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Written in Stone: Inscriptions from the National Museum of Saudi Arabia

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Examines 54 museum objects that bear ancient inscriptions. Discusses reason and content for carved writing. Includes images in color, black/white, and line drawings, as well as background essay and interpretations.

Writing Is Memory

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

“When I write, I am flying,” says Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan.

Pen poised on paper, eyes intent, he breathes as if aligning his body with his mind. When his hand graces the page, ink flies over paper in a dance of strokes and curves. Like choreography, there is rhythm and melody in the way he writes—as if the script were embodied in his person.

His words do not lie flat on the page. Instead, the letters appear alive, and the space between and around the letters feels charged. “Negative space,” he explains, “creates the air within which the letter lives and breathes.” To him, the written word is powerful because it is both image and text. The calligrapher’s art is to contemplate and create both form and meaning.  

“When I write, I often make the words slightly difficult to read. I want the brain to wrestle with the form in order to understand the living shape of a word.”

Words like journey and freedom, never cease to fascinate him. Like mantras, he writes the words over and over again. For both writer and reader, their meaning is always in flux.

Malayan grew up in Armenia in a home full of art. His late father, the renowned painter Petros Malayan, taught at the State Institute of Fine Arts of Armenia.

“As a boy, I would look at my father’s art books every night before falling asleep,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the prints of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. His pictures were so lively, and the Japanese writing filled my imagination. I could not read it, but the symbols excited me. I have been captivated by letterforms ever since.”

Camera and interview: Albert Tong
Story and editing: Kaylie Connors
Music: The Secret Trio
Photos: Ruben Malayan

After studying fine arts and graphic arts in Yerevan, Malayan moved to Israel and began working as an art director in Tel Aviv. His work involved developing digital typography, yet Malayan often found himself writing by hand.  All fonts, he explains, have calligraphic roots. “The experiment happens on paper.” He left the commercial world and began to teach himself calligraphy. In the absence of a tutor, once again, books became his teachers. He studied ancient illuminated manuscripts and scoured scholarly publications to teach himself the history of Armenian writing.

The earliest forms of Armenian calligraphy exist in illuminated Christian manuscripts. The alphabet, developed by linguist and ecclesiastical leader Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE, allowed for both the recording and dissemination of theology to Armenians. A written language also protected Armenians against linguistic dominance in a region that, over centuries, fell to Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet rules.

Malayan is now one of two calligraphers left in Armenia. Last July, he demonstrated his artistry to an eager audience on the National Mall for the Armenia: Creating Home program at the Folklife Festival. For Armenian American visitors, his calligraphy seemed particularly meaningful. An Armenian American woman approached him to say, “These letters are sacred. And they’re ours.”  Her comment, though seemingly minor, reflects Armenia’s emotional relationship with its script.

Yet his experience at the Folklife Festival does not reflect general attitudes toward calligraphy and penmanship, which Malayan finds distressing and tragic. He routinely faces misconceptions of calligraphy as nostalgic handwriting in period style and penmanship as a decorative yet ultimately superfluous skill. Letter culture, he says, is suffering. 

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Artwork by Ruben Malayan
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Today, we type, tap, and swipe on keyboards and touchscreens. With smartphones and laptops, we send emails and texts, draft essays and reports. In the digital age, communicating messages and recording information has never been easier or faster. Typed letters all look the same—serif and sans serif. “Our writing is so impersonal. Now we all push the same buttons.” We still use letters, but we no longer create them.

“Handwriting is profoundly expressive,” Malayan urges. “Your handwriting is unique to you. Even a simple note that says, ‘Don’t forget the milk!’ will look different from person to person.”

Knowingly or unknowingly, we all make decisions on how to draw letters—from the size and spacing to the shape of a curve, or the speed with which we write. Our focus, posture, and breathing also affect our handwriting. Words penned by hand embody our individual traits, creating an almost intimate imprint of the self on the page. Malayan insists that handwritten words carry the writer’s emotion and energy—regardless of whether the text was penned yesterday or a thousand years ago.

“Writing is memory, both individual and collective,” he says. “When we write, we are intentionally making a record. We are putting down what matters to us—words we want to remember.” To him, written text is memory embodied and the act of writing expresses a will to remember. Early religious texts and current news stories alike are pieces of memory—expressions of lived experience. From the ancient world to the internet age, he believes all writing is connected. Although our tools and materials have changed, writing continues to record and shape our human story.

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Ruben Malayan’s booth at the Folklife Festival was lined with canvases.
Photo by Narek Harutyunyan, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Throughout that story, certain changes have endangered calligraphy traditions. In addition to the digital shift, Malayan says that the widespread popularity of the ballpoint pen in the 1960s had a detrimental effect on calligraphic traditions. With a ballpoint, writing by hand required less skill than with a fountain pen. Regardless of the direction or orientation of the pen, the width of line remained consistent. The convenience was unparalleled and the ballpoint eventually became ubiquitous around the world. As a result, “we lost the plasticity and elasticity of lines, and many traditional scripts were no longer produced,” Malayan laments.

Now, sustaining the art of Armenian calligraphy requires considerable effort. Malayan believes the revival of letter culture will start in the classroom. In fact, he thinks children are unique in that they take the alphabet seriously. As kids learn to read and write, they examine the shapes of letters, learn the sounds they make, and practice drawing freeform symbols. Though penmanship has been increasingly phased out of formal education, schools provide an opportunity for revival. Malayan is currently developing a comprehensive first-of-its-kind primer to support those who wish to learn Armenian calligraphy. He plans to found a school where students can learn Armenian calligraphic traditions as well as experiment with letterforms.

Currently, Malayan is an adjunct lecturer at the American University in Yerevan. In his visual communications course, he teaches his students to generate and express visual ideas. His students are English majors with little to no background in the arts. Yet his curriculum, which draws from calligraphy and typography, is practice-based. Over the course of a semester, his students must learn formal composition—proportions, contrasts, and balance—to create works of their own.

“After developing technical skill comes the question of substance,” he says. Beautiful letters are not enough. An artist must have something to say. “If I have nothing significant to say, I will not write a word. We don’t need more visual pollution.”

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Ruben Malayan demonstrates his art for visitors at the Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

For Malayan, advertising exemplifies visual pollution. Billboards, commercials, pop-ups, and flyers plaster our daily lives with consumerist messaging. “Ads are often sexy, funny, or visually appealing. Some use cheap tricks, others are well thought out campaigns. But the message is the always same: buy.”

Discourse and dialogue have little relevance in consumer culture. Malayan urges his students to consider visual messaging that contributes to a larger public conversation. For their final projects, he tasked them to create a poster that responded to the following question: what message is urgent for you to say to Armenia, to the world? This is Malayan’s call to action: to participate in visual culture not as consumers but as citizens.  

During the protests of the recent nonviolent revolution, Malayan worked round the clock to create placards to fuel demonstrations and marches. He felt a sense of responsibility not only to reflect his personal opinions, but also to echo those of others. He observed and listened to the way political discontent played out in the public and private realm. “I wanted to capture what we all were feeling, what was on our minds,” he says.

In this way, his efforts were both anthropological and activist in nature. His work created a feedback loop, capturing the public sentiment and expressing it back on the street. Along with the compelling slogans, his posters featured eternal words like freedom and journey.

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
“Journey,” created by Ruben Malayan at the 2018 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Maya Potter is a cultural sustainability project assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she worked with Ruben Malayan and other artisans in The Workshop to facilitate craft activities and classes for the public.

Print representing ancient Chinese characters, undated

National Anthropological Archives
One undated Chinese print, measuring 55 x 27 inches with red character on white paper. Represents an ancient Chinese character made by an emperor.

Print representing ancient Chinese characters, undated

National Anthropological Archives
One undated Chinese print, measuring 55 x 27 inches with red character on white paper. Represents an ancient Chinese character made by an emperor.

Ancient Greece Springs to Life

Smithsonian Magazine

When the builders of the original Acropolis Museum first broke ground in Athens in 1865, archaeologists sifting through the rubble discovered a headless marble statue buried since the Persian Wars in the early fifth century B.C. Twenty-three years later, the head was identified and the world beheld one of the great treasures of antiquity, the Kritios Boy. Today the sculpture is on view in spectacular modern digs: the New Acropolis Museum, which opened to international fanfare on June 20, 2009, replacing its predecessor with a monumental space ten times the size.

The new museum houses a number of celebrated works from the Acropolis site, including roughly half of the Parthenon Marbles. (Most of the rest, known as the Elgin Marbles, remain in the British Museum in London; the works are the focus of the long-running dispute between Greece and the U.K. over repatriation.) Still, the 3-feet-10-inch–tall Kritios Boy, although dwarfed by the grandeur of the Parthenon, holds a special place in the history of art, pinpointing a momentous transition in the approach to human figuration—from the rigidly posed, geometrically balanced forms of the Archaic period to the more fluid, natural (yet still idealized) representations of the Classical era. Kritios Boy seems poised between life and death, eluding easy classification. “For some scholars, he is the end of Archaic sculpture; for others, he is the beginning of Classical sculpture,” says Ioannis Mylonopoulos, a specialist in ancient Greek art and architecture at Columbia University.

A cast of the original Kritios Boy will be among the artifacts displayed in an exhibition, “The New Acropolis Museum,” at Columbia’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery from October 20 to December 12. Mylonopoulos, the exhibition’s curator, who was born and raised in Athens, is beyond delighted that his campus office is just steps away from a masterwork he first encountered as an 8-year-old, when his parents felt it was time to take him up to the Acropolis. He now teaches a course devoted to the site, as well as a required core curriculum offering called Art Humanities that begins with a detailed, analytical study of the Parthenon. Both courses bring him joy. “I’m passionate about Archaic sculpture,” Mylonopoulos says, “so whenever I talk about the Kritios Boy I get high, so to speak.”

The stunning architecture of the New Acropolis Museum is a major focus of the Columbia exhibition, which traces the evolution of the project from original sketches to more sophisticated blueprints and models, culminating in full-blown digital images of the realized museum. “You will enter the exhibition room and be confronted—I think this is a great idea—with a work in process,” says Mylonopoulos.

Designed by the New York- and Paris-based Bernard Tschumi Architects (in collaboration with the Greek architect Michael Photiades), the museum sits at the foot of the Acropolis, creating a sort of visual dialogue between ancient and modern Greece. The building respects the street grid of Athens and echoes the tripartite classical program of base-midsection-conclusion, yet is filled with drama and surprise. On the lower level, which hovers atop hundreds of pillars, glass floors allow visitors to view the extensive archaeological excavation site beneath the museum; the double-height middle section houses a forest of artifacts unearthed at the Acropolis; and the glass-enclosed top floor, swiveled Rubik-like to align with the Parthenon itself, features the full length of that monument’s fabled marble frieze. Lost panels are left blank; those remaining in the British Museum are replicated in plaster, yet covered by a veil, in protest. “It’s impossible to stand in the top-floor galleries, in full view of the Parthenon’s ravaged, sun-bleached frame, without craving the marbles’ return,” New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff commented in a rave review of Tschumi’s ambitious project, which he called “mesmerizing” and “eloquent,” among other superlatives.

Image by Newscom. The New Acropolis Museum was designed by New York- and Paris-based Bernard Tschumi Architects (in collaboration with the Greek architect Michael Photiades). (original image)

Image by Newscom. The New Acropolis Museum opened on June 20, 2009, replacing its predecessor with a monumental space ten times the size. (original image)

Image by Philip Baran / Alamy. Kritios Boy holds a special place in the history of art, pinpointing a momentous transition in the approach to human figuration—from the rigidly posed, geometrically balanced forms of the Archaic period to the more fluid, natural representations of the Classical era. (original image)

Having passed through the expansive Tschumi portion of the Wallach Gallery exhibition and another large space filled with artifacts from the Athens museum, visitors will come upon three small rooms dedicated to the pioneering Columbia architectural historian William Bell Dinsmoor (1886–1973), including papers from the university’s famed Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, which he directed from 1920 to 1926. Dinsmoor is revered by contemporary art historians at Columbia. “Everything I know about the Parthenon I learned from Dinsmoor and from teaching Art Humanities, which Dinsmoor was instrumental in developing,” says David Rosand, who holds the university’s Meyer Schapiro chair in art history and has taught there since 1964. Dinsmoor was also a consultant for the concrete replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee (once called “the Athens of the West”), which opened in 1931.

“I studied Dinsmoor’s archive at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens,” says Mylonopoulos. “It’s unbelievable what this man was writing about architecture and art, which unfortunately remains unpublished. He was also an excellent epigrapher. He was brilliant at dealing with ancient Greek language and inscriptions.”

To Mylonopoulos, the Acropolis and the Parthenon are deeply personal. “It’s part of your life,” he says. “It’s as if you’re talking about your parents. You love them and they are always there. And you miss them the moment you don’t see them any more.” There’s more at stake than scholarly achievement or national pride, he says, “if you believe in freedom and democracy and the opening up of the human mind and spirit.”

“Athens was the place where all these came together, and if you accept the idea that the Parthenon is the culmination of these ideals, with all their faults—Athenian democracy is not our democracy, but the idea is there—then you realize it’s not about the monument,” he says. “It’s about the culture, it’s about the ideas, and it’s about the society behind this monument.”

This Ancient Egyptian Masterpiece Might Be Fake

Smithsonian Magazine

The “Meidum Geese”—an ancient Egyptian painting prized for its detail—has been called “Egypt’s Mona Lisa.” It was supposedly painted somewhere between 2610 and 2590 B.C. and found in the tomb of Pharaoh Nefermaat. But it could be nothing more than an elaborate forgery.

A researcher claims that the piece was actually painted during the 19th century, reports Owen Jarus for LiveScience. After months of study, archaeologist Francesco Tiradritti has concluded that the painting, which gained fame for its symmetry and quality, is a fake.

(original image)

“Doubting the authenticity of a masterpiece seems almost impossible and it is a mentally painful process,” Tiadritti told Jarus. The art expert first began to doubt the painting’s veracity after realizing that it contained images of birds unlikely to have been in Egypt at all, Jarus says. And once he began to harbor doubts about the painting, Tiadritti wrote, he began to see other inconsistencies—unusual symmetry, colors not usually used by ancient Egyptian artists and hints that the geese were painted over another painting.

Tiadritti also discovered another anomaly—a mark on another painting supposedly discovered by Egyptologist Luigi Vassalli that could give away the forgery:

While investigating remains from the Atet Chapel, Tiradritti noticed a fragment of painting that Vassalli supposedly found. It was painted with an image of a vulture and a basket. These two signs have meanings in Egypt's hieroglyphic language that spell the initials for Vassalli’s second wife Gigliati Angiola.

Tiradritti wrote that the “basket can be read as a ‘G,’ while the vulture corresponds to an ‘A,’ giving room to the hypothesis that they have to be interpreted as a monogram.”

Jarus notes that the publication of Tiadritti’s findings will likely lead to “noninvasive analysis” that will establish the veracity of his claims once and for all. Tiadritti tells LiveScience that he wants scholars to “think more critically about ancient art.” And it turns out that it’s not really that hard to persuade people that a piece of art is more than what it seems. Recently, a group of pranksters convinced art experts that a painting was worth €2.5 million. The only problem? It was a cheap generic print from IKEA.

An Ancient Egyptian Spellbook Has Been Translated

Smithsonian Magazine

In the later half of the first millennium, Christian and Sethian Egyptians recorded rituals, incantations and spells meant to “cure demonic possession, various ailments, the effects of magic, or to bring success in love and business.” Recorded on a papyrus codex in the Coptic language of ancient Egypt, the text—which may be 1,300 years old—has now been translated for the first time, says LiveScience.

Researchers first found the text just a few decades ago, in 1981, housed amongst the extensive papyrus collection at Macquarie University in Sydney. Researchers Malcolm Choat and Iain Gardner only recently translated it. They found instructions for rituals including, for instance, one meant to subjugate someone: the “codex says you have to say a magical formula over two nails, and then 'drive them into his doorpost, one on the right side (and) one on the left,'" Live Science reports.

Scholars tend to treat mainstream and fringe beliefs differently: the ritual practices of large societies are often called “religions,” while those of smaller societies are often deemed “magic,” write Marvin Meyer and Richard Smith in their 1999 book Ancient Christian Magic: Coptic Texts of Ritual Power.

A more useful, less value-laden term than either “magic” or “religion,” which one scholar after another is beginning to propose, is “ritual.” We human beings, in our worship practices, engage in rituals everywhere, in all parts of the globe and in all types of societies.

… It is only recently that scholars have tried to escape from the “religion/magic,” “we/they” hierarchy. One obvious problem with these contrasts is that any culture, whether small-scale or complex and industrialized, is a conflicting structure of elements that includes both the rational and the irrational. So in the religions of the first-world nations, where material benefits are prayed for, where victory in battle is invoked, and where individuals wear charms for luck or protection, just what does it mean to say that magic is something practiced by other, more primitive people?

What will future researchers think, for instance, of the pre-game ritual of football players, asking a power greater than themselves to help defeat their enemy?

The Ancient Origins of Apple Cider

Smithsonian Magazine

Apple cider is everywhere this time of year—a mainstay of farmers markets and festivals. An adult version of the popular drink can also be ordered at the bar. This boozy cider is actually truest to the drink's earliest form, with roots dating back millennia.

Until relatively recent history, apples weren’t for eating. In fact, they were often too bitter to just munch on. Instead, for thousands of years, people would press them for the juice and leave it to ferment, letting it bubble away until it turned into boozy hard cider, according to the National Apple Museum.

Evidence of apple trees growing along the banks to the Nile River can be found dating back to about 1300 B.C., but there's no evidence that ancient Egyptians ever used them for cider. However, considering how much the Egyptians enjoyed beer (and that they were one of the first cultures to brew it), they did have some notion of the joys of fermenting alcoholic beverages.

What is clear about cider is that once the drink caught on, it spread fast. By the time the first Romans sailed to the British Isles in 55 B.C., the locals were drinking a cider-like drink made from apples, which their new visitors quickly fell in love with, the museum notes. Soon enough, cider spread throughout the Roman Empire and across Europe, becoming popular with people from the Germanic tribes to the Normans, whose conquest of England in the 9th century brought apple orchards and the very word “cider” into the English language.

Europe and the Mediterranean aren’t the only places with an abiding love for cider: the earliest colonists brought it with them to the Americas as well. While beer was more popular across the pond at the time, the first Europeans to settle in the colonies had a hard time growing grains and barley needed to brew it. However, apples grew easily in New England, making cider the perfect alternative, according to Mental Floss.

Because apples can grow easily by grafting branches onto existing apple trees, colonial New England quickly fell in love with cider. But it was a very different drink than the dark brown, syrupy-sweet drink found at the farmer’s market. This cider was boozy, making it safer to drink than much of the water available and full of nutrition to get them through the hard winters. According to Serious Eats’ Chris LeHault, there was even a less-alcoholic variation brewed for children called “applekin.” As for that famous apple farmer, Johnny Appleseed? The orchards he planted across the United States were originally intended for cider suppliers, not pie bakers.

Over the centuries though, cider’s popularity began to wane. Waves of immigration from Germany and eastern Europe over the years brought a deep love of beer and settled in the Midwest—a region much more friendly to growing grains and hops than the Atlantic coast. The biggest blow came in the form of Prohibition, which wiped out nearly all American cideries for decades, LeHault writes. But true to its deep roots, ciders are starting to make a comeback in bars around the country, making this hardy drink a serious survivor.

Ancient Humans Liked Getting Tipsy, Too

Smithsonian Magazine

For as long as there have been humans, there have been humans getting drunk—or at least that’s what biomolecular archaeologist and brew connoisseur Patrick McGovern thinks.

The jack-of-all-trades researcher tackles the subject at length in his new book, Ancient Brews: Rediscovered and Recreated. Part travelogue, part natural history, part cookbook, the story has McGovern hopscotching across the globe to prove the ties between human evolution and the creation of fermented beverages. He describes archaeological digs and the migrations of ancient humans from one continent to the next; the chemical analysis used to discover which ingredients went into the drinks; and his forays into “experimental archaeology” with Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, in which they recreate nine ancient beverages.

“Taking all the available evidence we have, we wanted to see if we could recreate the drinks and make something that’s palatable for the modern human,” McGovern says.

These drinks (despite the moniker “brews”, they include wines, beers and “extreme fermented beverages” that use any combination of ingredients to produce an alcoholic drink) run the gamut from the oldest-known alcohol, which comes from China, to a chocolate concoction based on research from Mesoamerica. 

“We usually do not have an airtight argument that a particular recreated beverage was made in antiquity in the same way or with all the same ingredients,” McGovern writes in his book. “Our ultimate objective is to gather as many well-verified pieces of the puzzle as possible, hypothesize about what ingredients most likely went into the brew and how it was brewed, and then try to replicate it.”

In addition to exploring the intoxicating ingenuity of these ancient people, McGovern also digs deep into human evolution and the dawn of civilizations. First, he tackles the question of what Paleolithic people (the era begins with hominid tool-making around 3.4 million years ago and continues till 10,000 years ago), may have been drinking.

It’s a hard question to answer, archaeologically speaking. Alcohol evaporates from containers even if they’re sealed, leaving nothing but dust for chemical analysis. Even then, the oldest container shown to have traces of rice, grapes or hawthorn fruit and honey—ingredients necessary to make a fermented beverage—is from only 9,000 years ago. There are no surviving containers from the Paleolithic.

But McGovern sees plenty of evidence for our alcohol affinity in the body itself. “We’ve got an enzyme in our saliva that breaks down carbs into sugar, we have alcohol dehydrogenase [enzymes that break down ethanol] in our mouths, all through our gut and down through our liver.”

All these physiological elements point to traits inherited from our early ancestors, about whom archaeologists only have limited information. But in case the physiology of modern Homo sapiens isn’t enough to go off of, humans also share genes with primates and other animals that prove we’re not the only ones hooked on getting buzzed. This “drunk monkey” hypothesis states that animals whose diets are largely composed of fruits and nectar regularly imbibe naturally occurring alcohol when the fruits ferment.

There’s the Malaysian tree shrew, “a living model for extinct mammals” that drinks the human equivalent of nine glasses of wine each night. Fruit flies, like humans, contain multiple genes that dictate how they metabolize and respond to alcohol. Even bats get tipsy from eating fermented fruits, though inebriation seems to have no negative impact on their ability to fly.

Somewhere along the way, drunk monkeys became drunk hominids, and those hominids became modern humans. This is when the “bread or beer” question comes up: Did humans start agriculture to use the grain for food or for a ready supply of fermented drinks?

“We don’t know for sure and have limited archaeological evidence, but if you had your choice, which would it be?” McGovern says. “Once you have fermented beverages, it causes a change of behavior, creates a mind-altering experience. I think that could be important in developing language, music, the arts in general and then religion, too.”

The idea of beer or some other alcoholic beverage being a key component of human development has been echoed elsewhere. “It has long been speculated that increasing demands for cereals for the purpose of brewing beer led to domestication,” write researchers in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. “The most complex communities [in the Near East] seem to have been complex hunter/gatherers who could be expected to have hosted competitive feasts in which brewed beverages would have been highly valued.”

Or as psychiatrist Jeffrey P. Kahn writes in the New York Times, “Beer was thought to be so important in many bygone civilizations that the Code of Urukagina, often cited as the first legal code, even prescribed it as a central unit of payment and penance.”

Just consider what the fermentation process must have looked like to humans who had no concept of how yeast and sugars combined to create alcohol. The containers holding the liquid would’ve moved around as carbon dioxide was released, the liquid would turn foamy, the smell and flavor at the end would be far different than they had been at the start. Combined with the brain-altering effects of drinking these elixirs, it’s no surprise humans imputed the miraculous transformation to the work of the gods.

From there, McGovern says, the beverage became the center of social life. It’s a pattern he’s seen around the world, from winemaking in the Middle East and Europe to sorghum beers and palm wine brewed in Africa.

For all he’s uncovered about alcoholic beverages of the past 10,000 years, there are plenty of questions that remain to be answered—including the advent of distilled liquors in the New World. McGovern concludes his book by delving into ongoing research into whether the Aztecs or other civilizations of the Americas created distilling methods before the Spanish arrived with their rum stills.

As for his readers, McGovern hopes some might be inspired to try the recipes in the book. But if nothing else, he says, “I hope they come away with an appreciation for how fermentation is really an essential part of life on this planet and in human societies. It has had a profound effect on what we are today.”

Homebrew Interpretation of Chateau Jiahu 
by Dough Griffith (based on McGovern, 2009/2010)

5 gallons Cool water 
4 pounds Extra light or light dry malt extract
2 pounds Rice syrup solids
1/2 pound Dried hawthorn berries
1/4 ounce Simcoe hops
1/2 ounce Sweet orange peel
3 pounds Honey
1 packet Fermentis Safbrew Abbaye, White Labs WLP530 Abbey Ale, or Wyeast 4143 Sake
1/2 quart White grape concentrate
1 cup Priming sugar 

Starting gravity: 1.088
Final gravity: 1.015
Final target alcohol by volume: 8.5%
International Bittering Unites: 10
Finished volume: 5 gallons 

If using the liquid yeast, we recommend making a starter 24 hours before brewing to maximize yeast cell counts. 

1. Fill a brewpot with the 5 gallons water and bring to a boil. 
2. As the water is beginning to boil, remove the pot from the heat. 
3. Add the dry malt extract and rice syrup solids. Stir to prevent clumping and scorching on the bottom of the pot. Return the pot to heat. 
4. Allow the wort to come to a boil, and boil for 30 minutes. If using defoamer to help prevent boilovers, add per instructions. 
5. While the wort is boiling, put the hawthorn berries ina  blender, cover with wort (liqwuied from the brewpot—caution: hot), and carefully purée. 
6. At the 30-minute mark of the 1-hour boil, add the puréed hawthorn berries. Boil for 30 more minutes. 
7. 50 minutes into the boil, add the Simcoe hopes and orange peel. 
8. At the 60-minute mark, turn off the heat. Add the honey. Stir the wort for 2 minutes while building up a whirlpool effect. Stop strring and allow the wort to sit for 10 minutes. 
9. Chill the wort with a wort chiller or in a cold water bath until it is under 75°F. 
10. Transfer the wort into a fermenter; aerate (rock the baby) for 1 minute. 
11. Pitch the yeast into the fermenter. 
12. Top up the fermenter to the 5-gallon mark with cool water. 
13. On the second day of fermentation, add the white grape concentrate. 
14. In about 14 days, the beer should be ready to bottle. It can be siphoned to a 5-gallon carboy to allow extra time for clearing if desired, for about 7 days. 
15. Before bottling, clean and sanitize the bottles and caps and create a priming solution of 1 cup boiling water and the priming sugar. 
16. Siphon the beer into a sterilized bottling bucket, add the water-diluted priming solution, and gently stir. Bottle and cap the beer. 
17. Allow the beer to condition for another 10 days at 70 to 75°F; it should then be ready to drink. 

The Intergalactic Battle of Ancient Rome

Smithsonian Magazine

A long time ago, in a world not so far away, a young man who longed for adventure was swept up in a galactic war. Forced to choose between two sides in the deadly battle, he befriended a group of scrappy fighters who captained… three-headed vultures, giant fleas and space spiders?

Nearly 2,000 years before George Lucas created his epic space opera Star Wars, Lucian of Samosata (a province in modern-day Turkey) wrote the world’s first novel featuring space travel and interplanetary battles. True History was published around 175 CE during the height of the Roman Empire. Lucian’s space adventure features a group of travelers who leave Earth when their ship is thrown into the sky by a ferocious whirlwind. After seven days of sailing through the air they arrive on the Moon, only to learn its inhabitants are at war with the people of the Sun. Both parties are fighting for control of a colony on the Morning Star (the planet we today call Venus). The warriors for the Sun and Moon armies travel through space on winged acorns and giant gnats and horses as big as ships, armed with outlandish weapons like slingshots that used enormous turnips as ammunition. Thousands die during the battle, and blood “[falls] upon the clouds, which made them look of a red color; as sometimes they appear to us about sun-setting,” Lucian wrote.

After the war’s conclusion, Lucian and his friends continue traveling through space, learning about the Moon’s odd inhabitants (an all-male society, whose anatomy included a single toe instead of a whole foot and children cut from their calves) before moving on to visit the Morning Star and other space cities.

Lucian was more of a satirist than a novelist; True History was written as a critique of philosophers and historians, and their ways of thinking about new discoveries. As scholar Roy Arthur Swanson writes, Lucian’s work provided “the perennially necessary reminder that thinking and believing are different and distinct kinds of mental activity and that it is best not to confuse them.”

The warriors in the intergalactic battle described by Lucian in his novel, True History, are killed by deadly turnips. (Lucian's True History, Illustrated by Willian Strang, J. B. Clark and Aubrey Beardsley. A.H. Bullen, 1894)

But being a work of satire doesn’t preclude True History from joining the ranks of science fiction. In addition to showing first contact, wars in space, and a flight to the moon, the work’s satirical nature is actually yet another thing it has in common with the genre’s modern form.

“One of the consistent themes of sci-fi is satire, and making fun of the way humans live and run the world,” says Aaron Parrett, professor of English at University of Great Falls in Montana. “That is one reason why Lucian is so important. He did that very thing.”

Lucian was also likely aware of major scientific and philosophical research of his time, including Plutarch’s “On the Face in the Orb of the Moon,” and Ptolemy’s last recorded observation of the planets, which occurred 14 years prior to Lucian’s publication. Still, the astronomical telescope wasn’t invented until 1610, and Lucian’s narrative doesn’t feature scientifically sound space travel. Does that mean it doesn’t count as an early form of the genre?

It depends who you ask. Douglas Dunlop, who works as a metadata librarian at Smithsonian Libraries, sees parallels between Lucian’s writing and that of the later science fiction writers like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

“Just because it doesn’t have what we would call ‘modern science’ doesn’t take away from the fact that [philosophy and natural sciences] influenced the writing,” Dunlop says. “There was a theory called Plurality of Worlds that goes back to Greek Antiquity, which was the concept of life existing in space. So who’s to say what they were doing in their philosophy and observation wasn’t informing their understanding of the world around them?”

Other literary scholars have posited the world of science fiction starts with the Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 B.C.), Frankenstein (1818), or the works of Jules Verne (1850s). For famous American astronomer Carl Sagan, sci-fi starts with Johannes Kepler’s novel Somnium (1634), which describes a trip to the moon and the view of Earth seen from far away. But Kepler, as it turns out, was partially inspired by Lucian. He picked up True History in the original Greek to master the language. (While Latin was the vernacular of ancient Rome, Greek was the language used by the educated elite.) He wrote that his studies were improved by his enjoyment of the adventure, and it seems to have sent his imagination spinning as well. “These were my first traces of a trip to the moon, which was my aspiration at later times,” Kepler wrote.

The lunar inhabitants in Lucian's True History include an all-male race, who give birth via babies cut from their calves. (Lucian's True History, Illustrated by Willian Strang, J. B. Clark and Aubrey Beardsley. A.H. Bullen, 1894)

Genre requirements aside, both True History and Star Wars offer ways of understanding and exploring the human world, even though the stories take place in the stars.

“One of the great things that science fiction does as a way of changing people’s worldview is show what the world might be like,” Parrett says. “It’s remarkable that people dreamed up things long before there was any possibility that they could do it. This is true not just of flying to the moon, but of flying in general.”

Lucian may never have believed humans would achieve flight to the moon—but he imagined it. And the path he laid for intergalactic stories continues to send writers, scientists and movie-goers dreaming of what might be out there, just beyond our reach.

Caravan Kingdoms: Yemen and the Ancient Incense Trade

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit about the little known cultural traditions of 'caravan kingdoms' whose fortune rose and fell with demand for their goods. The focus is on ancient Yemen, whose incense trade led to vast wealth. Objects of religion and culture are shown with relevant background.

Can Computers Decipher a 5,000-Year-Old Language?

Smithsonian Magazine

The Indus civilization, which flourished throughout much of the third millennium B.C., was the most extensive society of its time. At its height, it encompassed an area of more than half a million square miles centered on what is today the India-Pakistan border. Remnants of the Indus have been found as far north as the Himalayas and as far south as Mumbai. It was the earliest known urban culture of the subcontinent and it boasted two large cities, one at Harappa and one at Mohenjo-daro. Yet despite its size and longevity, and despite nearly a century of archaeological investigations, much about the Indus remains shrouded in mystery.

What little we do know has come from archaeological digs that began in the 1920s and continue today. Over the decades, archaeologists have turned up a great many artifacts, including stamp sealings, amulets and small tablets. Many of these artifacts bear what appear to be specimens of writing—engraved figures resembling, among other things, winged horseshoes, spoked wheels, and upright fish. What exactly those symbols might mean, though, remains one of the most famous unsolved riddles in the scholarship of ancient civilizations.

There have been other tough codes to crack in history. Stumped Egyptologists caught a lucky break with the discovery of the famed Rosetta stone in 1799, which contained text in both Egyptian and Greek. The study of Mayan hieroglyphics languished until a Russian linguist named Yury Knorozov made clever use of contemporary spoken Mayan in the 1950s. But there is no Rosetta stone of the Indus, and scholars don’t know which, if any, languages may have descended from that spoken by the Indus people.

About 22 years ago, in Hyderabad, India, an eighth-grade student named Rajesh Rao turned the page of a history textbook and first learned about this fascinating civilization and its mysterious script. In the years that followed, Rao’s schooling and profession took him in a different direction—he wound up pursuing computer science, which he teaches today at the University of Washington in Seattle—but he monitored Indus scholarship carefully, keeping tabs on the dozens of failed attempts at making sense of the script. Even as he studied artificial intelligence and robotics, Rao amassed a small library of books and monographs on the Indus script, about 30 of them. On a nearby bookshelf, he also kept the cherished eighth-grade history textbook that introduced him to the Indus.

“It was just amazing to see the number of different ideas people suggested,” he says. Some scholars claimed the writing was a sort of Sumerian script; others situated it in the Dravidian family; still others thought it was related to a language of Easter Island. Rao came to appreciate that this was “probably one of the most challenging problems in terms of ancient history.”

As attempt after attempt failed at deciphering the script, some experts began to lose hope that it could be decoded. In 2004, three scholars argued in a controversial paper that the Indus symbols didn’t have linguistic content at all. Instead, the symbols may have been little more than pictograms representing political or religious figures. The authors went so far as to suggest that the Indus was not a literate civilization at all. For some in the field, the whole quest of trying to find language behind those Indus etchings began to resemble an exercise in futility.

A few years later, Rao entered the fray. Until then, people studying the script were archaeologists, historians, linguists or cryptologists. But Rao decided to coax out the secrets of the Indus script using the tool he knew best—computer science.

Image by Courtesy of David Zax. Fascinated by the Indus civilization since the eighth grade, Rajesh Rao is using computer science and a concept called "conditional entropy" to help decode the Indus script. (original image)

Image by Robert Harding / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis. Over the decades, archaeologists have turned up a great many artifacts from the Indus civilization, including stamp sealings, amulets and small tablets. (original image)

Image by Robert Harding / Robert Harding World Imagery / Corbis. Rao and his collaborators published their findings in the journal Science in May. They didn't decipher the language but their findings sharpened the understanding of it. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of David Zax. Rao and his colleagues are now looking at longer strings of characters than they analyzed in the Science paper. Finding patterns would in turn help determine which language families the script might belong to. (original image)

On a summer day in Seattle, Rao welcomed me into his office to show me how he and his colleagues approached the problem. He set out a collection of replicas of clay seal impressions that archaeologists have turned up from Indus sites. They are small—like little square chocolates—and most of them feature an image of an animal beneath a series of Indus symbols. Most samples of the Indus script are miniatures like these, bearing only a few characters; no grand monoliths have been discovered. Scholars are uncertain of the function of the small seals, Rao told me, but one theory is that they may have been used to certify the quality of traded goods. Another suggests that the seals might have been a way of ensuring that traders paid taxes upon entering or leaving a city—many seals have been found among the ruins of gate houses, which might have functioned like ancient toll booths.

Rao and his colleagues didn’t seek to work miracles—they knew that they didn't have enough information to decipher the ancient script—but they hypothesized that by using computational methods, they could at least begin to establish what sort of writing the Indus script was: did it encode language, or not? They did this using a concept called “conditional entropy.”

Despite the imposing name, conditional entropy is a fairly simple concept: it is a measure of the amount of randomness in a sequence. Consider our alphabet. If you were to take Scrabble tiles and toss them in the air, you might find any old letter turning up after any other. But in actual English words, certain letters are more likely to occur after others. A q in English is almost always followed by a u. A t may be followed by an r or e, but is less likely to be followed by an n or a b.

Rao and his collaborators—an international group including computer scientists, astrophysicists and a mathematician—used a computer program to measure the conditional entropy of the Indus script. Then they measured the conditional entropy of other types of systems—natural languages (Sumerian, Tamil, Sanskrit, and English), an artificial language (the computer programming language Fortran) and non-linguistic systems (human DNA sequences, bacterial protein sequences, and two artificial datasets representing high and low extremes of conditional entropy). When they compared the amount of randomness in the Indus script with that of the other systems, they found that it most closely resembled the rates found in the natural languages. They published their findings in May in the journal Science.

If it looks like a language, and it acts like a language, then it probably is a language, their paper suggests. The findings don’t decipher the script, of course, but they do sharpen our understanding of it, and have lent reassurance to those archaeologists who had been working under the assumption that the Indus script encodes language.

After publishing the paper, Rao got a surprise. The question of which language family the script belongs to, it turns out, is a sensitive one: because of the Indus civilization’s age and significance, many contemporary groups in India would like to claim it as a direct ancestor. For instance, the Tamil-speaking Indians of the south would prefer to learn that the Indus script was a kind of proto-Dravidian, since Tamil is descended from proto-Dravidian. Hindi speakers in the north would rather it be an old form of Sanskrit, an ancestor of Hindi. Rao’s paper doesn’t conclude which language family the script belongs to, though it does note that the conditional entropy is similar to Old Tamil—causing some critics to summarily “accuse us of being Dravidian nationalists,” says Rao. “The ferocity of the accusations and attacks was completely unexpected."

Rao sometimes takes relief in returning to the less ferociously contested world of neuroscience and robotics. But the call of the Indus script remains alluring, and “what used to be a hobby is now monopolizing more than a third of my time,” he says. Rao and his colleagues are now looking at longer strings of characters than they analyzed in the Science paper. “If there are patterns,” says Rao, “we could come up with grammatical rules. That would in turn give constraints to what kinds of language families” the script might belong to.

He hopes that his future findings will speak for themselves, inciting less rancor from opponents rooting for one region of India versus another. For his part, when Rao talks about what the Indus script means to him, he tends to speak in terms of India as a whole. “The heritage of India would be considerably enriched if we were able to understand the Indus civilization,” he says. Rao and his collaborators are working on it, one line of source code at a time.

Project Is Making 3D Scans of Ancient Handprints

Smithsonian Magazine

One of the earliest forms of human art is the hand stencil or hand print. The theme appears on cave walls around the world, from Europe to North Africa to Australia and Indonesia, where one print was found to be 40,000 years old. But researching the ancient artwork is difficult—not only do many of the prints exist in remote areas or caves, many of the sites have very limited visitation to protect the artwork and maintain temperature and humidity. That’s why Hipolito Collado, head of archaeology for Spain’s Extremadura region, has undertaken a project to take high resolution 3D scans of all the hand stencils in the 36 European caves in Spain, France and Italy where they’ve been found so far.

“It’s about making inaccessible art accessible,” Collado tells Marianne Barriaux at Agence France-Presse. According to the website for Project Handpas, the goal of the scanning is to create a database of all the high-resolution hand art so researchers and students can examine the images more closely. 

"Due to different technical, logistical and cultural factors, rock art seen as a link among the proposed European areas (in Spain, France and Italy) has never received the importance and cultural spread that it should worth," writes the team.

The research will help researchers figure out who made the hands and what the symbols mean. Many of the stencils are missing fingers. Researchers are not sure if the people who made them lost digits to frostbite or in hunting accidents or if it represents some sort of sign language. Virginia Hughes at National Geographic reports that a 2013 study of the handprints indicated that three-quarters of the prints came from women. However, one archaeologist tells Hughes that based on his own analysis, he believes the prints were created not by women but by adolescent boys.

“Hand stencils are a truly ironic category of cave art because they appear to be such a clear and obvious connection between us and the people of the Paleolithic,” archaeologist Paul Pettitt of Durham University in the UK, tells Hughes. “We think we understand them, yet the more you dig into them you realize how superficial our understanding is.”

Pettitt tells Barraiaux that he doesn’t think the hand prints are just random graffiti from passing humans. He says that many of the prints are intentional, placed over bumps in the wall or are found in the deepest parts of the caves, meaning they took some effort to get to. “It must have been very frightening, it must have been quite a degree of exertion, a lot of climbing in the darkness,” he says. “You don’t do that for fun.”

The new database, Collado hopes, will help researchers figure out who made the handprints and why. So far, the Handpas Project has documented prints from many caves in Spain and is currently scanning handprints in Italy. Barraiaux reports that they have yet to get permission to scan caves in France.

Egyptian green : views from Egypt with the writing of Amelia Edwards, Herodotus, Catullus, ancient coffin texts & various other descriptions / arranged with prints by Susan Allix

Smithsonian Libraries
Limited edition of 24 copies.

Bound in green leather over boards with cutouts that expose orange paper and an intaglio print of the goddess Hathor. Housed in a green cloth clamshell box with green titling on cream label on spine.

"The various texts in this book are accompanied by a series of etchings to which hand colouring and drawing have been added. The typefaces are Verona Italic and Bodoni; they have been hand set and printed by letterpress. The paper is Velin Arches Blanc and Creme, together with sheets of Egyptian papyrus, and Japanes Kozu Natural and Tosa Shoji." -- Colophon.

AFA copy 39088014849848 is signed and no. 9 of 24.

AFA copy 39088014849848 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Gift of Margery Masinter Foundation Endowment for Illustrated Books.

The Art and Archaeology of Ancient China Teacher's Guide

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher's guide introducing important aspects of ancient Chinese art and society. Includes images of objects, background information, lesson plans by teachers, examples of student work, gallery guides, and extensive resource lists. Objects focus on personal adornment, food preparation, ceremonies, writing, industry, and architecture. Teacher's Guide is available in three parts as a PDF file.

Ancient Egyptian Stories Will Be Published in English for the First Time

Smithsonian Magazine

While people may view inscriptions in Greek or Latin as pretty, they still recognize their merit as text. Indeed, writings from ancient Greece and Rome are revered and considered classics of Western literature. Egyptian hieroglyphics, however, are often seen as mere decoration. Sometimes, the characters are literally used as wallpaper.

One reason is that schoolchildren and classicists alike have read Greek and Latin widely for centuries. But hieroglyphics and the stories they tell have remained accessible only to a handful of trained scholars. That’s one reason Penguin Classics has published Writings from Ancient Egypt in Great Britain (it will be available in the US in January), the first literary English translation of some of the texts that cover thousands of square feet of monuments and tomb walls.

Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College at Cambridge University, tells Dalya Alberge at The Guardian that the ancient Egyptian writing is just as compelling and layered as those written by the Romans. “What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids,” Wilkinson says.

The selections include stories like “The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor,” the text from the Tempest Stela and letters written around 1930 BC by a farmer named Heqanakht.

By the second century A.D., hieroglyphic script had been mainly replaced  by Coptic, a Greek-based alphabet, according to Owen Jarus at LiveScience. But hieroglyphics were on the wain since Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C., and Greek became the empire's bureaucratic script. Humanity soon lost the ability to read hieroglyphics. That is until 1799 when French soldiers discovered the Rosetta Stone, which contained lines of the same text in Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphics. It was the first solid clue to understanding the writing, but it still took French scholar Jean-François Champollion to unravel the language in the 1820s. To do so, he had to understand that hieroglyphics is a complex collection of symbols that represent a mixture of objects, ideas and sounds.

Before this new volume, the Egyptian Book of the Dead has been the most widely available text from ancient Egypt. While that collection is interesting and includes spells that give instructions to the dead on how to make it to the afterlife, it’s not easy reading. Unlike Greek myths or Roman epics, it does not offer non-academic readers much insight into daily Egyptian life or thought.

Wilkinson hopes his new volume will make the Egyptians accessible to modern readers for the first time. While many of the texts included have been translated previously, Wilkinson points out that the original translations took place over a hundred years ago, which make them stilted and difficult to read for today's audience. He hopes that these new translations can convey the complexity, subtlety and poetry found in hieroglyphics.

Rare Ancient DNA Provides Window Into a 5,000-Year-Old South Asian Civilization

Smithsonian Magazine

During the last few millennia B.C., beginning roughly 5,000 years ago, great civilizations prospered across Eurasia and North Africa. The ancient societies of Mesopotamia and Sumer in the Middle East were among the first to introduce written history; the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt established complex religious and social structures; and the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties ruled over ever advancing communities and technologies in China. But another, little understood civilization prevailed along the basins of the Indus River, stretching across much of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan and into the northwestern regions of India.

This Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), also called the Harappan civilization after an archaeological site in Pakistan, has remained veiled in mystery largely due to the fact that scholars have yet to make sense of the Harappan language, comprised of fragmented symbols, drawings and other writings. Archaeological evidence gives researchers some sense of the daily lives of the Harappan people, but scientists have struggled to piece together evidence from ancient DNA in the IVC due to the deterioration of generic material in the hot and humid region—until now.

For the first time, scientists have sequenced the genome of a person from the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization, which peaked in today’s India-Pakistan border region around 2600 to 1900 B.C. A trace amount of DNA from a woman in a 4,500-year-old burial site, painstakingly recovered from ancient skeletal remains, gives researchers a window into one of the oldest civilizations in the world. The work, along with a comprehensive analysis of ancient DNA across the Eurasian continent, also raises new questions about the origins of agriculture in South Asia.

The ancient Harappan genome, sequenced and described in the journal Cell, was compared to the DNA of modern South Asians, revealing that the people of the IVC were the primary ancestors of most living Indians. Both modern South Asian DNA and the Harappan genome have a telltale mixture of ancient Iranian DNA and a smattering of Southeast Asian hunter-gatherer lineages. "Ancestry like that in the IVC individuals is the primary ancestry source in South Asia today,” co-author David Reich, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, said in a statement. “This finding ties people in South Asia today directly to the Indus Valley Civilization.”

The skeleton analyzed in the ancient DNA study, shown associated with typical Indus Valley Civilization grave goods and illustrating the typical North-South orientation of IVC burials. (Vasant Shinde / Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute)

The genome also holds some surprises. Genetic relationships to Steppe pastoralists, who ranged across the vast Eurasian grasslands from contemporary Eastern Europe to Mongolia, are ubiquitous among living South Asians as well as Europeans and other people across the continent. But Steppe pastoralist DNA is absent in the ancient Indus Valley individual, suggesting similarities between these nomadic herders and modern populations arose from migrations after the IVC’s decline.

These findings influence theories about how and when Indo-European languages spread widely across the ancient world. And while shared ancestry between modern South Asians and early Iranian farmers has fueled ideas that agriculture arrived in the Indo-Pakistani region via migration from the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, the ancient Harappan genes show little contribution from that lineage, suggesting that farming spread through an exchange of ideas rather than a mass migration, or perhaps even arose independently in South Asia.

“The archaeology and linguistic work that had been carried out for decades was really at the forefront of our process,” says Vagheesh Narasimhan, a Harvard University genomicist and co-author of the new study. “These projects bring a new line of genetic evidence to the process, to try to show the impact that the movement of people may have had as part of these two great cultural transformations of agriculture and language.”

The large, well-planned cities of the IVC included sewer and water systems, as well as long-distance trade networks that stretched as far as Mesopotamia. But despite its former glory, the civilization was unknown to modern researchers until 1921, when excavations at Harappa began to uncover an ancient city. The Harappans have remained something of a mystery ever since, leaving behind extensive urban ruins and a mysterious language of symbols and drawings, but few additional clues to their identity. What ultimately befell the Harappan civilization is also unclear, though a changing climate has been posited as part of its downfall.

This map depicts the geographical span of the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC), showing the location of Rakhigarhi (blue), other significant IVC sites (red), and sites to the north and west from other archaeological cultures (other colors). The yellow labels indicate two sites where a minority of buried individuals yielded ancient DNA which matched that of the Rakhigarhi individual. (Vasant Shinde / Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute)

Scientists have a notoriously difficult time recovering ancient DNA in South Asia, where the subtropical climate typically makes genetic preservation impossible. It took a massive, time-consuming effort to produce the genome from remains found in the cemetery at Rakhigarhi, the Harappans’ largest city, located in the modern Indian state of Haryana. Scientists collected powder from 61 skeletal samples, but just one contained a minute amount of ancient DNA. That sample was sequenced as much as possible, generating 100 different collections of DNA fragments, called libraries, each of which were too incomplete to yield their own analysis.

“We had to pool 100 libraries together and sort of hold our breath, but we were fortunate that that yielded enough DNA to then do high resolution population genetics analysis,” Narasimhan says. “I think if anything, this paper is a technical success story,” he adds, noting that the approach holds promise for sourcing DNA in other challenging locales.

A single sample is not representative of a widespread population that once included a million or more people, but a related study published today in Science lends some wider regional context. Several of the same authors, including Narasimhan and Reich, and dozens of international collaborators, authored the largest ancient DNA study published to date. Among the genetic sequences from 523 ancient humans are individuals from sites as far flung as the Eurasian Steppe, eastern Iran and Iron Age Swat Valley in modern Pakistan.

The team found that among many genetically similar individuals, a handful of outliers existed who had ancestry types completely different from those found around them.

Eleven such individuals found at sites in Iran and Turkmenistan were likely involved in interchange with the Harappan civilization. In fact, some of these outlier individuals were buried with artifacts culturally affiliated with South Asia, strengthening the case that they were connected to the IVC.

“This made us hypothesize that these samples were migrants, possibly even first-generation migrants from South Asia,” Narasimhan says. The IVC genome from Rakhigarhi shows strong genetic similarities to the 11 genetic outliers in the large study of ancient humans, supporting the idea that these individuals ventured from the Harappan civilization to the Middle East. “Now we believe that these 12 samples, taken together, broadly represent the ancestry that was present in [South Asia] at that time.”

This middle Bronze Age burial tomb at Dali, Kazakhstan (ca.1700 B.C.) was robbed in antiquity and the human remains were piled haphazardly outside the burial cist. DNA extracted from these remains helped tract the spread of steppe ancestry east and south toward India, from 2000 to 1500 B.C. (Michael Frachetti)

The first evidence of agriculture comes from the Fertile Crescent, dating to as early as 9,500 B.C., and many archaeologists have long believed that the practice of growing crops was brought to South Asia from the Middle East by migrants. Earlier DNA studies seemed to bear out this idea, since South Asians today have significant Iranian ancestry.

“I really found their analysis to be very exciting, where they look at ancient DNA samples from different time scales in Iran and try to correlate how the Iranian ancestry in South Asians is related to those different groups,” says Priya Moorjani, a population geneticist at UC Berkeley not involved in the Cell study of the IVC genome.

However, the new analysis shows that the first farmers of the Fertile Crescent appear to have contributed little, genetically, to South Asian populations. “Yet similar practices of farming are present in South Asia by about 8,000 B.C. or so,” says Moorjani, a co-author on the wider population study of South and Central Asia. “As we are getting more ancient DNA, we can start to build a more detailed picture of how farming spread across the world. We’re learning, as with everything else, that things are very complex.”

If farming did spread from the Fertile Crescent to modern India, it likely spread via the exchange of ideas and knowledge—a cultural transfer rather than a significant migration of western Iranian farmers themselves. Alternatively, farming could have arisen independently in South Asia, as agricultural practices started to sprout up in many places across Eurasia during this time.

Ancient IVC ancestry holds other mysteries as well. This civilization was the largest source population for modern South Asians, and for Iron Age South Asians as well, but it lacks the Steppe pastoralist lineages common in later eras. “Just like in Europe, where Steppe pastoralist ancestry doesn’t arrive until the Bronze Age, this is also the case in South Asia,” Narasimhan says. “So this evidence provides information about the timing of arrival of this ancestry type, and their movement parallels the linguistic phylogeny of Indo-European languages, which today are spoken in places as far away as Ireland to New Delhi.”

The authors suggest Indo-European languages may have reached South Asia via Central Asia and Eastern Europe during the first half of the 1000s B.C., a theory evidenced by some genetic studies and similarities between Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic languages.

Narasimhan hopes that more genetic data can help clear up this ancient puzzle—especially by exploring where DNA dovetails or differs with findings from other lines of evidence.

“We’re trying to look at when and how archaeological cultures are associated with a particular genetic ancestry, and whether there’s any linguistic connections,” he says. “To understand human history, you really need to integrate these three lines.”

Ancient DNA Reveals Complex Story of Human Migration Between Siberia and North America

Smithsonian Magazine

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that humans migrated to the North American continent via Beringia, a land mass that once bridged the sea between what is now Siberia and Alaska. But exactly who crossed, or re-crossed, and who survived as ancestors of today’s Native Americans has been a matter of long debate.

Two new DNA studies sourced from rare fossils on both sides of the Bering Strait help write new chapters in the stories of these prehistoric peoples.

The first study delves into the genetics of North American peoples, the Paleo-Eskimos (some of the earliest people to populate the Arctic) and their descendants. “[The research] focuses on the populations living in the past and today in northern North America, and it shows interesting links between Na-Dene speakers with both the first peoples to migrate into the Americas and Paleo-Eskimo peoples,” Anne Stone, an anthropological geneticist at Arizona State University who assessed both studies for Nature, says via email.

Beringia had formed by about 34,000 years ago, and the first mammoth-hunting humans crossed it more than 15,000 years ago and perhaps far earlier. A later, major migration some 5,000 years ago by people known as Paleo-Eskimos spread out across many regions of the American Arctic and Greenland. But whether they are direct ancestors of today’s Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dene speaking peoples, or if they were displaced by a later migration of the Neo-Eskimos, or Thule people, about 800 years ago, has remained something of a mystery.

Map of what was once the Beringia connection between present-day Siberia and Alaska. (National Park Service)

An international team studied the remains of 48 ancient humans from the region, as well as 93 living Alaskan Iñupiat and West Siberian peoples. Their work not only added to the relatively small number of ancient genomes from the region, but it also attempted to fit all the data together into a single population model.

The findings reveal that both ancient and modern peoples in the American Arctic and Siberia inherited many of their genes from Paleo-Eskimos. Descendants of this ancient population include the Yup’ik, Inuit, Aleuts and Na-Dene language speakers from Alaska and Northern Canada all the way to the Southwest United States. The findings stand in contrast to other genetic studies that had suggested the Paleo-Eskimos were an isolated people who vanished after some 4,000 years.

"For the last seven years, there has been a debate about whether Paleo-Eskimos contributed genetically to people living in North America today; our study resolves this debate and furthermore supports the theory that Paleo-Eskimos spread Na-Dene languages," co-author David Reich of Harvard Medical School and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute says in a press release.

The second study focused on Asian lineages, Stone notes. “The study is exciting because it gives us insight into the population dynamics, over 30-plus thousand years, that have occurred in northeastern Siberia. And these insights, of course, also provide information about the people who migrated to the Americas.”

Researchers retrieved genetic samples for 34 individuals’ remains in Siberia, dating from 600 to 31,600 years old. The latter are the oldest human remains known in the region, and they revealed a previously unknown group of Siberians. The DNA of one Siberian individual, about 10,000 years old, shows more genetic resemblance to Native Americans than any other remains found outside of the Americas.

Fifteen years ago scientists unearthed a 31,000-year-old site along Russia’s Yana River, well north of the Arctic Circle, with ancient animal bones, ivory and stone tools. But two tiny, children’s milk teeth are the only human remains recovered from the Ice Age site—and they yielded the only human genome yet known from people who lived in northeastern Siberia during the period before the Last Glacial Maximum. They represent a previously unrecognized population that the study’s international team of authors have dubbed “Ancient North Siberians.”

The two 31,000-year-old milk teeth found at the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia which led to the discovery of a new group of ancient Siberians. (Russian Academy of Sciences)

The authors suggest that during the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500 to 19,000 years ago) some of these 500 or so Siberians sought more habitable climes in southern Beringia. Stone says the migration illustrates the ways that shifting climate impacted ancient population dynamics. “I do think that the refugia during the Last Glacial Maximum were important,” she says. “As populations moved to refugia, likely following the animals they hunted and to take advantage of the plants they gathered as those distributions shifted south, this resulted in population interactions and changes. These populations then expanded out of the refugia as the climate warmed and these climate dynamics likely affected population around the world.”

In this case, the Ancient North Siberians arrived in Beringia and likely mixed with migrating peoples from East Asia. Their population eventually gave rise to both the First Peoples of North America and other lineages that dispersed through Siberia.

David Meltzer, an anthropologist at Southern Methodist University and coauthor of the new study, says when the Yana River site was discovered, the artifacts were said to look like the distinctive stone tools (specifically projectile “points”) of the Clovis culture—an early Native American population that lived in present-day New Mexico about 13,000 years ago. But the observation was greeted with skepticism because Yana was separated from America’s Clovis sites by 18,000 years, many hundreds of miles, and even the glaciers of the last Ice Age.

It seemed more likely that different populations simply made similar stone points in different places and times. “The odd thing is, now as it turns out, they were related,” Meltzer says. “It’s kind of cool. It doesn’t change the fact that there’s no direct historical descent in terms of the artifacts, but it does tell us that there was this population floating around in far northern Russia 31,000 years ago whose descendants contributed a bit of DNA to Native Americans.”

The finding isn’t particularly surprising given that at least some Native American ancestors have long been thought to hail from the Siberian region. But details that seemed unknowable are now coming to light after thousands of years. For example, the Ancient North Siberian peoples also appear to be ancestral to the Mal’ta individual (dated to 24,000 years ago) from the Lake Baikal region of southern Russia, a population that showed a slice of European roots—and from whom Native Americans, in turn, derived some 40 percent of their ancestry.

Alla Mashezerskaya maps the artifacts in the area where two 31,000-year-old milk teeth were found. (Elena Pavlova)

“It’s making its way to Native Americans,” Meltzer says of the ancient Yana genome, “but it’s doing so through various other populations that come and go on the Siberian landscape over the course of the Ice Age. Every genome that we get right now is telling us a lot of things that we didn’t know because ancient genomes in America and in Siberia from the Ice Age are rare.”

A more modern genome from 10,000-year-old remains found near Siberia’s Kolyma River evidences a DNA mix of East Asian and Ancient North Siberian lineages similar to that seen in Native American populations—a much closer match than any others found outside of North America. This finding, and others from both studies, serve as reminders that the tale of human admixture and migration in the Arctic wasn’t a one-way street.

“There’s absolutely nothing about the Bering land bridge that says you can’t go both ways,” Meltzer says. “It was open, relatively flat, no glaciers—it wasn’t like you wander through and the door closes behind you and you’re trapped in America. So there’s no reason to doubt that the Bering land bridge was trafficking humans in both directions during the Pleistocene. The idea of going back to Asia is a big deal for us, but they had no clue. There didn’t think they were going between continents. They were just moving around a large land mass.”

A New Genetic Study Suggests Modern Flores Island Pygmies and Ancient Hobbits Are Unrelated

Smithsonian Magazine

Geneticist Serena Tucci sat in the small Indonesian village of Rampasasa on Flores Island, the only woman in a room full of male researchers and pygmy villagers. Smoke from clove cigarettes swirled through the air and the villagers, whose average height was about 4.5 feet, offered their guests palm wine made from the sap of nearby trees. Slowly, with the help of translators working through three different languages, Tucci and her colleagues explained why they wanted to sample the villagers’ blood and saliva.

Clear communication was important, Tucci now says of that 2013 research trip. Scientists have made lots of mistakes in the past when working with the DNA of indigenous people. But once the villagers understood, they were excited. They wanted to know what their genetics could reveal about their personal history. They wanted to know if they were the descendants of the ancient hominins who once inhabited their island, Homo floresiensis, sometimes called hobbits for their resemblance to the fictional Tolkien creatures.

“The discovery of Floresiensis was one of the most important discoveries of the century and the fact that [the modern pygmies] live in a village very close to the cave [where Floresiensis remains were found] makes them even more interesting,” Tucci says.

The results of their research are published today in the journal Science: the modern pygmies have no relation to Homo floresiensis—though they do contain genetic material from Neanderthals and Denisovans, two extinct hominin lineages. While many modern humans have traces of extinct hominins in their DNA, the particular admixture seen in the pygmies is unique, and tells a fascinating story of how populations from different regions—the islands of Southeast Asia and the East Asia coast—mingled on this island.

“We have been unable to obtain DNA from Homo floresiensis. At least three ancient DNA labs have tried,” said Debbie Argue, a paleoanthropologist at Australian National University unaffiliated with the research, by email. “This study used a DNA statistical method to see if the Rampasasa individuals’ DNA had any indication of unidentified hominin lineages. It didn’t, so it puts the nail in the coffin for anyone who still thought that the Homo floresiensis remains were somehow related to modern humans.”

For many paleoanthropologists, that final nail has been a long time in coming. The discovery of the diminutive remains in Liang Bua cave, announced in 2004, ignited the world of paleoanthropology. The skeletons were initially dated to 18,000 years ago, meaning the tiny Flores people could’ve conceivably existed on Indonesia at the same time as modern Homo sapiens. The adult remains were tiny, less than four feet tall, and had plenty of other odd features. Their skulls had a brow ridge, like that of other ancient hominins, but instead of being one continuous hump across their forehead it broke into two sections. Their feet were huge, much more like the feet of apes than humans. The mixture of modern and archaic traits was a puzzle, one that scientists struggled to solve.

“It is the most extreme hominin ever discovered,” wrote paleoanthropologists Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert Foley in 2004. “An archaic hominin at that date changes our understanding of late human evolutionary geography, biology and culture.”

Several factors made the hobbits particularly fascinating. First, their proximity to another ancient hominin species—Homo erectus. The first fossil remains of the “Upright Man” were discovered on the nearby Indonesian island of Java in 1891. Could the tiny Homo floresiensis be some descendant of Homo erectus? Could its environment have been the reason for it growing so small?

Flores, while in the same archipelago as Java, is separated by an important geological boundary known as Wallace’s Line. “To get from Java to Flores requires multiple crossings of deep channels and treacherous currents, including one of at least 25 kilometers,” writes John Langdon in The Science of Human Evolution: Getting It Right. That means Flores was home to a very limited number of mammals—hominins, rats, and relatives of elephants known as Stegodon—so food resources might have been scarce. Maybe the hobbits were small because it was the only way to survive.

But other scientists disagreed vehemently that the hobbits deserved their own taxonomical category. They argued that the remains belonged to Homo sapiens struck by some unknown affliction: maybe microcephaly (having an abnormally small brain) or a hormonal disease that caused stunted growth. The pathological hypothesis, while never earning full scientific consensus, remained a thorn in the side of researchers who wanted to treat Homo floresiensis as a novel species.

All that seemed to change in 2016, when a new round of dating placed the Homo floresiensis remains at 60,000 to 100,000 years old, rather than only 18,000. A separate group of researchers found more remains on a different part of the island, similar to the Homo floresiensis skeleton in the Liang Bua cave, only these remains were dated to 700,000 years ago. Along with thousands of stone tools dated to nearly 1 million years ago, the growing body of evidence seemed to move solidly in favor of an ancient and strange species of hominin making the island of Flores their home for tens of thousands of years.

If those second round of dates are correct, it’s no surprise that the modern pygmies are unrelated to Homo floresiensis, says study author Ed Green, a biomolecular engineer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. What did surprise him was what they found regarding the genetics of the short-statured people: Their genes that code for height (or lack of it) are in all of us.

“There’s a whole bunch of variation in all human populations, so that if you need to be short, there’s the genetic material [available]. You just select on it and you can be small-statured,” Green says. Basically, the pygmy villagers aren’t special in terms of their genetics; anyone might be significantly shorter if the right genes were selected.

As for how the pygmy people of Rampasasa themselves feel about the study results, that remains to be seen. In a village with no phones or Internet, sharing the data is a bit of a logistical hurdle. “We’re working now to set up a new expedition to Flores to bring the results back,” Tucci says. She’s been working with an illustrator to visually convey the results of the study, so that the villagers will have a memento of their collaboration with the scientists. They’ll also learn more about their own migratory history, how the genetic data shows their ancestors mixing with populations from East Asia and Melanesia. Even if their story doesn’t include the mysterious hobbits, it’s still part of the amazing journey Homo sapiens made across land and sea to all the corners of the world.

What Endures From the Ancient Civilizations That Once Ruled the Central Andes?

Smithsonian Magazine

Huayna Capac had a problem: He didn’t like his hometown, Cusco, in the bracing heights of southern Peru. Unfortunately, Cusco was the center of the Inca Empire, and he was the empire’s supreme ruler. Running the empire obliged him to spend a lot of time in the chilly capital city. Fortunately for Huayna Capac, he was king. With a word he could command thousands of his subjects to build a second capital. Huayna Capac said the word. His new capital was near the Equator, in what is today Quito, Ecuador. The palace was bigger and more luxurious than the first. And the weather was nearly perfect.

The king was pleased with his new digs but now faced a second problem. More than a thousand miles of steep, rugged mountains separate Quito and Cusco. The royal personage required a comfortable passage between them. He ordered hundreds of villages to dispatch all their able-bodied men to build a highway. The finished roadway was lined with guesthouses for travelers and so straight and flat, the chronicler Agustín de Zárate later marveled that you “could roll a cart down it.” Pleased with what he had conjured into existence, the king ordered up a second huge thoroughfare, this one along the coast.

The Inca highway network—the two main arteries and the mass of secondary courses that joined them—was arguably the biggest, most complex construction project ever undertaken. Running for 3,700 miles between Chile and Ecuador, about the distance from New York to Paris, the backbone of the system cut through every imaginable landscape, from icy mountain peaks to tropical lowlands, from the world’s driest desert to one of its wettest forests. It astounded the Spaniards who saw it—the conquistador Pedro de Cieza de León said that the road through the Andes should be more famous than Hannibal’s route through the Alps. “In the memory of people I doubt there is record of another highway comparable to this,” he wrote in the 1540s. It was called the Qhapaq Ñan—which translates from the Quechua as “Road of the Lord.”

Huayna Capac died around 1527, still seeking to incorporate the northernmost parts of the Andes into the empire. His death set off a civil war, fought bloodily along the Qhapaq Ñan. European conquerors arrived in 1532, accompanied by European diseases: smallpox, measles, typhoid, influenza. More than half the population of the Andean realm died. For the next three centuries, Spain tried to wipe out the histories and traditions that remained. But the conquistadors did not succeed. Native peoples tenaciously held on to their beliefs and practices. And archaeologists discovered ever more about the pre-conquest past.

For decades schoolchildren have learned that civilization has four ancient origin places: Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley and China’s Yellow River. In the past 20 years researchers have added a fifth member to this select list: the central Andes, which includes southern Ecuador, northwestern Bolivia and most of Peru. Here, we now know, were pyramids and temples as old as or older than those in Egypt, vast irrigation networks that rivaled those in ancient Sumer, and artworks that would endure for centuries, even millennia. Just as in India and China, rulers built walled fortresses, religions flourished and armies clashed. In this realm, the Inca were Johnny-come-latelies—flashy, ruthless newcomers whose empire barely stretched across two centuries.

Left untended, the asphalt paths of the U.S. interstate highway system would disappear in a few decades. But hundreds of miles of the Qhapaq Ñan—paved with heavy stones, linked by suspension bridges that had no equal in Europe or Asia, engineered with astonishing care—remain despite centuries of neglect. You can hike along them for days. People who walk through these extraordinary landscapes are not merely following in the footsteps of the Inca. The Qhapaq Ñan was built atop roadways created by the Inca’s many predecessors. To journey here is to roam through almost 6,000 years of civilization, to one of the places where the human enterprise began.


Push a throw rug with a foot across a slippery floor until it collides with a second throw rug. The leading edge of the first rug will bunch up into folds, then slide over the second. The first throw rug is the South American plate, an immense slab of rock that includes most of the continent. The second is the Nazca plate, on the floor of the Pacific. The folds are the Andes Mountains, lifted up as the South American plate grinds over the Nazca plate, pushing the latter into the Earth’s mantle. The tremendous strain of the eons-long collision cracks the rock, letting hot magma seep through. The Andes are young, geologically speaking, and have more than a hundred active volcanoes.

The region is a cavalcade of superlatives, a congeries of astonishments. On its western flank, the mountains plunge into the Pacific. All along the coast is a deep trench where the Nazca plate is driven down. Wind blows the surface water north, toward the Equator. That water, driven away, is replaced by cold, nutrient-rich water from the bottom of the trench. The upwelling nutrients feed vast clouds of plankton, which feed vast clouds of everything else. The Andes edge onto one of the world’s greatest fisheries. So many seabirds have feasted on the fish for so long that islands off the coast have mountains of guano 150 feet tall.

Cold water produces cold air. Moist winds from the Pacific hit the cold air and condense; rain falls into the sea, miles from shore. Blocked by mountains on one side and cold air on the other, the narrow shoreline of Peru and Chile is amazingly dry, a narrow desert that runs for more than a thousand miles. The Atacama Desert, in coastal Chile, is the driest place on Earth—in some places there is no record of rainfall. Scientists and astronauts go there to experience our planet’s closest analogue to conditions on Mars.

The Atacama Desert in San Pedro, Chile (© Kimberly Walker/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis)

North of the Atacama is Lima, capital of modern Peru, and north of Lima is a 300-mile stretch of coastline with 30 or more ancient monumental centers, as old as those in the Fertile Crescent but much less well known. Depending on how you define the term “city,” these centers could be small cities or remarkable accumulations of rural populations. Urban or rural, they are among the world’s oldest architectural complexes—Sechín Bajo, probably the earliest known, dates to about 3500 B.C., about a thousand years before the Great Pyramid of Giza. Researchers have known of the existence of these sand-buried places since at least 1905. But it was not until the 1990s, when the Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Solis began to excavate Caral, two hours north of Lima, that anyone grasped their age and scale. And it was not until then that researchers fully understood how unusual this place and time were—how flat-out strange.

Nobody is yet sure what to call this stretch of coastline or even if it housed one culture or several. Whatever the name, the region is a puzzle within a puzzle, as fascinating for what it isn’t as for what it is.

In comparison with Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and India (the other cradles of civilization), the Peruvian coast seems absurdly unpromising: chilly, parched, spatially constrained, battered by floods and sandstorms, seismically unstable. The other four arose in the warm, fertile valleys of great rivers (respectively, the Tigris and Euphrates, Nile, Yellow and Indus Rivers), where millennia of regular spring floods had left deep layers of fertile soil. The Peruvian shore, by contrast, is a desert with an unsteady climate. The atmospheric pressure over the Pacific fluctuates chaotically, sometimes causing blasts of warm air to hit the coast, which in turn can lead to years-long bouts of severe rain and floods—the climatic shift now famous as El Niño. Unlike the restoring annual spring floods of the Nile, these unpredictable, violent El Niño floods destroy crops and wash away fields. In what the archaeologist Michael E. Moseley has called “convergent catastrophes,” the flood sediment pours into the small rivers that come down from the Andes, building temporary sandbars at their mouths. Later, when conditions return to normal, ocean winds blow the sand inland; the sandstorms blanket farm fields in new episodes of ruin. Between floods, the region’s frequent earthquakes create expanses of loose debris, setting up conditions for the next round of devastating floods. How could people establish long-lasting societies in such a catastropheprone area? It seems to violate common sense.

Living in this unusual place, Peruvians made do for themselves in unusual ways. Cities in Mesopotamia and Egypt were ringed by thick defensive walls or protected by frontier garrisons, indicating that war was a constant menace. By contrast, these early complexes in Peru show no evidence that their residents ever had to worry about defending themselves. Caral, today the most well-known site, has a sprawling central plaza surrounded by grand pyramids, which are in turn surrounded by residential structures, presumably dwellings for the rich; to the south is a spectacular circular amphitheater. Caral’s buildings date from around 3000 B.C.; the city (if that’s what it was) was inhabited for the next 1,200 years. In all this time, there is no indication of mass violence. Later societies, like the Inca, were violent—but not these. Imagine a millennium of European or Chinese or Mesopotamian history with no war to speak of. That’s how peculiar things look to researchers studying the early coastal Andes.

An aerial view of Caral from 2001 shows a temple and amphitheater along with unexcavated pyramids in the background. (© George Steinmetz/Corbis)

Cities in other civilizations were surrounded by great expanses of cereal crops: rice in China, wheat and barley in Mesopotamia, Egypt and India. Matters were different on the Andean coast, where cities like Caral had access to huge quantities of fish, and one of the main agricultural products, grown by irrigation from the mountain streams, was the cotton used to make nets and lines. Indeed, Moseley has argued that seafood was the foundation of Andean civilization, rather than agriculture—the only early civilization in the world where this was true.

Stranger still, the staple food of the highlands was neither fish nor grain but tubers and tuberlike roots. The most famous of these is the potato, though most people outside South America don’t know that the common spud is only one of the seven potato species domesticated by Andean peoples. Along with the potato are many other local roots and tubers, as delicious as they are unfamiliar, including oca (a tuber that resembles a wrinkled carrot and has a pleasantly sharp taste), ulluco (brightly colored, with skin that does not need to be peeled), yacon (a relative of the sunflower with a sweet, crispy tuber) and achira (a lily-like plant with a mild, starchy “root”). Because tubers and roots grow underground, they can reach almost any size without harming the plant, whereas wheat and rice, growing atop spindly stalks, will topple the plant if the head of grain gets too big. In consequence, roots and tubers are inherently more productive than grains—a lesson initially lost on European farmers, who often had to be ordered by their kings to grow potatoes when they first appeared.

Pottery, the archaeological tracer par excellence, developed later in the central Andes than in other places. From the beginning the region’s peoples seem to have placed greater emphasis on textiles. Not only did they grow cotton to make fishing lines and nets; they literally built their temples from stones stuffed into fiber bags to create, in effect, enormous building blocks. Most important, they used fiber to communicate. In Caral, Shady found what she believes to be an early version of one of the region’s most unusual inventions: the quipu. Consisting of a long horizontal rope with vertical strings dangling from it, the quipu encoded information in the patterns of knots tied into the vertical strings. Quipu scribes “read” the messages by running their hands along the knots, a procedure that so baffled and alarmed Spaniards when they encountered it that in the 1580s they ordered all quipus to be destroyed as “idolatrous objects.” (Only about 750 are known to have survived; although the knots used to indicate numbers have been deciphered, scholars have not yet broken the code for quipu “words.”)

Some aspects of these early societies—the quipu, the architecture of the plazas, perhaps the religious symbols—seem to have survived from the first days of Andean culture right up to the Spanish conquest. Archaeologists have long argued among themselves whether these indicate that some kind of essential Andean culture evolved in these mountains, persevering in different guises for thousands of years. Walking in these places, though, it is clear that the coastal Andes took a path different from any other. Societies here were just as old as but profoundly unlike those that trace their roots to the Middle East or Asia. To be in Peru is to be reminded that the human story, in all its terror and beauty, did not have to turn out the way it has. If we somehow rewound the tape and began again, we too could be running our fingers along knotted strings. And our ancestors too might not have lived fearfully behind defensive walls.


Ephraim George Squier was a 19th-century U.S. newspaperman who became fascinated by the remaining traces of this hemisphere’s original inhabitants. Gradually his interest in antiquity took over his life. He spent ever less time writing and ever more time measuring and photographing ruins, a transition that eventually cost him his wife (a journalist and editor herself, she dumped the obsessed Squier and married his publisher boss). In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln awarded Squier a special appointment to negotiate a treaty with Peru. After working through the issues, Squier spent a year and a half in Peru as a tourist, one of that nation’s first true sightseers. Spaniards like Cieza de León and Francisco de Jerez wrote down their impressions as they conquered. Squier was motivated wholly by curiosity. What he learned would dethrone the Inca.

Conquistador Francisco Pizarro quickly overwhelmed the Inca with only 168 men—so says the standard historical account, still taught in U.S. schools. But Spaniards themselves knew better. Pizarro first landed in South America in 1531; the last Inca holdout wasn’t snuffed out until 1572, four decades later. And the takeover could not have succeeded without the aid of thousands of native people who hated their Inca overlords and thought (correctly) that aiding Spain would overthrow the Inca and (incorrectly) lead to a better life. Preoccupied with war and contemporary politics, the Spaniards only vaguely paid attention to who had lived in the Andes before the Inca. Naturally, the remaining Inca themselves assured the conquistadors that their predecessors all had been “extremely barbarous and savage,” cannibals “spread out in small villages and collections of huts” (as the scholar Bernabe Cobo put it in 1653). In time it became common to assume that all the beautiful ruins in Peru were Inca remains.

Squier had an itinerary but found it hard to keep. He was repeatedly stunned by what he saw. One of the first places he visited was the pre-Inca, adobe city of Chan Chan, in northern Peru, near the modern city of Trujillo. Chan Chan was huge—its ruins cover more than seven square miles—and covered with dazzlingly intricate designs. Fascinated by the maze of temples, castles and walls, Squier didn’t want to leave. “Constantly the evidences of harmonious design, intelligence, industry, skill and well-directed authority in their construction became more apparent,” he wrote. Having begun to comprehend them, “I was loath to leave my work unfinished.” He reluctantly moved on. To his surprise, ruins seemed to be everywhere he traveled.

The ancient, intricate city of Chan Chan (© George Steinmetz/Corbis)

Traveling in Peru then “was infinitely more difficult and dangerous than it was in the days of the Incas,” Squier wrote. Neither the colonial government nor its successor had maintained the Qhapaq Ñan; bandits were allowed to run free. Squier summed up his views forcefully: “The influence of Spain in Peru has been in every way deleterious. The civilization of the country was far higher before the Conquest than now.”

Perhaps because the Inca roads had become difficult to travel, Squier wholly bypassed some of the most remarkable examples of Andean civilization. He marveled at the remains of Tiwanaku, the city at the edge of great Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest commercially navigable lake. A religious show capital—the Andean version of the Vatican—Tiwanaku held sway over a region extending from southern Peru to northern Chile from about A.D. 400 to about A.D. 1000. But Squier completely missed Wari, Tiwanaku’s great rival, 500 miles north, the first true empire in the Andean region. He visited the city of Trujillo but didn’t spot the nearby aqueduct of Cumbe Mayo, a five-mile, zigzag trench cut through solid rock three thousand years ago that feeds water from the Atlantic to the Pacific side of the Andes. Most amazing, he failed to come across the valley city of Chavín de Huántar. Known to Europeans since the 16th century, Chavín had a seven-acre ceremonial center so large and beautifully assembled that Cieza de León speculated that it was made by “giants as large as the figures that are carved on the stones.” Beginning in about 1200 B.C., Chavín exercised dominion over much of the central Andes for half a millennium. And so on.

Still, Squier saw so much that his published record of his journey is a tally of astonishments, one after another. And because all these places looked extraordinarily different one from another, Squier concluded that this multitude of styles could not all have belonged to the Inca Empire. And that meant, he realized, that the Inca must be newcomers. They spread their language of Quechua everywhere, yes. They were engineers of genius, yes—Squier, like so many others, was amazed by the Qhapaq Ñan. But the Inca, Squier realized, were colorful icing on a historical cake of many layers. All of their accomplishments, each and every one, were constructed on a cultural base that was “old, very old.”


By the main entrance to Machu Picchu, the remarkable Inca palace complex, are half a dozen plaques extolling various aspects of its history and construction. Two of them, arrayed side by side, are particularly notable. One, installed in1961, honors the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham III, a missionary’s son turned Yale professor turned South American explorer. As for the second plaque—we will come to that in a moment.

The Binghams were poor but respectable; Hiram managed to go to Yale and Harvard and then married the granddaughter of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the eponymous company. The couple lived in a 30-room mansion and had seven sons, all of whom would go on to distinguished careers. In 1908 Bingham traveled to Santiago, Chile, as a delegate to the First Pan-American Scientific Congress. Bitten by the adventure bug, he took his time coming home, rambling through much of the Andes and Brazil. A convenient excuse for returning to South America was the search for the last Inca capital, Vilcabamba. Established during the decades that the Inca fought against Spain, it had apparently vanished into the forests of the eastern Andes. Bingham organized the Yale Peruvian Expedition to find it. On July 24, 1911, a month and a day after arriving in Peru, Bingham found himself in Machu Picchu, which he would come to believe was the city he had been searching for. (Incorrectly, as it happens—Machu Picchu is thought to be a private palace for an Inca ruler, not the last capital.)

Though Hiram Bingham publicized his discovery of Machu Picchu, others walked in its shadow before him. (© Bettmann/CORBIS)

Bingham, no shrinking violet, believed in the value of publicity. He touted his discovery tirelessly, including a 186-page article that filled an entire issue of National Geographic magazine. Machu Picchu, he claimed, was “the largest and most important ruin discovered in South America since the days of the Spanish Conquest.” As the years went by, his estimation of its—and his—importance only increased. In his last book, Lost City of the Incas, he seems to be the only person present at the discovery—at any rate, the only person who appreciated what it meant.

Which brings up the second plaque. Smaller, less elegantly incised and less prominent than the first, it was emplaced in 1993, three decades later, seemingly as a corrective. Translated from Spanish, it reads, “The National Institute of Culture, Cusco, honors Melchor Arteaga and the Richarte and Alvarez families, who were living in Machu Picchu before Hiran [sic] Bingham arrived.” To most tourists, its meaning must be mysterious. But people who live in the area know what the plaque is saying: The meaning of Machu Picchu isn’t what Hiram Bingham supposed.

After coming to Lima, Bingham quickly proceeded to Cusco. There he met Albert Giesecke, the rector of the University of Cusco. Six months earlier, Giesecke and a friend had taken a four-day trip on horseback down the valley of the Urubamba River, northwest of Cusco. At a bend in the river they encountered a farmer named Melchor Arteaga, who told them about some ruins atop a nearby hill—Machu Pikchu, as they were called in Quechua. Giesecke hadn’t been able to look at Machu Picchu that day because the weather was too rainy, but he told Bingham about what he’d heard. Excited, Bingham led his expedition down the same river trail. He didn’t know it, but he was walking along a branch of the Qhapaq Ñan. On the same bend in the river, he met up with Arteaga, and the next day followed the farmer up the steep hill to the ruins.

Melchor Arteaga leased the property around Machu Picchu to two other families (which are mentioned on the second plaque). The three families had tried to take care of the site, clearing away brush and trees from the most beautiful structures. Bingham could quickly tell what was there. One thing he noted was that people had been visiting Machu Picchu for years—Bingham noticed that one Peruvian academic had scratched his name on a wall with a lump of charcoal. It didn’t matter; Bingham couldn’t really see the people in the places he visited. In the books that boasted of his impressive and important “discovery,” he didn’t mention any of the Peruvians who preceded or helped him.

Bingham may not have been able to see around him, but Cusqueños knew about Arteaga and the other farmers. They knew that all of them spoke Quechua, not Spanish—which is another way of saying they were descended from Peru’s original inhabitants. Bingham, though fluent in Spanish, had to use an interpreter.

Cusqueños will tell you, too, that before Bingham’s journey Arteaga had lived on Machu Picchu for decades, watching over the ruins as best he could. People like him are everywhere in the Andes. And they understand what others are coming to find out: that they live in one of the places where civilizations have flourished for thousands of years, a place with a vast story for those with the eyes to see it.

John Peabody Harrington papers: Supplemental material on Mexico/Central America/South America, circa 1907-circa 1957

National Anthropological Archives
Microfilm and digital surrogates of microfilm are available. See Volume 8, reel 3, which also contains materials from other subseries. Only original documents created by Harrington, his collaborators and field assistants, or notes given to him were microfilmed.

Electronic inventory available. Consult with archivist. For a comprehensive description of these materials, see "The papers of John Peabody Harrington in the Smithsonian Institution, 1907-1957, Volume 8, A guide to: Notes and Writings on Special Linguistic Studies," edited by Elaine L. Mills, Louise G. Mills, and Ann J. Brickfield.

This subseries of the Notes and writings on special linguistic studies series contains material that supplement Harrington's Mexico, Central America, and South America field notes.

The Pima/Papago/Seri/Opata section contains a partial page torn from one of the notebooks recording the placename trip which Harrington made through southern California, Arizona, and Mexico in the spring of 1930. Also filed here are a letter of recommendation by Guadalupe Flores on March 11, 1934, and a brief note from a telephone conversation with Ruth Underhill on April 2, 1948.

The earliest item relating to Nahuatl is a draft of a review of the book The Song of Quetzalcoatl, a translation of the Aztec poem by John H. Cornyn. There is also a card with a brief untranslated text. The reverse side of the card shows a standard form devised by William Gates. Other materials include a brief list of addresses of informants and collaborators in Harrington's Nahuatl fieldwork, a note on the native name of Mexico City, reading notes from Cyrus Thomas's Indian Languages of Mexico and Central America (1911), a three-page typed statement with two pages on Aztec phrases and one page on Aztec numbers, and a miscellaneous group of grammatical and bibliographic references.

For Cakchiquel there is one page with a bibliographic reference and two lexical items.

Material on Yucatec consists of linguistic notes from Castulo Ucan, data on the Maya counting system and glyphs, and bibliographic references. There are also a review of Book II of the Florentine Codex labeled "finished Apr. 7, 1952" and page one of a third version of a review of S. G. Morley's book The Ancient Maya.

The Cuna file contains a permission slip and a one-page typed draft of "Foreign Elements in the Language of the Tule Indians." There is also a copy of the Service's Daily Science News Bulletin for December 17, 1924, which includes a two-page story titled "White Indian Language Has Many Norse Words." These brief announcements are related to the miscellaneous notes which were compiled by Harrington and Paul Vogenitz to demonstrate the affinity of Cuna with the Scandinavian languages.

Harrington's files on South American languages contain small blocks of data pertaining to Arawak, Carib, Jivaro, and Quechua. They begin with miscellaneous notes from secondary sources on the areas where Arawak and Carib were spoken. Material on Jivaro consists of about eighty pages of vocabulary which was obtained in 1944 from Seaman H. G. Eamigh. There are also two pages of excerpts from Ghinassi's Jibaro vocabulary. Material relating to Quechua includes bibliographic references with various spellings of the name; a few pages of grammatical and phonetic notes from other sources; two pages of notes from Mr. Indacochea dated January 16, 1945; and two permission slips and notes regarding a review of Farfan's Poesia folklorica quechua. The file ends with three small pages of notes which were exchanged between Julian Steward and Harrington regarding various South American languages.

Under general and miscellaneous materials is a two-page typed list of captions for twenty-six photographs under the heading "Quirigua, Guatamala," with references to Dr. Hewett and Dr. Lummus (possibly Charles F. Lummis?) and a miscellaneous note regarding the native palm of Panama. There are also notes from secondary sources on historical exploration of the coast of Yucatan and on the Tepecano language of Mexico.

Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World's Oldest Continuously Run Libraries

Smithsonian Magazine

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, a sacred Christian site nestled in the shadow of Mount Sinai, is home to one of the world’s oldest continuously used libraries. Thousands of manuscripts and books are kept there—some of which contain hidden treasures.

Now, as Jeff Farrell reports for the Independent, a team of researchers is using new technology to uncover texts that were erased and written over by the monks who lived and worked at the monastery. Many of these original texts were written in languages well known to researchers—Latin, Greek, Arabic—but others were inscribed in long-lost languages that are rarely seen in the historical record.

Manuscripts with multiple layers of writing are known as palimpsests, and there are about 130 of them at St. Catherine’s Monastery, according to the website of the Early Manuscript Electronic Library, which has been leading the initiative to uncover the original texts. As Richard Gray explains in the Atlantic, with the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christian sites in the Sinai Desert began to disappear, and Saint Catherine’s found itself in relative isolation. Monks turned to reusing older parchments when supplies at the monastery ran scarce.

To uncover the palimpsests’ secret texts, researchers photographed thousands of pages multiple times, illuminating each page with different-colored lights. They also photographed the pages with light shining onto them from behind, or from an oblique angle, which helped “highlight tiny bumps and depressions in the surface,” Gray writes. They then fed the information into a computer algorithm, which is able to distinguish the more recent texts from the originals.

Since 2011, researchers have photographed 74 palimpsests, which boast 6,8000 pages between them. And the team’s results have been quite astonishing. Among the newly revealed texts, which date from the 4th to the 12th century, are 108 pages of previously unknown Greek poems and the oldest-known recipe attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates.

But perhaps the most intriguing finds are the manuscripts written in obscure languages that fell out of use many centuries ago. Two of the erased texts, for instance, were inked in Caucasian Albanian, a language spoken by Christians in what is now Azerbaijan. According to Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura, Caucasian Albanian only exists today in a few stone inscriptions. Michael Phelps, director of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library, tells Gray of the Atlantic that the discovery of Caucasian Albanian writings at Saint Catherine’s library has helped scholars increase their knowledge of the language’s vocabulary, giving them words for things like “net” and “fish.”

Other hidden texts were written in a defunct dialect known as Christian Palestinian Aramaic, a mix of Syriac and Greek, which was discontinued in the 13th century only to be rediscovered by scholars in the 18th century. “This was an entire community of people who had a literature, art, and spirituality,” Phelps tells Gray. “Almost all of that has been lost, yet their cultural DNA exists in our culture today. These palimpsest texts are giving them a voice again and letting us learn about how they contributed to who we are today.”

The Sinai Palimpsests Project, as the team’s initiative is known, has taken on new urgency in recent years, as the Islamic State’s presence in the Sinai Peninsula has made Saint Catherine’s monastery even harder to reach. Phelps and his fellow researchers are making images of the palimpsests available online, so scholars can explore the secret writings that have recently been brought to light.

Antiquities of Mexico : comprising fac-similes of ancient Mexican paintings and hieroglyphics, preserved in the Royal Libraries of Paris, Berlin, and Dresden; in the Imperial Library of Vienna; in the Vatican Library; in the Borgian Museum at Rome; in the Library of the Institute at Bologna; and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Together with the Monuments of New Spain, by M. Dupaix: with their respective scales of measurement and accompanying descriptions. The whole illustrated by many valuable inedited manuscripts / by Lord Kingsborough; the drawings, on stone, by A. Aglio

Smithsonian Libraries
Volumes 1-4: plates; volumes 5-9: text.

In English, Italian, and Spanish.

Volumes 1-7: "In seven volumes"; volumes 8-9: "In nine volumes."

Imprints vary: volumes 6-7: London : Printed by Richard and John E. Taylor : Published by Robert Havell and Colnaghi, Son, and Co., 1831; volumes 8-9: London : Printed by Richard and John E. Taylor : Published by Henry G. Bohn, 1848.

Printer's statement, volume 7, page 461, reads: Londres, en la oficina de Ricardo Taylor, 1830.

Volume 9 includes pages [1]-60 at end, signed "Vol. X", but with explicit, pages 60, "End of Vol. IX, which concludes the work." No more published.

Volumes 5-9 include, in addition to notes on plates, Kingsborough's various notes, and miscellaneous extracts from Spanish authors: "Viages de Guillelmo [i.e. Guillermo] Dupaix sobre las antiguedades Mejicanas" (volume 5, pages [207]-343); "Libro sexto de la retorica y filosofia, moral y teologia, de la gente Mexicana ... por ... Bernardino de Sahagun" (Book 6, chapters 1-40, of Sahagun's "Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España"; volume 5, pages [345]-493); "The monuments of New Spain, by M. Dupaix" (transl. of "Viages ..."; volume 6, pages 421-486); "Historia universal [i.e. general] de las cosas de Nueva España ... por ... Bernardino de Sahagun" (entire work, except Book 6, chapters 1-40; volume 7, pages [10], [1]-464); "Historia del origen de las gentes que poblaron la America septentrional que llaman Nueva España ... son autor ... Mariano Fernandez de Echeverria y Veitia" (volume 8, pages [159]-217 (2nd count)).

"Tercera [y cuarta] noticia[s] de la segunda parte de las Noticias historiales de las conquistas de Tierra Firme ... por Fr. Pedro Simon" (volume 8, pages [219]-271); "History of the North American Indians ... by James Adair" (1st part of Adair's "History of the American Indians", publ. 1775; volume 8 pages [273]-400); "Cartas ineditas de Hernando Cortes" (volume 8, pages [401]-418) ; "Relaciones ineditas de Fernandez de Oviedo" (volume 8, pages [419]-424) ; "Cronica Mexicana de Fernando de Alvarado Tezozomoc" (volume 9, pages [1]-196) ; "Historia Chichimeca por Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl" (volume 9, pages [197]-316) ; "Relaciones de Don Fernando de Alva Ixtlilxochitl" (volume 9, pages [317]-468) ; "Ritos antiguos, sacrificios e idolatrias de los Indios de la Nueva Espana y de su conversión à la fée y quienes fueron los que primero la predicaron" (volume 9, pages [1]-60 at end).

Sabin 37800

Graesse t. 4, p. 19

Brunet t. 3, col. 663

Also available online.

SCNHRB and CHMNKRB have one copy each.

The SCNHRB copy of volume 4 (39088004441598) is extra-illustrated with type-written labels mounted on some of the plates.

The CHMNKRB copy has accession numbers 6078 through 6086.

The CHMNKRB copy has bookplate: Presented by Mrs. J.W. Roosevelt, November 1910, Cooper Union Museum Library.

The CHMNKRB copy has old gilt-tooled black leather binding with marbled paper boards; raised bands; marbled endpapers; all edges gilt.


Samira's Story

National Museum of African Art
A roughly square composition of black, densely-packed Arabic and arabesque scripts that run horizontally on unevenly cut white cotton cloth canvas (not stretched). The unpainted edges of the cloth serve to frame and contain the script, save for a small segment of text that spills beyond the lower border of the work. The paint is thickly applied and has cracked in places as it dried on the fabric.
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