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Archaeologists Find Remains of "High-Status" Women in Cahokia Burial Mound

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YouTube // ISAS

Archaeologists in Illinois say a prominent pre-Columbia burial mound in the famous ancient city of Cahokia was hardly a monument to masculinity, as their predecessors in the 1960s had claimed. They published their findings in several journals, including American Antiquity.

A thousand years ago, the complex cities and suburbs of Mississippian peoples sprawled across the Midwest. Cahokia, the largest urban center, lay just across the river from modern-day St. Louis. At its peak in the 13th century, it rivaled London in size. Then, over time, like so many civilizations do, it vanished.

But the Mississippians were builders of mounds, whose works left large, hard-to-miss marks on the landscape. French and Spanish explorers first spotted Cahokia’s burial mounds in the 1500s, and we’ve been unearthing its secrets ever since.

Much of what we know today about Cahokia culture comes from the work of one man. Archaeologist Melvin Fowler was digging at the site in 1967 when he uncovered an enormous burial ground. The area known today as Mound 72 yielded five mass graves and dozens of scattered individual resting places, containing a total of 270 people who had been buried between 1000 CE and 1200 CE. But not all the dead had been treated equally. Two bodies in particular seemed to have been accorded special care. They were stacked, one atop the other, in a bed of beads, and surrounded by the painstakingly arranged bodies of four people who had died at the same time.

To Fowler, the beads between the bodies and those scattered by their heads appeared to form the shapes of birds. Fowler knew that birds were associated with warriors and supernatural powers in some Native American traditions, and so he concluded that the two central figures must have been legendary warrior chiefs. The bodies buried with them must have been servants, there to glorify their leaders’ manly feats.

Nobody corrected him. Over time, the theory that Cahokia was a hierarchical he-man culture became accepted fact. And it might have stayed that way, had modern archaeologists not decided to double-check Fowler’s findings. They took a closer look at their predecessors’ notes and maps, then continued to explore the site. They found more bodies right off the bat; the beaded burial, as it’s come to be known, contained 12 bodies, not 6. 

They took bone and tooth samples from the bodies and tested them to see if they could determine the approximate ages of the deceased. That’s when they realized that a lot of the bodies were not men at all. One of the so-called warrior men was a woman, and other stacked pairs nearby were male-female as well. The mass graves had plenty of women in them. Nearby, they even found the remains of a child.

Julie Mahon

Co-author Thomas Emerson is the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. He says the inclusion of women in these high-status burial sites pretty much tosses Fowler’s male supremacist theory out the window.

"Now, we realize, we don't have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts,” he said in a press statement. “And so, what we have at Cahokia is very much a nobility. It's not a male nobility. It's males and females, and their relationships are very important."

Emerson says including higher-class women in Mound 72 is consistent with other burial rituals in the area. All around Cahokia, he says, he found symbols of “life renewal, fertility, agriculture. Most of the stone figurines found there are female.”

Fowler and his contemporaries mistakenly assumed that there was one Native American culture rather than a variety of cultures, regardless of time or place. "People who saw the warrior symbolism in the beaded burial were actually looking at societies hundreds of years later in the southeast, where warrior symbolism dominated, and projecting it back to Cahokia and saying: 'Well, that's what this must be,'" Emerson said. "And we're saying: 'No, it's not.'"

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Live Smarter
Researchers Say You’re Exercising More Than You Think
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They say a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. If the thought of a thousand-mile journey makes you tired, we've got some great news for you: You've probably already completed one.* A new study published in the journal Health Psychology [PDF] finds that people underestimate the amount of exercise they're getting—and that this underestimation could be harmful.

Psychologists at Stanford University pulled data on 61,141 American adults from two huge studies conducted in the 1990s and the early 2000s: the National Health Interview Survey and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Participants answered questionnaires about their lifestyles, health, and exercise habits, and some wore accelerometers to track their movement. Everybody was asked one key question: "Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?"

The researchers then tapped into the National Death Index through 2011 to find out which of the participants were still alive 10 to 20 years later.

Combining these three studies yielded two interesting facts. First, that many participants believed themselves to be less active than they actually were. Second, and more surprisingly, they found that people who rated themselves as "less active" were more likely to die—even when their actual activity rates told a different story. The reverse was also true: People who overestimated their exercise had lower mortality rates.

There are many reasons this could be the case. Depression and other mental illnesses can certainly influence both our self-perception and our overall health. The researchers attempted to control for this variable by checking participants' stress levels and asking if they'd seen a mental health professional in the last year. But not everybody who needs help can get it, and many people could have slipped through the cracks.

Paper authors Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum have a different hypothesis. They say our beliefs about exercise could actually affect our risk of death. "Placebo effects are very robust in medicine," Crum said in a statement. "It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well."

The data suggest that our ideas about exercise and exercise itself are two very different things. If all your friends are marathoners and mountain climbers, you might feel like a sloth—even if you regularly spend your lunch hour in yoga class.

Crum and Zahrt say we could all benefit from relaxing our definition of "exercise."

"Many people think that the only healthy physical activity is vigorous exercise in a gym or on a track," Zahrt told Mental Floss in an email. "They underestimate the importance of just walking to the store, taking the stairs, cleaning the house, or carrying the kids."
*The average American takes about 5000 steps per day, or roughly 2.5 miles. At that pace, it would take just a little over a year to walk 1000 miles.

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Scientists Are Working on a Way to Treat Eye Floaters With Lasers
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Even people with 20/20 eyesight should be familiar with this scenario: You're enjoying a clear view when a faint doodle shape drifts into your peripheral vision like an organism under a microscope. Floaters affect almost everyone, but there's currently no medically accepted, non-invasive way to treat them. Two doctors with Ophthalmic Consultants of Boston are working to change that. As IFLScience reports, the team believes that lasers may be the solution to bothersome eye squiggles.

As Chirag Shah and Jeffrey Heier write in their study in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, lasers can be used to safely combat the underlying causes of floaters. Also known as muscae volitantes, Latin for “hovering flies,” the condition comes from physical debris leaking into your eyeball. The front of your eyes is filled with a liquid called vitreous humor, and when drops of that gelatinous substance break off from the whole, the bits cast shadows on your retinas that look like gray blobs. Because floaters literally float inside your eyes, trying to focus on one is almost impossible.

These spots aren't typically a problem for young people, but as you get older your vitreous humor becomes more watery, which increases the chance of it slipping out and clouding your vision. Retinal detachment and retinal tears are also rare but serious causes of symptomatic floaters.

Shah and Heier tested a new method of pinpointing and eliminating floaters with a YAG laser (a type of laser often used in cataract surgery) on 36 patients. An additional 16 test subjects were treated with a sham laser as a placebo. They found that 54 percent of the treated participants saw their floaters decrease over six months, compared to just 9 percent of the control group. So far, the procedure appears be safe and free of side effects, but researchers noted that more follow-up time is needed to determine if those results are long-term.

At the moment, people with symptomatic floaters can choose between surgery or living with the ailment for the rest of their lives. YAG laser treatment may one day offer a safe and easy alternative, but the researchers say they will need to expand the size of future studies before the treatment is ready to go public.

[h/t IFLScience]


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