Edison Caetano
Edison Caetano

Geoglyphs Are Evidence of Ancient Farming in the Rainforest

Edison Caetano
Edison Caetano

Our complicated relationship with the rainforest may be much older than we thought. Archaeologists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences say the creators of ancient South American earthworks had also been farming and clearing the Amazon for millennia before Europeans arrived. The most striking evidence for this manipulation of the landscape? Hundreds of geoglyphs discovered across the region, revealed by deforestation.

For a long time, the rainforest appeared lush and undisturbed, and we assumed it had always been that way. Then during the last century, cattle ranchers began cutting down more and more trees to make room for their livestock. When the sawdust had settled, massive shapes could be seen carved into the soil. Archaeologists discovered more than 450 of the geoglyphs in Brazil’s Acre State alone.

Edison Caetano

Diego Gurgel

Edison Caetano

Lead author Jennifer Watling is an archaeologist at the University São Paulo. She said the glyphs’ discovery created quite a stir. “A lot of people have the idea that the Amazon forests are pristine forests,” she told The New York Times, “never touched by humans, and that’s obviously not the case.”

What was the case, then? To find out, Watling and her colleagues collected soil samples from two of the glyph sites. They sifted through the soil, picking out microscopic plant fossils and pieces of charcoal, then used carbon dating to approximate the age of each tiny bit of evidence.

They've been working on this research for a while; in the multilingual video below, from 2013, listen to the researchers explain some of their techniques.
 

 
The evidence told a story about the people who lived and worked in the forest around 4000 years ago. They had done some forest clearing of their own, burning sections of bamboo to open up space for farming. They likely grew maize or squash and collected food-bearing trees in one spot to create what Watling called a “prehistoric supermarket.” Once these forest farms were established, they began digging out the glyphs, which were likely used in religious rituals.

Unlike today’s industrial logging and clearing, the glyph-builders’ agriculture was sustainable in nature. Their farms and burn areas were small and contained, and permitted the surrounding wilderness and trees to keep on growing.

“Indigenous communities have actually transformed the ecosystem over a very long time,” said Watling. “The modern forest owes its biodiversity to the agroforestry practices that were happening during the time of the geoglyph builders.”

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]

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