Rainy Season in the Andes Reveals the Oldest Known Copper Death Mask

The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
The front (left) and back (right) of a 3000-year-old copper mask. Small holes near the edges suggest the mask could have been attached with threads. Someone tried to repair the fracture near the left eye—note the holes near it.
Cortés & Scattolin in Antiquity, 2017

A good downpour can be an archaeologist’s best friend. A recent rainy season in the northwest corner of Argentina revealed an ancient copper mask, green with rust, that had been hidden in the dirt for the last 3000 years. It's the oldest known copper artifact in the Andes—the longest continental mountain range on earth—and one of the oldest metalworks ever found in South America. Its discovery complicates the long-standing idea that metalworking began on the continent in Peru, thousands of miles north.

The mask looks a bit like a Jack-o’-lantern, with a little triangle for a nose and small openings for the eyes and mouth. Residents of the village of La Quebrada stumbled across the mask, as well as some bones, sticking out of the dirt in 2005. Shortly after, archaeologists came in to excavate the site, and they found that the mask wasn’t resting on just one burial, but was covering a collective grave with 14 bodies.

“We don’t know exactly what the actual meaning of the mask was in the context of this pre-Hispanic society,” archaeologist Leticia Inés Cortés, of Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research, tells Mental Floss. Ancestor cults are very ancient and widespread in the region, Cortés says, so the mask could be a representation of the ancestor of the group and the rest of their community. Later DNA tests might reveal the relationships between the deceased.

The burial site was located near the 1900-year-old settlement of Bordo Marcial. However, radiocarbon dates showed that the tomb and mask are much older—dating back to 3000 years ago, before any villages even existed in the region.

During this time period, people in the area were just beginning to leave their hunter-gatherer way of life. But even before they truly settled down and started farming, they apparently figured out how to take advantage of the rich copper sources in the region that are still mined today.

Cortés, who described the mask in a new report in the journal Antiquity, tells Mental Floss that there’s been a tendency to treat Peru as the epicenter for technological innovation in the region. This mask, meanwhile, shows “that there is no one place for technological innovation, but many, including this region of the southern Andes.”

In other words, it’s not like a few geniuses in the central Andes figured out how to melt down metal to make beautiful objects and their invention spread from there.

Archaeologists might have previously assumed that cultures only started making fine metal objects when they had elite ruling classes and a capacity to create agricultural surpluses to free up time for skilled workers. But the mask from Argentina also builds on other evidence from the region demonstrating that displays of wealth might pre-date sedentary life.

“The discovery underscores the idea that social complexity—that is, a hierarchical social order—is not required for the emergence of early metal working,” says Mark Aldenderfer, an archaeologist at the University of California, Merced, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Aldenderfer previously discovered the oldest gold artifacts in the Americas, in the form of a necklace dating back to 4000 years in Peru near Lake Titicaca, when people in that region were just starting to settle into villages.

“The circulation of metal artifacts and their interment with the dead suggest that new forms of wealth accumulation and networking began to emerge during this transitional period,” Aldenderfer tells Mental Floss. "I suspect that the copper mask from Bordo Marcial reflects a similar social context."

Stonehenge Builders Likely Descended From Immigrants, Genetic Analysis Says

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

There's a lot we don't know about Stonehenge, but until recently, the structure was thought to have been built by hunter-gatherers native to what's considered England today. A new study disputes that theory. As IFL Science reports, Stonehenge was likely the the work of Turkish people who migrated to Britain 6000 years ago and their descendants.

In the new report published in the journal Nature: Ecology & Evolution, scientists from London's Natural History Museum and University College London explain how they analyzed the DNA from the remains of dozens of people who lived in Britain between 8500 BCE and 2500 BCE.

The results contained fewer native British genes than expected: Researchers found that when the people whose bones they studied were alive, most of Britain's hunter-gatherer population had already been replaced by farmers from the Aegean region.

Roughly 6000 years ago, people from what is now Turkey traveled across Europe and settled in Britain. In addition to reshaping the British gene pool, the new group also introduced agriculture to the area. Archaeologists have long debated whether farming is something that was brought to Britain by a different culture or if native hunter-gatherers gradually adopted it on their own.

"The transition to farming marks one of the most important technological innovations in human evolution. It first appeared in Britain around 6000 years ago; prior to that people survived by hunting, fishing and gathering," study co-author Mark Thomas said in a press release. "Our study strongly supports the view that immigrant farmers introduced agriculture into Britain and largely replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherer populations."

That means Stonehenge, the first part of which was constructed around 3000 BCE, was likely the work of people who were culturally and genetically closer to ancient Aegeans than native Britons. But how they moved the 25-ton stones to their current location and for what purpose remains a mystery.

[h/t IFL Science]

An Ancient Shipwreck Has Been Turned Into an Underwater Museum Off the Coast of Greece

iStock.com/ultramarinfoto
iStock.com/ultramarinfoto

If you love ancient history and eerie, abandoned places, it might be time to break out the scuba diving gear and book a flight to Greece. As AFAR reports, the site of an ancient shipwreck near Alonissos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, has been turned into an underwater museum.

While underwater museums exist in Florida, Mexico, and Europe, those destinations are geared more toward art and sculpture lovers. In this case, divers will be swimming alongside a piece of history dating back to the late 5th century B.C.E. The wooden cargo ship, which sank for an unknown reason, disintegrated long ago. However, the seabed is still covered in thousands of amphoras (a kind of storage jar used in ancient Greece and Italy), which likely held wine.

Dubbed the Peristera shipwreck, the site was discovered in the early 1990s. It was named after the uninhabited island where it was discovered, but guided dives of the site leave from the harbor of Steni Valla on Alonissos, which is located in the Northern Sporades group of islands in the northwest Aegean Sea.

Peristera is the first shipwreck in Greece to be made accessible to the public, but it won’t be the last. As part of a program funded by the European Commission, the country also plans to open up three other shipwreck sites in the Pagasetic Gulf. The efforts are part of a push to promote eco-friendly tourism while also highlighting the country’s rich history.

“The goal is in the next two years to make the country’s shipwrecks visitable, but also to provide important information and raise awareness about underwater monuments, such as the Peristera wreck off Alonissos,” alternate culture minister Kostas Stratis said at an event, according to the Greek City Times.

Italy and Croatia are also expected to create their own underwater museums in the future via the same program, called BlueMed.

[h/t AFAR]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER