Audio news December 6th to December 12th, 2009.

Welcome to the Audio News from Archaeologica!  I'm Laura Kelley and these are the headlines in archaeological and historical news December 6th to December 12th, 2009.

Isotope studies show first king of Copán dynasty was foreign


Our first story is from western Honduras, where a man’s skeleton found laid out on a stone slab at the ancient Mayan city of Copán contains clues to a colonial expansion more than 1,000 years before the Spanish invasion.  In an upcoming issue of the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, T. Douglas Price of the University of Wisconsin at Madison reports that the bones come from a ruler named K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’ (KIN-itch YAWSH kuk MOH) or KYKM for short.  KYKM was the first of 16 kings who ruled Copán and surrounding highlands of northern Honduras for about 400 years, from AD 426 to 820.  But KYKM’s bone chemistry shows that he grew up in the central Maya lowlands, which are several hundred kilometers northwest of Copán.  Along with inscriptions at Copán, the new evidence suggests that the site’s first king was born into a ruling family at Caracol (CAR-a-cole), a powerful lowland kingdom in Belize.  According to archaeologist Douglas Price and his coauthor, Robert Sharer of the University of Pennsylvania, the future king KYKM probably spent his young adult years as a member of yet another royal court, that of Tikal, a Maya kingdom in the central lowlands of Guatemala, before he was sent to Copán to found a new dynasty there.  The new findings reinforce the view that the kingdom of Copán was founded as part of a colonial expansion from the north.  They also demonstrate the widespread connections maintained by Maya kings.  The research is part of long-term investigations into how the Classic Maya city-states originated and came to dominate southern Mexico and Central America from about AD 200 to 900.  At Copán, hieroglyphics that were deciphered more than 20 years ago refer to KYKM as a foreigner, who was inaugurated as king in AD 426 and arrived the next year.  However, it was unclear whether the inscriptions described an actual historical event or were a form of royal propaganda.  In 2007, archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin noticed that an inscription referring to KYKM on a Copán stone monument used a title that indicates he was originally a lord of Caracol.  Archaeologists Arlen Chase and Diane Chase of the University of Central Florida in Orlando are directors of excavation at Caracol, and agree that it is plausible that Copán’s first king was from Caracol, but are skeptical that he came via Tikal.  No signs of a political relationship between Caracol and Tikal appear at the time that KYKM took over at Copán.  Arlen Chase concludes that KYKM probably came directly from Caracol instead, which by AD 150 had many foreign involvements including extensive ties to settlements near Copán.  The tomb of the presumed KYKM was discovered by Sharer about a decade ago, in excavations beneath the remains of the Copán Acropolis, the private royal complex.  Discoveries included three royal tombs containing skeletons, four other individuals buried in pits or under platforms outside the tombs, and an extraordinary vaulted chamber called the Hunal Tomb.  It is the Hunal tomb that held the remains of KYKM, a middle-aged man, ornamented with several large jade objects.  The tomb’s construction style and pottery offerings confirm that the man had great power, and connections to not only Tikal but also Teotihuacan, another Early Classic kingdom in central Mexico.  Researchers subsequently analyzed the ratio of strontium to oxygen isotopes in the Hunal skeleton’s teeth, and compared it to data for commoners buried at Copán and for animals and people living today in Central America.  Dental strontium-oxygen measurements reflect the water sources and geology of the place where a person grew up.  They indicate that KYKM spent most of his early years in the Tikal region.  Researchers hope to gather a more representative sampling of isotopic ratios from throughout the Maya area to confirm KYKM’s Caracol origins.

Ancient Pacific cemetery yields insight on life, health and death


In Vanuatu, a team of archaeologists who began excavating an old coral reef in 2008 and 2009 soon discovered it served as a cemetery in ancient times.  The remains of 71 individuals have been recorded to date, yielding new information about the islands' inhabitants and their funeral rites 3,000 years ago.  According to Mads Ravn, head of research at the University of Stavanger's Museum of Archaeology in Norway, this is a groundbreaking discovery, as it is the oldest large find of skeletons in the Pacific.  Larger cemeteries are found on islands farther east, but are all much more recent.  The relatives of the dead treated their remains rather harshly.  Besides being headless, some had their arms and legs broken, in order to fit into the coral reef cavities.  Ravn suggests they may have been left to decay first and later buried as skeletons.  The local museum staff at the Vanuatu Culture Centre has joined a range of researchers, led by Stuart Bedford and Matthew Spriggs from the Australian National University, to form the international and cross-disciplinary team carrying out the work.  Mads Ravn's role includes his knowledge in Pacific migration over great distances, as well as digital excavation documentation and recording.  Vanuatu is a nation of 83 islands, located 1,750 kilometers east of Australia.  The soil contains remnants from a violent volcanic eruption believed to have taken place 3000 years ago.  Scientists have found no sign of human activity predating this event.  According to Ravn, the way these people are buried bears witness to a body concept that is different from the whole-body concept in Europe the last 5000 years.  In the ancient Pacific view, there was no sharp divide between life and death, and indeed, the dead participated in the present.  Until only a few decades ago in Bali and other Pacific islands, people put their ancestors' skulls on display in their homes.  This may explain why the Vanuatu skeletons are headless.  One skeleton was found with five skulls on his chest, which may show that the heads were used in ancestral rituals.  The ancient islanders usually dug away the layers of volcanic ash before burying their dead under ashes and sand.  Each grave is marked with a pottery jar decorated with elaborate patterns.  The ceramics also depict faces and eyes, perhaps images of ancestors.  Vanuatu's first inhabitants probably came from Taiwan and the Philippines, traveling thousands of miles by outrigger canoes equipped with sails and big enough to contain large families.  The voyagers settled on the uninhabited islands, supporting themselves on fishing and farming the land.  Giant tortoises were abundant and easy to catch.  Over a few centuries, several native animal species went extinct, the giant tortoise among them.  Traces of mussel shells also show evidence of consumption above the local carrying capacity.  The shells diminish in size, as the sediments get younger.  According to Ravn, the inhabitants quite simply overextended their resources.  Painstaking analysis of the DNA profiles of the skeletons will reveal relationship links among the dead.  However, other findings on their health are already clear.  Many suffered from gout and dental caries, both of which are diseases associated with the good life.  The inhabitants were hard-working and strong, but genetically disposed to contracting gout from eating so much shellfish.  In addition, starch in food such as Taro and sweet potatoes caused tooth decay.  Researchers believe that the first Pacific seafarers were urged on by overpopulation, or by rules of inheritance which granted the first born child the right to inherit land, making it hard for younger siblings to settle down.  Ravn also notes, however, that a sheer desire for travel and a spirit of adventure were likely factors, too.  The first Vanuatuans remained on the islands for years, until some of them set sail again, heading eventually as far as Easter Island.  Over two short centuries, the Pacific Ocean was colonized all the way to the Tonga Islands.  By then, a distance of more than 3000 kilometers had been covered, by canoe.  At Vanuatu, excavations will continue until 2012, expanding to different areas over the coming years.  Scientists expect to find more headless skeletons and other objects that may explain more about how and why the colonization took place.

Maize came north through diffusion, not migration, new study concludes


An international assemblage of anthropologists is offering a new theory about the diffusion of maize to the Southwestern United States and the impact it had.  Publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, co-author Gayle Fritz, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, reports on data that she and her colleagues recovered that suggest that maize was passed from group to group of Southwestern hunter-gatherers.  For decades, two scenarios have competed to explain the spread of maize and other crops into what is now the U.S. Southwest.  In the first scenario, groups of farmers migrated northward from central Mexico into northwest Mexico and then onward into the Southwest, bringing their crops and associated lifestyles with them.  Alternatively, only the maize moved northward, by passing from one hunter-gatherer band to the next, who incorporated the crop into their subsistence systems and eventually became farmers themselves.  The case for long-distance migration of Mexican farmers received a boost about 12 years ago when British archaeologist Peter Bellwood and later colleagues included the Southwest in a large global model proposing that long-distance migration of agriculturalists explains the spread of many of the world's major language families.  In the Southwest case, Uto-Aztecan-speaking peoples, ancestors of people who speak modern languages, like Comanche and Hopi, would have been responsible for the distribution.  In the new study, the team of researchers, led by William L. Merrill of the National Museum of Natural History and Robert J. Hard of University of Texas at San Antonio, integrate the most recent archaeological evidence and current knowledge about early maize in the Southwest with genetic, paleoecological, and historical linguistic studies.  At five sites in Arizona and New Mexico, corn now dates to before 2,000 BC, making it too early to be explained by diffusion of settled Mexican villagers.  According to Fritz, no artifacts or features of any type point to immigration by Mesoamerican farmers.  Instead, enduring local traditions are seen, with independent invention of low-fired ceramics and irrigation systems.  Indeed, the construction of irrigation features in the Tucson Basin dates earlier than any known south of the border.  The linguistic evidence indicates a very early north-to-south movement of Proto-Uto-Aztecan hunter-gatherers after 7,000 BC, who subsequently split into the northern and southern Uto-Aztecan groups.  These two groups do not share words and meanings for maize because, according to the new scenario, farming developed after their separation.  Upon acquiring maize, the ancient people took advantage of the era’s higher moisture conditions to integrate this storable, high-yielding crop into their broader survival strategy.  The team concludes that the Southwest stands as a region in which aboriginal foragers adopted crops and made the transition to agriculture locally rather than having been joined or displaced by incoming farming societies.   

Israeli excavations confirm historical rule of the Negev


Our final story is from Israel, where physical proof now shows that the rule of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted from the middle of the second century BC to the middle of the first, extended deep into the Negev Desert in what is now southern Israel.  According to Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini, the scientific editor of the excavation, this is a revolutionary discovery that will redraw the maps of the region that describe that era.  Despite the evidence of the historian Josephus, who said that the Hasmoneans' rule extended south of Gaza, no clear archeological proof of this had been found in the field.  Because of this lack of proof, historians were inclined to dismiss the possibility.  The new data come from excavations directed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.  At a site called Horvat Ma'agura, about two miles west of the Sde Boker region, where the Incense Road ran between Petra and Gaza, the remains confirm ancient historical accounts that after the Hasmoneans conquered Gaza in 99 BC, King Alexander Jannaeus, the great-grandson of Hasmonean leader Matityahu, built a fortress to stop the spread of the Nabateans along the route of the Incense Road.  The layout of the fortress originally led researchers to suspect that it was a Roman stronghold from centuries later, but it is now clear that the it was the Hasmoneans who used the fortress, to keep enemies out of their land until 66 BC.  The Antiquities Authority also found coins of Jannaeus at Nessana, about 40 kilometers west of Horvat Ma'agura, providing more evidence that the Negev was under Hasmonean rule.  However, the Antiquities Authority also discovered what some might consider a perplexing fact about the type of soldiers that Jannaeus used to fight off the Nabateans.  According to Erickson-Gini, the army that Alexander Jannaeus engaged was for the most part a mercenary force that comprising non-Jewish soldiers.  Confirming this was the find of imported vessels alongside the Jewish vessels, and wine that was brought from abroad.  Apparently, Alexander Jannaeus could not depend on Jewish soldiers because of the sharp political divisions that existed among the people at the time.

That wraps up the news for this week!
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