Crocs Uncover

Bizarre Species

viernes, 30 de mayo de 2008

Rare uncontacted tribe photographed in Amazon

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Amazon Indians from one of the world's last uncontacted tribes have been photographed from the air, with striking images released on Thursday showing them painted bright red and brandishing bows and arrows.
The photographs of the tribe near the border between Brazil and Peru are rare evidence that such groups exist. A Brazilian official involved in the expedition said many of them are in increasing danger from illegal logging.

"What is happening in this region is a monumental crime against the natural world, the tribes, the fauna and is further testimony to the complete irrationality with which we, the 'civilized' ones, treat the world," Jose Carlos Meirelles was quoted as saying in a statement by the Survival International group.

One of the pictures, which can be seen on Survival International's Web site (, shows two Indian men covered in bright red pigment poised to fire arrows at the aircraft while another Indian looks on.

Another photo shows about 15 Indians near thatched huts, some of them also preparing to fire arrows at the aircraft.

"The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct," said Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, which supports tribal people around the world.

Of more than 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, more than half live in either Brazil or Peru, Survival International says. It says all are in grave danger of being forced off their land, killed and ravaged by new diseases.

jueves, 29 de mayo de 2008

"Amazing" Dino Fossil Found With Skin, Tissue in China

Nicholas Wadhams
for NG News

The fossil of a dinosaur with a flesh wound has been discovered in northeastern China, offering the most complete view to date of dinosaur skin, a scientist says.

The fossil is of a 130-million-year-old Psittacosaurus, or parrot lizard, a beaked reptile about the size of a pig that could walk on either two or four legs.
The animal died after suffering a wound from a predator—or was perhaps bitten by a scavenger after it died—exposing the inner skin structure, which was preserved for millions of years.

A recent study of the fossil identified what appeared to be tooth marks in the wound.

The research also suggests that some dinosaurs had thick, scaly skin like that of modern-day reptiles, refuting the theory that dinos had primitive feathers.

The findings were reported by Theagarten Lingham-Soliar of South Africa's University of KwaZulu-Natal in the current issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Soft Tissue Preserved

Lingham-Soliar has identified what he says is fossilized surface skin as well as a cross-section of the thick layer below the surface, called the dermis, around the animal's lower left side.

"To have soft tissue preserved is amazing in the fossil record, because clearly the soft tissue is about the first thing that will decay and disintegrate," Lingham-Soliar said.

"Until now we had seen only surface preservations, but this is the first time we see a deep cross-section of the skin cut away at right angles to the surface."

(Read related story: "'Dinosaur Mummy' Found; Has Intact Skin, Tissue" [December 3, 2007].)

The fossil was found in a formation in northeast China's Liaoning Province dating to between 125 million and 135 million years ago. The area has yielded so many fossil discoveries in recent years that scientists have been unable to keep pace with them all. (Learn more about China's extraordinary fossil site.)

The excellent preservation of the newfound Psittacosaurus may have been a consequence of rapid burial and speedy mineralization of the soft tissue before it began to decompose, Lingham-Soliar said.Thick Skin

The animal's skin was at least 0.8 inch (2 centimeters) thick, with some 40 layers of a fibrous protein called collagen, making it ideal for defense against predators, Lingham-Soliar said.

But the thick skin was still able to stretch and flex to accommodate swelling in the belly from a heavy diet of plants and fibers, he added.

"[Lingham-Soliar] has been able to show more detail of the complex organization of the dermis—this implies that Psittacosaurus at least had a tough yet presumably flexible skin," said Paul Maderson, a retired evolutionary biologist at the City University of New York.

Alan Feduccia, an evolutionary biologist the University of North Carolina, agreed.

"It's very important in the sense that it's our first glimpse into the microstructure of dinosaur skin, and what he's shown is that it has multiple layers of collagen fibers," said Feduccia, who specializes in bird evolution.

"That's not unexpected, by the way, since that's more or less the pattern with reptilians' skin, especially thick-skinned reptiles."

Birds and Dinosaurs?

The finding could also cast further doubt on a theory that had gained many proponents in recent years—the possibility that dinosaurs had primitive feathers, suggesting that some are the ancestors of today's birds.

Lingham-Soliar argues that the parrot lizard was adorned with bristles of collagen fibers, not early feathers.

"What is unexpected is the 40-plus layers of collagen, which even in thinner-skinned meat-eating dinosaurs would comprise many layers of fibers with the potential of being misidentified as proto-feathers," Lingham-Soliar said.

But not all paleontologists agree with his conclusion.

Hans-Dieter Sues is associate director for research and collections at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

He said there is a "preponderance of evidence to support that birds came from dinosaurs" known as theropods.

"[Lingham-Soliar] has tried for some time to argue that the featherlike structures on the theropod dinosaurs from the same formation as [where] the Psittacosaurus [was found] are collagen fibers, too," Sues said.

"However, many of the Chinese theropods have complex structures that clearly cannot be explained away in that fashion."

Oldest Live-Birth Fossil Found; Fish Had Umblical Cord

Remains of the world's oldest known mother have been unearthed in the Australian outback, scientists say.The remarkably well-preserved fossil—about 375 to 380 million years old—shows an embryo connected to its mother fish by an umbilical cord.

It is the earliest evidence of a vertebrate giving birth to live young, shifting back the date some 200 million years, said John Long, head of sciences at Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, and lead author of a new study describing the find.

The fossil is also the earliest record of vertebrate sex, since live birth occurs when an ovum, or egg, has been fertilized internally by male sex cells.

"Having such advanced reproduction for a fish that primitive is amazing," Long said.

Evidence of live birth—as opposed to egg laying—is extremely rare and has only been found in a few fossils of dolphin-like reptiles called ichthyosaurs and marine lizards known as mosasaurs, Long said.

The new fossil captures a long-extinct placoderm, a primitive, shark-like armored fish.

(Related: "Shark Ate Amphibian Ate Fish: First 'Food-Chain Fossil'" [November 8, 2007].)

Dinosaurs of the Sea

Often called the "dinosaurs of the sea," placoderms were the ruling class of marine creatures for 70 million years—in the middle of the Paleozoic period—until their extinction about 360 million years ago.

Paleontologists believe they are the most primitive jawed vertebrates, even predating sharks.

The newfound mother fish measures 10 inches (25 centimeters) long, but other placoderms can grow to 20 feet (6 meters)—"some gargantuan in size," Long said.

Much of the fish's soft tissue has been preserved in a three-dimensional state, making the fossil "basically an exact replica of the living animal," said study co-author Kate Trinajstic, a paleontologist at the University of Western Australia.

"The material was so well preserved that we were able to pick up subtle details," Trinajstic said.

Such details helped the scientists determine that the prehistoric mother and baby are a new species of ptyctodont, a type of placoderm that has plates around the head and neck rather than the extensive body armor of its relatives.

They named the species Materpiscis attenboroughi—a combination of "mother fish" and a nod to world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

Attenborough's 1979 TV series Life on Earth first brought to light the scientific value the Gogo area in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The area is the site of an ancient barrier reef that once teemed with marine life.

Fossils in the Gogo are so immaculately preserved because the reef became devoid of oxygen, which quickly killed the fish and the scavengers that would otherwise devour them.

Rapid burial and a stable tectonic continent made for near-perfect fossil preservation conditions.

A description of the fossil is published in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Evolutionary Innovation

Michael Lee, an evolutionary biologist at the South Australian Museum, was not involved in the new research.

"Live-bearing and maternal nourishment of embryos is a very important evolutionary innovation, which we ourselves exhibit," Lee said.

"The evidence that the included individual is an embryo [rather than ingested prey] is very strong—it's the same species, the right size to be an embryo, in the correct location within the body, and has what appear to be umbilical structures."

Live birth "might be preserved more commonly than we thought. Now that we know what to look for, it might be noticed more often," he added.

In fact, a reevaluation of a fossil found in 1986 reveals that it is a second placoderm fossil with three embryos nestled inside the mother. Study author Long had found the second specimen, a Gogonasus fossil, on an expedition to Gogo funded by a National Geographic Society grant. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society).

At the time, Long thought the features were scales.

(Related: "Ancient Fish Fossil May Rewrite Story of Animal Evolution" [October 18, 2006].)

"There are still lots of things to discover," Long said. "Gogo is giving us a picture not just of reproduction, but of the whole lifestyle of these creatures."

San Marino-oldest city

Scenic San Marino City is situated on Mount Titano. The capital enjoys outstanding views of Italy, which surrounds the tiny 24-square-mile republic of San Marino.

San Marino Information and History

Originally a medieval city-state, the world's oldest republic perches atop a mountain in north-central Italy. San Marino takes pride in its finely minted coins, ceremonial guard, and postage stamps. Well-preserved castles and sweeping vistas of the Adriatic coast enchant 3.5 million visitors a year.

Industry: tourism, banking, textiles, electronics.
Agriculture: wheat, grapes, corn, olives; cattle.
Exports: building stone, lime, wood, chestnuts, wheat, wine, baked goods, hides, ceramics.

miércoles, 28 de mayo de 2008

Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers, Gods and Human Sacrifice

Stories and Shamans

An examination of Stone Age humanity reveals that people lived in packs: in extended families, in clans or sometimes a grouping of clans called a tribe. They moved about, scavenging, hunting game and gathering food that grew wild. They had sticks, bone, stones and twine for tools. Strangers they came upon, or outsiders they knew, they did not necessarily see as fellow humans. There was no scientific understanding of the difference between a human and beast. Ethnocentrism was extreme. Stone Age communities called themselves "the people," as if there were no other humans.

There was fear that strangers they came across might attack them, put some evil spirit upon them or steal their women, and attacks and the stealing of women sometimes occurred. This and an endless camping trip with all of one's relatives was bound to produce disagreeable moments. In Colin Turnbull's study of the people of the Ituri forest in the 1950s, published as The Forest People, we see that a community of hunter-gatherers sometimes quarreled, and a quarrel might escalate into a brawl as people took sides, with the violence burning itself out before it destroyed or endangered the community.

Rules in earliest human societies were created through discussion. There was no written law or holy book from which to take guidance. No one presumed to be above others in authority. No one exhorted the group about laws laid down by any of the spirits whose presence they felt. There were no preachers or priests, but there were shamans - another word for witchdoctor. And in Stone Age societies almost anyone could be a shaman. They claimed to be in communication with spirits, but, rather than command, the shamans merely described, or suggested, and performed what they and others imagined were cures. Shamans strutted, or danced, or made shouting noises in an attempt to display their powers. Many helped themselves to visions by using hallucinogenic drugs, perhaps from the bark of a tree. It was the community that had authority - everyone and no one. From what has been seen of such societies, it appears that, in general at least, individuals did not pray for themselves. Their work and their prayers were community endeavors. Their relationship with their gods was as a group. Individuals identified their welfare with the welfare of the group, and morality was what they found to be best for the group.

Stone Age people did have an understanding of simple cause and effect: I drink water and my thirst goes away; you hit me and I hurt; I sleep and I awake rested; I eat this root and I become sick. They were skilled in the techniques of hunting and gathering. Beyond these immediate realities they invented explanations as to how the world worked. It was through stories that people thought they understood the world around them - stories that passed from generation to generation. People, it seems, wondered about the world around them, as bright children do today. Stone Age people let their imaginations run. Stone Age people did not believe in skepticism or suspended judgment. They had no idea of progression in discovery and knowledge. They did not believe in progress.

Their stories merely changed. Their stories were often fanciful and impulsive rather than systematic. Within a tribe might be variations on the same story. With free imagination as the source of the stories, across generations their stories were embellished and altered. Stone Age people told their stories without demand for consistency or empirical verification. The element of free imagination would make their stories appear to people of later ages as childlike, incomplete or absurd. But Stone Age people accepted the stories as true because these were the explanations of their mothers, fathers, grandparents and clan or tribal leaders.

Stone Age people believed that they were living at the center of the universe, that the earth was a disk extending not far beyond known neighbors, mountains, or shorelines. They believed that all movement was the product of will. They saw insects as moving by will. They saw the sun, moon and stars closer than they were and as moving by will. For Stone Age people, will was spirit, and they saw their world as filled with many spirits. Or, to use another word: gods. This was the original polytheism.

When a person saw his reflection in the water he believed he was seeing his spirit - the invisible made visible by the magic of the water. (In modern times, Stone Age people might believe that a photographer had captured something of their spirit and for this reason object to being photographed.)

Seeing the lifeless bodies of those who had died, people believed the spirit of that person had left their body and gone to an invisible world where the spirits of the dead dwelled. And they believed that invisible spirits hovered around them.

People saw spirits as able to penetrate human bodies through the skin, nostrils, mouth, ears or other openings. Dreams, not being willed, were seen as invasions by a spirit during one's sleep. Sickness was seen as an invasion by an evil spirit, and cures were sought in the form of having the invading spirit exorcised from oneself - a practice that survived into modern times.

People saw spirits as able to invade things as well as persons. If a rock happened to have a shape that reminded one of a dead uncle it might be because the spirit of the uncle had invaded and become a part of that rock. Spirits were imagined to have taken up residence in stone or wooden idols. Spirit, they believed, was invisible and in everything.

Not yet interested in strict categories, people did not think about the difference between what they saw as spirit and what was later to be called materiality. And not having defined the difference between spirit and materiality, they believed that if one ate a portion of the body of a strong beast, such as a bear, one might acquire the spirit of the bear, or, if one ate a portion of the body of a deceased king one might acquire the special qualities of that king. The flesh of timid animals might be avoided in fear of ingesting timidity.

And not having defined a difference between spirit and materiality, Stone Age people believed that in preserving a corpse they were helping to preserve the spirit of one who had died. And they believed that they could nourish the spirit of the corpse by putting gifts of food alongside it.
Magic and Religion

Not knowing how the world worked, Stone Age people attributed everything to the magic of the spirits. Birds flying or hovering on an updraft of air without falling to the ground was magic. Lightning, thunder, rain, the tides, and procreation were magic. Fire was magic and it was spirit, for it moved itself, and, when water was thrown upon it, it uttered a cry like a slain animal.

Seeing everything in nature as spirit they respected it in its many forms. Also, they recognized their dependence on some of what the spirits had to offer. They feared the power of the spirits and deprivation. People saw spirits as having emotion. Lightning, thunder, strong winds high seas and floods were anger. People feared the anger of the spirits and hoped to placate them with kind words and gifts through a magic of their own.

How the world came into being was explained in stories about the doings of the spirits, a common story being of a male god of sky and the mother god that was earth giving birth to gods that were atmosphere and other phenomena. The imagination of those who created the stories was limited to the world that they could understand. They spoke of gods having created humanity out of earth, tree bark and other ingredients. A god was described as having created plants, beasts and humans, and a story described why the spirits were immortal and humans merely mortal.

They believed that their gods had made the world what it is and that their society and the world would always be as the gods had made it. They had no sense of social progress or image of humanity's capabilities. The imagination of those who had a biological potential for genius, and others of normal intelligence, was limited by their culture. Had it been otherwise, modern times would have come much sooner than it did.

Limited in their view of the breadth of the world, people believed the gods had made their surroundings especially for them. The gods were their gods, and seeing their most powerful god as having their interests at heart they tended to see this god as good. When something went wrong, as in failures at hunting or sickness and death, a society might engage in a ritual to make things good again by waking up the Great Spirit. In another society, calamity might be believed to be the product of people disobeying their gods.

Unrestrained in self-confidence, they believed that if the gods could perform magic so too could they. The earliest form of religious ritual was an attempt at magic through imitation - such as painting a face on the belly of a pregnant woman in hope that the magic of the drawing would encourage birth. There were also ritual fasts or trances that were believed to invoke magic, done in order to receive from the spirits the skills needed to be a good hunter or warrior.

Also common were rituals that we call funerals. The participants wailed and cried with exaggeration to demonstrate that they cared for the dead person, fearing that otherwise the spirit of the dead person might return in anger and haunt or harm them.

Funeral ritual for some tribes included burying their dead. Some other tribes cremated their dead. A tribe in the Amazon jungle in the 20th century, the Yanomami, opted for cremation, believing that burying bodies in the ground was a horrible indignity for the dead. One of their rituals was to grind the ashes of a dead person into a soup, which they drank, believing that the dead would be unhappy if they did not have a resting place within the bodies of their relatives.

Seeing matter and spirit as the same while guarding themselves against the dead, ancient Greek warriors had a ritual of cutting off the fingers from the sword hand of an enemy they had slain, in order to prevent revenge by his spirit.

Stone Age people were wary of enemies performing magic against them. If one suffered from an illness it was often attributed to the evil intentions of someone exercising his magic, perhaps someone with whom one had had an argument, or someone from a neighboring tribe that he had recently met. One might wear a pendant made from a small stone, or perhaps a piece of copper thinned by pounding, as an object of magic to ward off evil.

And to avoid evil, taboos were created. Speaking the name of a dead king might be taboo for fear of evoking a ghost with too much power. Speaking the name of a weapon might be taboo because it would leave the weapon open to hostile magic, making it ineffective. Stone Age people took care not to let a personal object fall into the hands of an enemy, who could then use the spirit in that object to send evil against them - similar to or worse than a modern person losing his credit card.

Ritualized magic differed slightly from tribe to tribe, and the stories that supported the rituals also differed. Early in the twentieth century differences in Stone Age religions put academicians at great labor and debate. Unlike their Stone Age ancestors, the scholars were concerned with definitions. Emerging from these debates was the commonly accepted belief that religion included both ritual and myth, and the scholars created a label for the religion common among Stone Age people:animism. Their definition of animism was simple and therefore easy to agree upon: the belief that spirit permeates all.
Agriculture and Fertility Gods

By 10,000 BCE, humans had spread into virtually all habitable places on earth. In the northern hemisphere between the years 10,000 and 8,000 the last of the continental glaciers retreated. Where the glaciers retreated, agriculture began to replace, in small steps, hunting culture. In an area called the Fertile Crescent, hunter-gatherers camped alongside fields of wild wheat or barley, and cereals. Here was also the game - such as gazelles. Soon they were planting gardens to supplement their hunting. By 7000 BCE, in hilly regions, settlements of from 50 to 100 persons emerged. There were long dry summers and rainy winters. The soil was thin but fertile. The planting of seeds had become a major source of food. People began growing grains and vegetables and raising sheep and goats, and their farming anchored them to one place.

Agriculture was also spreading to Greece. And around 6000 BCE, agriculture was developing independently among hunter-gatherers in southern Mexico. In North Africa along the upper Nile River, people were growing sorghum, millet and wheat. By 5500, people were planting crops in China. By 4500, agriculture had spread from Greece into central Europe where, by 4000 BCE, people were using a wooden plow.

By the year 4500, farming had reappeared in Africa south of the Sahara in the Niger Basin in the West. The Sahara at this time was grass and woodland with an abundance of rainfall, rivers, lakes, fish and aquatic life. People there were growing crops and raising sheep, goats and cattle.

Farming created more food, and more food made possible more people. More people kept farming communities on the brink of inadequate nutrition. And farmers were more dependent on nature than were hunter-gatherers, who were free to drift from drought to areas that had more game and wild foods. Domesticated plants were vulnerable to insect ravages in ways that wild plants were not. Archaeologists have found in the bones of children in agricultural societies more signs of malnutrition than that of people living from hunting and gathering, and the average height of early farming populations has been discovered to be shorter than that of hunter-gatherers.

Also, more populous societies lived amid a greater lack of sanitation. People were careless about their refuse, their sewage and water supply. They knew nothing about bacteria, and their ignorance was costly. They suffered from disease epidemics that had been rare among hunter-gatherers. Perhaps fewer than half of the children of agricultural societies lived past the age of ten.

Needing rain for their crops, people in agricultural societies tried evoking magic in the form of imitation. Where frogs came out when it rained, witchdoctors might croak like frogs to suggest to their gods that they should start the rain.

With agriculture came gods of fertility. Farmers knew enough about fertility to associate it with sexual intercourse. They believed that their gods created sexually, a father and mother god having created son and daughter gods, and men and women copulated in their fields as religious ritual to suggest to their gods that they should make their crops grow.

Where growing seasons passed, people saw their fertility god as having died, and when the growing season returned they saw their god as having been resurrected - the beginning of resurrection as a concept. One such god worshipped by the Greeks was Adonis. Adonis was believed to spend his annual death with the goddess Persephone in Hades - otherwise known as hell. Each year when the growing season returned he was seen to have been resurrected, and he was believed to be living in blissful union with the fertility goddess of love, Aphrodite.

In agricultural societies, misfortune was explained as the work of displeased gods, and early farmers were eager to please the gods by sending them what gifts they could. It was believed that killing someone or an animal sent that creature, in the form of spirit, to the invisible world of the gods. People saw the sending of one or a few members of their society to the gods as a good bargain insofar as it served the survival of the entire society. Or someone might be sacrificed who had been a stranger seized on some pathway or held captive from war - solving the problem what to do with a war captive, who would otherwise draw on the people’s precious supply of food.

Animal and human sacrifices appear to have been less prevalent in societies of hunter-gatherers, such as those on the plains of North America and in Australia. Sacrificing people took place among agricultural people in India, Egypt and elsewhere in agricultural Africa and among the farmers of Europe and the Middle East.

Recommended Books

The Dawn of Belief: Religion in the Upper Paleolithic of Southwestern Europe, by D.Bruce Dickson, 1996

The Forest People, by Colin M. Turnbull, 1968

The Quest for Food: Its Role in Human Evolution & Migration by Ivan Crowe, 2000

martes, 27 de mayo de 2008

Crystal Skulls Fuel Controversy, Fascination

Crystal skulls are not uncommon or terribly mysterious. Thousands are produced every year in Brazil, China, and Germany. But there are a handful of these rather macabre objects that have fueled intense interest and controversy among archaeologists, scientists, spiritualists, and museum officials for more than a century.
Photo: Crystal skull

There are perhaps a dozen of these rare crystal skulls in private and public collections. Some are crystal clear, others of smoky or colored quartz. Some are actual human size and of very fine detail, while others are smaller and less refined. All are believed to originate from Mexico and Central America.

Many believe these skulls were carved thousands or even tens of thousands of years ago by an ancient Mesoamerican civilization. Others think they may be relics from the legendary island of Atlantis or proof that extraterrestrials visited the Aztec sometime before the Spanish conquest.

Supernatural Fascination

Stories about the skulls focus heavily on their perceived supernatural powers.

Joshua Shapiro, coauthor of Mysteries of the Crystal Skulls Revealed, on his Web site cites claims of healings and expanded psychic abilities from people who have been in the presence of such skulls.

"We believe the Crystal Skulls are a form of computer which are able to record energy and vibration that occur around them," he writes. " The skull will pictorially replay all events or images of the people who have come into contact with them (i.e. they contain the history of our world)."

Most archaeologists and scientists are skeptical, to say the least.

Skulls were prominent in ancient Mesoamerican artwork, particularly among the Aztec, so the connection between these artifacts and these civilizations is apt.

"[I]t was a symbol of regeneration," says Michael Smith, a professor of anthropology at Arizona State University. "There were several Aztec gods that were represented by skulls, so they were probably invoking these gods. I don't think they were supposed to have specific powers or anything like that."

All Fakes?

In addition, recent electron microscope analyses of skulls by the British Museum and the Smithsonian Institution revealed markings that could only have been made with modern carving implements. Both museums estimate that their skulls date to sometime in the mid- to late 1800s, a time when public interest in ancient cultures was high and museums were eager for pieces to display.

Its examinations and the fact that no such skull has ever been uncovered at an official archaeological excavation led the British Museum to extrapolate that all of the famed crystal skulls are likely fakes.

There is passion on both sides of the issue, and the fact remains that no one knows for sure who made these skulls and when. And since there is currently no way to accurately determine the age of such inorganic objects, the mystery will likely continue. In fact, it's sure to get a boost in 2008 with the release of the action-adventure sequel Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

viernes, 23 de mayo de 2008

Mexico Pyramid of Death

At the Pyramid of the Moon in central Mexico, humans and animals were buried alive. Excavations reveal the remains of sacrifices once witnessed by thousands of spectators.

Even the ferocious Aztec were awed by their first glimpse of Teotihuacan. By the 13th century when the Aztec swept into central Mexico, the once teeming city—which reached its zenith around A.D. 400—had been long since abandoned by its mysterious builders. Its grand ceremonial center, where tens of thousands of people had gathered amid sacred monuments of stone, lay under thick green overgrowth. The Aztec gave the site its name and identified its most imposing features according to their own beliefs—the Pyramid of the Sun and Pyramid of the Moon. Assuming that some of the buildings were tombs, they called the main thoroughfare Street of the Dead.

They were, as it turns out, uncannily accurate. Burials both rich and gruesome have recently been discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon during excavations headed by Rubén Cabrera Castro, of Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, and Saburo Sugiyama, of Japan's Aichi Prefectural University. Tunneling deep into the 140-foot-tall (43 meters) stone structure, the archaeologists located five burial sites. After most of the dirt and debris had been dug out, each site was reinforced with steel beams for safety. Supplied with fresh air pumped in from the outside, the archaeologists scraped the last layers of earth from the floor to reveal scenes of carnage: disembodied heads and the remains of foreign warriors and dignitaries, carnivorous mammals, birds of prey, and deadly reptiles.

Evidence indicates that all the victims were ritually killed to consecrate successive stages of the pyramid's construction. The earliest sacrifice, from about A.D. 200, marked a substantial enlargement of the building. A wounded foreigner, most likely a prisoner of war, was apparently buried alive with his hands tied behind him. Animals representing mythical powers and military might surrounded him—pumas, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and rattlesnakes—some buried alive in cages. Finely crafted offerings included weapons of obsidian and a figurine of solid greenstone, perhaps a war goddess to whom the burial was dedicated. Each subsequent burial was different, but all had the same aim: "Human sacrifice was important to control the people," says Sugiyama, "to convince them to do what their rulers wanted."

miércoles, 21 de mayo de 2008

Ancient Artifacts and Symbols

The Siva Linga is a revered symbol of Shiva, the Hindu god who destroys the universe so that it can be recreated. The Siva Linga (or Lingam) occupies a prominent place of worship in all temples of Shiva, and its phallic nature represents the god's power of creation. During the annual Mahashivratri festival the faithful ritualistically bathe and decorate Siva Linga.

Much of the action in the Hollywood movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom centers around Indy's hunt for the "Sankara stones," five artifacts loosely based on the Siva Linga.

This massive 24-ton ceremonial stone celebrates the sun god Tonatiuh, whose visage anchors the stone at its center. Tonatiuh demanded human sacrifice, and his knifelike tongue symbolizes the instruments once used to slice open the chests of those sacrificed to him.

Carved in the 15th century, the Sun Stone also portrays the cyclical Aztec view of time. It charts the recurring days and years of the Aztec calendar—including the ends of four ancient epochs during which the world was destroyed by jaguars, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, and torrential rainstorms.

Discovered in 1790, the Sun Stone now resides at Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology.

The ankh is a symbol of life often shown in the hands of Egyptian gods or pharaohs. The gods are sometimes depicted giving the ankh, and thus giving life, to a human.

The origins of this widespread symbol are much disputed. Whatever its original symbolic meaning (theories range from a sandal loop to a sunrise) the ankh was widely adopted first by Egyptian religions and later by early Christians for whom it linked the cross with eternal life.

This familiar symbol appears in many examples of Egyptian art. The eye likely originated with one of the most ancient Egyptian goddesses, Wadjet, who subsequently lent her name to the symbol. Wadjet was a solar goddess, and the sun remained associated with the symbol when it became known as the Eye of Horus, falcon god of the sky.

The symbol is also known as the Eye of Ra, Egypt's sun god of a later period. The eye was used as a protective or healing talisman and was often found on elaborate jewelry.

For more than 2,200 years the terra-cotta army has silently guarded the grave of the great First Emperor Qin, during whose ruthless reign China was first united.

The incredible array of unique warriors and horses, equipped with chariots and weapons, was hidden until 1974. In that year peasants digging a well near the ancient Chinese capital of Xi'an made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time.

Today work continues at the site, where as many as 8,000 life-size warriors could finally emerge from the Chinese soil.

lunes, 19 de mayo de 2008

1,000 Ancient Tombs, Unique Remains Found in Colombia

1,000 Ancient Tombs, Unique Remains Found in Colombia
José Orozco in Caracas, Venezuela

Builders clearing land for a housing project in Colombia have uncovered an ancient burial site containing nearly a thousand tombs linked to two little-known civilizations. (See photos.)

The site covers some 12 acres (5 hectares) in the impoverished Usme district in southeast Bogotá (see map) and includes one set of remains that some researchers believe could be a victim of human sacrifice.
The possible victim is a young woman who seems to have been buried alive, said Ana Maria Groot, one of the lead anthropologists from the National University of Colombia working at the site.

"Her mouth is open as if in terror, and her hands seem contracted as if she had tried grabbing hold of something," Groot said.

Another tomb contains the remains of a man with a curved tibia, or shinbone, possible evidence that the man was a shaman, she added.

Spanish observers in the 1500s wrote of indigenous shamans spending long periods in caves with no exposure to sunlight. A lack of sunlight would produce a shortage of vitamin D, causing curving of the bones, explained Groot's colleague, Virgilio Becerra.

Two Mysterious Cultures

Aside from such unusual finds, the site is unique for its age and length of occupation, the anthropologists say.

The tombs range in date from around the first century to the 16th century A.D., based on analysis of pottery found with the remains.

The first 500 years of the site's use date to the so-called Herrera period, when several small, obscure groups thrived in this region of the Andean highlands during the development of agriculture.

"The agriculture became more intensive, more systematic at this time," Groot said.

"We have high expectations about finding what kinds of plants they cultivated."

From around A.D. 500 to 1500, the site seems to have been occupied by the Muisca, another culture that is one of Colombia's most important but least understood civilizations, Groot said.

Rife with artifacts from both periods, the Usme site is a potential treasure trove of information, she added.

"A settlement like Usme offers the chance to research the settlement's development through different moments in a prolonged occupation," she said.

"We can identify those changes as expressed in their cultural practices."

Ongoing analysis should reveal more about life expectancy, diet, disease, and other aspects of daily life and social organization in the settlement, Groot added.

Temple Site and Other Discoveries

Anthropologists also found ruins of a human settlement next to the burial site, including what may be evidence of a temple. Holes for posts suggest a large circular structure, Groot said.

Pottery found with the remains mostly includes fragments of decorative and simple pitchers, cooking pots, and cups.

The decorative pitchers combine geometric designs with images of animals such as frogs, birds, and snakes.

Researchers also found stones for grating or cutting vegetables and for grinding grain, though no evidence of the settlers' diet has yet been determined.

Local authorities are considering making the site into a museum.

Excavation began in January and will continue while anthropologists await results from radiocarbon sampling of human bones and other objects to determine their ages.

"Invaluable" Find

Guillermo Cock is an archaeologist and Andean expert whose work has been partly funded by the National Geographic Society, which operates National Geographic News.

He cautioned that apparent evidence of human sacrifice seen at Usme likely has other origins.

In the case of the young woman who looks to have been buried alive, her contracted hands may be explained by early arthritis, he said.

Likewise, her opened jaw may be the result of the body having been moved before or after burial, he said.

Nonetheless, the Usme site should prove "invaluable" to science, said Cock, whose work has helped unearth burial sites with thousands of tombs in Peru.

(Read related story; "Dozens of Inca Mummies Discovered Buried in Peru" [March 11, 2004].)

"Conservation [of graves and other archaeological material] in Colombia and Venezuela tends to be poor because of the soil's humidity, which quickly destroys organic remains," Cock said.

"If the period that each tomb belongs to can be identified, even if they are in a poor state, it would be an invaluable amount of information about this Muisca population."

viernes, 16 de mayo de 2008

Rare Stonehenge Dig Aims to Pinpoint Origin

Gregory Katz in London
Associated Press

Some of the United Kingdom's most storied soil was disturbed Monday for the first time in more than four decades as archaeologists worked to solve the enduring riddle of Stonehenge: When and why was the prehistoric monument built?

The excavation project, set to last until April 11, is designed to unearth materials that can be used to establish a more specific date for when the mysterious first set of bluestones was put in place at Stonehenge, one of Britain's best known and least understood landmarks.

The bluestones are the smaller of the large rocks installed at Stonehenge.

The UN World Heritage site, a favorite with visitors the world over, has become popular with Druids, modern-day pagans, and New Agers, who attach mystical significance to the strangely shaped circle of stones. But there remains great debate about the actual purpose of the structure.

The dig will be led by Timothy Darvill, a leading Stonehenge scholar from Bournemouth University, and Geoffrey Wainwright, president of the Society of Antiquaries.

(Related photos: "Stonehenge Builders' Village Found" [January 30, 2007].)

"Not Only Why, But When"

Both experts have worked to pinpoint the site in the Preseli mountains in southern Wales where the bluestones—the earliest of the large rocks erected at the site—came from. The researchers will be able to compare the samples found in Wales to those at Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain.

"The excavation will date the arrival of the bluestones following their 153-mile [246-kilometer] journey from Preseli to Salisbury Plain and contribute to our definition of the society which undertook such an ambitious project," Wainright said.

"We will be able to say not only why, but when the first stone monument was built."

Scientists believe the bluestones were first put in place around 2600 B.C. But experts concede the date is an approximation at best.

Those original bluestones were removed about 200 years later. The dig team hopes to find bits of them embedded in the earth.

Darvill said the excavation marks the first opportunity to bring the power of modern scientific archaeology to bear on a problem that has taxed the minds of experts since medieval times: Why were the bluestones so important to have warranted bringing them from so far away?

How Were the Stones Transported?

The goal is to find remnants of the original bluestones, or related materials, that can be subjected to modern radiocarbon dating techniques. This could establish a more precise time line for the construction of Stonehenge, said Dave Batchelor, an archaeologist with English Heritage, which oversees the Stonehenge site.

"We have to find the material that will give us a good date," Batchelor said.

"That's where the luck comes in. We could get an absolute blank, or we could get something magnificent, or we could get something in between."

He said bluestones have an "inky, bluey black" appearance. About 6 feet (180 centimeters) tall, they are the smaller of the stones at the monument. The larger stones are about twice as tall and were added later.

It is hoped that pinpointing Stonehenge's start date will shed light on how and why the monument was built.

The team may also learn more about how the stones were transported.

Research shows the bluestones—weighing an estimated five tons apiece—may have been dragged from the mountains in southern Wales to the sea, put on huge rafts, and floated up the River Avon.

Archaeologists believe that, before the bluestones were put in place, Stonehenge consisted of a circle of wooden posts and timbers built in approximately 3100 B.C.

Rare Permission

The research began Monday with the digging of a trench. It marks the first time ground inside the inner stone circle has been excavated since 1964. The area is so sensitive that Cabinet approval was needed before the work could begin.

Renee Fok, a spokesperson with English Heritage, said the project was okayed only after experts were convinced of its potential value. She said the project represents "the logical next step" after the two professors located the source of the bluestones in Wales.

"It's the culmination of their work. It makes sense to go back to the stone circle and get a date," she said.

"We want to strike a balance. We want the best research, but we can't just say, Go ahead and dig as you like—it's a very fragile area. Even the Druids are happy with this project, we've spoken to them and they don't object."

She said tourists will be able to visit Stonehenge as usual and will also be able to watch live video coverage of the excavation in special tents at the site.

jueves, 15 de mayo de 2008

Dead Sea Scroll Put on Rare Display in Israel

One of the most important Dead Sea scrolls is going on display in Jerusalem this week—more than four decades after it was last seen by the public.

The 24-foot (7.3-meter) scroll with the text of the Bible's Book of Isaiah had been in a dark, temperature-controlled room at the Israel Museum since 1967. It went on display two years earlier, but curators replaced it with a facsimile after noticing new cracks in the calfskin parchment.The museum decided to put the scroll back on show for three months as part of Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations.

Great Find

The priceless manuscript, written by a Judean scribe around 120 B.C., was in a long glass case Tuesday, its neat rows of Hebrew letters distinct and legible. President Bush, visiting Israel this week for the anniversary celebration, will be one of the first to view it.

The Isaiah manuscript was the only complete biblical book discovered among the Dead Sea scrolls, one of the great archaeological finds of the 20th century.

The ancient documents, which include fragments of the books of the Old Testament and treatises on communal living and apocalyptic war, have shed important light on Judaism and the origins of Christianity.

(See a time line of early Christianity.)

The Book of Isaiah is traditionally attributed to a prophet who lived in the eighth century B.C.

In the book, he calls for repentance, warns of impending doom, and offers an idyllic vision of the future: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

(Related: "Underground Tunnels Found in Israel Used In Ancient Jewish Revolt" [March 15, 2006].)

Gem of the Dead Sea

Curator Adolfo Roitman called the Isaiah manuscript the "gem of the Dead Sea scrolls."

It is "one of the most important treasures of the Jewish nation, if not the most important," he added.

A far smaller fragment of another Dead Sea scroll will be on display at the Jerusalem convention center where Bush will be speaking along with other dignitaries.

The segment, also rarely shown, contains the text of Psalm 133, which reads: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity."

miércoles, 14 de mayo de 2008

Lost Inca Gold—Ransom, Riches, and Riddles

Steeped in death, conquest, desire, and mystery, the legend of the lost Inca gold is guarded by remote, mist-veiled mountains in central Ecuador. Somewhere deep inside the unforgiving Llanganates mountain range between the Andes and the Amazon is said to exist a fabulous Inca hoard hidden from Spanish conquistadors.
Photo: Gold cup made by Incas in Peru

Gold cup made by Inca in Peru

The legend begins in the 16th century, when the great Inca Empire in western South America was giving way to European invaders. Atahualpa was an Inca king who, after warring with his half-brother, Huáscar, for control of the empire, was captured at his palace in Cajamarca in modern-day Peru by Spanish commander Francisco Pizarro.

Pizarro agreed to release Atahualpa in return for a roomful of gold, but the Spaniard later reneged on the deal. He had the Inca king put to death before the last and largest part of the ransom had been delivered. Instead, the story goes, the gold was buried in a secret mountain cave. And there the legend has remained, daring others to prove it.

The shadowy guide of those who have tried is Valverde, a Spaniard who some 50 years after Atahualpa's death is said to have become rich after being led to the gold by his Indian bride's family. When he died, he left written directions to its location, the so-called Derrotero de Valverde.

The gold trail went cold until the 1850s, when English botanist Richard Spruce traveled to Ecuador in search of the cinchona tree, the seeds of which were used to produce the antimalarial drug quinine. Spruce, when he finally returned to Britain, reported that he had uncovered Valverde's guide and a related map, made by a man named Atanasio Guzman.

'Golden Vases Full of Emeralds'

Treasure seeker Barth Blake followed up Spruce's discovery in 1886. If his writings are to be believed, Blake was the last person to find the gold. In one letter he wrote: "There are thousands of gold and silver pieces of Inca and pre-Inca handicraft, the most beautiful goldsmith works you are not able to imagine." He detailed life-size human figurines, birds and other animals, flowers, and cornstalks, as well as "the most incredible jewelry" and "golden vases full of emeralds." But, Blake claimed, "I could not remove it alone, nor could thousands of men."

Taking only what he could carry, Blake left and never returned. Sources suggest that en route to New York, where he planned to raise funds for an expedition to recover his prize, he disappeared overboard. Some say he was pushed deliberately. Many who have since attempted to retrace his steps into the treacherous Llanganates have also paid with their lives.

Mark Honigsbaum, however, did survive to tell the tale, which he did in his book Valverde's Gold (2004). The author teamed up with two adventurers who each claimed to have independently discovered an Inca gold mining site such as Valverde described: "There is a lake, made by hand, into which the ancients threw the gold they had prepared for the ransom of the Inca [Atahualpa] when they heard of his death."

"The legend essentially is that the Inca took the gold out of the Llanganates and then returned it to where they had taken it from," Honigsbaum said. But he never found the site, which seemingly had been lost as a result of the earthquakes that regularly rock the densely forested mountains.

"We're dealing with the frontier land between fact and fiction," Honigsbaum admitted. "We know Atahualpa's gold existed because it's recorded in the Spanish chronicle, and it's recorded that a large convoy of gold was on its way from Ecuador. After that, the best and most persistent stories revolve around the Llanganates."

"My own feeling, though, is that this gold was probably taken out centuries ago," he said. "If not, and it's still there, I think it's lost forever, because those mountains are so vast and inaccessible that you're looking for a needle in a haystack."

Guide to Lost Inca Sites?

Archaeologist Johan Reinhard, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, has an explanation for why numerous expeditions in search of the gold mine and artificial lake mentioned by Valverde have failed.

"Most have followed Guzman's map that does indeed lead to some mines located on the northern end of the Llanganate range, but not to the area as can be ascertained from Valverde's description," Reinhard explained.

It's an open question whether Valverde ever existed, Reinhard added, but he says his directions do make sense against modern maps of the region.

While Reinhard doesn't believe Atahualpa's gold will ever be found, he says there's still a good chance of discovering Inca sites such as those referred to in the Derrotero. "Thus," he said, "a serious archaeological expedition would likely add significantly to our knowledge of the Inca presence in the region."

Treasure hunters and their dangerous gold fever probably aren't invited.

martes, 13 de mayo de 2008

Inca Skull Surgeons Were "Highly Skilled," Study Finds

for NG News

May 13, 2008

Inca surgeons in ancient Peru commonly and successfully removed small portions of patients' skulls to treat head injuries, according to a new study.

The surgical procedure—known as trepanation—was most often performed on adult men, likely to treat injuries suffered during combat, researchers say.

A similar procedure is performed today to relieve pressure caused by fluid buildup following severe head trauma.

Around the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco (see Peru map), remains dating back to A.D. 1000 show that surgical techniques were standardized and perfected over time, according to the report.

Many of the oldest skulls showed no evidence of bone healing following the operation, suggesting that the procedure was probably fatal.

But by the 1400s, survival rates approached 90 percent, and infection levels were very low, researchers say.

The new findings show that Inca surgeons had developed a detailed knowledge of cranial anatomy, said lead author Valerie Andrushko, of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

"These people were skilled surgeons," she said.

Beer, Plants Aided Patients

Inca healers carefully avoided areas of the skull where cutting would be more likely to cause brain injury, bleeding, or infection, Verushko noted.

The operations were conducted without the modern benefits of anesthesia and antibiotics, but medicinal plants were probably used, she said.

"They were aware of the medicinal properties of many wild plants, including coca and wild tobacco," Verushko said.
"These, along with maize beer, may have been used to alleviate some of the pain.

"Natural antiseptics such as balsam and saponins [plants with soaplike properties] may have reduced the likelihood of infection following trepanation," she added.

The new study was recently published online in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. "Skull Was Slowly Scraped Away"

Verushko and study co-author John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans studied remains from 11 burial sites in Cuzco and the surrounding region.
Their survey found that trepanation was a remarkably common practice in the Inca capital. Of 411 skulls that were sufficiently well preserved to study, 66 had holes cut through the bone.

In one location, 21 of 59 skulls—over a third—had received trepanation.

While methods of trepanation varied over time, Inca surgeons eventually settled on a scraping technique to penetrate the skull without causing wider injury.

"The skull was slowly scraped away, resulting in a circular hole surrounded by a wider area of scraped bone," Verushko said.

Some of the skulls had been perforated more than once, including one individual who had undergone the operation seven times.

In another unusual case, in which the patient did not survive the operation, a rectangular section of bone that had been removed was set back in place prior to burial.

Tiffiny Tung is an archaeologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and was not part of the research.

She said that the new study is the first to compare the frequency and success rate of trepanation over time and in different communities.

"This is the kind of richly detailed study that really gives us a sense of what life was like for ancient Andean populations," Tung said.

"It's astounding that [such a large percentage] of the population underwent skull surgery and that so many survived."

War Wounds

Trepanation was practiced as early as 400 B.C. in South America and is known from other parts of the world as well.

Archaeologists have long debated whether the skull perforations were conducted as a medical procedure or for ritual or cultural reasons.

With regard to the Inca, Tung said, the new study should settle the debate.

"I think the authors are spot on when they suggest that cranial surgery was performed primarily to treat head injuries," she said.

Those injuries may have most often been sustained during warfare, according to the new study's authors.

Nearly all of the surgeries were performed either near the middle of the skull or on the left side—the regions most likely to be injured during combat with a right-handed opponent, Verushko noted.

In addition, some of the skulls showed signs of previous injury in the area where the operation was performed.

The fact that 19 of the surgical patients were women, however, suggests that the operation may have sometimes been performed for other reasons—possibly as an attempted cure for epilepsy or chronic bone infection, the authors note.

lunes, 12 de mayo de 2008

The Sumerians

The Sumerians

Writing and Religion

By 7000 BCE, in what is called the Fertile Crescent, in West Asia where hunter-gatherers had roamed, planting had grown into the major source of food. There true farming had begun, and farming required permanent settlement. By 4500 BCE people archaeologists would call Ubaidians were living in towns in West Asia, in Mesopotamia (Greek for "between two rivers") near where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers emptied into the Persian Gulf. The Ubaidians drained marshes. They grew wheat and barley and irrigated their crops by digging ditches to river waters. They kept farm animals. Some of them manufactured pottery. They did weaving, leather or metal work, and some were involved in trade with other societies.

By 4000 BCE to the south in Syria a society existed that had regional centers and a complex government. Here, as with the Ubaidians, people baked bread in huge ovens and manufactured fine pottery. In the year 2000 of modern times, at Tell Hamoukar, archaeologists discovered a protective city wall, and they described the place of their digging as more than a town. They described it as a city. And they found primitive hieroglyphics: markings for recording trade transactions.

It was around 4000 BCE that a people called Sumerians moved into Mesopotamia, perhaps from around the Caspian Sea. By 3800 BCE the Sumerians had supplanted the Ubaidians and Semites in southern Mesopotamia. They built better canals for irrigating crops and for transporting crops by boat to village centers. They improved their roads, over which their donkeys trod, some of their donkeys pulling wheeled carts. And the Sumerians grew in number, the increase in population the key element in creating what we call civilization - a word derived from an ancient word for city.

At least twelve cities arose among the Sumerians. Among them were Ur, Uruk, Kish and Lagash - Ur, for example, becoming a city of about 24,000 people. In the center of each city was a temple that housed the city's gods, and around each city were fields of grain, orchards of date palms, and land for herding. Besides planting and harvesting crops, some Sumerians hunted, fished, or raised livestock. In addition to an increase in population, civilization was also about variety, and enough food was produced to support people who worked at other occupations - such as the priesthood, pottery making, weaving, carpentry and smithing. There were also traders, and the Sumerians developed an extensive commerce by land and sea. They built seaworthy ships, and they imported from afar items made from the wood, stone, tin and copper not found nearby.

Sumerian writing is the oldest full-fledged writing that archaeologists have discovered. The Ubaidians may have introduced the Sumerians to the rudiments of writing and recorded numerical calculation, which the Sumerians used with the rise in trade and to calculate and to keep records of supplies and goods exchanged. The Sumerians wrote arithmetic based on units of ten - the number of fingers on both hands. Concerned about their star-gods, they mapped the stars and divided a circle into units of sixty, from which our own system of numbers, and seconds and minutes, are derived.

The Sumerians wrote poetically, describing events as the work of their gods, and they wrote to please their gods. The Sumerians wrote by pressing picture representations into wet clay with a pen, and they dried the clay to form tablets. Instead of developing their writing all at once, as one might expect with divine revelation, they developed their writing across centuries. They streamlined their pictures into symbols called ideograms, and they added symbols for spoken sounds - phonetic letters - forming what is called cuneiform.
A Belief in Spirits

Like people who were not yet civilized, the Sumerians saw movement around them as the magic of spirits, magic being the only explanation they had for how things worked. These spirits were their gods, and with many spirits around, the Sumerians believed in many gods - gods that had humanlike emotions. The Sumerians believed that the sun, moon and stars were gods. They believed in a goddess of the reeds that grew around them and in a goddess of the beer that they distilled.

The Sumerians believed that crops grew because of a male god mating with his goddess wife. They saw the hot and dry months of summer, when their meadows and fields turned brown, as a time of death of these gods. When their fields bloomed again in the autumn, they believed their gods were resurrected. They marked this as the beginning of their year, which they celebrated at their temples with music and singing.

The Sumerians could dig into the earth and within a few feet find water. They believed that the earth was a great disk floating on the sea. They called the sea Nammu, and they believed that Nammu was without a beginning in time. They believed that Nammu had created the fish they saw and the birds, wild pigs and other creatures that appeared on the marshy wet lands - a story of creation around two millennia before the Hebrews would put their own story of the creation into writing.

The Sumerians believed that Nammu had created heaven and earth, heaven splitting from earth as being the male god, An, and the earth being a goddess called Ki. They believed that Ki and An had produced a son called Enlil, who was atmosphere, wind and storm. The Sumerians believed that Enlil separated the day from night and that he had opened an invisible shell and let waters fall from the sky. They believed that with his mother, Ki, Enlil set the stage for the creation of plants, humans and other creatures, that he made seeds grow, that he shaped humanity from clay and imbued it, as it states in Genesis 2:7, with "the breath of life."

The Sumerians believed they had been created to serve their gods, and they served their gods with sacrificial offerings and supplications. They believed that the gods controlled the past and the future, that the gods had revealed to them the skills that they possessed, including writing, and that the gods had provided them with all they needed to know. They had no vision of their civilization having developed by their own efforts. They had no vision of technological or social progress.

They did not believe in social change, but Sumerian priests altered the stories that they told, creating a new twist to old tales - without acknowledging this as a human induced change or wondering why they had failed to get it right the first time. New ideas were simply revelations from the gods.

The Sumerians did not recognize interpretation. They saw no need for rules of reason. No evidence remains in their writings of their respecting doubt or their seeing any benefit from suspended judgment. They worked their stories about their gods into axioms. Sometime around 2500 BCE, Enlil became the greatest of the gods and the god who punished people and watched over their safety and well-being. Like the gods of other ancient peoples, Enlil was a god who dwelled somewhere. He was a god of place, and that place was the city was Nippur, a sacred city believed to have been inhabited at first only by divine beings.

By around 2500 BCE, the Sumerians had become individualistic enough to believe in personal gods - gods with whom individuals had a covenant. Individuals no longer prayed just for the community. Sumerian society was dominated by males, and the male head of every family had his personal god. Men hoped that their god would intercede for them in the assembly of gods and provide them with a long life and good health. In exchange, they glorified their god with prayers, supplications and sacrifices while continuing to worship the other gods in the Sumerian pantheon of gods.
A Belief in Sin

Believing that the gods had given them all they had, the Sumerians saw the intentions of their gods as good. Believing that their gods had great powers and controlled their world, they needed an explanation for their hardships and misfortunes. They concluded that their hardships and misfortunes were the result of human deeds that displeased the gods - in a word, sin. They believed that when someone displeased their gods, these gods let demons punish the offender with sickness, disease or environmental disasters.

The Sumerians experienced infrequent rains that sometimes created disastrous floods, and they believed that these floods were punishments created by a demon god that lived in the depths of the Gulf of Persia. And to explain the misfortunes and suffering of infants, the Sumerians believed that sin was inborn, that never was a child born without sin. Therefore, wrote a Sumerian, when one suffered it was best not to curse the gods but to glorify them, to appeal to them, and to wait patiently for their deliverance.
Conflicts Among the Gods

In giving their gods human characteristics, the Sumerians projected onto their gods the conflicts they found among themselves. Sumerian priests wrote of a dispute between the god of cattle, Lahar, and his sister Ashnan, the goddess of grain. Like some other gods, these gods were vain and wished to be praised. Each of the two sibling gods extolled his and her own achievements and belittled the achievements of the other.

The Sumerians saw another dispute between the minor gods Emesh (summer) and his brother Enten (winter). Each of these brothers had specific duties in creation - like Cain the farmer and Able the herdsmen. The god Enlil put Emesh in charge of producing trees, building houses, temples, cities and other tasks. Enlil put Enten in charge of causing ewes to give birth to lambs, goats to give birth to kids, birds to build nests, fish to lay their eggs and trees to bear fruit. And the brothers quarreled violently as Emesh challenged Enten's claim to be the farmer god.

A dispute existed also between the god Enki and a mother goddess, Ninhursag - perhaps originally the earth goddess Ki. Ninhursag made eight plants sprout in a divine garden, plants created from three generations of goddesses fathered by Enki. These goddesses were described as having been born "without pain or travail." Then trouble came as Enki ate the plants that Ninhursag had grown. Ninhursag responded with rage. She pronounced a curse of death on Enki, and Enki's health began to fail. Eight parts of Enki's body - one for each of the eight plants that he ate - became diseased, one of which was his rib. The goddess Ninhursag then disappeared so as not to

let sympathy for Enki change her mind about her sentence of death upon him. But she finally relented and returned to heal Enki. She created eight healing deities - eight more goddesses - one for each of Enki's ailing body parts. And the goddess who healed Enki's rib was Nin-ti, a name that in Sumerian meant "lady of the rib," which describes a character who was to appear in a different role in Hebrew writings centuries later, a character to be called Eve.
Power and Politics

Early in Sumerian civilization, eighty to ninety percent of those who farmed did so on land they considered theirs rather than communal property. Here too the Sumerians were expressing a trend that was common among others. Another individual effort was commerce, and with a growth in commerce the Sumerians had begun using money, which made individual wealth more easily measured and stored. Commerce required initiative, imagination, an ability to get along with people and luck, and, of course, some merchants were more successful than were others.

Farmers also benefited from luck, and they needed stamina, good organization and good health, and some were more successful than others. Those who failed to harvest enough to keep themselves in food and seed borrowed from those who had wealth in surplus. Those who borrowed hoped that their next harvest would give them the surplus they needed to repay their loan. But if the next harvest were also inadequate, to meet their obligations they might be forced to surrender their lands to the lender or to work for him. When Sumerians lost their land, they or their descendants might become sharecroppers: working the lands of successful landowners in exchange for giving the landowners a good portion of the crops they grew.

Accompanying divisions in wealth was a division in power, and power among the Sumerians passed to an elite. Sumerian priests had once worked the fields alongside others, but now they were separated from commoners. A corporation run by priests became the greatest landowners among the Sumerians. The priests hired the poor to work their land and claimed that land was really owned by the gods. Priests had become skilled as scribes, and in some cities they sat with the city's council of elders. These councils wielded great influence, sometimes in conflict with a city's king.

Common Sumerians remained illiterate and without power, while kings, once elected by common people, became monarchs. The monarchs were viewed as agents of and responsible to the gods. It was the religious duty of his subjects to accept his rule as a part of the plan of the gods. Governments drafted common people to work on community projects, and common people were obliged to pay taxes to the government in the form of a percentage of their crops, which the city could either sell or use to feed its soldiers and others it supported. And priests told commoners that their drudgery was necessary to allow the gods their just leisure.
Men Dominate Women

Physically stronger than women, men could rule women by brute force, and in societies where men were the warriors it was they who got together and made decisions for their entire society. Presumably before the time of the Sumerians, kings were chosen by the warriors, with the king as the leading warrior.

The Sumerians put the domination of men over women into law. If a husband died, the widow came under the control of her former husband's father or brother, or if she had a grown son she was put under his control. A woman in Sumer had no recourse or protection under the law. A woman's power, if she had any, was the influence of her personality within her family.

Early in Sumerian civilization, schooling was associated with the priesthood and took place in temples. But this changed, and an education apart from the temples arose for the children of affluent families, who paid for this education - and with men dominating women, most if not all students were males. The students were obliged to work hard at their studies, from sun up to sun down. Not believing in change, there was no probing into the potentials of humankind or study of the humanities. Their study was "practical" - rote learning of complex grammar and practice at writing. Students were encouraged with praise while their inadequacies and failures were punished with lashes from a stick or cane.
War and Slavery

Sumerian kings sent men out to plunder people in hill country, and they acquired slaves. The Sumerian name for a female slave was mountain girl, and a male slave was called mountain man. The Sumerians used their slaves mainly as domestics and concubines. And they justified their slavery as would others: that their gods had given them victory over an inferior people.

As Sumerian cities grew in population and expanded, the swamps that insulated city from city disappeared. Sumerians from different cities were unable or unwilling to resolve their conflicts over land and the availability of water, and wars between cities erupted - wars the Sumerians saw as between their gods. And the Sumerians made slaves of other Sumerians they had captured.

It was a new kind of warfare. In herding and hunter-gatherer societies - mobile societies - the entire community might enter the field of battle. In settled agricultural communities such as those of the Sumerians, the younger and stronger, maybe fourth or fifth of society, went to war. The others remained at home, working at farming or other chores.

Some people associate Uruk with the city commonly spelled Ereck in the Book of Genesis 10:10

Wars with distant people were fueled by the greed and ambitions of kings. The Sumerians described this in a poetic tale of conflict between the king of Uruk [note] and the distant town of Arrata, a tale written by a Sumerian some five hundred years after the event, a tale of which only fragments remain. Here was reporting as it would be for more than 3,000 years, as it would be with Homer and his Iliad, the sacred writings of Hindus and with the Old Testament, with gods in command and not disapproving of war.

Among the Sumerian cities was an impulse to be supreme, and, around 2800 BCE, Kish had become the first of the cities to dominate the whole of Sumer. Then Kish's supremacy was challenged by the city of Lagash, which launched a bloody conquest against its Sumerian neighbors and extended its power beyond Sumerian lands. A bas-relief sculpture uncovered by archaeologists depicts a king of Lagash celebrating his victory over the city of Umma, the king's soldiers, with helmets, shields and pikes, standing shoulder to shoulder and line behind line over the corpses of their defeated enemy.

The variety of populous, civilized life produced differing opinions, and dissent - something authoritarians would never be able to extinguish. Sumerians complained. One wrote that he was a "thoroughbred steed" but drawing a cart carrying "reeds and stubble." Another complained in writing of the stupidity in one city taking enemy lands and then the enemy coming and taking its lands. Rather than docility, people in the city of Lagash instigated history's first recorded revolt. This came after Lagash's rulers had increased local taxes and restricted personal freedoms. Lagash's bureaucrats had grown in wealth. The people of Lagash resented this enough that they overthrew their king - probably believing that they were acting in accordance with the wishes of the gods. They brought to power a god-fearing ruler named Urukagina, who eliminated excessive taxation and rid the city of usurers, thieves and murderers - the first known reforms.
Paradise and a Great Flood

Clinging to their belief in the goodness and power of their gods and wondering about their sin and the toil and strife with which they lived, the Sumerians imagined a past in which people lived in a god-created paradise. This was expressed in the same poetic tale that described the conflict between the king of Uruk and the distant town of Arrata - the earliest known description in writing of a paradise and the fall of humankind. The poem describes a period when there were no creatures that threatened people - no snakes, scorpions, hyenas, or lions - a period in which humans knew no terror. There was no confusion among various peoples speaking different languages, with everyone praising the god Enlil in one language. Then, according to the poem, something happened that enraged the god Enki (the god of wisdom and water who had organized the earth in accordance with a general plan laid down by Enlil). The clay tablet on which the poem was written is damaged at this point, but the tablet indicates that Enki found some sort of inappropriate behavior among humans. Enki decided to put an end to the golden age, and in the place of the golden age came conflict, wars and a confusion of languages.

On another clay tablet, surviving fragments of a poem describe the gods as having decided that humans were evil and the gods as having created a flood "to destroy the seed of humanity," a flood that raged for seven days and seven nights. The tablet describes a huge boat commanded by a king named Ziusudra, who was preserving vegetation and the seed of humankind. His boat was "tossed about by the windstorms on the great waters." When the storm subsided, the god Utu - the sun - came forward and shed light on heaven and earth. The good king Ziusudra opened a window on the boat and let in light from Utu. Then Ziusudra prostrated himself before Utu and sacrificed an ox and a sheep for the god

viernes, 9 de mayo de 2008


The breathtaking city of Petra was a vibrant trading hub that vanished from most maps in the seventh century A.D. It lay beneath a thousand years of dust and debris when, in 1812, a Swiss scholar disguised as a Bedouin trader identified the ruins as the ancient Nabataean capital.
Spread throughout a series of remote desert canyons in southern Jordan, Petra arose more than 2,000 years ago at the crossroads of key caravan trade routes between Arabia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Nabataeans carved most of the sprawling city's buildings, including temples, tombs, and theaters, directly into the region's towering red sandstone cliffs. Here, a Bedouin walks his camel past Petra's most famous building, Al Khazneh, or the Treasury.

Although the archaeological discovery of Machu Picchu came nearly a hundred years ago, historians are still unsure of the function of this ancient Inca citadel.
The Inca had no system of writing and left no written records, and archaeologists have been left to piece together bits of evidence as to why Machu Picchu was built, what purpose it served, and why it was so quickly vacated.

Once thought (erroneously) to be a city of the biblical Queen of Sheba, Great Zimbabwe stands as the most important archaeological site yet found in sub-Saharan Africa. Though historians are still seeking answers about the origin and purpose of the city, evidence suggests the Shona, ancestors of the modern Bantu, built it beginning around A.D. 1250 and that it served as a spiritual center.

The earliest Maya began to settle the dense rain forests of southwestern Mexico and Guatemala some 3,000 years ago. For nearly 1,400 years, settlements arose throughout the region, with some, like Tikal and Palenque (shown here), expanding into large, vibrant city-states.

Myth, folklore, mystery, and intrigue surround the ancient city of Troy like no other ruin on Earth. Once thought to be purely imaginary, a prop in Homer's epic poem The Iliad, excavations in northwestern Turkey in 1871 eventually proved that the city indeed existed.
In 1871, German adventurer Heinrich Schliemann began digging at Hisarlik, Turkey, (shown here) in search of the fabled city. His roughshod excavation wrought havoc on the site, but revealed nine ancient cities, each built on top of the next and dating back some 5,000 years. At the time, most archaeologists were skeptical that Troy was among the ruins, but evidence since the discovery suggests the Trojan capital indeed lies within the site