Daily Archives: 24 August 2006

Aztecs Ate Conquistador Carriers and Cooks?

Skulls and bones from the Tecuaque archeological site near Mexico City show about 550 victims had their hearts ripped out by Aztec priests in ritual offerings, and were dismembered or had their bones boiled or scraped clean, experts say.

The findings support accounts of Aztecs capturing and killing a caravan of Spanish conquistadors and local men, women and children traveling with them in revenge for the murder of Cacamatzin, king of the Aztec empire’s No. 2 city of Texcoco.

Experts say the discovery proves some Aztecs did resist the conquistadors led by explorer Hernan Cortes, even though history books say most welcomed the white-skinned horsemen in the belief they were returning Aztec gods.

“This is the first place that has so much evidence there was resistance to the conquest,” said archeologist Enrique Martinez, director of the dig at Calpulalpan in Tlaxcala state, near Texcoco.

“It shows it wasn’t all submission. There was a fight.”

The caravan was apparently captured because it was made up mostly of the mulatto, mestizo, Maya Indian and Caribbean men and women given to the Spanish as carriers and cooks when they landed in Mexico in 1519, and so was moving slowly.

The prisoners were kept in cages for months while Aztec priests from what is now Mexico City selected a few each day at dawn, held them down on a sacrificial slab, cut out their hearts and offered them up to various Aztec gods.

Of course, Reuters is reporting this, so there may have been some photoshopping of the evidence.

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Rapacious Rats Deforested Rapa Nui?

Pace Jared Diamond, who “described Rapa Nui as ‘the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources’,” new archaeological results from Rapa Nui (Easter Island) suggest that it may have been rats, not humans, who deforested Rapa Nui—and Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.

For thousands of years, most of Rapa Nui was covered with palm trees. Pollen records show that the Jubaea palm became established at least 35,000 years ago and survived a number of climatic and environmental changes. But by the time Roggeveen arrived in 1722, most of these large stands of forest had disappeared.

It is not a new observation that virtually all of the shells housing palm seeds found in caves or archaeological excavations of Rapa Nui show evidence of having been gnawed on by rats, but the impact of rats on the island’s fate may have been underestimated. Evidence from elsewhere in the Pacific shows that rats have often contributed to deforestation, and they may have played a major role in Rapa Nui’s environmental degradation as well.

Archaeologist J. Stephen Athens of the International Archaeological Research Institute conducted excavations on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu and found that deforestation of the Ewa Plain took place largely between 900 and 1100 A.D. but that the first evidence of human presence on this part of the island was not until about 1250 A.D. There were no climatic explanations for the disappearance of palm trees, but there was evidence that the Polynesian rat (Rattus exulans), introduced by the first human colonists, was present in the area by about 900 A.D. Athens showed that it was likely rats that deforested large areas of Oahu.

Paleobotanists have demonstrated the destructive effect of rats on native vegetation on a number of other islands as well, even those as ecologically diverse as New Zealand. In areas where rats are removed, vegetation often recovers quickly. And on Nihoa Island, in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, where there is no evidence that rats ever became established, the island’s native vegetation still survives despite prehistoric human settlement.

Whether rats were stowaways or a source of protein for the Polynesian voyagers, they would have found a welcoming environment on Rapa Nui—an almost unlimited supply of high-quality food and, other than people, no predators. In such an ideal setting, rats can reproduce so quickly that their population doubles about every six or seven weeks. A single mating pair could thus reach a population of almost 17 million in just over three years. On Kure Atoll in the Hawaiian Islands, at a latitude similar to Rapa Nui but with a smaller supply of food, the population density of the Polynesian rat was reported in the 1970s to have reached 45 per acre. On Rapa Nui, that would equate to a rat population of more than 1.9 million. At a density of 75 per acre, which would not be unreasonable given the past abundance of food, the rat population could have exceeded 3.1 million.

The evidence from elsewhere in the Pacific makes it hard to believe that rats would not have caused rapid and widespread environmental degradation. But there is still the question of how much of an effect rats had relative to the changes caused by humans, who cut down trees for a number of uses and practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. I believe that there is substantial evidence that it was rats, more so than humans, that led to deforestation.

Our work on Anakena, as well as previous archaeological studies, found thousands of rat bones. It seems that the Polynesian rat population grew quickly, then fell more recently before becoming extinct in the face of competition from rat species introduced by Europeans. Almost all of the palm seed shells discovered on the island show signs of having been gnawed on by rats, indicating that these once-ubiquitous rodents did affect the Jubaea palm’s ability to reproduce. Reason to blame rats more than people may also be revealed in the analysis of sediments obtained at Rano Kau, which, like the Hawaiian evidence, appears to show that the forest declined (leaving less forest pollen in the sediment) before the extensive use of fire by people.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Poor Pluto: A Very Far Outlier Demoted

Poor Pluto has been kicked off the world-famous Solar Planets for regularly failing to stay in its lane—or clear its own lane—during repeated orbits of the sun.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) — Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Pluto is no longer a planet under historic new guidelines that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.

After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos, the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930. The new definition of what is — and isn’t — a planet fills a centuries-old black hole for scientists who have labored since Copernicus without one….

Much-maligned Pluto doesn’t make the grade under the new rules for a planet: “a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a … nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune’s….

Now, two of the objects that at one point were cruising toward possible full-fledged planethood will join Pluto as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has nicknamed “Xena.”

It’s a cold world out there at the far end of the solar system!

UPDATE: Matt of No-sword and his commenters offer some interesting observations about the etymologies of ‘planet’ and ‘dwarf planet’ in Japanese, Sino-Japanese, Chinese, and even Greek.

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