Jade axe blade found in Antigua photo

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Jade axe blade found in Antigua photo

Post#1 » Sun Jun 25, 2006 2:27 pm

Jade Axes Proof of Vast Ancient Caribbean Network, Experts Say
Charles Petit
for National Geographic News
June 12, 2006

A discovery of ancient jade could shake up old notions of the New World before Columbus. Scientists say they have traced 1,500-year-old axe blades found in the eastern Caribbean to ancient jade mines in Central America 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) away, New York's American Museum of Natural History announced late last month.

The blades were excavated in the late 1990s by a Canadian archaeologist on the island of Antigua in the West Indies (see map of Antigua and Barbuda).
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpedi ... map=antbar

Jade axe blade found in Antigua photo

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But the jade used to make the blades almost certainly came from Maya mines in distant Guatemala (see map of Guatemala),
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpedi ... tem&Mode=d
says mineralogist George Harlow of the American Museum of Natural History.

The find may call into question a once dominant archaeological picture of the pre-Columbian Caribbean.

Previous theories held that a few big or budding civilizations existed on the mainland of Central America, with only isolated, village-based societies on islands in the Caribbean Sea.

The new analysis gives weight to a competing view, which suggests that organized, long-distance trade networks were based primarily on those islands.

"There has been a closed mind-set that these [ancient] people out here were primitive, but we are learning there was a whole world out here we don't yet fully know about," said Reg Murphy, an archaeologist at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda in St. John's, Antigua.

Murphy collaborated with Harlow on the research.

Murphy says it's likely that complex societies not only existed on the islands but also communicated with other cultures in South America along the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers.

"Those rivers [in South America] were highways of exchange that extended around the coast all the way to Guatemala," he said.

Harlow and Murphy's research team reported its findings in the April issue of the journal Canadian Mineralogist.

Saladoid Culture

The small, triangular jade blades found in Antigua are relics of the Saladoid culture, a society named for its home region along the Orinoco River in modern-day Venezuela (See map of Venezuela).
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpedi ... map=venezu

Known for their elaborate pottery, the Saladoid spread to Caribbean islands as far north as Puerto Rico by 500 B.C.

Archaeologists have excavated jade items in the West Indies before, but the source of the jade has been a puzzle, Harlow explains.

No jade deposits are known to exist in the eastern Caribbean. Also, many archaeologists have held that the Saladoid were insulated from the wider world, their travels limited to short canoe trips between islands.

Harlow says the jade used to make the Antigua blades is of a distinct, very hard form called jadeite.

Only a dozen jadeite surface deposits are known in the world, including a vein on the north side of Guatemala's Motagua River Valley, he adds.

But until recently Guatemalan jade deposits did not match the Antigua jade or other, high-quality forms found in some Maya tombs.

Then came the devastating rains of Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Violent runoff brought chunks of extremely high quality jade careering down the rocky gorges on the south side of the Motagua River.

"As soon as we heard about that, we started looking for its source," said Harlow, a veteran of previous work in the region.

His team found jadeite there of a quality beyond anything recently mined in Guatemala, he says.

The samples they brought back came just in time to answer questions about the Antigua jade pieces.

Shortly after the new deposits were discovered, Harlow received the Antigua blades, dated from 250 to 500 A.D., from the late University of Calgary archaeologist Alfred Levinson.

Harlow says he immediately suspected that the axe blades were from the newly confirmed deposits, based on the jade's unique composition.

He compared the texture of both the Antiguan and Guatemalan jade and measured their ratios of minerals such as mica, albite, omphacite, and quartz.

Harlow found that the newfound deposits and the Antigua pieces bore the same distinctive quartz grains, which are absent from jade mined anywhere else, he says.

"If that [Antigua] stuff is not from Guatemala, the fates are playing some kind of game," Harlow said.

Proof of Trade?

Among those welcoming the finding is archaeologist Richard Callaghan of the University of Calgary, who was not part of Harlow's team.

He has studied remains of early Caribbean island societies for decades. He says the discovery provides new evidence of long-range trade in the pre-Columbian Caribbean.

Based on his research of Saladoid pottery and other artifacts, Callaghan believes that the civilization was sophisticated enough to maintain organized, long-distance contact with other cultures.

"I think those guys could go by boat straight from Puerto Rico or other islands all the way to [Mexico's] Yucatán [Peninsula]," he said.

The trade routes were most likely traveled by big, seaworthy canoes, Callaghan says. The vessels may have resembled the dugout logs seen centuries later by Spanish explorers.

Such seafaring ability, Callaghan adds, may have persisted well after the Saladoid culture faded around A.D. 1000.

The culture was replaced by Caribbean peoples collectively called the Taino, whom the Spanish later conquered and all but exterminated.

Murphy, the Antigua curator, shares Callaghan's expansive view of the Saladoid's cultural reach.

Murphy hopes the jade-axe findings may spur further study into the origins of other exotic, elaborately carved stones found among Saladoid relics.

For example, he says, some Saladoid artifacts are made of a type of turquoise not known to occur naturally anywhere in the Caribbean.

"It could have come all the way from Chile," Murphy said.

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Evidence of Ancient Towns Found in Amazon Basin

Post#2 » Sun Jun 25, 2006 2:36 pm

Evidence of Ancient Towns Found in Amazon Basin
Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
September 25, 2003
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news ... zon_2.html

Far from being a pristine wilderness prior to Columbus's arrival in the New World, parts of the Brazilian Amazon more closely resembled a pre-historic version of urban sprawl.

Michael J. Heckenberger and colleagues have identified at least 19 settlements dating from A.D. 1250 to 1600 in the Xingu region of Brazil's Amazon forest. Connected by a complex set of interlinking roads, the villages were defined by ditches, curbs, moats, open parklands, and working forests. The researchers estimate that some clusters of six to 12 villages may have been home to as many as 2,500 to 5,000 people.

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"The idea that people lived in small, dispersed, autonomous villages, moving around and living in a delicate balance with nature is just a fantasy," said Heckenberger, an archaeologist at the University of Florida. "Five hundred years ago Amazonian society was comparable with developments in North America, Africa, Asia, much of temperate Europe in 1492, in terms of scale and sociocultural innovation."

"The region supported a fairly dense, settled population," he said. "The Xinguano people built their villages according to a very clear plan, at a very large scale, and all of them are interconnected with one another. The sophistication of the layout bespeaks a knowledge of mathematics, architecture, astronomy, and engineering."

The study is published in the September 19 issue of the journal Science.

Looking at a Regional System

Heckenberger and colleagues mapped all of the sites within a 15 mile by 15 mile square (24 by 24 kilometers) in order to understand the study area as a regional system.

Dating from roughly 400 to 750 years ago, the 19 villages are approximately two to three miles (three to five kilometers) apart, connected by straight roads that have curbs and are as much as 165 feet (50 meters) wide in some places. Each village has a central circular plaza. Ditches up to 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) long and 16 feet (5 meters) deep surround the villages.

Other structures include bridges, constructed ponds, canals, and raised causeways. To support such a dense population, farmers converted surrounding forest to grow manioc, fruit orchards, and large fields of grasses for thatched houses.

"What's really exciting are all these roads that radiate out of plazas, showing there must have been a lot of social interaction," said Clark Erickson, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the University Museum. "These were large towns, maybe even small cities, being found in what is really pretty much the hinterlands of the Amazon. It's really quite spectacular in an area we didn't think could support that kind of population."

The sheer size of the earthwork structures is part of a cultural aesthetic that held a symbolic and social importance, rather than economic functionality, said Heckenberger.

"They build big things. We have a tendency to think of Amazonians engaged in an ongoing struggle with nature, and that everything they do is based on economic need or value," he said. "But these people overcame that and it stimulated quite phenomenal cultural and social elaborations of the environment. The socio-cultural complexity is significantly more than what we expected, and shows the Amerindians were amazingly sophisticated cultural innovators."

Erickson, who has worked extensively in the Bolivian Amazon, concurs.

"This research overlaps what we're finding in Bolivia in that it shows massive transformations of the landscape through agriculture, transportation, and controlling water, using some pretty sophisticated engineering techniques," he said.

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The arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese around 1600 brought Old World diseases, slavery, missions, and resettlement, depopulating much of Amazonia within 100 years.

Myth of the Pristine Environment

The findings have implications for economic development of the Amazon today.

The Amazon is a notoriously hostile environment for agriculture. Some research indicates that fields may need to be left fallow for as long as ten to 30 years before they can be replanted, said Heckenberger.

"If that's the case, think of the enormous amount of space needed to maintain active production. It's hard to imagine there was much of the land that was big tracts of untouched forest," he said. "What forest there was, was there because they intentionally left it there. And it was a working forest, known to them, not some sort of primordial wilderness."

Some conservationists argue that much of the Amazon is pristine wilderness that would not survive encroachment by humans.

"Finding large scale population centers in such a remote region of the Amazon adds weight to the idea that there are no pristine patches of nature," said Erickson. "The extent and dating of the modifications [identified in the Heckenberger study] show that the impact of humans has been substantial, profound, and long-lasting."

"This shows it's not an all-or-nothing type of deal: Let's cut it all down or we can't let anybody in it because it's pristine and never been touched by human hands," said Heckenberger. "The Amerindians essentially transformed the entire forest landscape. But they did it in a sustainable, not destructive way."

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