What is a soil scientist doing at archaeological excavations in Mesoamerica? Well I would ask the question: which group of professionals, soil scientists or archaeologists, spends more time in the soil (digging, sampling examining color and texture changes)? Overwhelmingly, it is archaeologists. When I was a graduate student at Purdue University, Dr. Ahlrichs mentioned in a lecture that soil phosphorus tests could be used to determine ancient settlement sights. As food was hunted or gathered or harvested, it was brought into the campsite, farmstead, or village where it was processed and consumed. The carbon in the food decomposed, and the nitrogen in proteins either volatilized as gases or leached from the soil as nitrate or nitrite. The phosphorus, however, was rendered insoluble by calcium or iron contained in the soil. After centuries, most of the food residue is gone, but the phosphorus contained in the cell membranes and DNA of the food remains fixed in the soil, ready for soil scientists to sample and analyze.
I thought it was very interesting that soil phosphate analysis could be used as a tool in archaeology. About 20 years later, BYU geography professor Perry Hardin enrolled in my introduction to soil science class. BYU archaeologists were assembling a team to return to the important Maya city of Piedras Negras after 40 years. During the Guatemalan civil war between the government and the communist guerillas, the opposition forces took refuge in the Sierra del Lacandón forest on the boarder of Guatemala and Mexico. Piedras Negras was within that area. A peace treaty was signed in 1996, and with the assistance of former guerrillas, archaeologists could finally return to Piedras Negras. Dr. Hardin planned to use soil phosphate testing to detect food preparation and consumption areas in household and, especially, to find the kitchen midden or waste piles where trash, including stone and ceramic artifacts, was disposed in chronological order and left relatively undisturbed.
The method he was going to use to determine the soil phosphate had been used by archaeologists in Europe and the Mediterranean since the 1920s and had been adapted for use in Mexican and South American archaeological sites beginning in the 1980s. The proposed method was very antiquated and would not have provided high quality data. Dr. Hardin and I adapted traditional soil sampling and chemical extraction and analysis protocols that could be conducted in a field laboratory. That meant battery operated instruments and high purity deionized water produced in the field. In the spring of 1997, I was invited to visit the site for a week to help setup the laboratory. The archaeologists and geographers left for the field a couple of weeks before my student and I departed. Dr. Hardin send us a message that on a certain date, we should take the road from Palenque to the end of the road on the banks of the river. The name of the village was Frontera. He wrote that a boat with the letters CPRP written on the side would be there at a certain time to pick us up and take us “up river” to Piedras Negras.
We were able to take the filtered drinking water pumped from the Usumacinta river that was used by the camp and pass it through organic removal and deionization columns to produce purified water. The expedition was quite an adventure.
At the archaeology meetings in 1998, word circulated that Steven Houston, the BYU archaeologist, had a geographer and a soil scientist working on the project. Dr. Takeshi Inomata of Yale University wanted to have the stucco floors of the royal palace of the king of Aguateca sampled and chemically analyzed. He contacted Dr. Hardin to come work at his site on the Rio Petexbatún, a tributary of the Rio Pasion. Dr. Hardin was too busy with work at Piedras Negras but indicated that Dr. Terry might be interested. I packed up the soil sampling equipment and the phosphorus lab and headed to northern Guatemala. I was very much out of my comfort zone. I did not speak Spanish and had little experience traveling in Central America. Dr. Inomata assured me there would be no problem. From Flores, Guatemala, I could catch the bus to Sayaché. There is no bridge there, so traffic must be ferried across the Pasion River at that point. Takeshi told me that once I reached the river, a boatman with a small boat would be waiting for me at the riverside. It worked.
What is the value of researchers from various academic disciplines working together to answer scientific problems? Each discipline sees the problem through different eyes.
Quote by Will Rogers: “Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.”
I learned a lot about Maya archaeology from Dr. Inomata and his wife, Dr. Daniela Triadan. Their methods of excavation and artifact preservation were amazing. Rather than picks, shovels, and wheel barrows used at most excavations, excavators at Aguateca used wooden skewers, brushes, dustpans, and buckets. Aguateca was a rare, rapidly abandoned city. In the late 700s AD, the city was conquered, burned, and ritually closed. That means that all the artifacts were left in their place of ancient use.
For the next twenty years, my students and I assisted archaeologists with soil and floor sampling, and chemical analysis across the Maya area of Southern Mexico, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. During that time, we collaborated with more than 44 archaeologists at 26 ancient Mesoamerican sites. The ancient sites have extended from Northern Yucatan, Mexico, to Southern El Salvador. The period of occupation of those cities and villages ranged from the Middle Preclassic (1000 to 600 B.C.) to the Postclassic (1000 to 1400 A.D.). Over the years, his geochemical analyses of Mesoamerican soils have expanded to the stable carbon isotope signatures of ancient corn crops that remain within the soil humus and to the biochemical markers of modern and ancient cacao orchards. My students and I have gained insights to the lives of ancient Mesoamericans by collaborating with many of the professional Mayanists, who study a variety of archaeological sites that extend across the Maya region. The range of inorganic chemical, stable isotope, and biomarker data obtained from ancient floors, fields, and orchards allows us to interpret many aspects of ancient lives and activities.
Paradigms, what are they? Our general understanding of the facts or the generally accepted theory. Paradigms may be true or false. Paradigms shift as new facts are discovered or as we view the facts differently.
For instance: All peoples of the Americas arrived across the Bering Straight during a brief period when the ice age glaciers opened to allow them to follow their game animals on dry land. Problems with that paradigm:
- There were likely many groups that arrived in the Americas before, during, and after the ice age that ended approximately 10,000 years ago.
- Human footprints in peat deposits located in southern Chile before the ice corridor opened. Even if it opened earlier than thought, the new settlers had to run a foot race to get from Alaska to southern Chile in time to leave the foot prints.
- Clovis spear points. There is no example of the development of those points in the Americas. The closest examples of the developing Clovis point technology are found in southern Europe. Was it possible for Europeans to get to the Americas across the Atlantic? Yes, if they were following the fish and marine mammal resources of seals by canoe along the coastlines and in front of the glaciers and sea ice present during the ice age.
- Kennewick man: A 9,000-year-old skeleton of a male discovered in sediments next to the Columbia River near Kennewick Washington. The remains look more closely related to aboriginal tribes of Japan than to native Americans. It is possible that these people were also following marine resources along the coastlines and ice fronts of glaciers and sea ice.
- The Americas were a crossroads for migration. The Book of Mormon tells of three groups of immigrants to the Western hemisphere during a period of about 3,000 years.
- There are sagas, legends, and archaeological evidences of Vikings and other Europeans to the Americas before Columbus.
The Bering straight immigration paradigm has been weakened but is still accepted by many.
Paradigm held among anti-Mormons: the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction or a product of plagiarism.
Paradigm among active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: the Book of Mormon is a book of holy scripture, written by ancient prophets in the Middle East and the Americas. It was translated by Joseph Smith by the gift and power of God from metal plates with the appearance of gold. The book is another testament of Jesus Christ.
Another paradigm was stated by Joseph Smith and is held by most active church members: the Book of Mormon is the most correct of any book. Along with punctuation and versing edits, only minor editing of the scripture has taken place. As an author of over 100 journal articles, I know from experience how difficult it is to write and edit a document with no errors. The book of Mormon is a very complicated text with many peoples (ites), lands, cities, migrations, and wars. These places and events are remarkably consistent throughout. In almost every case, when I publish a journal article, there will be one or two minor errors that have crept into the article. In the two-paragraph introduction that I prepared for your printed program, there is at least one error that escaped my proof readings.
I am retired now and am just about finished with the last few research articles that need to be submitted for publication. I feel strongly that there are enough geographical and cultural hints left in the text of the Book of Mormon that we can start to assemble a Book of Mormon geography. That has basically been done on the Middle Eastern portion of the travels of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families from Jerusalem to the point of embarkation to the Western Hemisphere. I am pleased to be associated with Book of Mormon Central, and I hope that that organization will help facilitate development and agreement on a proposed geography. The center is currently examining the various models that have been proposed. One is the Heartland model that places Nephite and Lamanite cultures in the midwest and northeast portions of the USA. Another model places book of Mormon events on Baja California. Several models focus on the areas of the states of Tabasco and Chiapas that surround the Rio Grijalva in southern Mexico. Models will be scored based on distances (a day’s walk for a Nephite) in the directions north, south, east, or west, or northward, southward, eastward, or westward. I’m glad they are doing that as a first step. I propose that once that is completed, the geographers should be asked to show evidence that cities, defensive structures, and causeways, etc. are present at those locations. In some cases, where there is adequate archaeological research, we should be able to show evidence of migrations.
I hope that the Center can help facilitate cooperation and communication between various groups of geographers. It is not helpful when certain groups or individuals attempt to shout down evidence or models that do not agree with their own thoughts. Part of the reason that we have a variety of opposing models is that we have been using outdated information to formulate geographic models.
Let’s talk about what is happening in Mesoamerican archaeology and why I am very optimistic that most of us can eventually agree on a reasonable model. Mesoamerican archaeology starts out in the late 1800s with explorers and museum collectors who were mainly seeking treasure and art for display in museums. Much of that early archaeology was destructive, as tombs were discovered inside or beneath structures and grave goods were plundered for museums and for collectors. After traveling to some of these remote Maya cities, I can understand the thoughts of the archaeologists that no tourist in their right mind will ever travel to these sites, and therefore, the temples and palaces that we destroy will not be missed. That type of archaeology is a thing of the past. Archaeologists are required to preserve and consolidate the outermost layer of construction. Artifacts discovered are considered part of each nation’s cultural heritage and must remain within the country.
Through the twentieth century, archaeologists were focused on decorated stele and pottery that displayed Classic Maya hieroglyphs. These were found mainly in temples, plazas, and palaces. Translation of the hieroglyphics and maps they drew of the temple precincts and palaces guaranteed academics with both fame and with university tenure. By the end of the twentieth century most of the temples and palaces have been excavated and results published. What is left to do? One interesting thing that my students and I were able to do at the archaeological digs was to interact with the PhD students of the archaeologists. These were brilliant students with interesting personalities and lengthy stories. It takes most archaeology students six to ten years to complete at PhD and postdoctoral research. Each of these students had to be independently wealthy, because generally they were not paid wages while on the archaeological dig. They were required to pay for their own transportation and meals while at the dig.
I instructed my students not to discuss Book of Mormon or religion with the archaeology students unless specifically asked. I wanted my students to be the peacemakers and not the source of argument within the camp. My students were paid an hourly wage, and travel expenses were covered by my research budget. I also warned them not to tell the archaeology students of their wages and covered travel expenses. The archaeology students were all very concerned that they may not find academic positions when they were finished, and indeed only a few of those students are tenured archaeologists today.
What was left for the younger generation of archaeologists to examine in Mesoamerica? The archaeologists and social scientists have currently turned to examination of the lives and living spaces of the commoners.
Social science research priorities include how women were treated anciently, was there equality or respect between the genders, and all sorts of questions about economy and trade, including long-distance trade of specialized items.
This brings me to my work with Dr. Bruce Dahlin from Howard University in Washington, DC. I was introduced to him in 2000 at an archaeology conference. I was a bit taken back because Dr. Dahlin was a 65-year-old free-spirited hippie. He still wore the long hair, pony tail and beard. In most ways, he was the direct opposite of me. I was pleased to find that we had many ideas in common and we had wonderful discussions about the ancient Mesoamericans. Of course, we had to avoid discussion of religion and politics. He had some difficult excavation projects in Guatemala and I think a few run ins with the archaeology institute in Guatemala. He decided that for the last few years of his career he would excavate at a remote site with the ugliest ruins that no tourist will ever visit. He figured that the Institute of Archaeology in Mexico would leave him alone. The ugliest site is the huge sprawling city that you have never heard of, called Chunchucmil in northwestern Yucatan. It is about 16 miles from an ancient port on the Gulf of Mexico and about another 16 to 20 miles from the population centers in the Puuc Hills, including Uxmal, Labna, and Sayil. We think that Chunchucmil was a manufacturing and trade center that brought salt and other goods from the Gulf in trade for foodstuffs that Chunchucmil could not grow in their soil poor location. Chunchucmil is a city that is described in the Book of Mormon Helaman 3: 7-11.
7 And there being but little timber upon the face of the land, nevertheless the people who went forth became exceedingly expert in the working of cement; therefore they did build houses of cement, in the which they did dwell.
Let’s stop and talk about this verse for a moment. Some might interpret this as evidence against the Book of Mormon. To make the cement and stucco used in ancient Mesoamerica, the first step is to burn limestone (CaCO3) to convert it to lime (CaO). A lot of wood is used to as energy to make the cement. In fact, it would take much more wood to build a house of cement than to build it of wood. But once you visit northwest Yucatan, the driest area in the peninsula, there are no large trees that grown in the area. Middle to Late Preclassic Maya used long, straight poles to form the framework for roof thatching. Trees that provide long, straight poles are not present in northwest Yucatan. If you see a large tree there, the tree roots are within the ancient ruins that retain soil and moisture or there is a cenote near the tree. The native vegetation of the area included grasses and short scrub trees. These trees are ideal for wood harvesting by stone ax for the hot green wood fires needed for production of CaO.
8 And it came to pass that they did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east.
9 And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings.
10 And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping.
11 And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement.
The inhabitants of northwest Yucatan used the poor quality, highly weathered, ugly limestone to build their homes, causeways, and temple pyramids. But then everything was covered with beautiful white stucco that could have been carved or painted. In the past 1,200 years since the city was abandoned, the stucco has mostly broken down to form fertile soil
We went out to the site of Chunchucmil in 2000, and in 2001 we started an activity area survey. One thing I have learned is that when you travel from cool spring conditions in Utah to hot, humid conditions in Yucatan, your body is shocked and does not handle heat well. I went out in the morning to assist my student with sampling. There was no shade and the heat was unbearable. I was speaking to my student about getting overheated and he started to laugh. My sentences were a mixture of English, Spanish, and German. I had become incoherent and he quickly got me back to the hacienda to cool down. While I was recovering from the heat that afternoon, Dr. Dahlin went to the field with my students. He showed them a large open plaza located at the center of the ancient city. There was evidence that the plaza was artificially leveled and had been paved with stucco. He explained that he had opened test pits and had combed the surface of the plaza and found very few artifacts. The only things apparent were several rock alignments, one stone high and ten to twenty feet long. He showed the plaza to my students and said, “I know that this plaza was an ancient marketplace, but with no artifacts, I have no proof that market activities took place.” My student Chris Jensen said our soil analysis of phosphate could well provide the evidence that he needed. Bruce had been skeptical that our soil analyses would be useful, but when we took the soil samples back to Utah and analyzed them, we found some very interesting results.
For many years in Maya archaeology, one of the unquestioned paradigms was that according to Karl Marx and other socialist thinkers, the natural way that all societies have functioned is that producers of food and products brought those goods as tribute to the leader, the chief, or the king and the leader then redistributed those products as needed. Marxists had been looking for examples of ancient societies that thrived by adhering to the principals of socialism. In the 1950s, it was proposed that the Maya were the perfect society that lived under the socialist ideal. There was little known about the economy or trade within ancient Maya society, and therefore the socialist academics could pin the label of socialism on the Maya and no one dared question the paradigm. It was widely accepted among Mayanists. Under that system of tribute and redistribution, there was no need for markets or a market economy.
Our soil phosphorus data from the plaza demonstrated that kiosks with traders in plant and animal food materials had been organized in straight lines across the plaza. It was like a modern supermarket where the fresh produce and the meat and the pots and pans are organized in aisles with cleared pathways between. Bruce and I had discussions about what to do with the data. We knew it would be an uphill battle to submit a manuscript in opposition to the Marxist paradigm. Most archaeologists who hoped to maintain careers probably would not touch the subject. Bruce was close to retirement and had a reputation of challenging the norm. I was a soil scientist, and if the archaeologists wanted to drive me out of Mesoamerica, that was fine with me, I had other soil research to pursue. In addition to our evidence from the plaza floor, the evidence from the commoners’ homes in Chunchucmil demonstrated that the proletariat or the commoners were not poor but that they belonged to a thriving, wealthy middle class. We sent the manuscript to the Latin American Antiquity, one of the flagship journals of the Society for American Archaeology. We caused a lot of heartburn for the journal editors. Support for the Marxist paradigm was strong, but our soil chemical analyses provided strong evidence of trade among the Maya. Normally, when manuscripts are submitted, the editor will send it out to two or three reviewers, and as authors, we are expected to answer questions and comments of the reviewers. We had to revise our manuscript twice, and by the time we finished, the manuscript had received eight peer reviews. We were able to answer all questions and challenges of the reviewers, and the paper came out in 2007. We really stirred the pot, or we disturbed the ants’ nest. Within a few years, several book and journal articles were written about marketplace and trade activities in the ancient Maya world. Archaeologists were very quick to drop the old paradigm and accept the new one that ancient folks in Mesoamerica were involved in trade with one another. Oops, the Marxists had been wrong.
Mosiah 24:7 – And thus the Lamanites began to increase in riches, and began to trade one with another and wax great, and began to be a cunning and a wise people, as to the wisdom of the world, yea, a very cunning people, delighting in all manner of wickedness and plunder, except it were among their own brethren.
Helaman 6:8 – And it came to pass that the Lamanites did also go whithersoever they would, whether it was among the Lamanites or among the Nephites; and thus, they did have free intercourse one with another, to buy and to sell, and to get gain, according to their desire.
Ether 10:22 – And they were exceedingly industrious, and they did buy and sell and traffic one with another, that they might get gain.
It was great to have a hand in shifting a paradigm. Within the next few years, four books and several journal articles were written about Maya trade, economy, and marketplaces. As the focus of Mayanists shifted from the temples and palaces to the commoners’ households, they were not finding the poverty and simple lives that the proletariat were supposed to live. The reason Bruce Dahlin had selected Chunchucmil is that nothing extraordinary or of tourist interest should have occurred there. One of first findings in the first household excavated was a beautiful carved pot and several pieces of jade and obsidian. All these artifacts were considered elite items that should not be found in the households of the proletariat. The Archaeological Institute in Mexico was suddenly very interested in what Dahlin and his crew were finding at Chunchucmil.
As I continued to work with archaeologists I had questions about the Maya that needed answers. The big question is how did the Maya feed themselves? What were their cropping systems and where did they prefer to grow their crops? As archaeologists and scientists, we want to find simple succinct answers. Water scientists have studied the sediments in local lakes, and the simple answer about Maya agriculture is that the Maya cut most of the forest down and planted corn everywhere. That was a paradigm that needed to be challenged.
Techniques had been developed to use stable carbon isotopes as a signature for the growth of ancient corn crops. Plants have three different photosynthetic pathways. Most plants, including all the trees and vines in the forest, have a C3 pathway. That means that the first organic molecule formed in photosynthesis contains 3 carbons on their way to becoming sugar, which contains 6 carbons. These plants tend to leave their stomates open allowing CO2 in and H2O out. 99 percent of carbon atoms are 12C with 6 protons and 6 neutrons for a mass of 12. Each molecule absorbed by the plant or emitted from the plant must cross membranes. 12CO2 can easily cross those membranes. However, about 1 percent of all carbon atoms on earth possess an extra neutron. Heavy carbon or 13C has 6 protons and 7 neutrons for a mass of 13. This heavy isotope of C is chemically identical to 12C but the molecules of 13CO2 are physically heavier and a tiny bit larger, and therefore they are not as quickly absorbed through the membranes of plant cells. Plants with a C4 photosynthetic system include many of the tropical grasses, such as corn, sorghums, and sugarcane. These plants are adapted to the hot climate and limited water of the growing season. That adaptation of C4 plants allows the stomates on the bottom side of the leave to remain closed to preserve more water for plant growth. These plants are considered C4 with the initial organic molecule containing 4 carbons. These are super plants. They grow faster and yield more than C3 plants. Because the stomates are open for less time, C4 plants take up a larger portion of 13CO2 than their C3 cousins. C4 plant matter is enriched in 13C compared to C3 plants. Indeed, corn is a sacred plant to the Maya. It was a gift of the gods. According to their creation story found in the Popol Vu, after the war in heaven, the righteous gods set about forming man and woman. They started with clay and modeled small figurines. Those men sat there like lumps of clay, refusing to speak or to worship the gods. The flood was sent to wash those men away. Next, they set to work forming men from sticks. Those men sprung to life but could only squawk and jump and scurry about, but they could not talk or worship the gods. Those men were sent off to the forest and became the spider monkeys and howler monkeys that live there today. In a last attempt, they took the corn masa and molded the men. Those men jumped to life and were able to speak and worship the gods. In Maya belief, men and women’s bodies are made of corn. For that reason, corn must be consumed every day and the planting of the corn is a religious ritual. Corn is a sacred crop and a gift from the gods. How corn plants came about is still a mystery to scientists. To become corn, wild plants that had little resemblance to corn went through a fatal genetic mutation. Corn has no mechanism to release and spread its seed other than humans harvesting the corn each year, rescuing the seeds for planting in the next season.