Author Archives: Ciera Uyeunten


After learning a little bit about Palenque, one of the four regional super powers in the Maya region, I thought it would be neat to look a little more into it. According to a National Geographic article I found, the first published account of this city was in 1567 by Father Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, who was a Spaniard that was exploring the area near the Usumacinta River.  While exploring, he came across this city’s stone temples and plazas that was once painted in blue and red stucco. Lorenzo decided to call this place ‘Palenque,’ which meant “fortification” in Spanish.

Although Palenque was reported to have supported around only 6,220 people at its peak and was clearly not the largest of the four super powers, according to an assistant professor of art history, Michael D. Carrasco, it was important for other reasons.  Carrasco states that, “its naturalistic sculpture, architectural inventiveness and detailed epigraphic record,” is what made this place so valuable. Palenque’s abundance of epigraphy or inscriptions, as well as their recorded history, has aided many archaeologists over the years and allowed them the opportunity to build the first time line of monarchs that ruled a Maya city.

According to Carrasco, Palenque had very few rulers. It started with Pakal the Great from about 603-683 A.D., then his son, K’inich Kan Bahlam from around 635-702 A.D. and his grandson, K’inich Akul Mo’ Naab from 678-736 A.D. These kings commissioned various temples including the Temple of Inscriptions, which is one of the largest sources of Mayan glyphic text, to have such lengthy texts or scripts.

In 1952, Alberto Ruz Luillier, a Mexican archaeologist, moved a stone inside the Temple of Inscriptions and found Pakal the Great’s burial tomb and since then, this has become one of the most studied sites in Latin America.  A Maya specialist by the name of David Freidel stated that the tomb contained the rulers “sarcophagus” where etched pictures of “a handsome youth, the maize god, preparing to ascend into the sky along the cosmic World Tree” were depicted.

From the records at this site, archaeologists believe that the rise of this super power was caused by another super power, Calakmul, who began attacking them.  After the second attack in 611 A.D., Pakal the Great, who was twelve years old at the time, rose to power and began rebuilding Palenque into the super power it grew to be.

After 500 years have passed, Palenque is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. Since then, archaeologists have discovered “three royal tombs, a tomb of sacrifices, offerings to a royal and a high noble’s tomb.”

Terra-Cotta Warriors

Since this past class we talked about ancient China I thought that it would be interesting to write about their Terra-Cotta Warriors or army. This army is a part of an extravagant mausoleum that was originally created all those years ago to accompany the first emperor of China in his afterlife. Ying Zheng took the throne when he was just thirteen years old in 246 B.C. Throughout his rule, he standardized coins, weights and measures, connected the states through roads and canals, is credited for building the first form of the Great Wall and last but not least, unifying a group of warring kingdoms. Once he unified the kingdoms, he changed his name and took the name Qin Shi Huang Di, the First Emperor of Qin.

According to the writings of a court historian by the name of Siam Qian, Emperor Qin ordered his people to construct this mausoleum soon after he took his throne. The Emperor had more than 700,000 Chinese laborers working on this project for him but soon after his death, the workers were forced to stop due to uprisings and with one of the four pits being empty, it supported this thought.

The Terra-Cotta army is a form of funerary art dating from around the late third century B.C. in the Shaanxi province. This massive army of clay soldiers were discovered in March of 1974 by farmers when they were digging a water well. They are essentially a collection of life-size terracotta sculptures or soldiers ready for battle, depicting Qin Shi Huang’s army. From the four pits that archaeologists have each partially excavated, they did not find just one warrior; they found thousands. Each clay soldier was made with its own unique facial features and expressions as well as varying heights. Also, depending on how tall or short they were, their position in the pits was based on their ranks in Emperor Qin’s army. For example, the tallest warriors or soldiers in the pits were the generals in Emperor Qin’s army. In addition to that, although they are now mainly gray in color, there are small patches of color here and there suggesting the idea that when they were first made, they wore bright and colorful clothes. To add to all of the intricate detail, most of the soldiers originally held actual weapons such as spears, swords or crossbows as well. With all of these tiny details, it made the figures look extremely realistic.

In conclusion, archaeologists estimate about 8,000 terra-cotta warriors are present in each pit but the accurate total may never be known. But one thing that is for sure is that the amount of time and skill it took to create these massive figurines is simply unreal and I don’t think anyone will be able to come close to replicating what the Chinese people had created all those years ago.

Dikika Baby

In a region apart of Africa known as Dikika, meaning “nipple” in their local language, after a distinct hill that is shaped as such, Zeresenay Alemseged, an Ethiopian paleoanthropologist, led a group of fossil hunters into one of the most challenging places on Earth. This region was known for its extreme heat, flash floods, malaria, and even the sporadic arguments between different ethnic groups but most importantly for its abundance of undiscovered fossils.

After about a year, their search for hominin remains came up empty. However, they did find various mammal fossils ranging from elephants to antelopes and because of this, Zeresenay knew they were looking in the right place. He knew that these types of animals would have been extremely successful in a forest type environment near a river, which is the exact same atmosphere hominins would have lived in as well.

However not long after, Tilahun Gebreselassie, a member of Zeresenay’s team, was the first to spot a tiny skull “peering out from a dusty slope.” From what they could see at this point, her face not much larger than a monkey’s but from its smooth brow ridge and shortened canines, they knew instantly they had just discovered the remains of a small hominin. The infant’s skull was not only in perfect condition but placed underneath the skull in a “ball of sandstone” were various bones of its upper body as well and according to Zeresenay, this was “something you find once in a lifetime.” After spending about 3.3 million years preserved in sandstone, the worlds oldest baby would now be known as Dikika baby.

Dikika baby is not only the most complete infant skeleton to be discovered but is perhaps “the best fossil of her species, Australopithecus afarensis,” which is the same species as a previously discovered fossil that we know as “Lucy.” However, Dikika baby not only has fingers, feet and a complete torso, but a face, aspects that were not found with Lucy.

Although it is unknown how the three year old little girl died, they suspect that the river buried her body in pebbles and sand, “protecting it from scavengers and weather,” ultimately preserving it for all these years. Now, instead of having to glue together the pieces, Zeresenay and his team must slowly drill away the sandstone from the remains so they are able to study its anatomical details. So far, this has taken him five years.

From her fossil, they were already able to see details that are not usually seen in australopiths. She had a full set of both “milk teeth and unerupted adult teeth,” tiny ribs situated along a spinal column, tiny grasping fingers and where her throat would have been, an unusual example of a hyoid bone, which is extremely important for speaking. Dikika baby presents an opportunity to see how the “human voice box” evolved.

Based on her fossils, she was a completely different creature from anything they had seen before. Dikika baby very similar to us from the waist down but her upper body was much more apelike. She had a small brain, flat nose, long and curved fingers and a long, projecting face, all features that are present in chimps and apes, not humans. Her shoulder blades, similar to a gorilla’s, also suggested that it was easy for her to climb, presenting the idea that she not only spent time on the ground, but also in the trees.

Zeresenay and other scientists were also able to learn a little more about hominin brain development based on Dikika baby’s brain size. Her brain size was roughly 330 cc, which is about the same size as a three year old chimp, creating the idea that her brain was progressing no faster than a chimps. This hinted at scientists that Dikika baby had a extended period of dependence on her parents, a life stage that we call childhood. This discovery then lead to Holly Smith, a hominin development specialist, realizing that having a large brain meant nothing if you were not able to live long. So with a longer childhood, it was also clear to scientists that they were able to live longer lives as well.

In conclusion, Dikika baby was not just important because of the evolutionary steps she created but also for the “light she shed” on how her species lived and evolved those millions of years ago.

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The Lost Tribes of the Green Sahara

In October of 2000, Paul Sereno led a small group of paleontologists into the Ténéré desert in Niger, in search of dinosaur fossils.  Since his first expedition, five years prior, he and his team have found remains of exotic species, ranging from a 500-toothed dinosaur to a crocodilian that is similar in size to a city bus. However, in this expedition, when Mike Hettwer, the photographer joining his team, strayed away from the group toward three small sand dunes, it would be one of their biggest finds yet. The three dunes were literally “spilling over with bones.” But, they were not dinosaur bones; they were human.

Within minutes, Paul Sereno and his team were able to count dozens of human remains, some buried with “clay potsherds, beads and stone tools.” Among the human skeletons, they also discovered hundreds of animal remains. However, the remains were of “water-adapted creatures” such as crocodiles, fish, clams, turtles and hippos.  It was then that he realized that they were in the Green Sahara. The Sahara has pretty much been a desert for the past 70,000 years but about 12,000 years ago, there was a sway in the Earth’s axis, causing seasonal monsoons to shift, bringing rains to new areas, which in turn created abundant watersheds across the Sahara, attracting different animals and eventually people.

Up until then, the only thing that archaeologists knew for sure was that about 3,500 years ago, the waters dried up and the people disappeared. Archaeologists actually knew very little about the people of the Green Sahara. Even though he was a “dinosaur hunter,” Sereno was extremely intrigued by this find and began finding as much information as he could on the people of the Green Sahara.  In 2003, he went back to the site and counted at least 173 different burials. But he knew that if he wanted to know more, he needed someone who had a little more expertise in the area. That is when he brought Elena Garcea, an archaeologist, in to help.

When they arrived at Gobero, the Tuareg name they gave to the site, Garcea picked up one potsherd with a “pointillistic pattern” and recognized the markings to be from a nomadic herding culture known as the Tenerians. She then picked up another piece but this time it was decorated with “wavy lines” and identified this piece as belonging to a fishing-based culture known as the Kiffian. What caught her attention was the fact that the Kiffian and the Tenerians lived more than a thousand years apart. Over the next few weeks Garcea and Sereno created a detailed map of the site, excavated eight different burials and collected artifacts from both the Kiffian and the Tenerians.

While observing some of the graves, Garcea noticed differences in their burials. Some graves appeared to be “a tight bundle of bones,” as if the bodies were squeezed into a confined space. These smaller burials were misleading because the individuals buried in them were actually quite large, some estimated to be as tall as “six feet eight inches” with dense bones, indicating that they must have been extremely muscular. On the other hand, other skeletons were much smaller, measuring to only about five feet, six inches tall. Also, unlike the previous graves, these burials contained goods such as arrowheads, beads and even animal bones. However, since neither grave contained any potsherds, they were not sure which ones where Kiffian and which ones were Tenerian.

When Sereno flew back to the U.S., he took the “most important skeletons and artifacts” with him to examine. Through radiocarbon dating, they were able to roughly estimate the age of each skeleton and learned that the “tightly bundled burials” were about 9,000 years old, which is around the time archaeologists believe the Kiffian were in this area, while the smaller skeletons were about 6,000 years old, which is “well within the Tenerian period.”

After their return to Gobero in 2006, Sereno and Garcea began to uncover an increasing amount of skeletal remains. On this trip they found a male skeleton buried with a finger in his mouth, another buried “inside a frame of disarticulated human bones,” and another buried with a “boar tusk and a crocodile ankle bone and his head resting on a clay pot” with parts of his skeleton burned, suggesting the possibility of a burial ritual. Also, the Tenerians were believed to be herders, but they found no remains belonging to goats or sheep among all of the animal bones they discovered. Sereno suggested the idea of the Tenerians being a transitional group that had not fully adopted to herding and still relied on a fishing and hunting lifestyle, but till today it is still not fully understood. However, as they discovered more and more remains, new questions began to form in their minds, especially about the Tenerians.

The Kiffian bones were left with very little artifacts, causing even more questions to go unanswered. However, from their bones bioarchaeologist Chris Stojanowski, was able to tell that they seemed to be “peaceful, hardworking people.” There were not many head and forearm injuries indicating that they did not fight often but from the long and narrow ridges present along their femurs, they had huge leg muscles, suggesting that they were extremely strong. Stojanowski explained that with such huge muscle attachments, they must have ate a lot of protein and participated in a “strenuous lifestyle,” which is both congruent with a fishing-based culture.

Towards the end of their trip, they discovered a grave with three Tenerian skeletal remains, which was believed to be of a adult female and two children. This discovery had them wondering what their cause of death was since they showed no signs of trauma. “If their deaths weren’t violent, how id they all die at the same time?” and “If it was from a disease or plague, who buried their bodies?” Till today, they still do not know the answers to these questions and being unable to return due to conflicts that arose in Niger, the harsh conditions of the Sahara continue to consume what is left of these two lost tribes.

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