on historical observations – but we don’t know exactly why. This carries a curious resemblance to the work of Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who lived 500 years after the Mayan civilization. When he was trying to predict the future dates of Easter, Copernicus found that the heliocentric model (the Sun at the center of the solar system) fits in much better mathematically. That’s what Aldana noticed in the Venus Table.

“They’re using Venus not just to strictly chart when it was going to appear, but they were using it for their ritual cycles,” he explained. “They had ritual activities when the whole city would come together and they would do certain events based on the observation of Venus. And that has to have a degree of accuracy, but it doesn’t have to have overwhelming accuracy. When you change that perspective of, ‘What are you putting these cycles together for?’ that’s the [final] component.”

We don’t know exactly who made this discovery, and we may never know. It could have been a singular figure or a group of astronomers, but whoever it was – the discovery was way ahead of its time.

Journal Reference: Aldana, Gerardo. Discovering Discovery: Chich’en Itza, the Dresden Codex Venus Table and 10th Century Mayan Astronomical Innovation. Journal of Astronomy in Culture, August 2016

Doomsday part 3: The magnetic poles are shifting!


Something really bad is going to happen, and the Earth’s rotation will shift, rotating the other way, which will cause a magnetic pole reversal, which is going to rain all sorts of havoc on terrestrial life.

As the poles shift, there will be a massive continental drift, with landmasses plunging in towards each other, bringing earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and making all life on the planet all but extinct.

Oh, and even without the earthquakes and volcanoes, the magnetic shift itself will bring an end to the world as we know it.

Reality check!!!

As a geologist, it hurts my brain to write things like this, and to see that people actually believe something like this could happen… it’s painful to see how ignorant we are about the very planet we live on.

A shift in Earth’s rotation is impossible; unless, that is, a solar system sized galactic panda comes and starts manually spinning our planet the other way. It’s about as likely as that; and even if this did happen, it has absolutely nothing to do with magnetic pole reversal. People advertising this false doomsday use a bait and switch tactic, making senseless correlations.

Geomagnetic reversal, the phenomenon during which the North and South pole switch position is a well known and documented phenomena that has happened for hundreds of times in the Earth’s history, on average at about 400.000 years. The process itself takes a few millenia, and there’s no reason to believe it will happen again any time soon (next few millenia). Furthermore, even if it did happen, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that such a shift would harm life forms.

Read about other popular Mayan doomsday “prophecies” from our debunking series:


Doomsday part 2: Nibiru (Planet X) is coming


It’s December 21, 2012. Nibiru, or Planet X as some call it, is going to collide or just barely miss a collision with planet Earth, and the consequences will be devastating.

The idea was first started in 1995 by Nancy Lieder, founder of the website ZetaTalk. She describes herself as a contactee with the ability to receive messages from extra-terrestrials from the Zeta Reticuli star system through an implant in her brain. She claims she was chosen to warn mankind that the object will zoom by Earth in 2003 causing its poles to switch, but, well, that was cancelled, so now the impact is rescheduled for 2012.

Lieder described Planet X as roughly four times the size of the Earth, and said that its closest approach would occur on May 27, 2003, resulting in the Earth’s rotation ceasing for exactly 5.9 terrestrial days. She even went as far as to say that people should put their pets down in anticipation of the event. She also stated that “A dog makes a good meal“.

Reality check!!!

Calling this pseudoscience would be a stretch – it’s just borderline madness. If there somehow was a rogue planet well on its way for Earth, we would see it; every professional and even many amateur astronomers would see it. Even if it were somehow invisible, we would see the effects on other planets in the solar system. Oh, but wait!

People who actually believe this think that astronomers are all working together and keeping it a secret. Seriously, you try to convince the entire scientific community, every space agency, every nation and many amateur astronomers to keep a secret together – that would be something.

Put your pets down“… This woman should be in a facility if you ask me.

Read about other popular Mayan doomsday “prophecies” from our debunking series:

Doomsday part 1: The Maya calendar predicts the end of the world


Doomsday is upon us, fellow ZME Readers! December 2012, particularly 21 December 2012 marks the conclusion of a b’ak’tun—a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar which was used in Central America, most notably associated with the Maya (even though it was the Olmec people that actually invented it).

In 1966, Michael D. Coe, a man of which few doomsday believers know of, wrote that “there is a suggestion … that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b’ak’tun]“. Translation – only the chosen ones will be saved, and the other ones will be destroyed by Armageddon.

The 5,125-year “Long Count” Mayan calendar is ending. The precise nature of Armageddon isn’t described, but it will be big, bad, and pretty much annihilate civilization as we know it. Many believe several mountains will open up literally and giant space ships will come out from there, picking up only the chosen ones, thus saving them.

Reality check!!!

Most people have a calendar on their wall, somewhere. At 31 December, the year ends and another one begins. Imagine you have a calendar with, say, 100 years. At the end of the 100th year, 31 December, the calendar will end. Conclusion – the world will end. Makes perfect sense, right ? This date is the end of the Mayan long-count period but then — just as your calendar begins again on January 1 — another long-count period begins for the Mayan calendar.

As a matter of fact, even the initial interpretation was contested, most archaeologists believing that the end of the calendar is a matter of celebration and entering a new era.

Regardless, believing the world will end because an ancient civilization’s calendar ends is really childish. But who knows, maybe some alien species will find one of our calendar and think the world ends on 31 December.

Read about other popular Mayan doomsday “prophecies” from our debunking series:

2,500 year-old Mayan chocolate suggests it was used a as condiment, not just as a beverage

Anthropologists believe cacao beans and pods were mainly used in pre-Hispanic cultures as a beverage, a practice which can be traced traced as far as some 3,500 years ago . The resulting beverage would have been reserved for the Mayan elite. Now, a recent archeological find shows  traces of 2,500-year-old chocolate on a plate in Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula — suggesting it may have also been used as a spice or a condiment.

The discovery was made by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and offers a broader picture of how chocolate was used in ancient Mexico.

“This is the first time it has been found on a plate used for serving food,” archaeologist Tomas Gallareta said. “It is unlikely that it was ground there (on the plate), because for that they probably used metates (grinding stones).”

Subsequent tests of the samples brought in for analysis at the lab revealed a “ratio of theobromine and caffeine compounds that provide a strong indicator of cacao usage,” according to a statement by the university.

“These are certainly interesting results,” John S. Henderson, a Cornell University professor of Anthropology and one of the foremost experts on ancient chocolate, said in an email Thursday.

“[…]the presence of cacao residues on plates is even more interesting … the important thing is that it was on flat serving vessels and so presented or served in some other way than as a beverage,” Henderson continued.

Although the present cacao traces date back from 500 BC, this isn’t the oldest evidence attesting chocolate use in the Yucatan.  Beverage vessels found in excavations of Gulf coast sites of the Olmec culture, to the west of the Yucatan, and other sites in Chiapas, to the south, have yielded traces around 1,000 years older.

source: AP

One of the many Mayan stucco masks uncovered at the newly discovered temple. It shows the Maya sun god as a shark-man. (c) Edwin Román, Brown University

Newly discovered Mayan sun god temple is covered with magnificent masks

One of the many Mayan stucco masks uncovered at the newly discovered temple. It shows the Maya sun god as a shark-man. (c) Edwin Román, Brown University

One of the many Mayan stucco masks uncovered at the newly discovered temple. It shows the Maya sun god as a shark-man. (c) Edwin Román, Brown University

Deep in the dense Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists have come across a veritable jewel of their trade. An 1600-year old Mayan temple, almost in mint condition, going by the of name Temple of the Night Sun, beautifully or frighting decorated, as you prefer, with giant masks of the Maya sun god.

The find was made at the El Zotz site. El Zots was the center of one of the many Mayan kingdoms. While the Inca and Aztec civilizations were centralized under a common rule, the Mayans were divided into city-states, some very powerful, other less, much like ancient Greece. The Mayan civilizations was at its height between 250 and 900 AD.

A blood-red beacon

In 2010, archaeologists came across the tallest structure at El Zots, 45-foot-tall (13-meter-tall) Diablo Pyramid, located on a hilltop in the former center of the ancient city. It was behind this pyramid that scientists at Brown University first sighted the Temple of the Night Sun, and after a long period of excavations which reveled its exquisiteness the site was finally publicized.

The massive decorative masks, called stucco masks, are as tall as 5-feet, each depicting the phases of the sun as it moves east to west. Thus a shark head as the sun rises from the ocean, a crossed eyes figure who drank blood at noon, and the locally worshiped jaguar, which awakens at dusk to hunt in the jungle’s darkness. More than half the temple is still to be excavated, co-project leader Thomas Garrison of the University of Southern California told a press conference Wednesday at Guatemala City’s National Palace of Culture.

The whole temple was painted in a blood-red layer, which would have made the temple stand out for miles in its vicinity. In the morning and dusk light, it would’ve probably been a sight to remember.

“The sun was a key element of Maya rulership,” lead archeologist Stephen Houstonexplained in announcing the discovery by the joint Guatemalan and American team that has been excavating the El Zotz site since 2006.

“It’s something that rises every day and penetrates into all nooks and crannies, just as royal power presumably would,” said Houston, a professor at Brown University, Rhode Island.
“This building is one that celebrates this close linkage between the king and this most powerful and dominant of celestial presences.”

Curiously enough, the noses and mouths of the masks in older, deeper layers of the temple were chopped off, leaving the masks disfigured. This is because the Mayans believed the masks to be alive.

“This is actually quite common in Maya culture,” said Houston for National Geographic News. “It’s very hard to find any Mayan depiction of the king that doesn’t have its eyes mutilated or its nose hacked … but ‘mutilation’ is not the appropriate term to describe it. I see it as more of a deactivation.”

Up until now, only 30% of the temple has been excavated and a lot more is expected to surface in the coming years.


The smoking pot - an ancient 1300 years old urn used by ancient Mayans to deposit tobacco. (c) RCMS

First evidence of tobacco consumption in Mayan culture found

The smoking pot - an ancient 1300 years old urn used by ancient Mayans to deposit tobacco. (c) RCMS

The smoking pot - an ancient 1300 years old urn used by ancient Mayans to deposit tobacco. (c) RCMS

Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient urn dated from the Mayan classical period, which after a thorough chemical analysis was found to contain traces of nicotine. Though it has been documented in Mayan texts and folklore that tobacco use was a common part of the local community, this is the first hard evidence supporting the fact that Mayans smoked. Moreover, the same analysis has revealed that they tobacco consumed then was a lot stronger than today, almost hallucinogenic.

The 1,300-year-old Mayan flask actually literary had tobacco written all over it, marked with Mayan hieroglyphs reading “y-otoot ‘u-may,” which is translated as “the house of its/his/her tobacco.” A scientist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an anthropologist from the University at Albany teamed up, after they saw this as an excellent opportunity, and used high-end chemical analysis to prove tobacco usage in Mayan culture.

Their discovery represents new evidence on the ancient use of tobacco in the Mayan culture and a new method to understand the ancient roots of tobacco use in the Americas.

The urn most probably contained tobacco leaves, however it is believed that the Maya also grounded tobacco into a powder which they used for all sorts of activities, from therapeutic (bug bite treatment) to protection against minions lurking in the jungle (burning tobacco powder is said to have been used as a  snake repellent). Of course, the Mayan knew how to party hard. Powdered tobacco could be added to drinks for an extra kick or directly snorted.

‘This was very strong tobacco, much stronger than it is today,’ Jennifer Loughmiller-Newman, an archaeologist at the University of Albany in New York, told MSNBC.

‘Nicotiana rustica was nearly hallucinogenic.’

Dmitri Zagorevski, director of the Proteomics Core in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies(CBIS) at Rensselaer, the leading scientist involved in the study, used technology typically reserved for the study of modern diseases and proteins, to analyze the chemical fingerprints of the urn. This involved, among other, gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) and high-performance liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS).

‘Our study provides rare evidence of the intended use of an ancient container,’ said Zagorevski.

‘Mass spectrometry has proven to be an invaluable method of analysis of organic residues in archaeological artifacts.

‘This discovery is not only significant to understanding Mayan hieroglyphics, but an important archaeological application of chemical detection.’


The "Triad of Felines" carved rock found in Chalcatzingo, Mexico. (c)INAH via AP

Amazing 2700 year old “cat triad” carving found in Mexico

The "Triad of Felines" carved rock found in Chalcatzingo, Mexico. (c)INAH via AP

The "Triad of Felines" carved rock found in Chalcatzingo, Mexico. (c)INAH via AP

Archeologists unearthed from Mexico’s underground a spectacular Olmec-style stone carving depicting three sitting felines, dated from 700 B.C.

Dubbed the “Triad of Felines” by the archeologists who first discovered the monolith, the carving was found just 60 miles from Mexico City in Chalcatzingo, a famous archeological site known for its numerous Olmec culture artifacts found along the years. Since 1935, 40 large stone carvings have been unearthed in the area alone.

The Olmec civilization occupied today’s south-central Mexico region from about 1500 to 400 B.C, and are considered to be the first Mesoamerican civilization, responsible for laying many of the foundations for the civilizations that followed, including the Maya. A big part of their culture, besides religion (Olmec’s practiced bloodletting and human sacrifices), was art, as evidenced by the numerous exquisite artifacts found by archeologists.

A pilgrimage billboard

It took months of painstaking work for the archeologists to recondition and piece together the 11 eleven broken pieces of stone, like a giant, albeit heavy, puzzle. Interestingly enough, the researchers who’ve been studying the artifact came up with an interesting theory explaining the collection of carvings that dotted the Chalcatzingo landscape, found in the past few decades. They hypothesize that these carvings were actually like giant billboard like figures, scattered across the landscape, guiding people around a pilgrimage route.

“One of our hypotheses is that, in the time from 800 to 500 B.C., there was a frieze along the entire Cerro Chalcatzingo,” or “Chalcatzingo hill,” project member Mario Cordova Tello, an archaeologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), said in a statement.

The inhabitants of ancient Chalcatzingo weren’t Olmec though, at least not techniqually, but mearely influnced. Olmec carvings tend to be three-dimensional, but the Triad of Felines has been carved flat, in the manner of other Chalcatzingo surfaced findings. Still this particular monolith has been clearly influnced by Olmec culture, as it can be seen in the various symbols.

For example, the cats depicted in the monolith appear to have supernatural traits, such as flaming eyebrows and stylized mouths, very reminiscent of traditional Olmec masks. Taken particularly, the “Triad of Felines” can be considered unique from other similar carvings depicting big cats, as it portrays them sitting.

Big cats, like jaguars, are a common motive in Olmec art, culture and religion, but their exact mythological significance remains vague for archeologists.

“Something having to do with mythology is being expressed in these carvings … but I am still trying to figure out exactly what it is,” Grove said. “Not a lot is known about Olmec religion.”

Early American culture defeated by natural calamities

In almost every belief there’s an apocalypse, hanging above the believers’ head like the sword of Damocles. But as far as we know so far, such an apocalypse is yet to come; this is where Mike Moseley, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Florida steps in, claiming that actually, the earliest American civilization found its demise due to what they probably believed was the end of the world.

We aren’t talking about any bizarre meteorological phenomena, we’re just talking about something that’s not very uncommon, but it’s very powerful: El niño and earthquakes. First came the earthquakes, then the torrential rains, resulting in massive floods, facilitated by the quakes. At least that’s what the anthropologists say that caused the rapid demise of a civilization that fluorished for more than 3500 years.

“This maritime farming community had been successful for over 2,000 years, they had no incentive to change, and then all of a sudden, ‘boom,’” said Mike Moseley, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Florida. “They just got the props knocked out from under them.”

Unlike in other cases, we know quite a lot about them. They were located along the Peruvian coast, by the Supe Valley and they didn’t use pottery or weave cloth, but they fluorished in pretty difficult conditions, and in the arid plains near the estuaries they thrived by fishing with nets, growing cotton and vegetables, and they also irrigated orchards. But the most impressive thing they did was build extremely massve, elaborate, stone pyramid temples, more than 2000 years before the more famous temples of the Maya or other great achievements.

“They’re impressive, enormous monuments,” Moseley said.

The biggest pyramid was more than 550 feet long, just under 500 feet wide; the steps led up to almost 100 feet in height. Scientists estimate that the among the earthquakes that hit them, there was one of a magnitude of 8 or higher, collapsing most of their constructions and even worse, ending this fluorishing civilization. When you draw the line, one can say it was about progress; the withering civilization was replaced by modern ones, that relied more on arts, pottery and weaving. Still, it has to be said that there is a lot to be learned from their story, as most of the world’s cities are built in environmentally vulnerable areas. Scientists are especially afraid of El Niño events, which can become more and more common due to climate change.