Geoglyphs in the Amazon

Researchers long thought that the cultural history of the Amazon rainforest region only featured small bands of hunters and gatherers, much like today’s indigenous cultures. Archaeological research is now showing something quite different:

Dr. Jose Iriarte of Exeter University, UK tells BBC News, “While some researchers think that Amazonia was inhabited by small bands of hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators who had a minimal impact on the environment, and that the forest we see today is pristine and untouched for thousands of years – mounting evidence is showing this may not be the case.”

“This evidence suggests that Amazonia may have been inhabited by large, numerous, complex and hierarchical societies that had a major impact on the environment; what we call the ‘cultural parkland hypothesis’,” he continues.

As land was cleared for agriculture, people started to discover interesting earthworks long hidden by the jungle foliage. Since the late 1970s, researchers have documented over 450 different glyph areas in the Amazon. Some of the earthworks are intricate, geometric shapes. How did they get there? What were they used for? I always love pondering these kinds of mysteries. Theories about the purpose of the glyphs range from water drainage, use in ceremonials, and defensive sites. I’m looking forward to reading more research about this in the coming years.

Geoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area, Acre. Site dated c. AD 1283. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
Geoglyphs on deforested land at the Fazenda Colorada site in the Amazon rainforest, Rio Branco area. Site dated c. AD 1283. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Archaeologist revives ancient beer

File this under “things I want to try.” Archaeologist Patrick McGovern with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology has teamed up with Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware to recreate ancient beer varieties. Anyone up for a field trip to Delaware?

From the article:

Now McGovern is extracting alcoholic beverage ingredients from residue on ancient pottery at archaeological sites worldwide and studying references in documents. He has been resurrecting beers and beverages that had been forgotten.

“He detected traces of various ingredients left by the drinks – including barley, honey, herbs and spices – using a number of methods including liquid chromatography, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry,” says an article the

I find it fascinating that an archaeologist can even determine the ingredients in beer thousands of years old, much less recreate them. The article even says he thinks he may be able to recreate a beer that’s 16,000 years old. What a fun and unique area of research! Be sure to read the article, especially since it’s Super Bowl Sunday and probably incredible amounts of beer will be consumed all over the U.S.



Old Stone Fort, Tennessee

It’s the middle of the summer. It’s hot, and humid, and steamy outside. I wanted to get out and visit someplace I’d never been, someplace with some interesting history, but on this particular day I wasn’t terribly inspired to drive too far, or hike too far, or do anything that would result in excessive sweating. I pulled out a map and gazed out the tiny towns within a few hours of home. I settled on a small state park near Manchester, Tennessee called Old Stone Fort. The name makes it sound like a military park, but it’s not. It’s an archaeological park with a few old mills thrown in. I’d visited the park many years ago but didn’t spend much time there, I didn’t take any pictures, and I didn’t remember much. So, I decided to drive up and spend a few hours checking it out.

The area is gorgeous. The top of the plateau is covered with a deep, dense forest and lined by two beautiful rivers that have carved deep gorges along the edges of the site. I could immediately tell it’s worth exploring.

Entrance to Old Stone Fort

I was pleased to find a small museum and bookstore close to the parking lot at the beginning of the trail. The museum is very small but has some wonderful historic maps of the site over the years. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for my checking account), I already own all of the books (mostly about archaeology) that interested me in the bookstore! There is also a large relief map of the area showing the Duck and Little Duck Rivers, the site, surrounding communities, and nearby archaeological sites. I really found the relief map and associated information interesting. Evidently, the Cumberland Plateau was very different in the days of the Woodland Indians. Instead of heavy forest, the top of the plateau was more of a grassland. The area where the park is located was an intersection of two very different ecological niches, the upper highland region and the lower river valley and forest. It would have been a great place for native people to look for many different types of plants and animals.

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6,000-year-old rock art discovered in Tennessee

Rock Art in Nine Mile CanyonI visit caves all over the Cumberland Plateau so I was excited to read that researchers have discovered what may be the oldest surviving rock art in the United States. The article is in the latest issue of Antiquity, which unfortunately does not provide free access to the article. But this is from the abstract:

Systematic field exploration in Tennessee has located a wealth of new rock art—some deep in caves, some in the open air. The authors show that these have a different repertoire and use of colour, and a different distribution in the landscape—the open sites up high and the caves down low. The landscape has been reorganised on cosmological terms by the pre-Columbian societies. This research offers an exemplary rationale for reading rock art beyond the image and the site.

The Huffington Post provides a bit of information from the actual article: The 6,000-year-old cave art revealed clues as to what Native American life in the South may have been like at the time. Many drawings depicted humans with pointed tools alongside wild dogs, serpents and other beasts. Other drawings of celestial designs allude to a spiritual understanding of the universe.

Caves across the southeastern US can feature some very intriguing artwork, glyphs, and torch marks. I am personally terrible at spotting glyphs and carved symbols on cave walls–they are very difficult to see unless you are skilled at finding them. But I’ve been lucky to see some really spectacular glyphs of spiders, turkeys, and a variety of symmetrical patterns. I love to find ancient art in caves and wonder what they meant to the people who drew them so very long ago.

Fox News also covered this story and they have some quotes from the lead author of the paper in Antiquity, plus they provide some additional photos.  Even more photos are available on If you’re really interested in this subject, check out this Flickr page for a huge and amazing collection of cave glyph photos.


I first heard the term “archaeoastronomy” in a college course a few years ago. I’d gone back to school to study ecology and environmental issues and one of my professors worked as an archaeologist in the jungles of South America uncovering Mayan temples. He noted that many ancient cultures throughout the Americas built structures that were intended to chart the course of the stars, the sun, and the moon. I thought that was pretty cool.

When I drove down the road to Chaco, I landed right in the middle of one of the largest and most precise archaeoastronomy destinations in North America. But I didn’t really know that until I attended a fabulous lecture on a Saturday evening during my visit to the park. That evening, after dark, I headed to the Chaco planetarium to join one of the most seasoned park rangers, and an astronomy nut, to learn all about astronomical clues scattered throughout Chaco Canyon.

As I walked to the planetarium, the night sky spread out a blanket of stars across the horizon. I leaned my head back as far as it would go and took in the view. No street lights blazed down the streets here, or anywhere for miles around. It was very, very dark, making it possible to clearly see the brilliant rope of our Milky Way galaxy stretching all the way across the sky.

I sat down next to many of the other campers and ranger GB Cornucopia stepped up to the front. He flipped on a projector that showed a time lapse movie of stars racing across Fajada Butte.

Fajada Butte Chaco Canyon [Read more…]