On the Run in Brazil

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In a spacious, art-filled apartment in Brasília, 75-year-old Sydney Possuelo takes a seat near a large portrait of his younger self. On the canvas, Possuelo stares with calm assurance from the stern of an Amazon riverboat, every bit the famous sertanista, or Amazon frontiersman, that he once was. But on this late February morning, that confidence is nowhere to be seen. Possuelo, now sporting a beard neatly trimmed for city life, seethes with anger over the dangers now threatening the Amazon’s isolated tribespeople. “These are the last few groups of humans who are really free,” he says. “But we will kill them.” Read more

Photo courtesy Cmacauley and Wikimedia Commons

Unplundered

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In the late afternoon light along the Peruvian coast, local workmen gather as archaeologists Miłosz Giersz and Roberto Pimentel Nita open a row of small sealed chambers near the entrance of an ancient tomb. Concealed for more than a thousand years under a layer of heavy adobe brick, the mini-chambers hold large ceramic jars, some bearing painted lizards, others displaying grinning human faces. As Giersz pries loose the brick from the final compartment, he grimaces. “It smells awful down here,” he splutters. He peers warily into a large undecorated pot. It’s full of decayed puparia, traces of flies once drawn to the pot’s contents. Read more

Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and of Wikimedia Commons

Kickstarting a Human Revolution

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Some 110,000 years ago, foragers picked their way across a rocky shore in what is now South Africa, winding between tidal pools and beds of slick, glistening rock. For weeks, the small band had relished the thought of the day’s harvest and the feast to follow. Watching each night as the moon waxed in the sky, they had trekked to this shoreline, taking shelter in an old sea cave on the headland. This morning, as the full moon vanished below the horizon and the waves retreated, they walked out on a rocky realm littered with shellfish.  Read more

Photo by Andrew Hall

Blood Antiquities

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A small convoy of military trucks rumbled to a stop at the site of the ancient Banteay Chhmar temple in northernCambodia. The armed men inside—members of a rogue military unit—set up roadblocks around the vine-shrouded shrine, cutting it off from the outside world. Then the soldiers put local villagers to work with jackhammers, stripping Banteay Chhmar of its 800-year-old treasures. Read more 

 

Photoby Andrew Marino,  courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Beringia’s Lost World

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One summer day during the height of the last Ice Age, a small herd of elk moved through a now-vanished region of lowland above the Arctic Circle, nosing about small woody shrubs like crowberry and Labrador tea. Far to the west lay glacier-capped mountains, and along the plains between, horses, mammoths and caribou wandered through patches of wildflowers—-violet asters, yellow tansies, red burnets. The large animals and other game made good eating for roaming cave lions and cave hyaena, as well as this landscape’s top predator, humans.   Read More

Photo by A.V. Lozhkin, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Selling America’s Fossil Record

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Last November, in a marketing effort worthy of Mad Men, dinosaurs stood poised to take over Madison Avenue, courtesy of the New York auction house Bonhams. In a Manhattan atrium, giant mounted skeletons of Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex loomed over artfully arranged greenery, while a specimen of two individuals known as the Montana Dueling Dinosaurs–still partly encased in plaster field jackets–rested on black platforms. The venue looked just like a museum gallery, right down to explanatory placards. But all the specimens were the property of commercial fossil hunters and dealers and others looking to make a sale.   Read more

Photo by H. Pringle

 

Temple of the Dead

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In the late afternoon light along the Peruvian coast, local workmen gather as archaeologists Miłosz Giersz and Roberto Pimentel Nita open a row of small sealed chambers near the entrance of an ancient tomb. Concealed for more than a thousand years under a layer of heavy adobe brick, the mini-chambers hold large ceramic jars, some bearing painted lizards, others displaying grinning human faces. As Giersz pries loose the brick from the final compartment, he grimaces. “It smells awful down here,” he splutters. He peers warily into a large undecorated pot. It’s full of decayed puparia, traces of flies once drawn to the pot’s contents. The archaeologist backs away and stands up, slapping a cloud of 1,200-year-old dust from his pants.  Read More

Photo by H. Pringle

Birth of the One Percent

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In 79 C.E., the year Mount Vesuvius destroyed it, Pompeii was not one city but two. Its wealthiest families owned slaves and lived in multistoried, seaside mansions, one of which was more than half the size of the White House. They dined in rooms with costly frescoes, strolled in private gardens, and soaked in private baths. Meanwhile, at least one-third of all Pompeiian households scraped to make ends meet, with families dwelling in single rooms behind workshops, in dark service quarters, or in small houses. Such economic disparities were common in the Roman Empire, where 1.5% of the empire’s households controlled 20% of the income by the late 2nd century C.E., according to one recent study.

Inequality has deep archaeological roots.  Read more

 

Photo of Pompeii mural by Xosema. Courtesy Wikimedia commons. 

 

Troubled Waters for Ancient Shipwrecks

800px-Shipwreck_turnerIn 1994, archaeologists surveying the seafloor near Lisbon, Portugal, spied several pieces of old timber jutting out from a mash of mud and peppercorns 10 meters below the water’s surface. The site was modest in appearance and partially looted, but it contained a key find: fragments of an ancient wooden ship known as a Portuguese Indiaman, built during the Renaissance to sail what was then the longest and most dangerous commercial route in the world–from Portugal to India, the land of pepper and spice. Designed for an age of discovery, the Indiaman “was the space shuttle of its time,” says nautical archaeologist Filipe Vieira de Castro of Texas A & M University in College Station.  Read more 

Illustration:  Shipwreck of the Minotaur, J.M.W. Turner, circa 1810, courtesy Wikimedia commons.