Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

CU-Boulder team discovers first ancient manioc fields in Americas

22.08.2007
Prehistoric manioc plantation buried by volcanic ash about 600 A.D. may help explain how Maya supported dense populations

A University of Colorado at Boulder team excavating an ancient Maya village in El Salvador buried by a volcanic eruption 1,400 years ago has discovered an ancient field of manioc, the first evidence for cultivation of the calorie-rich tuber in the New World.

The manioc field was discovered under roughly 10 feet of ash, said CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, who has been directing the excavation of the ancient village of Ceren since its discovery in 1978. Considered the best-preserved ancient village in Latin America, Ceren's buildings, artifacts and landscape were frozen in time by the sudden eruption of the nearby Loma Caldera volcano about 600 A.D., providing a unique window on the everyday lives of prehistoric Mayan farmers.

The discovery marks the first time manioc cultivation has been discovered at an archaeological site anywhere in the Americas, said Sheets. The National Geographic Society funded the 2007 CU-Boulder research effort at Ceren, the most recent of five research grants made by NGS to the ongoing excavations by Sheets and his students.

"We have long wondered what else the prehistoric Mayan people were growing and eating besides corn and beans, so finding this field was a jackpot of sorts for us," he said. "Manioc's extraordinary productivity may help explain how the Classic Maya at huge sites like Tikal in Guatemala and Copan in Honduras supported such dense populations."

In June, the researchers used ground-penetrating radar, drill cores and test pits to pinpoint and uncover several large, parallel planting beds separated by walkways, said Sheets. Ash hollows in the planting beds left by decomposed plant material were cast with dental plaster to preserve their shapes and subsequently were identified as manioc tubers, an important, high-carbohydrate food source for Latin Americans today, said Sheets.

Evidence indicated the manioc bushes had just been cut down, most of the tubers harvested and the beds replanted with manioc stalks placed horizontally in the soil to regenerate bushes for the next cycle of growth, he said. The presence of volcanic ash just underneath hand-shaped dirt overhangs in the beds indicates the stalks were planted "just hours before the eruption," he said.

"What we essentially found was a freshly planted manioc field that was 1,400 years old," said Sheets. "Once again, we felt like we were right on the heels of these ancient people because of the exquisite preservation provided by the volcanic ash."

Each hand-shaped planting bed was about three feet wide and two feet high -- about 10 times larger than traditional planting beds for corn -- although the lengths of the rows are still unknown, he said. Each manioc stalk, or cutting, had been carefully placed in the ground with a growth "node" pointing toward the surface to generate a new bush and several nodes pointing down to generate the edible tubers and regular roots, he said.

Archaeologists had suspected ancient Mayans had cultivated and consumed manioc for its high-energy value, he said. Also known as cassava, manioc provides one of the highest yields of food energy per acre per day of any cultivated crop in the world.

The CU-Boulder team is working with scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to develop new soil-analysis techniques to detect starch grains like those from manioc that will work at a wide range of archaeological sites, said Sheets.

"We don't want to find out that Ceren was unique in manioc cultivation," said Sheets. "We hope archaeologists eventually find evidence for this kind of activity at sites throughout the region. From an archaeological standpoint, there are few things as important as discovering the sources of day-to-day subsistence for ancient cultures."

The team also included CU-Boulder anthropology graduate students Christine Dixon and Adam Blanford, geology graduate student Monica Guerra and archaeological geophysicist Larry Conyers. Conyers is a University of Denver faculty member who had worked at Ceren and received his CU-Boulder doctorate under Sheets in 1995.

Sheets and his colleagues previously determined the eruption at Ceren occurred on an early August evening because of the height of corn stalks and the fact that the farming implements had been brought inside but the sleeping mats had not yet been rolled out.

Thus far 12 buildings at Ceren -- believed to have been home to several hundred people -- have been excavated, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and a community sauna. Several dozen other structures located with ground-penetrating radar remain buried under up to 17 feet of ash, said Sheets.

Although the absence of human remains at Ceren initially puzzled scientists, the 1993 discovery that an earthquake rocked the site just prior to the eruption indicated the villagers might have had just enough warning to flee. "They did not even have time to remove their most valued belongings," said Sheets.

Preservation of organic materials at Ceren -- including thatched roofs, house beams, woven baskets, cloth and grain caches -- has been deemed superior to the organic preservation at the Italian site of Pompeii, by archaeologists and vulcanologists who have visited the Salvadoran site from around the world.

Payson Sheets | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.colorado.edu/news/podcasts/

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht A promising target in the quest for a 1-million-year-old Antarctic ice core
24.05.2018 | University of Washington

nachricht Tropical Peat Swamps: Restoration of Endangered Carbon Reservoirs
24.05.2018 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenforschung (ZMT)

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Powerful IT security for the car of the future – research alliance develops new approaches

The more electronics steer, accelerate and brake cars, the more important it is to protect them against cyber-attacks. That is why 15 partners from industry and academia will work together over the next three years on new approaches to IT security in self-driving cars. The joint project goes by the name Security For Connected, Autonomous Cars (SecForCARs) and has funding of €7.2 million from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. Infineon is leading the project.

Vehicles already offer diverse communication interfaces and more and more automated functions, such as distance and lane-keeping assist systems. At the same...

Im Focus: Molecular switch will facilitate the development of pioneering electro-optical devices

A research team led by physicists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) has developed molecular nanoswitches that can be toggled between two structurally different states using an applied voltage. They can serve as the basis for a pioneering class of devices that could replace silicon-based components with organic molecules.

The development of new electronic technologies drives the incessant reduction of functional component sizes. In the context of an international collaborative...

Im Focus: LZH showcases laser material processing of tomorrow at the LASYS 2018

At the LASYS 2018, from June 5th to 7th, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will be showcasing processes for the laser material processing of tomorrow in hall 4 at stand 4E75. With blown bomb shells the LZH will present first results of a research project on civil security.

At this year's LASYS, the LZH will exhibit light-based processes such as cutting, welding, ablation and structuring as well as additive manufacturing for...

Im Focus: Self-illuminating pixels for a new display generation

There are videos on the internet that can make one marvel at technology. For example, a smartphone is casually bent around the arm or a thin-film display is rolled in all directions and with almost every diameter. From the user's point of view, this looks fantastic. From a professional point of view, however, the question arises: Is that already possible?

At Display Week 2018, scientists from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP will be demonstrating today’s technological possibilities and...

Im Focus: Explanation for puzzling quantum oscillations has been found

So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics

Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Save the date: Forum European Neuroscience – 07-11 July 2018 in Berlin, Germany

02.05.2018 | Event News

Invitation to the upcoming "Current Topics in Bioinformatics: Big Data in Genomics and Medicine"

13.04.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

In focus: Climate adapted plants

25.05.2018 | Event News

Flow probes from the 3D printer

25.05.2018 | Machine Engineering

Less is more? Gene switch for healthy aging found

25.05.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>