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Oldest Decapitated Head in New World Found in ‘Vogue’ Pose

Archaeologists have unearthed the oldest case of decapitation ever found in the New World. The skull belonged to a young man and was buried in Brazil about 9,000 years old, with severed hands covering its face in a mysterious pose—left hand over the right side of the face, fingers pointing up, and right hand over left side, pointing down.

Danilo Bernardo
Photo by Danilo Bernardo
This 9,000-year-old skull, found with severed hands facing opposite directions in front of the face, may be the oldest evidence of decapitation in the New World.

No one, it seems, has ever seen anything like it. Why was this guy decapitated? Why the weird posing of the hands 9,000 years before Madonna’s song “Vogue“? And where’s the rest of him?

André Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology found the skull, but he still finds it a mystery. He was excavating the Lapa do Santo site in eastern Brazil when he struck upon the head buried under a rock. He kept sifting away the dirt around it, looking for the rest of the skeleton, but it never materialized. Instead, he slowly uncovered the disembodied skull and hands, partially crushed from being buried for thousands of years.

The How

The last thing Strauss, or anyone else, expected to find at such an old site was a decapitated head; the next oldest decapitation in South America is only about 3,000 years old, and practically on the other side of the continent, in Peru. “I’m not a decapitologist,” he says. (That’s not a real title, but given the number of severed heads in human history, maybe it should be.)

The find raised many questions. First, how did these people, who were hunter-gatherers living in a simple society with few tools (certainly no machetes) get the head off? Strauss got a tip from Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee. (Note: I’m taking her online course in human identification now, and it’s fantastic. If you want to learn what CSI is really like, sign up.)

Black noticed a similarity to a modern-day case she’s working on, in which the skeleton of a woman was found decapitated. She saw the same kind of fractures in the neck, suggesting that after the head was partially cut off, it was manually pulled and twisted to finish the job. It would have been difficult, and gruesome, work.

Strauss et al, PLOS ONE
Strauss et al, PLOS ONE

The Where

Lapa do Santo, incidentally, is also where the oldest human skeleton in South America was found, named Luzia, and the oldest rock art, which turns out to be a carving of a man with a giant phallus, dubbed “Little Horny Man.”

So yes, our hunter-gatherer ancestors sound just as interested in skulls and penis art as your average teenage boy today. But before you snicker, remember that these fascinations pop up all over the world throughout human history: sex and fertility, obviously, but also skulls.

Even though many people consider skulls morbid or even sinister today, for most of our existence people have had a fairly cozy relationship with human heads. They’re still pretty popular, too. A John Varvatos skull scarf costs 250 bucks.

In fact, I’m sitting at my kitchen table with a bright purple skull grinning at me as I write. It’s a life-sized ceramic head decorated with turquoise swirls in a Mexican Day of the Dead style. My husband and mother-in-law looked a little concerned when I dashed into a San Antonio gift shop to snatch it from the display window.

But I love my ceramic skull, and it’s part of a long symbolic tradition. People have always cut off heads and kept them, or buried them, or used them for all manner of purposes. Skulls can be war trophies: The Inca emperor Atahualpa drank from the gold-encrusted skull of a rival, maybe his brother. In fact, more than one culture figured out that a cranium makes a great cup. Or they can be more peaceful reminders of our ancestors.

“There is often no link about these similar forms of behavior practiced in different part of the world,” says Silvia Bello, an anthropologist who studies death practices at the Natural History Museum in London. “The fascination of humans for heads and skulls seems to be the common ground.”

The Why

We don’t know why our mystery man in Brazil was decapitated, but it most likely wasn’t as a trophy. There are no holes or scrape marks that would be expected if the head was cleaned for display, and the cranium wasn’t opened to remove the brain (which you would definitely want to do if a head was sitting out on display decomposing).

Andre Strauss
Photo by Andre Strauss
An archaeologist exhumes one of the skeletons found at Lapa do Santo.

Strauss also doubts that he was killed as a rival or outsider. He was a local, based on the signature of strontium isotopes in his bones. He may not have been executed at all; perhaps he died of natural causes or in a fight, and his head was removed and buried in a special way for symbolic reasons that we may never understand.

One hint, though, lies in the fact that the hands were arranged over the face as opposites in that ‘vogue’ pose. (For the sticklers: It’s really not quite like Madonna’s vogue, if you look up photos of her, but I don’t know what else to compare it to.)

“There is an argument for great symbolism in these two hands,” says anthropologist John Verano of Tulane University. “Left and right, that’s dualism.” Opposites were a big theme in Inca and other South American cultures, though it’s not clear whether this opposite pose would have represented something good or bad—maybe both.

Whatever the people of Lapa do Santo intended, this decapitation is an important glimpse into the ritual dismemberment of human remains, says Michelle Bonogofsky of the University of California, Berkeley, who wrote a book on decapitations. She has seen skulls plastered, painted, and decorated, but has never seen a skull posed with severed hands.

“I found a head that had two feet in front of it once,” says Verano. “It seemed to be a sign of disrespect. But never the hands.”

Reference: The Oldest Case of Decapitation in the New World (Lapa do Santo, East-Central Brazil). Andre Strauss et al. PLOS ONE, published online September 23, 2015. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0137456

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Who’s the First Person in History Whose Name We Know?

Editor’s Note: This post has updated to clarify a sentence about the gender of the ancient writer.  

“It’s me!” they’d say, and they’d leave a sign. Leave it on the cave wall. Maybe as a prayer, maybe a graffito, we don’t know.

This was 30,000 years ago. Writing hadn’t been invented, so they couldn’t chalk their names on the rock. Instead, they’d flatten their hand, blow dust over it, and leave a silhouette like this:

a handprint is outlined in an orange/red pigment on the reproduction of the prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet
Prototype fac simile of the cave Chauvet—Pont d’Arc, negative hand painted by blowing pigments. Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux
Photograph by Laurent CERINO, REA, Redux

And for 30, 40 centuries across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia, this is how cavemen, cavewomen, cave kids, hunters, nomads, farmers, and soldiers left their mark.

Picture of layers and layers of hands painted onto a cave wall in Argentina
Cave of the Hands, Patagonia, Province of Santa Cruz, Argentina. Photograph by
Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux
Photograph by Javier Etcheverry, VWPics, Redux

Every one of these handprints belonged to an individual, presumably with a name, a history, and stories to tell. But without writing, we can’t know those stories. We call them hunter-gatherers, cave people, Neolithic tribes. We think of them in groups, never alone. Tens of thousands of generations come and go, and we can’t name a single person before 3200 B.C., not a one. Then, in Mesopotamia, writing appears, and after that people could record their words, sometimes in phonetic symbols so we could listen in, hear them talking and, for the first time, hear someone’s name—our first individual.

So who was it?

Who is the first person in the recorded history of the world whose name we know?

Just Guessing Here

Would it be a she or a he? (I’m figuring a he, because writing was a new thing, and males are usually the early adopters.) [*Please see note at bottom of post for more on this.]

Drawing of of man and a woman, the woman is crossed out.
All drawings by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Would he be a king? Warrior? Poet? Merchant? Commoner? (I’m guessing not a commoner. To be mentioned in an ancient document, he’d need a reputation, tools, and maybe a scribe. He wouldn’t be poor.)

Drawing of a king, a warrior, a poet, a merchant, and a commoner, with the commoner crossed out

Would he be a person of great accomplishment or just an ordinary Joe? (The odds favor a well-regarded person, someone who is mentioned often. Regular Joes, I figured, would pop up irregularly, while a great king, a leading poet, or a victorious general would get thousands of mentions.)

Drawing of a king sitting in a chair with a trident-like stick, looking at writing in front of him

So I trolled the internet, read some books, and to my great surprise—the first name in recorded history isn’t a king. Nor a warrior. Or a poet. He was, it turns out … an accountant. In his new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari goes back 33 centuries before Christ to a 5,000-year-old clay tablet found in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). It has dots, brackets, and little drawings carved on it and appears to record a business deal.

Picture of an ancient tablet depicting beer production Inanna Temple in Uruk
MS1717, © The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London http://www.schoyencollection.com/24-smaller-collections/wine-beer/ms-1717-beer-inanna-uruk
© The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London

It’s a receipt for multiple shipments of barley. The tablet says, very simply:

29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim

“The most probable reading of this sentence,” Harari writes, “is: ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed, Kushim.’ ”

Drawing of a man facing the viewer with a speech bubble over his left shoulder that says " of “Oh, Kushim!”

So who was “Kushim”? The word might have been a job title, not a person (maybe kushim meant “barley assessor”) but check the video down below. It suggests that Kushim was indeed a guy, a record keeper who counted things for others—in short, an accountant. And if Kushim was his name, then with this tablet, Harari writes, “we are beginning to hear history through the ears of its protagonists. When Kushim’s neighbours called out to him, they might really have shouted, ‘Kushim!’”

It’s pretty clear Kushim was not famous, not hugely accomplished, certainly not a king. So all of my hunches were off.

But wait. The Kushim tablet is just one of tens of thousands of business records found on the deserts of Iraq. A single example is too random. We need more. So I keep looking and find what may be the second, third, and fourth oldest names we know of. They appear on a different Mesopotamian tablet.

Ancient stone tablet featuring a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars from Mesopotamia
Administrative tablet with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars. 3100-2900 B.C. Jamdat Nasr, Uruk III style, southern region, Mesopotamia. Clay, H. 2 in. (5.3 cm). Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY
Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Once again, they are not A-list ancients. Dated to around 3100 B.C.—about a generation or two after Kushim—the tablet’s heading is, “Two slaves held by Gal-Sal.” Gal-Sal is the owner. Next come the slaves, “En-pap X and Sukkalgir.” So now we’ve got four names: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves. No kings. They don’t show up for another generation or so.

Drawing of four individuals: an accountant, a slave owner, and two slaves

The predominance of ordinary Sumerians doesn’t surprise Harari. Five thousand years ago, most humans on Earth were farmers, herders, and artisans who needed to keep track of what they owned and what they owed—and that’s how writing started. It was a technology for regular people, not a megaphone for the powerful.

“It is telling,” Harari writes, “that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet, or a great conqueror.” Most of what people did back then was business.

Kings come, kings go, but keeping track of your barley—your sheep, your money, your property—that’s the real story of the world.


*Note from Robert Krulwich: I see that this column has offended a whole bunch of you. Yes, as many of you point out, my viewpoint was white, male (and hung up on fame and power) and many of you have serious, and totally legitimate arguments with my assumptions. Now that I read your comments, I’m a little surprised, and a touch ashamed of myself. But the thing is—those were my assumptions. They were wrong. I say so.

This is a blog. So it’s designed to be personal, and confessional. So I want you to know who’s talking to you, and if you think I’m way off base, by all means, let me know. And in the end, if you read the totality, my column and your responses, the story I wrote gets deeper and richer. You call me out on my assumptions, you offer some of your own, and what actually happened, what it was really like to be alive 5,300 years ago becomes… well, an argument among moderns about ancients that we will never meet.

Scholars aren’t unanimous about who’s name is oldest in the historical record. Yuval Noah Harari’s new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind gives the crown to Kushim. The Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago goes for Gal-Sal and his slaves in their 2010-2011 annual report. Andrew Robinson, in his Writing and Script: A Very Short Introduction also champions Gal-Sal, but his book came earlier, so maybe Harari has scooped him. Here’s the video that argues for Kushim:

If the name Gal-Sal strikes some of you as familiar, it appears in the title of a 1942 Rita Hayworth/Victor Mature movie, My Gal Sal, about a songwriter who falls crazily in love with a singer on the vaudeville circuit named Sal (short for Sally Elliot). I watched it. It’s terrible. Kushim, meanwhile, survives. According to the blog Namespedia, it turns out that lots of Russian families call themselves Kushim to this day, and in the U.S., it’s a relatively popular first name. They’ve even got Kushim bar graphs!

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Ever Wonder What a Neanderthal Considered a Delicacy?

I suppose “Neanderthal delicacy” may sound like an oxymoron. Most people think of Neanderthals and other ancient people as cave men, brutes capable of little more than smashing and grunting. To the extent you’ve ever thought about what they ate, you probably assumed it was, well, whatever they could get their dirty hands on.

Or maybe you remember The Clan of the Cave Bear, the 1980 bestseller that helped shape Neanderthals in the popular imagination. In the book, a Homo sapiens girl named Ayla is adopted by Neanderthals who communicate mainly through hand signals and seem incapable of learning.

Yet the more we learn about our ancient cousins, the more sophisticated we find them to be. Amazing work on Neanderthal genetics by Svante Pääbo has found that they possessed a gene called FOXP2 that is key to speech in modern humans, raising the question of whether Neanderthals had language. They may even have been capable of abstract thinking and art.

Now, a new study suggests that the Paleolithic crowd had its own version of fine dining, unsettling as the choice of fare may be. It appears that baby elephants may have been a particular delicacy—basically, pachyderm veal.

Most studies of ancient diets have focused on simply figuring out what people ate, not what they liked. But Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University and his graduate student Hagar Reshef wondered if there was any way to make a reasonable guess about the tastes of early hominins. They report their findings in an upcoming issue of Quaternary International.

“The direct investigation of taste preference in Paleolithic times is impossible,” says Reshef, but there’s “plenty of circumstantial evidence.”

First, the scientists point to recent evidence that Neanderthals did have a sense of taste. Work by Carles Lalueza-Fox found taste-related genes in Neanderthals, specifically for bitter tastes, that could have shaped their food preferences. The gene varied, as it does in modern humans. “What seems clear is that keeping a wide range of taste perception was key in hominin groups,” Lalueaza-Fox says.

As for what they ate, the butchered bones of mammoths and ancient elephant species, and particularly young elephants, are fairly common in Paleolithic archaeological sites around the world. In some cases, such as the Middle Pleistocene sites Gesher Benot Ya’akov in Israel and Notarchirico in Italy, the skulls of young elephants appear to have been dismantled, perhaps to eat the brain.

Young elephants would presumably be easier to kill than large ones, which could explain why more young ones were eaten. But even young elephants aren’t exactly easy to capture and kill, leaving Reshef wondering whether they were also hunted as a preferred food—because they’re tasty.

That raises one obvious question: Are baby elephants tasty? Here, Reshef and Barkai looked at the historical record and modern-day hunter-gatherers. A 1967 study of the Liangula hunters in East Kenya reported that they preferred young elephants because they tasted better, and reports from other groups followed suit, with the general consensus being that elephants, and especially the young, taste sweet and fatty.

The team also checked out the nutritional value and quality of elephant meat. Studies of the biochemical composition of fat tissue reveals a high nutritional value for young elephants compared with adults.

We can’t wind back time to ask a Neanderthal what he liked, but it seems plausible that they put some effort into finding food they liked, and that baby elephant was on the list. “I would say that both the vulnerability and taste are relevant,” Reshef says.

Why would we care what Neanderthals or other hominins liked to nosh on? They sharpened their flints while dreaming of slicing into baby elephant; I wait in line for two hours to eat fancy ramen noodle soup. To each his own, right?

Perhaps. But it’s also part of understanding what makes us human.

“I believe that taste preference in ancient times was a motivating power in human evolution by pushing creative and technological abilities,” says Reshef.

Just think about that for a second. The quest for deliciousness: a motivating power in human evolution.

I could buy it. Given how much human time, creativity, and effort go into food today (Exhibit A: any Whole Foods store), it’s easy to believe that we are who we are, at least just a little bit, because we have been working for so long on new ways to perfect the snack. Thank you, sense of taste.

(A special thank you to my keen-eyed colleague Mark Strauss for pointing out the elephant study.)

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Can You Tell a Woman by Her Handprint?

Edit, 12/14, 10:59pm: This post has now been updated with responses from the new study’s lead author.

A few months ago I wrote a story for National Geographic News that seemed to pique a lot of readers’ imaginations, and understandably so. It was about a study by Dean Snow reporting that, contrary to decades of archaeological dogma, many of the first artists were women.

Neat, right? But now there’s a twist in the tale: Another group of researchers is claiming the study’s methods were unsound. Snow has his own critiques of the criticism (more on that later). I’m less interested in who’s right than a fundamental question behind the controversy, and one that is relevant to all archaeological investigations: What does the present have to do with the past?

Snow’s study, published in the journal American Antiquity last October, focused on the famous 12,000- to 40,000-year-old handprints found on cave walls in France and Spain. Because these hands generally appear near pictures of bison and other big game, scholars had long believed that the art was made by male hunters. Snow tested that notion by comparing the relative lengths of fingers in the handprints. Why? Because among modern people, women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers.

Snow first scanned the hands of 111 people of European descent who lived near Pennsylvania State University, where he is an emeritus professor of anthropology. By comparing male and female hands on specific measures — such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger — Snow developed an algorithm that could predict the sex of a given handprint. He also validated the algorithm on a second set of modern hands (50 males and 50 females).

The algorithm was only weakly predictive — with an accuracy of just 60 percent — because there’s a lot of overlap between the hands of modern men and women. But the equations were far more accurate when used on a set of 32 ancient hand stencils. The various measurements of these hands fell at the extreme ends of the modern sample, making it easy for the algorithm to categorize them as male or female. Snow found that 24 of the 32 prints — 75 percent — were female.

These hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain, were made by a man (left) and a woman (right), according to Snow’s study. Photos by Roberto Ontanon Peredo.

The new study, published Monday in the Journal of Archaeological Science, challenges Snow’s reference sample. A team led by Patrik Galeta of the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen, Czech Republic, collected handprints from 100 contemporary people in southern France and then ran those measurements through Snow’s algorithm.

Galeta found that Snow’s algorithm predicted female hands fairly well, but was useless for males, making it overall a bad predictor of sex. The study showed, in other words, that sex differences in hands among modern people living in Pennsylvania are not the same as differences among modern people living in France. “Our understanding is that hands of French males are on average smaller than U.S. males,” Galeta notes. And that, he adds, “is why U.S. methods failed to correctly identify French males.”

The bottom line: if two modern populations don’t match, then how can we possibly say anything about handprints tens of thousands of years old?

“What this shows is that a basic assumption that everyone has been making is wrong, which is that we can take a contemporary human population and use it as a model across space and time,” says archaeologist David Whitley of ASM Affiliates, an archaeological consulting firm in Tehachapi, California. Whitley was not involved in either study.

This might explain, Whitley adds, why researchers studying these old handprints have often come to contradictory conclusions. Before Snow’s work, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of the cave prints and reported that most of them came from adolescent boys.

Snow, however, doesn’t agree with the criticisms of the new study. “I would stand by my guns here,” he says.

He sees two possible reasons that his algorithm didn’t work on the new French sample. One is that the Czech researchers didn’t use his algorithm in the same way that he did. Snow did his analysis in two steps, running the data first through an equation related to the length of the hand, and then running those results through another equation based on the ratio between the index and ring finger. The Czech researchers, in contrast, looked at the two equations separately.

Alternatively, it could be that the Czech researchers didn’t measure hand length the same way Snow did, he says. Snow measured from the tip of the middle finger to the creases where the wrist meets the palm. “If you measured the length of the hand using some other terminus at the base, you might lose a centimeter or so of the overall length,” Snow says.

So who’s right, and how can this be resolved? “I would have to see their data, and they would have to see my data, and we would have to work it out,” Snow says.

So far neither group has made contact with the other, though both parties seem willing. and the Czech group has not yet responded to my queries about their work. (If and when they do I’ll be sure to update this post.) The Czech group, for the record, rejects both of the explanations Snow proposed, saying that they used the algorithm and measured the hands exactly as Snow did.

Even if the Czech group is right, Snow says the main conclusion doesn’t change. “Even with their sample, they can show as well as I can that there were some women in them caves,” he says. “They might argue, well was it 50-50 or 70-30 or 80-20, but that part of it doesn’t concern me so much.”

Experts have been arguing over the identity of these handprints for decades, and that debate isn’t going away anytime soon. That’s part of good science. But I think this story also says something interesting about archaeology.

Archaeologists are constantly turning up objects from the distant past, and their job is to figure out what (or, in this case, who) they were. They begin, naturally, by making assumptions based on the objects and people we’re familiar with today. “It’s an issue we always confront — making ‘presentist’ projections onto the past,” Whitley says.

In the case of these handprints, the projection relates to our bodies. But it could be anything. “If you find a pot, then just calling it a pot assumes you have some understanding of what it was,” Snow says. “We all make inferences. You just have to be reasonably comfortable with your inferences.”

Old Stone Tools Add Twist to the Extinction of Madagascar’s Megafauna

Madagascar is an natural wonder, brimming with creatures that have evolved in the island’s “splendid isolation.” But Madagascar’s endemic fauna was even more spectacular in the not-too-distant past. The island is now devoid of the enormous elephant birds, giant lemurs, dwarfed hippos, and other unusual animals that lived there. They disappeared so recently, only about one thousand years ago, that their remains are referred to as “subfossils.” How and why they were wiped out is a matter of contention, often seen as a catastrophic decline in the wake of human arrival, but a new archaeological find suggests that the downfall of Madagascar’s megafauna was a more protracted disaster.

Compared to our distant primate relatives, people haven’t occupied Madagascar for very long. The ancestors of today’s lemurs are thought to have arrived by rafting from mainland Africa around 50 to 60 million years ago, whereas the oldest known human villages only go back to around A.D. 500. Within a thousand years of these villages becoming established, every endemic species on the island over 10 kilograms was driven into extinction. Hunting, the use of fire, the spread of agriculture across the island, and other causes have been proposed without consensus, but the connection between humans and extinction is unmistakable.

Yet the record of interaction between humans and Madagascar’s long-lost fauna goes back significantly further. In a new PNAS paper, Yale University anthropologist Robert Dewar and coauthors describe two archaeological sites that add to the emerging picture of an earlier human arrival on Madagascar. Not only that, but the collected artifacts suggest that these early arrivals were hunting the island’s unique animals.

One of the rock shelters the researchers identified, known as Ambohiposa, was about as old as the earliest known villages on the island. This place seemed to be a foraging camp littered with small stone tools made of chert and obsidian, including what appear to be projectile points. The second shelter, Lakaton’i Anja, contained similar tools, but represents a series of occupations much earlier in time.

The Lakaton’i Anja site is made up of several layers of archaeological tools. From different dating techniques applied to wood charcoal, sediment, and pottery, the top assemblage dates to A.D. 1050-1350 while the lowest may go back as far as 2000 B.C. If these dates hold up, people may have been present on Madagascar for thousands of years longer than previously thought. And at this site, archaeologists found clues to what these people were actually eating during their sporadic stops.

Excavations at Lakaton’i Anja during the 1980s, as well as the new expedition in 2011, turned up the remains of small birds, tortoises, tenrecs, fish, anemones, marine clams and snails, and medium-sized lemurs. The range of animals suggests that the people who intermittently used this shelter foraged the nearby shore and gorges for food.

The collection of tools and bones adds to previously-discovered, uncertain records of an earlier human occupation on Madagascar. Ventura Perez and colleagues, for example, have described the butchered bones of extinct sloth lemurs, one of which was provisionally dated to between 417 and 257 B.C. Even if people at Lakaton’i Anja didn’t leave any signs of consuming the large, bizarre animals of Madagascar at their foraging shelter, the age of the site still supports the idea that humans were present and hunting Madagascar’s fauna long before the establishment of villages.

At the end of the new study, Dewar and coauthors call for more intense scrutiny of Madagascar’s archaeological sites “to understand the chronology, origins, geographic spread, and environmental impacts of the human occupation of Madagascar.” Lakaton’i Anja is a clue pointing to a more complicated backstory. That goes for the extinction of the island’s lost fauna, too. “[T]he view that Madagascar’s history can be sharply divided by the arrival of humans between an undisturbed Eden and anthropogenic chaos is no longer tenable,” Dewar and colleagues write. We alter habitats as soon as we step into them, true for us as any other species, but assuming that human arrival immediately causes a disastrous environmental crash no longer holds for Madagascar. The sloth lemurs and elephant birds are gone, but researchers have yet to unravel exactly what changes drove them to their irrevocable fate.


Dewar, R., Radimilahy, C., Wright, H., Jacobs, Z., Kelly, G., Berna, F. 2013. Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS. 10, 31: 12583-12588

Perez, V., Burney, D., Godfrey, L., Nowak-Kemp, M. 2003. Box 4. Butchered sloth lemurs, in Godfrey, L., and Jungers, W. The extinct sloth lemurs of Madagascar. Evolutionary Anthropology. 12: 252-263

Perez, V., Godfrey, L., Nowak-Kemp, M., Burney, D., Ratsimbazafy, J., Vasey, N. 2005. Evidence of early butchery of giant lemurs in Madagascar. Journal of Human Evolution. 49, 6: 722-742

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Documenting the Undocumented

One hot early morning last July, archaeologist Jason De León and his team were collecting artifacts in an empty stretch of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. The study area, about 55 miles south of Tucson and 40 miles north of the Mexican border, is traversed by hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants every year. Since early 2009, De León has been cataloging the objects — water bottles, diapers, knock-off Nikes, rosaries — that the migrants leave behind on the brutal journey. But on this particular morning, his team stumbled on what he’d been dreading since day one: a dead body.

De León, 36, is one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, and he described his Undocumented Migration Project yesterday to a packed auditorium at NG headquarters in Washington D.C. Most of what we hear about immigration comes from the perspective of law enforcement — think Border Wars — or pandering politicians. De León is using the migrants’ discarded possessions to tell their side of the story. “This is American history in the making,” he said, “and we can use the tools of archaeology to systematically record these steps.”

Since 2000, U.S. authorities in Tucson have made 4.5 million captures of undocumented migrants (a number that includes multiple captures of the same person). De León has interviewed hundreds of these hikers and become good friends with two: Miguel and Victor*.

He met the men in the summer of 2009 when visiting a migrant shelter in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. Miguel and Victor hadn’t known each other long. They met in a detention center in Tucson, caught after living illegally for 20-odd years in the United States. After being sent back to Nogales, they tried to trek back into the U.S. together, failed, and again wound up in Nogales. They were working in the shelter for a few weeks to pay for their stay; then they’d attempt to cross the border yet again.

Miguel and Victor play poker at a migrants' shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Photo by Jason De León.
Miguel and Victor play poker at a migrants’ shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Photo by Jason De León.

De León spent a few weeks at the shelter, getting to know the two men over many hands of poker. Miguel and Victor talked optimistically about the future, promising De León that after they made it back to their home in Tucson, they’d invite him over to grill and catch up. They’d be drinking beers, but since De León was so young, they teased, he’d have apple juice.

De León went shopping with the men to get supplies for their trip. In towns like Nogales and nearby Altar, the local economy depends on migrants. Store shelves are lined with bottles of water and electrolyte juice, camouflage gear, hiking boots, first-aid kits. Altar’s baseball team is called the Coyotes, a nod to the Spanish euphemism for smugglers.

Photo by Jason De León.

Victor bought a few garlic cloves for his backpack to ward off wild animals. De León wrote a good-bye message in marker on the inside flap: “Don’t forget you owe me an apple juice.”

De  León walked with Victor and Miguel to the Western edge of town, right up to an ominous, dark tunnel that ran underneath a highway overpass. On the other side of the tunnel was the desert and, if they were lucky, a way back home. De León cried as he watched the backs of his new friends disappear.

There was a good chance, he knew, that he’d never see them again. But about three weeks later, he got a phone call from Victor. “We’re in Tucson and we’ve got your apple juice,” he said.

For the first few years of his project, De León focused on cataloging the many objects left by migrants out in the desert. It’s a fascinating collection of things both banal (bottles, paper scraps) and unique (one of his favorites is an “illegal alien card” showing a green-faced alien and an Area 51 logo on it). Sometimes these objects are found alone — a t-shirt here, a backpack there. But De León has also found “migrant stations” with huge piles of clothes and trash. Unlike traditional archaeology that’s focused on the distant past, he calls his work “the archaeology of 10 minutes ago, literally”.

De León, at right, with his team at a large site of discarded objects.
De León, seated at right, with his team at a large site of discarded objects.

More recently he’s gotten into forensics. Since 1998, some 5,600 bodies have been found on the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s thought to be a wild underestimate of the migrants who die on the trip, but no one knows much about how a dead body fares in those conditions.

After consulting with forensic experts, De León learned that pig carcasses are often used as proxies of human flesh. So last summer his team dressed a dead pig in typical migrant clothes, placed it in the middle of the desert, and set up motion cameras to watch. For the first two weeks the animal decomposed naturally. Then the vultures came. Within 24 hours, most of the pig and its clothes had disappeared, including ID cards the researchers had stuffed in the pockets.

Vultures pick on the pig carcass. Photo by Jason De León.
Vultures pick on the pig carcass. Photo by Jason De León.

De León felt uncomfortable with the brutality of that experiment, but was reminded of its purpose just two weeks later, when he found the body of a middle-aged woman face down on the desert floor. He covered her in a colorful blanket he had found nearby. Then he waited with his team for seven hours until the Tucson sheriff came to pick her up.

After she was gone, De León’s students built her a shrine, as is the custom for deceased migrants. They decorated it with a sundry collection of religious objects bought at a local store.

Some researchers pray before a shrine to a dead migrant. In the foreground, the blanket that covered her body. Photo by Jason De León.
Some researchers pray before a shrine to Marisol. In the foreground, the blanket that had covered her body.

De León, too, was moved by the experience. Over the next few weeks, he got in touch with various authorities and found out that a fingerprint analysis had identified her as Marisol, a 41-year-old mother of three from Ecuador. She had been on her way to meet family in New York.

Then De León did the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. He called her family.

He struggled, he told us, to find something positive to say.

“I picked up the phone and I said, ‘I’m the person who found Marisol. And I just wanted to let you know that we sat with her for a long time, that we waited. We sat with her before the birds could get to her.'”

*Miguel, Victor, and Marisol are pseudonyms

 Some of De León’s found objects are part of a traveling museum exhibit