Monday, December 16, 2013

Did Rats Eradicate Easter Island Trees?

New speculation on what caused the demise of civilization on Easter Island gives the ancient islanders more credit for innovative adaptations to environmental problems, though ultimately the story ends on the same desolate note.
The updated theory and sequence of events come from anthropologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo from the University of Hawaii. According to NPR:
Professors Hunt and Lipo say fossil hunters and paleobotanists have found no hard evidence that the first Polynesian settlers set fire to the forest to clear land — what's called "large scale prehistoric farming." 
The trees did die, no question. But instead of fire, Hunt and Lipo blame rats . . . Polynesian rats (Rattus exulans) stowed away on those canoes, Hunt and Lipo say, and once they landed, with no enemies and lots of palm roots to eat, they went on a binge, eating and destroying tree after tree, and multiplying at a furious rate.
They say the rats played havoc with the island’s trees, causing a massive degrading of vegetation and eliminating several animal species. The NPR report concludes: “On Easter Island, people learned to live with less and forgot what it was like to have more. Maybe that will happen to us. There's a lesson here. It's not a happy one.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ashes of Ancient Halls Made Into Mounds

Archaeologists in England have unearthed the burned remains of two massive 6,000-year-old buildings whose ashes were shoveled into piles to make burial mounds.

"The buildings seemed to have been deliberately burned down," says Julian Thomas, a professor at the University of Manchester who’s leading the excavation. Researchers believe these halls of the living may have been transformed into "halls of the dead" after a leader or important social figure died.
The remnants were uncovered in an open field near Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire. For decades, amateur archaeologists have noticed pieces of flint blades in the area and wondered whether the land there contained relics of a long-forgotten time.
 According to
When Thomas and his team began excavating, they found two large burial mounds, or barrows, that could have held anywhere from seven to 30 people each.  
The smaller barrow contained a 23-foot-long (7 meters) mortuary chamber with sockets for two huge tree trunks. Digging deeper, the researchers uncovered postholes, ash from the timbers, and charred clay from the walls of an ancient structure. 
These burnt remains came from what were once two long-halls, the biggest of which was up to 230 feet (70 m) long, with aisles delineated by wooden posts and several internal spaces.
It’s not clear who built the halls and barrows, though the building construction is similar to that found in England between 4000 B.C. and 3600 B.C, predating the construction of Stonehenge by a millennium.

Artist's conception of one of the long halls.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Tablet Tells of Mayan 'Snake Queen'

A tablet from 564 A.D. found beneath the main temple of the ancient Mayan city El PerĂº-Waka’ in northern Guatemala reveals what archaeologists describe as a “dark period” in Mayan history, including the violent story of a 6th-century “snake queen.”

The stone tablet stood exposed to the elements for a hundred years, before being buried as an offering in a funeral for another queen. Epigrapher Stanley Guenter, who deciphered the text, believes the tablet was dedicated by King Wa’oom Uch’ab Tzi’kin, a title that translates roughly as “He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle.”

“The information in the text provides a new chapter in the history of the ancient kingdom of Waka’ and its political relations with the most powerful kingdoms in the Classic period lowland Maya world.”

Lady Ikoom was a predecessor to one of the greatest queens of Classic Maya civilization, the seventh-century Maya Holy Snake Lord known as Lady K’abel who ruled El PerĂº-Waka’ for more than 20 years with her husband, King K’inich Bahlam II. 
She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and she carried the title “Kaloomte,” translated as “Supreme Warrior,” - higher in authority than her husband, the king.

Around the year 700, Stela 44 was brought to the main city temple by command of King K’inich Bahlam II to be buried as an offering, probably as part of the funeral rituals for his wife, queen Kaloomte’ K’abel.
Image: A portion of the newly discovered tablet.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Vision-Inducing Delphi Fumes Probed

Part of the mystique surrounding the Oracle of Delphi concerns the possibility that the oracle herself ~ usually referred to as the Pythia ~ inhaled fumes as she described her visions. Recent research shows that the fumes may have existed, and that they likely contained ethylene, creating an effect similar to the experience sought by modern-day “huffers.”
Archeological Odyssey recently published a detailed account of the research, reprinted in Bible History Daily. Here’s an excerpt:
The ancient sources describe two distinct types of prophetic trance experienced by the Pythia. First, and more normally, she would lapse into benign semi-consciousness, during which she remained seated on the tripod, responding to questions—though in a strangely altered voice. According to Plutarch, once the Pythia recovered from this trance, she was in a composed and relaxed state, like a runner after a race. A second kind of trance involved a frenzied delirium characterized by wild movements of the limbs, harsh groaning and inarticulate cries. When the Pythia experienced this delirium, Plutarch reports, she died after only a few days—and a new Pythia took her place. 
According to toxicologist Henry Spiller, both of these symptoms are associated with the inhalation of hydrocarbon gases. Spiller studies the effects of such inhalants on young people, known as “huffers,” who breathe in fumes from gas, glue, paint thinner and other substances because of their intoxicating properties. Perhaps the Pythia too was high on one of these hydrocarbon gases. 
It may even be possible to identify the kind of gas. Plutarch—who, we recall, was a priest of Apollo at the Delphic sanctuary—noted that the intoxicating pneuma had a sweet smell, like expensive perfume. Of the hydrocarbon gases, only ethylene has a sweet smell—so ethylene was probably a component in the gaseous emission inhaled by the Pythia.
Most researchers agree that the Pythia was chosen for her clairvoyant abilities as a trance medium, and that the fumes likely played an auxiliary role in her pronouncements.
Image: Painting of the oracle is by the Hon. John Collier, from 1891.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Granite Points to Unknown Continent

Scientists this week announced they may have found a lost continent off the coast of Brazil. Granite boulders dredged from the seafloor off the coast of South America two years ago could be remnants of a long-vanished continent, according to Roberto Ventura Santos, the geology director of Brazil's Geology Service.
According to National Geographic:
"This could be the Brazilian Atlantis," Santos said, adding that he was speaking metaphorically and not claiming to have found the legendary sunken world. 
"Obviously, we don't expect to find a lost city in the middle of the Atlantic." 
Santos speculated that the granite—a relatively low-density rock found in continental crust—belonged to a continent that was submerged when Africa and South America drifted apart and formed the Atlantic Ocean about 100 million years ago.
But Michael Wysession, an Earth and planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, noted that granite can find its way onto the seafloor through other means.
"There are pieces of granite in the middle of the seafloor that date to about 800 million years ago when we had a snowball earth scenario and there were large pieces of rock embedded in ice rafts"—mobile glaciers, essentially—"all over the ocean," explained Wysession.

Image: Divers near where the granite was found.