Salt and economic/human management: China compared to Mexico

The evolution of humans who had a nomadic life prior to the settling of China, as we know it today, can be noted in landmark prehistoric fossil discoveries:

‘Yuanmou Man’ who lived 1.7 million years ago in today’s Yunnan Province, south-west China, ‘Lantian Man’ who lived in the early Paleolithic Age, fossils of which were discovered in North China’s Shaanxi Province, and ‘Peking Man’ who lived about 500,000 years ago.

Perhaps these ancestors were early nomads spreading from east Africa. The oldest hominid discovered to date in Ethiopia is the 4.2 million year old Ardipithicus ramidus (Ardi) found by Tim D. White in 1994. The most well known hominid discovery is Lucy, found in the Awash Valley of Ethiopia’s Afar region in 1974 by Donald Johanson, and is one of the most complete and best preserved, adult Australopithecine fossils ever uncovered. Lucy’s taxonomic name, Australopithecus afarensis, means ‘southern ape of Afar’, and refers to the Ethiopian region where the discovery was made. Lucy is estimated to have lived 3.2 million years ago.

The thousands of years it took humans tribes to arrive and inhabit the Americas brings us to the first Mesoamerican civilisation in Mexico, who lived in the city of Teotihuacan from around 100 AD. 

Whilst the Teotihuacanoes of Mexico (link are likely to have gathered salt, we only know from oral record of the Native American Indians that salt has been historically important in their history. 

In many places of North America, certain plants or coastal shells could be reduced to ash and that would be salty. People made salt by evaporating briny water from salt springs. They used rock salt deposits. They found natural seashore areas with salt. They found salt lick areas to gather salt. They would gather it from salt lakes and salt pans. Salt was valuable and such areas were guarded. It was widely traded. 

But for thousands of years the tribes in the area we now know as China, had been procuring salt since their Paleolithic existence.

Image Yangpou Ancient Salt Field

But the geography of China is of major interest in trying to explain the human endeavour which has driven the sense of what it means to be Chinese.

One of the two specific cultural regions that developed Chinese civilization was the Yellow River civilization (Huang He).

This huge river is about 5,464 km, and is second to the longest river in China, the Yantze. It is the sixth-longest in the world. It is called the Yellow river because of the color of silts that are carried in its flow.

The Huang He (yellow) river stretches across China for more than 2,900 miles. It carries its rich yellow silt all the way from Mongolia to the Pacific Ocean. The Yangtze (Chang Jiang) is about 3,400 miles and runs across central China. The two major rivers both merge together to create a vast food-producing area. Although China has two major rivers running through it only 10% of its land is fertile and has rich enough soil to grow crops unlike the 19% by the United States. 

Image of a section of the Yellow River (Huang He)

Between 608 BC and 1938 AD, the Yellow River changed course 26 times, and flooded over 1,500 times, causing the deaths of millions of people. 

Successive Chinese governments have tried to tame nature by investing in building major dams along the Yellow River, the latest and largest being the Three Gorges Dam. 

Image of the Three Gorges Dam

This is one of the most controversial dams as it has caused permanent resettlement of those whose homes were flooded within the reservoir basin. The area designated for the Three Gorges reservoir lake – covering 1,000 square kilometres and stretching more than 600km (375 miles) upstream – was home to some 1.5 million people, living in 19 counties and municipalities, 140 towns, 326 townships and 1,351 villages. 

All had to be relocated. 

The Yellow River civilisation and the Yangtze civilisation were discovered when evidence for Chinese millet agriculture was found and dated to around 7000 BC, with the earliest evidence of cultivated rice found at Chengtoushan near the Yangtze River, dated to 6500 BC. 

These are the Chinese historical areas for human development we label as examples of Cradles of Civilisation, when various nomadic tribes and ethnic groups settled, farmed and traded.

Geology plays a major part in the continually changing landscape of China. The previous blog explains the link between seismic activity and the origins of life. 

Now consider China and India.

Collision of India with the Asian mainland during the earliest Eocene (~50 Ma) has resulted in the growth of the world’s largest orogenic belt, ( Free Dictionary: The process of mountain formation, especially by a folding and faulting of the earth’s crust) the Himalayas, and the associated Tibetan plateau. The seimotectonic tectonic evolution of China is characterized by the merger of several microcontinents throughout the entire Phanerozoic (Zhang et al., 1984; Hendrix and Davis, 2001). The collision and associated convergence and extension has created 64 major tectonic zones in China, which can be subdivided into a smaller number of tectonic “regions” (Zhang et al.,1984; Yin and Nie,1996).

Thus, China is located in one of the most active seismic regions of the world that has been plagued by numerous destructive earthquakes during its long history.

An example of the changing geology which confronted the tribes of this region we now call Asia, is Jingpo Lake or Lake Jingpo. (See image below) 

This is a lake located in the upper reaches of the Mudan River among the Wanda Mountains in Ningan County, Heilongjiang, in the People’s Republic of China. Earlier names for the lake include Meituohu Lake (湄沱湖), Huhanhai Lake (忽汗海), and Bilten Lake (Manchurian: ᠪᡳᠯᡨᡝᠨ ;Chinese: 畢爾騰湖). It was created around 10,000. This was a time when volcanic eruptions in the region blocked the flow of the Mudanjiang River. 

As we know, across the Northern Hemsiphere, 10,000 years ago, the Neolithic period began and in China, as the ice retreated across the Northern Hemisphere, human activity became more settled in southern China.

See more of the beauty of the above lake at

More than a dozen sites on the southwest coast of the Bohai Bay show that the Dawenkou culture was already producing salt from underground brine more than 6,000 years ago during the Neolithic. In the same region, the late Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1046) produced salt on a large scale and moved it inland in “helmet shaped-vessels” (kuixingqi 盔形器). These pottery jars may have served as “standard units of measurement in the trade and distribution of salt”.(see

Ecological concerns are global, and the WWF highlights the NE area of China where ‘the temperate coastal saline meadow encompasses the mouth of Luan He River and the Huang He Delta. The ecoregion functions as a critical refueling stop for migratory birds along the Siberian-Australasian flyway. Siltation is causing the meadow to gradually advance into the Bohai Sea. In recent years, rapid development in the Bohai-rim areas has brought serious damage to the local ecology. There are no protection measures in place to mitigate threats to species and habitats.’ see

Ecocide  is difficult to counter, but all humans must try and rebalance their environments although the momentum of continuing harm is worldwide.

Despite the ever changing geology of this landmass, the Chinese have the most consistent record of methods of acquiring salt and managing it. They created a monopoly, just as the Teotihuacanoes had created a monopoly of obsidian due to the plentiful supply in the volcanic region where they chose to build their civilisation.

During the significant reign of the Han, parts of China saw an age of economic prosperity and a money economy was first established during the Zhou dynasty (c. 1050–256 BC). The coinage issued by the central government mint in 119 BC remained the standard coinage of China until the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). The period saw a number of limited institutional innovations. To finance its military campaigns and the settlement of newly conquered frontier territories, the Han government nationalized the private salt and iron industries in 117 BC, but these government monopolies were repealed during the Eastern Han dynasty.

Han Dynasty 206 BCE–220 CE (source:

The various artefacts which define ancient cultures are often destroyed through natural disasters or vital farming practices. It is said farmers have destroyed priceless 2,000-year-old Han lyres and flutes because they had “inauspicious” tiger motifs on them and pig keepers have destroyed ancient tombs by using the bricks from mausoleums to make pig sties. Destruction of ancient artefacts by succeeding generations is common the world over as we humans tend to see uses to suit our needs of survival and may not have the luxury to leave the item as a cherished specimen.

About the turn of the Common Era, population censuses in China became statistically useful for the entire united mainland. By 2 CE, censuses were taken and recorded on occasion.

Western Han 2 CE: persons per household: 4.9

Eastern Han 57–156 CE, persons per household: 4.9–5.8

2 CE: 59,594,978 persons, 12,233,062 households

156 CE: 56,486,856 persons, 10,677,960 households

Contrast these numbers to those of Teotihuacan at its peak (though no written record exists) as possibly between 125,000 to 250,000 persons. This reflects the contrasting fewer humans, having trekked over thousands of years to reach the Americas, with those who had remained in the Asian landmass.

Science and technology during the Han period saw significant advances, for example the process of papermaking:

Early Xi’An hemp paper, dated to at least 87 BC

Hemp paper had been used in China for wrapping and padding since the eighth century BCE.

Paper with legible Chinese writings on it has also been dated to 8 BCE.

The traditional inventor attribution is of Cai Lun, an official attached to the Imperial court during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), said to have invented paper about 105 CE using mulberry and other bast fibres along with fishnets, old rags, and hemp waste. 

Paper used as a writing medium had become widespread by the 3rd century and, by the 6th century, toilet paper was starting to be used in China as well. 

 At some point, salt, in the form of alum (a type of chemical compound, usually a hydrated double sulphate salt of aluminium with the general formula XAl(SO)) was used to size paper in ancient time. Sizing acts as a protective filler or glaze. Alum can be sourced in volcanic crater bottoms where, in the ancient past, the stones were extracted with naturally heated water, alum crystals forming in the evaporating solution. Other sources are certain sedimentary aluminium bearing rocks or shales which were converted by various means to yield aluminium sulphate, which, in turn, was converted into alum, usually as the ammonium or potassium double salt

Humans have creatively exploited the geology and become alchemists, mathematicians, astronomers, architects and land managers, amongst other sciences, as they took on the mental challenges of their environment.

They have also become warriors.

The Xiongnu, a nomadic steppe confederation, defeated the Han in 200 BC and forced the Han to submit as a de facto inferior partner, but continued their raids on the Han borders. Emperor Wu launched several military campaigns against them. The ultimate Han victory in these wars eventually forced the Xiongnu to accept vassal status as Han tributaries. These campaigns expanded Han sovereignty into the Tarim Basin of Central Asia, divided the Xiongnu into two separate confederations, and helped establish the vast trade network known as the Silk Road, which reached as far as the Mediterranean world. The territories north of Han’s borders were quickly overrun by the nomadic Xianbei confederation.

Emperor Wu also launched successful military expeditions in the south, annexing Nanyue in 111 BC and Dian in 109 BC, and in the Korean Peninsula where the Xuantu and Lelang Commanderies were established in 108 BC. After 92 AD, the palace eunuchs increasingly involved themselves in court politics, engaging in violent power struggles between the various consort clans of the empresses and empresses dowager, causing the Han’s ultimate downfall. Imperial authority was also seriously challenged by large Daoist religious societies which instigated the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the Five Pecks of Rice Rebellion. Following the death of Emperor Ling (r. 168–189 AD), the palace eunuchs suffered wholesale massacre by military officers, allowing members of the aristocracy and military governors to become warlords and divide the empire. When Cao Pi, King of Wei, usurped the throne from Emperor Xian, the Han dynasty would eventually collapse and ceased to exist. 

But not their legacy of what it means to be Chinese.

Map of the geographical extension of the Eastern Han Empire with its extension of the Western Protectorates in 100 AD.

Map source: Thomas A. Lessman

The next blog will explore the salt trade.

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Salt, Sulphates and Survival: Living things

Salt (sodium chloride or halite), for details of the chemistry of Salt see, has been the focus of human interest for thousands of years. It has been much sought after and traded since humans first realised its value. But there is much more to salt than simply an added taste at the dinner table. Salt is a common substance, chemically consisting mainly of sodium chloride ( NaCl) used extensively as a condiment and preservative while sulphate is (organic chemistry) any ester of sulphuric acid. 

The earliest known treatise on pharmacology was published in China. This was the Peng-Tzao-Kan-Mu published in China about 4,700 years ago and it revealed within it descriptions of two methods of extracting salt and transferring it into usable form, processes that are very similar to ones used today. A major portion of this writing is devoted to a discussion of more than 40 kinds of salt, including descriptions of two methods of salt extraction that are similar to processes used today. 

Humans have been aware of the precious value of salt for thousands of years.

We now know that salts exist in many different colors, which arise either from the anions or cations. For example

* sodium chromate is yellow by virtue of the chromate ion

* potassium dichromate is orange by virtue of the dichromate ion

* cobalt nitrate is red owing to the chromophore of hydrated cobalt(II) ([Co(H2O)6]2+)

* copper sulfate is blue because of the copper(II) chromophore

* potassium permanganate has the violet color of permanganate anion.

* nickel chloride is typically green of [NiCl2(H2O)4]

* sodium chloride, magnesium sulfate heptahydrate are colorless or white because the constituent cations and anions do not absorb in the visible part of the spectrum

Sulphates have played a major role in the process which led to oxygen forming on Earth, that in turn promoted the growth of photosynthetic life.

In an earlier blog I have mentioned tectonic plates. We know that when tectonic plates move, they can alter the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. There is a relationship between the movements of tectonic plates and the consequential volcanic eruptions and the mineral and sulphate gases which spew out. The chemical reaction is part of the process of creating oxygen. For billions of years the Earth had no oxygen, then suddenly it came into being. Scientists have been trying to pinpoint when the Great Oxidation Event (GOE) occurred. Current thinking is that it was about 2.3-2.4 billion years ago.

Sulphates are described at

In a Nature Geoscience paper by scientists at Rice University they commented on what might happen when tectonic plates bump into each other, some sliding underneath another to depths where the temperature is high enough to melt it (subduction) and molten rock rises to form volcanoes at the surface. Those volcanoes can spew gasses into the atmosphere. The researchers suggest melting could have separated molecules of carbon and oxygen in the bodies of microbes long deceased (first life dates to at least 3.5 billion years ago) and settled to the ocean floor as sediments on the subducting plate. This separation could have sent the carbon even deeper into the Earth, for millions or billions of years, and expelled the oxygen out from volcanoes. 

Plate tectonics and biology are unique to Earth, as far as we know. Many speculate a symbioses between the two, geology and life working in tandem.

Geologists have discovered preserved salt lying 1.2 miles deep into the earth on the edge of Lake Onega, in western Russia near the border with Finland. This lake’s Geological history is of glacial-tectonic origin and is a small remnant of a larger body of water which existed in this area during an Ice Age. 
In geologic terms, the lake is rather young, formed – like almost all lakes in northern Europe – through the carving activity of the inland ice sheets in the latter part of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago: In the Paleozoic Era (400–300 million years ago) the entire territory of the modern basin of the lake was covered with a shelf sea lying near the ancient, near-equatoric Baltic continent. Sediments at that time – sandstone, sand, clay and limestone – form a 200-metre-thick (660 ft) layer covering the Baltic Shield which consists of granite, gneiss and greenstone. The retreat of the Ice Age glaciers formed the Littorina Sea. Its level was first 7–9 m (23–30 ft) higher than at present, but it gradually lowered, thereby decreasing the sea area and forming several lakes in the Baltic region. (For more details see

The research teams established the buried salt was 2 billion years old, a first to find pristine salt of such a great age. Somehow this sample, which formed when an ancient sea evaporated, had remained unaltered by any geologic processes that occurred after burial.

By using computer models to recreate what the team of researchers found, they were able to identify details about the ancient ocean in which these samples formed, including just how oxidized it was.

The senior author based at Princeton University, Aivo Lepland, from the Geological Survey of Norway and Tallinn University of Technology, described their findings as “the strongest ever evidence” that the ancient seawater “had high sulphate concentrations reaching at least 30 percent of present-day oceanic sulphate as our estimations indicate.” 

Salt is indispensable to some living creatures, while also proving deadly for others. The last of the great mammoths died when they found themselves marooned on an island (Saint Paul Island, off the Alaskan coast) as sea levels rose and their fresh water sources became contaminated with salt water.

Salt has a myriad of important uses and was once even used as a form of currency in ancient Rome. The relationship between salt and water is perhaps one of the greatest balancing acts in all of nature, a partnership that has endured for millions of years.

Today, the Mineral Information Institute (MII) reports that about one-fifth of the world’s salt is produced in the United States, with other leading producers including China and Germany. But it is found globally in differing amounts.

According to the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR), the average ocean salinity is 35 ppt or parts per thousand, which means that for every 1,000 grams of water, there are 35 grams of salt. The ONR also reports that most of the salt in the ocean comes from rain, rivers and streams that wash sodium chloride into larger bodies of water. Other major sources of salt in the ocean include undersea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. The term “brackish water” refers to bodies of water where freshwater and ocean water mix. In these areas, the average salinity ranges from 0.5 ppt to 17 ppt.

If salt water floods agricultural land the soil becomes contaminated by the salt and produce which was growing there, or grass for cattle, will die. Freshwater plants cannot thrive in salt water. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that soil salinity is responsible for reducing crop yields by as much as 25 percent in the United States. However, recent developments by the Agricultural Research Service have created new strains of wheatgrass that can withstand higher concentrations of salt by using genetic markers borrowed from saline-resistant plants.

Here is an extract about fish and how their bodies utilise and balance the salinity levels around them

Osmoregulation in fish (see

Osmoregulators tightly regulate their body osmolarity, maintaining constant internal conditions. They are more common in the animal kingdom. Osmoregulators actively control salt concentrations despite the salt concentrations in the environment. An example is freshwater fish. The gills actively uptake salt from the environment by the use of mitochondria-rich cells. Water will diffuse into the fish, so it excretes a very hypotonic (dilute) urine to expel all the excess water. A marine fish has an internal osmotic concentration lower than that of the surrounding seawater, so it tends to lose water and gain salt. It actively excretes salt out from the gills. Most fish are stenohaline, which means they are restricted to either salt or fresh water and cannot survive in water with a different salt concentration than they are adapted to. However, some fish show a tremendous ability to effectively osmoregulate across a broad range of salinities; fish with this ability are known as euryhaline species, e.g., Flounder. Flounder have been observed to inhabit two utterly disparate environments—marine and fresh water—and it is inherent to adapt to both by bringing in behavioral and physiological modifications.

But when the salmon move from the sea to freshwater rivers they adapt with brilliant abilities (see

Here is an extract from the above link:

Three main things must occur for the young salmon, called a smolt, to prepare for life in the salty ocean. First, it must start drinking a lot of water. Second, the kidneys have to drop their urine production dramatically. Third, and very important, molecular pumps in the cells of the gills have to shift into reverse, pumping sodium out instead of in. All these physiological changes have to change back when then the mature fish re-enters the freshwater river on its way to spawn. The fish will spend a few days in the intertidal zone as these changes are made automatically.

The observers of the natural world explain to us how these miracles of body evolution have led to so many species balancing the vital part salt plays in their survival, but also how some creatures cope when when otherwise salt would threaten their existence.

The next blog will delve into the threats and opportunities to human existence posed by the ever present sodium chloride in our environment.


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Teotihuacan in Mexico compared to Roman Kingdom in Italy: Part Two

Little is certain about the Roman kingdom’s history, as no records and few inscriptions from the time of the kings survive and we find a similar lack of written history for Teotihuacan. 

As small groups of hunter gatherers, 12 to 24 perhaps, lived nomadic lives around the planet wherever they roamed, so they honed their skills with developing weapons and tools to dominate their environments and take on threats and opportunities. Pre Roman, pre Teotihuacanoes all followed the path of development, utilising the land they found themselves in, and eventually becoming farmers. Once they formed their territory, they had to protect it and worked on strategies which, in many cases involved warrior activities, and religious priests, some of which were militarily inclined too.

As expansive leadership dominates with military action, so it often destroys evidence of previously written histories, to replace it with its own. In this way, all that remains is the oral tradition.

We have to rely on the oral tradition for both early civilisations. According to these legends, the Roman Kingdom began with the city’s founding circa 753 BC, with settlements around the Palatine Hill along the river Tiber, and ended with the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the Republic circa 509 BC.

Teotihuacan formed around 150BC and endured for around 800 years. There was therefore a period of time when both civilisations ran concurrently, totally unaware of one another, but with many similarities. It would seem human development was reaching landmark stages in these two centres.

The Aztecs, in their wonderment of finding the ancient city of Teotihuacan, first were responsible for using their language to name it and to create legends around it. They named the Temple of Quetzalcoatl after their god, but researchers doubt this was their god, rather a precursor. All gods were linked to the power of nature to provide for or destroy human existence.

Those studying the archeological remains have been able to piece together more accurate dates for buildings and artefacts, such that evidence of human sacrifice has been obtained to underscore the constant bloodletting to please their gods.

In a similar fashion, the gods of early Rome were likewise tied to survival from the unexpected wrath or benign gifts of nature. Romans would sacrifice animals, similarly through high priest ritual with sacred spots chosen for the sacrifice.  

Both Teotihuacan and Rome grew in size and strength, early on, through trade. The location of their respective cities provided merchants with an easily navigable waterway on which to traffic their goods. For Rome, the Tiber; for Teotihuacan a network of human designed waterways with small craft carrying goods, constantly busy interacting with communities as they plied their trade. The engineering skills required to manage scarce or flooding water was achieved by both cultures with magnificence and artistry.

Much of the food which supplied the city of Teotihuacan came from farmers and fishermen utilising the volcanic Lake Texcoco providing the fresh water and surrounding wetlands to grow a large variety of food in plenty to local tribes of the area. One of the most reliable, with strong trading networks of their own, was the people of Cuicuilco. Sadly for them, a volcanic eruption destroyed their city, ending their success. The Teotihuacanoes absorbed the survivors and their trading networks, beginning their expansion. Just as the Etruscans before the Roman Kingdom dominated the Italian Peninsula, so the Teotihuacanoes came to dominate their strip of land around the Gulf of Mexico, down to and including Guatemala.
Map of Mexico

The Mexican valley has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years, attracting humans with its mild climate (average temperatures between 12 and 15 °C, or 54 and 59 °F), abundant game and ability to support large-scale agriculture. 

Just as the Etruscans morphed into the Romans, so the Teotihuacanoes morphed into the Mayans, and later the Aztecs. As the Olmec culture influenced the culture of Teotihuacanoes, the cultures thereafter influenced one another. 

The industry and skill development of the first Mesoamerican civilisation of Teotihuacan existed from about 800 BC to 800 AD , but the people who left the city had already become part of other civilisations as far away as Guatemala. Using their armies to conquer and control other tribes, they could expand their trading links and power and order their vassals to act in their interests.

The Roman Kingdom relied on a myth to explain its origins – that of the twins of Romulus and Remus. But as the Kingdom grew, it was necessary to become firmly linked to the real world in order to trade in much needed goods. In the time it took to grow from small city-state to capital of an empire, Rome depended on importing necessary goods from its conquered provinces, which ultimately stretched from Asia to the British Isles.

The eventual power of the Roman Empire was to have a profound impact on the world, and the consequences of constant religious wars over centuries created the perfect storm in Europe which eventually collided with the unsuspecting indigenous folk of the New World. By the time Columbus set foot in the New World, Teotihuacan had faded in the mists of time, but had left its mark on the indigenous descendants.

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Teotihuacan in Mexico compared to Rome, Italy: Part One

Setting the scene
Thousands of years ago, as the ice sheets melted and humans began their migrations and explorations of this Earth, let us try to imagine, without modern transport and comforts, how tribes of people could travel from Africa to Mexico. In doing so, their long journey meant they had not remained close to the warm climate closer to Africa, but had trekked across hostile territories; their descendants, generation after generation, continuing to move on and on, until, with all their ancestral knowledge and genetic interbreeding, they found themselves in Mexico – a location that offered so much they finally settled and became farmers.

A modern day journalist is currently attempting a similar journey, trying hard to make it on foot wherever possible. His article makes interesting reading if you want to consider how modern man copes with the journey and travels in months not hundreds or thousands of years.

See his story at

As all humans had migrated around the world, those who had settled earlier, nearer to Africa, developed tribal warfare often inspired by belief systems. They would claim to be fighting with and for their gods as they plundered each other’s territory; becoming increasingly brutal, acquiring slaves from those conquered to work in harsh toil and subject to tribute where produce was abundant. Those appointed kings and queens would make conquered leaders kneel before them and be their vassals.

The longer the culture of warfare had become established and tied to religion, the more fervent the desire to spread the conquest and dominate over non-believers.

When Rome became the religious centre of the Roman Church it suffered what some scholars would say was the ‘dark ages for true Christianity’. This was between 590 to 1517 A.D. As the Roman Church dominated the known western world, it systematically controlled religion, philosophy, morals, politics, art and education. Catholicism had spread to become a church and state ruler of many lands. It spurred evangelistic wars and inspired brutality against non-believers. 

But new territory and, as yet, unknown tribes of lands across oceans awaited the explorer, funded by kings and queens who needed bounty to fill their war chests.

The famous (perhaps, some would say, infamous) Genoese explorer Columbus was certain he could find wealth in a land called India which he had heard of from others who sailed the high seas. Queen Isabella, a staunch Catholic (see earlier blog and instigator of the Inquisition in Spain, was eventually persuaded to fund Columbus; her husband King Ferdinand agreed. 

So it was, in the late 15th century, that the prevailing Catholic faith gripped the mercenaries who fought with the army which seemed to be the strongest. Those who manned the ships which sailed with Columbus when he landed first on the Taíno inhabited island of Hispaniola, were already hardened by brutal interpretation of Catholicism woven into perceptions of ‘the heathen’ who must be cleansed, enslaved or simply murdered. But Columbus was certain he had found India, and in his ignorance he named the Taíno, and all other indigenous peoples of the New World, ‘Indians’. This misnomer has prevailed to this day.

Unknown to Columbus, two hundred years before he arrived, the Caribbean Mayan traders were colonizing the islands. To do that, they had to have the skills to sail to them and to set up communities, but the idea of such skills belonging to barely clothed people was not a concept these foreigners could consider. Their minds were closed and not receptive and open. They were not curious, except to seize whatever they could and take it back to build the wealth of their investors. This ruthless characteristic is still with us today, throughout the world, people are robbed of their birthright to advance the wealth of a few investors.

But let us go back to an earlier history, and compare what the tribes were achieving in Italy and Mexico, before Christ was born and thereafter until the demise of two civilisations, that of Teotihuacan and Rome.

Teotihuacan, Mexico – the earliest and largest civilisation of Mesoamerica.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan can still attract thousands of tourists. It’s remains lie around 50 kms north east of Mexico City. It was named a UNESCO site and is constantly being researched, maintained and, as new technology develops, is revealing an amazing and stunning history.

It is situated in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán valley, which is located in southeastern Puebla state and northwestern Oaxaca state in central Mexico. It is the southernmost arid area of Mexico, its aridity caused by the rain shadow of the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range. About 12,000ft up on the pine covered mountains, the fourth generation Monarch butterflies fly from Canada and the US to seek the shelter of the pines in order to survive. But illegal logging threatened their place of safety, and so the area is protected.

Annual mean temperature averages 21 degrees C (70 F) and rainfall 400 millimeters (16 inches). Today, it is named Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Biosphere Reserve.

No wonder, thousands of years ago, various ethnic mixes of tribes were drawn to the valley, to develop farming techniques and to locate and use spring water, expertly managing to irrigate the land which would otherwise have been arid. 

These tribes traded and mixed communally, bringing with them ancestral skills from earlier civilisations such as the Olmecs, sharing and learning from each other.

Rome, Italy: the centre of the most influential civilisation of the western world

In the area we now know as northern Italy, various tribes as described in the previous blog, were drawn to the geographically attractive area which became first the Etruscan dominated region, then, over centuries, the Roman Empire.

What attracted those who would eventually build Rome, was the shape of the Tiber River, which flows through the center of the city. It begins in the Apennines and flows to the sea. It is 405 km long. The river makes a horseshoe-shaped bend, where there is a small island. Around 900 B.C., prior to the Roman Kingdom, this part of the Tiber was one of very few places where travelers, traders and herders of livestock could ford the river. It made that area of Rome an early meeting point for Latin and Sabine tribes as well as the Etruscans, who ruled over much of the Italian peninsula before Rome was built. Rome is also in the rain shadow ( of the Apennines, which does affect the farming practices.

The ancient city of Rome was made of seven hills on which various local tribes settled during the reign of the Etruscans prior to 700 B.C. The hills provided steady ground for residence as well as a certain degree of protection from invasion from below. Palatine Hill, surrounded by the other six hills, is located just to the east of the island at the river ford, and traditionally is said to be home to the first Romans. The city and culture began with the integration of various peoples living atop each of the hills when they began building permanent residences and common civic spaces around 500 B.C.

Scholars consider the tribes of the Proto-Villanovan (1200 BC – 1000 BC) became Villanovan (1000 BC – 750 BC) then became Etruscan (750 BC – 300 BC), ruling over the region pre Rome, then Etruscans were absorbed into the Roman Kingdom ( 753 BC–509 BC) the capital becoming Rome growing into the Roman Republic (509 BC – 27 BC) then overthrown and becoming the Roman Empire. 

The Roman Empire began when Augustus Caesar became the first emperor of Rome (31 BCE) and ended, in the west, when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Germanic King Odoacer (476 CE). In the east, it continued as the Byzantine Empire until the death of Constantine XI and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. The influence of the Roman Empire on western civilization was profound in its lasting contributions to virtually every aspect of western culture. When Queen Isabella of Spain funded Columbus to find India across the Atlantic Ocean, she (and he) was unaware he was going the wrong way to find India.


Teotihuacan city first formed between 150 BCE and 200 CE and benefitted from a plentiful supply of spring water which was channelled through irrigation. The largest structures at the site were completed before the 3rd century CE, and the city reached its peak in the 4th century CE with a population as high as 200,000. Teotihuacan is actually the Aztec name for the city, meaning “Place of the Gods”; unfortunately, the original name is yet to be deciphered from surviving name glyphs at the site.

The city’s prosperity was in part based on the control of the valuable obsidian deposits at nearby Pachuca, which were used to manufacture vast quantities of spear and dart heads and which were also a basis of trade. Other goods flowing in and out of the city would have included cotton, salt, cacao to make chocolate, exotic feathers, and shells. Irrigation and the natural attributes of local soil and climate resulted in the cultivation of crops such as corn, beans, squash, tomato, amaranth, avocado, prickly pear cactus, and chili peppers. These crops were typically cultivated via the chinampa system of raised, flooded fields which would later be used so effectively by the Aztecs. Turkey (native to the Americas) was husbanded for food, and wild game included deer, rabbits, and peccaries (old world pigs) whilst wild plants, insects, frogs, and fish also supplemented a diverse diet. In addition, the city displays evidence of textile manufacturing and crafts production. Teotihuacan also had its own writing system which was similar to, but more rudimentary than, the Maya system and generally limited in use to dates and names, at least in terms of surviving examples.

Building materials

Rome, Italy
Romans utilized a volcanic stone native to Italy called tufa to construct their buildings. Although tufa never went out of use, travertine began to be utilized in the late 2nd century B.C.E. because it was more durable. Also, its off-white color made it an acceptable substitute for marble.

Image of Temple Hera II, nr Rome, Italy

By the time the Pantheum was built, new building materials had evolved, initially this Roman temple was commissioned by the great Roman architect and General Marcus Agrippa. Its name from Greek Πάνθειον Pantheion, “[temple] of all the gods”) during the reign of Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD). A century after it was burned down, it was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 AD. 
Image of the Pantheum

Roman concrete, like any concrete, consists of an aggregate and hydraulic mortar – a binder mixed with water that hardens over time. The aggregate varied, and included pieces of rock, ceramic tile, and brick rubble from the remains of previously demolished buildings.

Gypsum and quicklime were used as binders. Volcanic dusts, called pozzolana or “pit sand”, were favored where they could be obtained. Pozzolana makes the concrete more resistant to salt water than modern-day concrete. The pozzolanic mortar used had a high content of alumina and silica. Tuff was often used as an aggregate.

Image of Temple of the Sun, Teohuacan 

The city of Teotihuacan was built using volcanic basaltic andesite scoria. Researchers have also found the stones on some pyramids were covered in a layer of mica, sourced, ingeniously, from igneous rocks.

In 1983, archaeologists stumbled upon cellear rooms with unusual ceilings that are insulated by a layer of mica inserted between two layers of stone (stone-mica-stone) to a total thickness of approximately 6 inches (15 cm).

Mica, also known as muscovite (“Moscow glass”) is a component of granite. It is a colorless mineral that glimmers like a pearl. Chemically calcium silicate, it possesses very special properties.

Slide explaining sources of mica (source:

It is highly elastic, heat-resistant up to 1470 degrees F (800 degrees C) and resistant to both sudden temperature changes (heat/cold) and organic acids. It is unclear what purpose these special rooms served.

According to one theory,  the heat was generated inside the chambers and the rooms may have served as smelting ovens.

Teotihuacan builders were master architects and highly skilled craftsmen with good knowledge of the heavenly bodies. The dimensions for the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and even Neptune and Pluto were apparently known to them.

In 1973, David S. Hyman, Civil engineer, published in the American Anthropologist the following:

“I collected a comprehensive number of concrete, stucco, and mortar samples from many important sites throughout Mexico and Central America including about a dozen representative specimens at Teotihuacán. These were subjected to load tests, chemical, petrographic, x-ray diffraction, and other analyses… All cements proved to be pure or nearly pure calcium carbonate.  Extreme hardness and durability of the finished concrete slab or stucco had been accomplished by purity of cement, incredible skill in proportioning and mixing with the aggregates and, in some cases, by the use of additives and surface hardeners.
 …My earliest [dated] samples were of the highest quality at this site, the products of a sophisticated technology, while specimens taken from later periods were increasingly lower in quality. Indeed, it was the excellence of the concrete and stucco in the early Classic periods, [200-600 A. D.], both here [at Teotihuacán] and in the Oaxaca Valley, [Mexico]….” Source of Information:(Cement at Teotihuacán by David S. Hyman)

Both Romans and Teotihuacanoes showed engineering abilities which were similar with high skill and mathematical accuracy of an equally impressive level. Both early Mesoamerican and early Roman settlers chose to locate near fresh water but in the rain shadow of mountains, thus requiring irrigation to improve farming and trading strengths. Both built temples to their gods, on whom they believed their survival depended.

In Part Two of this subject I will explore more similarities which so clearly tie the genetic and ancestral skills gained over thousands of years since early humans migrated out of Africa.

I have used the Internet, of course, to locate fascinating details, but also managed to obtain a pre owned book published by Readers Digest back in 1973 – a beautiful coffee table book named simply ‘Teotihuacan’ which I will continue to treasure. There is also a little book written by Dr Jesse Harasta written in the early 2000’s. This book has helped me appreciate the social aspects of the Teotihuacanoes.

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The tribes who evolved out of Africa to eventually become pre-Roman settlers

Influencers of pre Roman tribes were The Scythians – the Greeks’ name for this initially nomadic people. They inhabited Scythia from at least the 11th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. This included Kazakhstan, thought to be the location for the first area where people domesticated horses, an incredibly important development for the western world. Numerous tribes spread into the vastness of the Eurasian steppes which cover thousands of miles, from Mongolia to Eastern Europe, creating what one researcher calls a “highway” for cultural exchange and conquest.

Whilst the Scythian tribes evolved during the Neolithic, they gained skills in metallurgy. The Chalcolithic (English: /ˌkælkəˈlɪθɪk/; Greek: χαλκός khalkós, “copper” and λίθος líthos, “stone”) period or Copper Age, also known as the Eneolithic or Æneolithic (from Latin aeneus “of copper”), was a period in the development of human technology, before it was discovered that adding tin to copper formed the harder bronze, leading to the Bronze Age. The Copper Age was originally defined as a transition between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, but is now usually considered as belonging to the Neolithic.

The archaeological site of Belovode on the Rudnik mountain in Serbia contains the world’s oldest securely dated evidence of copper smelting from 5000 BCE. The Scythians absorbed this metallurgy understanding and applied it most effectively over thousands of years.

A farming population (I haplogroup) from the Taurus Mountains arrived at Rudnik and this became the first outpost in Europe in the 6004-5960 B.C. in the pass between the Danube and the Carpathians. Before the arrival of the Romans, the area was inhabited by the Illyrians, followed by the Celts. The Greeks and Romans, keen to name these tribes, provided the classifications we still use today.

The Scythians were highly successful traders over a huge area, a mixture of tribes with variable skills.

The term Scythic may be used, “to describe a special phase that followed the widespread diffusion of mounted nomadism, characterized by the presence of special weapons, horse gear, and animal art in the form of metal plaques”. 

The Scythians worked in a wide variety of materials such as gold, wood, leather, bone, bronze, iron, silver and electrum. Clothes and horse-trappings were sewn with small plaques in metal and other materials, and larger ones, including some of the most famous, probably decorated shields or wagons. Wool felt was used for highly decorated clothes, tents and horse-trappings, and an important nomad mounted on his horse in his best outfit must have presented a very colourful and exotic sight. As nomads, the Scythians produced entirely portable objects; to decorate their horses, clothes, tents and wagons – with the exception in some areas of kurgan stelae, stone stelae carved somewhat crudely to depict a human figure, which were probably intended as memorials. Bronze-casting of very high quality is the main metal technique used across the Eurasian steppe, but the Scythians are distinguished by their frequent use of gold at many sites;  although large hoards of gold objects have also been found further east, as in the hoard of over 20,000 pieces of “Bactrian Gold” in partly nomadic styles from Tillya Tepe in Afghanistan. 

 Image of gallery 

Image of plaque from Saka (N.B. Saka is an Iranian word equivalent to the Greek Scythes, and many scholars refer to them together as Saka-Scythian), Sakas were Iranian-speaking horse nomads who deployed chariots in battle, sacrificed horses, and buried their dead in barrows or mound tombs called kurgans.

The Scythians did accept defeat at one time, after warring with another tribe for land control. King Darius, king of the Achaemenid Empire, in 513 BC, finally exercised his naval strength in the area they had dominated. The Achaemenid Empire was created by nomadic Persians. The name “Persia” is a Greek and Latin pronunciation of the native word referring to the country of the people originating from Persis (Old Persian: Pārsa), their home territory located north of the Persian Gulf in southwestern Iran.

The Scythians had invaded Media, revolted against Darius and threatened to disrupt trade between Central Asia and the shores of the Black Sea (as they lived between the Danube and Don Rivers and the Black Sea). The campaigns took place in parts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe proper, while principally in what is modern-day Ukraine and southern Russia and they were driven from the Near East. In the first half of the 6th century BCEE, Scythians had to re-conquer lands north of the Black Sea. In the second half of that century, Scythians succeeded in dominating the agricultural tribes of the forest-steppe and placed them under tribute. As a result, their state was reconstructed with the appearance of the Second Scythian Kingdom which reached its zenith in the 4th century BCE.

Map revealing the distances the mobile Scythians were willing to travel to expand their territory. In the case of Media, for example.

Today, a project led by Danish evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev has collected a massive amount of genetic data across the steppes. Genetically speaking, based on this research, it appears that earlier Western Eurasian farmers, already living on the steppes 5,000 years ago, were gradually replaced by mounted warriors of East Asian descent in several waves of migration that continued well into historic times.

This genomic research is beginning to challenge some of David Anthony’s work (see details below). For example, the team uncovered suggestions of two waves of migration into South Asia: a very early one prior to the Bronze Age (ruling out the Early Bronze Age Yamnaya and Afanasievo) and a second during the Late Bronze Age, 3,200-4,300 years ago, which may have introduced Indo-Iranian languages into the region.

The area of the East Mediterranean in 6000 B.C., influenced by the Scythian horsemanship and military acumen, led to the Mycenaean Minoan cultures which in turn became the forcing ground for the great civilisations of Greece and Rome.

Without the domestication of horses by, most probably, the people of Kazakhstan’s Akmola Province, and the invention of the wheel, imported from the civilized Middle East, which had arrived in the steppe around 3100 BCE, we would not have seen the invention of the chariot in the steppe. It may be the chariot was originally meant as an improved tool for hunting – used roughly by 2000 BCE, probably in the area just east of the southern Ural mountains, where the oldest chariots have been unearthed.

Despite new genetic information, we can refer, in the meantime, to the still convincing body of work by David Anthony, but remember it is healthy to remain curious and sceptical as new sciences discover more fascinating insights.

The title of David Anthony’s book says it all really. 

Anthony, David W. (2007). The Horse The Wheel And Language. How Bronze-Age Riders From the Eurasian Steppes Shaped The Modern World. Princeton University Press.

According to Anthony, between 3100–3000 BC, a massive migration of Indo-Europeans from the Yamna culture took place into the Danube Valley. This link to the Yamna is now disputed, but the Yamna are of great interest nonetheless.

Map showing Danube valley

The Yamna culture originated in the Don–Volga area, 

Map of Don-Volga area

and is dated 3300–2600 BC. It was preceded by the middle Volga-based Khvalynsk culture and the Don-based Repin culture (ca. 3950–3300 BC), and late pottery from these two cultures can barely be distinguished from early Yamna pottery.

According to Anthony (2007), the early Yamnaya horizon spread quickly across the Pontic–Caspian steppes between ca. 4000 and 3200 BC. 

Image of map of Pontic-Caspian steppes

The Pontic–Caspian steppe, Pontic steppe or Ukrainian steppe is the vast steppeland stretching from the northern shores of the Black Sea (called Euxeinos Pontos [Εὔξεινος Πόντος] in antiquity) as far east as the Caspian Sea, from Moldova and eastern Ukraine across the Southern Federal District and the Volga Federal District of Russia to western Kazakhstan, forming part of the larger Eurasian steppe, adjacent to the Kazakh steppe to the east. It is a part of the Palearctic temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands ecoregion of the temperate grasslands, savannas, and shrublands biome.

The area corresponds to Cimmeria, Scythia, and Sarmatia of classical antiquity. Across several millennia the steppe was used by numerous tribes of nomadic horsemen, many of which went on to conquer lands in the settled regions of Europe and in western and southern Asia.

The term ‘Ponto-Caspian region’ is used in biogeography for plants and animals of these steppes, and animals from the Black, Caspian, and Azov seas. Genetic research has identified this region as the most probable place where horses were first domesticated.

According to the dominant Kurgan hypothesis in Indo-European studies, the Pontic–Caspian steppe was the homeland of the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language, and these same speakers were the original domesticators of the horse.

Kazakhstan’s Akmola Province is believed to be the location of the earliest domestication efforts, while other discoveries place this activity as far back as 4000-3500 years BC, in the Eurasian Steppes. 

Image of horses

According to Anthony, “the spread of the Yamnaya horizon was the material expression of the spread of late Proto-Indo-European across the Pontic–Caspian steppes.” Anthony further notes that “the Yamnaya horizon is the visible archaeological expression of a social adjustment to high mobility – the invention of the political infrastructure to manage larger herds from mobile homes based in the steppes.” 

According to Pavel Dolukhanov the emergence of the Pit-Grave culture represents a social development of various local Bronze Age cultures, representing “an expression of social stratification and the emergence of chiefdom-type nomadic social structures”, which in turn intensified inter-group contacts between essentially heterogeneous social groups.

The genetic basis of a number of physical features of the Yamnaya people were ascertained by the ancient DNA study conducted by Haak et al. (2015), Wilde et al. (2014), Mathieson et al. (2015): they were genetically tall (phenotypic height is determined by both genetics and environmental factors), overwhelmingly dark-eyed (brown), dark-haired and had a skin colour that was moderately light, though somewhat darker than that of the average modern European.

Their dialects might then have developed into Proto-Celtic. The arrival of Indo-Europeans into Italy is in some sources ascribed to the Beakers. A migration across the Alps from East-Central Europe by Italic tribes is though to have occurred around 1800 BC.

From the late 3rd to the early 2nd millennium BC, tribes coming both from the north and from Franco-Iberia brought the Beaker culture and the use of bronze smithing, to the Po Valley, to Tuscany and to the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily. 

The Bell Beaker culture is understood as not only a particular pottery type, but also a complete and complex cultural phenomenon involving metalwork in copper and gold, archery, specific types of ornamentation and shared ideological, cultural and religious ideas. The Bell Beaker period marks a period of cultural contact in Atlantic and Western Europe on a scale not seen previously, nor seen again in succeeding periods.

The Beakers could have been the link which brought the Yamna dialects from Hungary to Austria and Bavaria. 

When the massive migration (thought to be militaristic in nature) moved over the land, their people, often warriors, died along the way, and the tradition was to build a kurgan – and these have been found by archaeologists:

Image of kurgan

The Kurgan people culture existed during the fifth, fourth, and third millennia BC; they lived in northern Europe, from N.Pontic across Central Europe. The word “kurgan” means a mound or a barrow in Türkic. Kurgan culture is characterized by pit-graves or barrows, a particular method of burial. They are also called the Pit-grave people (Pit-grave culture), or Barrow people (Barrow culture).

Thousands of kurgans are attributed to this event. These migrations probably split off Pre-Italic, Pre-Celtic and Pre-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European. By this time the Anatolian peoples and the Tocharians had already split off from other Indo-Europeans.

During the late Bronze Age, the Urnfield culture (cremation of their dead and ashes placed in special urns) might have brought proto-Italic people from among the “Italo-Celtic” tribes who remained in Hungary into Italy. These tribes are thought to have penetrated Italy from the east during the late 2nd millennium BC through the Proto-Villanovan culture. They later crossed the Apennine Mountains and settled central Italy, including Latium. 

In the mid-2nd millennium BC, the Terramare culture developed in the Po Valley. The Terramare culture takes its name from the black earth (terra marna) residue of settlement mounds, which have long served the fertilizing needs of local farmers. These people were still hunters, but had domesticated animals; they were fairly skillful metallurgists, casting bronze in moulds of stone and clay, and they were also agriculturists, cultivating beans, the vine, wheat and flax. The Latino-Faliscan people have been associated with this culture, especially by the archaeologist Luigi Pigorini.

During the Late Bronze Age (1350-1150 BC), we can hypothesise a greater degree of diversified territorial organisation, including centres which are larger and tending towards hegemony, adjacent to smaller sites. In certain areas during the Late Bronze Age (LBA) we see a higher frequency of sites occupying a larger extension and a scant presence of small-size settlements, perhaps due to a marked tendency towards concentration of population. This trend seems to be accentuated during the advanced LBA, when the overall number of settlements decreases, with a tendency towards concentration in larger-size settlements and probable subordination of the smaller settlements to the larger ones.

Scientists examined 7,000-year-old ancient pollen and charcoal samples from the Nile to piece together the time – and found evidence of a ‘mega drought’ in the the area. 

The droughts brought fires, famine and social unrest to the region. Pollen grains obtained from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee have also provided similar evidence that the region endured a 150 year drought between 1250BC and 1100BC.

Professor Eric Cline, director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University says there was a sharp decline around 1250 BCE in oaks, pines, and carob trees—the traditional flora of the Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age.

Plants usually found in semiarid desert regions increased while the number of olive trees – an important crop plant – also declined.

And so we find that, around 1200 BC, a serious crisis began for the terramare culture that within a few years led to the abandonment of all the settlements; the reasons for this crisis, roughly contemporaneous with the LBA collapse in the eastern Mediterranean, are still not entirely clear. It seems possible that, in the face of an incipient overpopulation (between 150,000 and 200,000 individuals were calculated) and depletion of natural resources, a series of drought periods led to a deep economic crisis, famine, and consequently the disruption of the political order, which caused the collapse of society. Around 1150 B.C. the terramare were completely abandoned, with no settlements replacing them. The plains, especially in the area of Emilia, were abandoned for several centuries, and only in the Roman era did they regain the density of population reached during the terramare period.

Finally, we gradually see the tribes of central Italy going through evolved stages toward the formation of a pre-Roman existence. Rome was to be eventually located some distance from the earthquake prone Apennines.

Archaeologists divide the pre-Roman history of central Italy into three periods:

1. Proto-Villanovan (1200 BC – 1000 BC)

The Proto-Villanovan culture dominated the peninsula and replaced the preceding Apennine culture. The Proto-Villanovans practiced cremation and buried the ashes of their dead in pottery urns of a distinctive double-cone shape. Generally speaking, Proto-Villanovan settlements have been found in almost the whole Italian peninsula from Veneto to eastern Sicily, although they were most numerous in the northern-central part of Italy. The most important settlements excavated are those of Frattesina in Veneto region, Bismantova in Emilia-Romagna and near the Monti della Tolfa, north of Rome. The Osco-Umbrians, the Veneti, and possibly the Latino-Faliscans too, have been associated with this culture.

2. Villanovan (1000 BC – 750 BC)

The Villanovan culture is closely associated with the Celtic Halstatt culture of Alpine Austria, and is characterised by the introduction of iron-working, the practice of cremation coupled with the burial of the ashes in distinctive pottery. The earliest remains of Villanovan culture date back to approx. 1100 BC

3. Etruscan (750 BC – 300 BC) 

The Etruscans, to the north, provided a model for trade and urban luxury. Etruria was also well situated for trade and the early Romans either learned the skills of trade from Etruscan example or were taught directly by the Etruscans who made incursions into the area around Rome sometime between 650 and 600 BCE (although their influence was felt much earlier). The extent of the role the Etruscans played in the development of Roman culture and society is debated, but there seems little doubt they had a significant impact at an early stage. 

At one time researchers thought these were three separate cultures. Today, they tend to consider them three phases of a single, evolving culture.

And last, but not least, bear in mind the seismic activity of the Apennine Mountains, a significant feature of Italy.

Map of Italy highlighting the Apennine range 

The Apennines spine of Italy

The Abruzzi Apennines, located in Abruzzo, Molise (formerly part of Abruzzo) and southeastern Lazio, contain the highest peaks and most rugged terrain of the Apennines. They are known in history as the territory of the Italic peoples first defeated by the city of Rome.

The Apennines also conserve some intact ecosystems, which have survived human intervention. In here there are some of the best preserved forests and montane grasslands in the whole continent; now protected by national parks and, within them, a high diversity of flora and fauna. These mountains are, in fact, one of the last refuges for the big European predators such as the Italian wolf and the marsican brown bear, now extinct in other countries of central Europe.

The mountains lend their name to the Apennine peninsula, which forms the major part of Italy. They are mostly verdant, although one side of the highest peak, Corno Grande is partially covered by Calderone glacier, the only glacier in the Apennines. It has been receding since 1794. The eastern slopes down to the Adriatic Sea are steep, while the western slopes form foothills on which most of peninsular Italy’s cities are located. The mountains tend to be named from the province or provinces in which they are located; for example, the Ligurian Apennines are in Liguria. As the provincial borders have not always been stable, this practice has resulted in some confusion about exactly where the montane borders are. Often but not always a geographical feature can be found that lends itself to being a border.

60 kilometer to the East of present day Rome runs the Apennine mountain chain, and here there are earthquakes. It is the distant echoes of these quakes which so damaged the Colosseum. 

And the scene is set for my next blog, the tribes who built the Mesoamerican city of Teohuacan compared with the tribes who went on to build the city of Rome.

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Obsidian Power: Part Two

Fact: You can’t hang on to your power base if the drinking water has dried up or become contaminated.

It comes as no surprise that we find early humans dwelt close to abundant water supplies, recognising humans can endure many months without food, but not without water. 

When mammoths roamed these lands they too expired as researchers now make clear:

The two major reasons for why megafauna like the mammoth went extinct are thought to be climate change and human predation. As the climate warmed, humans expanded into new territories that were formerly blocked by ice or too harsh to sustain life on an ongoing basis……..Those mammoth that outlived all other mammoths survived on land which became cut off by rising seas, forming islands, making them dependent on fresh water resources on an ever shrinking landmass. These islands were: Wrangel Island, a Russian island in the Arctic Ocean, and Saint Paul Island, off the Alaskan coast. The latter is the last-known location where mammoths survived in North America (3600 BC), while the Wrangel population lived until roughly 2000 BC. They died as freshwater dried up, sea levels shrank the island area.

Saint Paul island lacks any spring or source for fresh water, which means there was no way to restore its supply. As the climate dried, the amount of water available to the mammoths would have dwindled, while rising sea levels allowed salt water to penetrate the soil from below. Salt water penetrating freshwater is like poison. They would drop in their tracks after drinking from water they had previous found safe.

Water shortages in present day Mexico City

For at least a decade there has been a water crisis in Mexico City.

Mexico City has expanded over a huge area, where 5 lakes existed, but now water is hard to find as a crumbling sewage and their water supply system is exacerbated by floods and effects on the ground below, which is triggering instability and seismic reactions.


Once there was plenty of water.

There used to be a vast lake named Lake Texcoco

Map of Lake before it was drained:
This Lake had been revered and was integral to the Mesoamerican remarkable building of early civilisations.

One of those cities was Tenochtitlán.

Image of model of Aztec Tenochtitlán

an amazing city, built on an island in the Lake, existing between A.D. 1325 and 1521, largely destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés after a siege in 1521, and modern-day Mexico City now lies over much of its remains. 
Lake Texcoco (Spanish: Lago de Texcoco) was a natural lake within the “Anahuac” or Valley of Mexico.

Between the Pleistocene epoch and the last glacial period, the lake occupied the entire Mexico Valley. It is called a valley but really it is more like a great bowl within the mountain ranges. 

Lake Texcoco reached its maximum extent 11,000 years ago with a size of about 2,189 square miles (5,670 km2) and over 500 feet (150 m) deep. 

When the lake’s water level fell it created several paleo-lakes that would connect with each other from time to time.

A recent analysis of a skeleton, named Tepexpan Man, found in 1947 in the sediment of the Lake, has revealed new understandings regarding the Mesoamerican people who lived there:

 Dr. Gonzalez …reconstructed the environment of Lake Texcoco around the time of Tepexpan Man by analyzing sediments and fossils from the area. Dr. Gonzalez and her team analyzed sand, clay, and volcanic ash, as well as fossils of diatoms (microscopic algae) and ostracods (a form of small crustacean). When Tepexpan Man was alive, the lake was very deep, full of fish, and surrounded by trees. The environment surrounding Lake Texcoco experienced major changes over the past 20,000 years including several volcanic eruptions, changing water levels, and numerous types of vegetation. These environmental changes clearly affected populations living in the area. Today, Lake Texcoco is almost dried up. It sits on the northeast outskirts of Mexico City. 

The Lake was primarily fed by snowmelt and rain runoff when the Mexico Valley had a temperate climate. Between 11,000 and 6,000 years ago, the climate naturally warmed (classified as the Holocene Epoch when the Earth began warming after the last Ice Age) and snowfall in central Mexico became less prevalent. This caused the water level of the lake to drop over the next several millennia. Remnants of the ancient shoreline that Lake Texcoco had from the last glacial period can be seen on some slopes of Mount Tlaloc as well as mountains west of Mexico City. 

Image of Mount Tlaloc (Spanish: Monte Tláloc, Aztec Nahuatl: Tlālōcatepētl) 

Agriculture around the lake began about 7,000 years ago, with humans following the patterns of periodic inundations of the lake. Farming was developed, and corn (maize) was, and still is, a staple food product of Mexicans. The complexity of the genetic breeding of grasses to create corn was not known anywhere else on the planet. The brilliance of the human endeavour to create this vital food stuff has still not been explained.

Image of maize

The Balsas River valley was possibly one of the earliest maize growing sites in Mexico, dating from around 9200 years ago. Though it is known that successive communities of Yop, Coixica, Matlatzinca (Chontal), Tlahuica and Xochimilca with Nahua succeeding in the end have lived in the region, archeological excavations in the area are yet to establish the hierarchical succession of the various communities. 

Several villages appeared on the northeast side of the Lake Texcoco between 1700 and 1250 BC. 

There are a series of wonderful educational maps which help us understand the Holocene population development in this area of Mexico.


By 1250 BC the identifying signs of the Tlatilco culture, including more complex settlements and a stratified social structure, are seen around the lake. 

By roughly 800 BC Cuicuilco had eclipsed the Tlatilco cultural centers and was the major power in the Valley of Mexico during the next 200 years when its famous conical pyramid was built. Cuicuilco may be the oldest city in the Valley of Mexico and was roughly contemporary with, and possibly interacting with, the Olmec of the Gulf Coast of lowland Veracruz and Tabasco(also known as the Olmec heartland).

Cuicuilco means: “Place where songs and dances are made”.

View of south side of the pyramid:

Facing view of pyramid:

The Xitle volcano destroyed Cuicuilco around AD 30. Xitle lies in the Ajusco mountain range. Ajusco is a Náhuatl word variously translated as ‘source of waters’ or ‘watered grove’. 

Ajusco image

Some think the power base of Cuicuilco was a threat to the developing power base of Teotihuacan as their farming produce was vital for the growing population of Teotihuacan. Once it was no more, the land and surviving people were siezed by the Teotihuacanoes. This expanded their power base, being less dependent on these previous trading partners and providing easy access to the established trading routes developed by the people of Cuicuilco.

The city of Teotihuacan may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD, but its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around AD 550 during a period of unrest when the fresh water supply began to fail and the once powerful leading priests could no longer ‘give’ the community this vital requirement.

At its zenith, perhaps in the first half of the 1st millennium AD, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it at least the sixth largest city in the world during its epoch. They left no written history since their system did not elicit a need to develop a written language. The ethnicity of the inhabitants of Teotihuacan is the subject of debate. Possible candidates are the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac ethnic groups.

Scholars have suggested that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic state.

The name Teōtīhuacān was given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs centuries after the fall of the city around AD 550. The Nahuatl scholar Thelma D. Sullivan interprets the name as “place of those who have the road of the gods.” They understood how to develop a power base using expertise over water use and worshipping their god of water, placing those best able to demonstrate water control at the top of the community respect table. 

They chose to build their magnificent city in an area of easily obtainable obsidian, but the land was mostly infertile. They traded obsidian in exchange for food which was being grown by other communities around them. Their trading abilities were built over time until others recognised them as superior traders. They developed a strong and powerful army to protect their power base, utilising the ready source of obsidian to create efficient weaponry of sharp spears and arrows. Their armies conquered other territories and their population grew, creating ever greater demands on water supplies within a landscape which began to suffer regular drought.

It was only when their water supply dried up that their power base soon declined and the civilisation disintegrated.

Without clean drinking water many power bases have crumbled, even when laden with trading goods, it is just stuff which cannot be exchanged for a continual supply of fresh water.

Field Museum scientist Laure Dussubieux, in a recent article about her work studying the likely ‘collapse’ of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island, she said something I think we should bear in mind whenever we study past human communities:

“What happens in this world is a cycle, what happened in the past will happen again,” Ms Dussubieux said. “Most people don’t live on a small island, but what we learn about people’s interactions in the past is very important for us now because what shapes our world is how we interact.”

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Obsidian and Power: Part One

One of the most fascinating subjects I personally keep returning to is the area around the Gulf of Mexico and that point in Earth’s history when she was hit by a massive asteroid and the millions of years of global non avian dinosaur existence came to an end. I’ve written blogs previously, dipping into findings from books and online, to research ongoing history of that most cursed and blessed location.

Beginning with the impact of a large meteorite, at the site of Chicxulub Crater, just west of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, researchers noted higher levels of iridium at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary (K–Pg boundary), (see Alvarez Nobel Prize winning hypothesis, 1980,–Paleogene_boundary) which occurred approximately 65 to 66 million years ago (Ma). This extinction event resulted in 75 percent extinction of animal and plant species in a geologically short period of time, recorded in studies of the sediment from the point of the crater to areas around the world.

In addition to finding increased levels of iridium, recent research of the asteroid sent carbon, embedded in the rocks, vaporising due to the impact, forming tiny airborne beads (carbon structures) that blanketed the planet. This was discovered in 2008 by Indiana University Bloomington geologist Simon Brassell, study coauthor and former adviser to the paper’s lead author, Mark Harvey. The scientists concluded the cenospheres could have been created by a new process, the violent pulverization of the Earth’s carbon-rich crust.

Scientists now estimate the total mass of carbon cenospheres ejected by the asteroid collision, assuming a global distribution, to be perhaps as much as 900 quadrillion kilograms. Only animals underground and creatures underwater could have survived when the air burned so hot.

In 2018, scientists are warning that the earth is heating up to the level where we, who have flagrantly sought and burned fossil fuels, are close to the brink of a further 2 degree increase in temperature which will be the tipping point from which we can no longer save ourselves. The sixth extinction will begin.

Map of earth 66 million years ago

Around the same time as the asteroid hit, the largest volcanic range in the world was erupting – the Deccan traps in India.

Image of Deccan Traps

Here is an extract from information on the volcanic Deccan Traps in India,

“In addition, there is some evidence to link the Deccan Traps eruption to the asteroid impact which created the Chicxulub crater in the Mexican state of Yucatán. Although the Deccan Traps began erupting well before the impact, argon-argon dating suggests that the impact may have caused an increase in permeability that allowed magma to reach the surface and produced the most voluminous flows, accounting for around 70% of the volume. The combination of the asteroid impact and the resulting increase in eruptive volume may have been responsible for the mass extinctions that occurred at the time that separates the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods, known as the K–Pg boundary.”

The land-living dinosaurs were destroyed but they were victims of a perfect storm; a devastating meteorite hitting the worst ever point on Earth, and volcanic eruptions of the Deccan Traps concurrently occurring.

But we humans have been on Earth for a blip of time compared to the lumbering dinosaurs. We know Africa has the longest record of human habitation in the world since the first hominins emerged, but that was just 6-7 million years ago. Whilst our ancestors evolved, the earth changed what it had to offer for humans to adapt or die as they took on the challenge to survive. Over time, Homo sapiens had acquired adaptive abilities to survive in many friendly but also seemingly hostile environments. Their genetics and interbreeding passed on protections from disease, skills for survival and abilities to assess new situations and environments. Our adaptable nature seems like a great asset, but the Earth has been plundered by us again and again as we expect more and more from its bounty. We see threats – we turn them into opportunities. We see volcanoes, yet we live close to them. (Fossils of early hominins were found in the East Rift Valley – a volcanic area, see an earlier blog

Volcanoes are  

….generally found where tectonic plates are diverging or converging, and most are found underwater. For example, a mid-oceanic ridge, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, has volcanoes caused by divergent tectonic plates whereas the Pacific Ring of Fire has volcanoes caused by convergent tectonic plates. Volcanoes can also form where there is stretching and thinning of the crust’s plates, e.g., in the East African Rift and the Wells Gray-Clearwater volcanic field and Rio Grande Rift in North America. This type of volcanism falls under the umbrella of  ‘plate hypothesis’ volcanism. Volcanism away from plate boundaries has also been explained as mantle plumes. These so-called  ‘hotspots’, for example Hawaii, are postulated to arise from upwelling diapirs with magma from the core–mantle boundary, 3,000 km deep in the Earth. Volcanoes are usually not created where two tectonic plates slide past one another. Extract from

Most volcanoes are located along the Pacific Ring of Fire, where tectonic plates can slide beneath one another and cause a disturbance. We have only learned about tectonic plates in the past 60 years. In 1912 the meteorologist Alfred Wegener amply described what he called continental drift, expanded in his 1915 book The Origin of Continents and Oceans, and the scientific debate started that would end up fifty years later in the theory of plate tectonics.

The size of the volcano eruption depends on how much time a volcano has had to build up pressure — some of the biggest volcano disasters came after a long period of dormancy. 

Early August 2018 saw the 6.9 mag earthquake hit the Indonesian islands in the Pacific of Bali, Lombok and islands nearby. 

A supervolcano eruption about 74,000 years ago on Indonesia’s island of Sumatra caused a large-scale environmental calamity that may have decimated Stone Age human populations in parts of the world. But some populations, it seems, endured it unscathed.

Scientists said excavations at two nearby archeological sites on South Africa’s southern coast turned up microscopic shards of volcanic glass from the Mount Toba eruption, which occurred about 9,000 kilometres away.

Mount Toba belched immense amounts of volcanic particles into the atmosphere to spread worldwide, dimming sunlight and potentially killing many plants. It was the most powerful eruption in the past two million years and the strongest since our species first appeared in Africa.

Hawaii’s largest island has been devastated by the volcano Kilauea, the biggest and most active of the island’s five volcanoes and is one of the most active in the world. It is situated on the southern shore of Hawaii’s “Big Island”. It has been erupting consistently since 1983 after a period of being dormant. Yet beautiful homes have been built in its shadow and farming has been extensive because of fertile soils. Now much is covered beneath foul smelling, burning lava.

Timeline of events from May 3,2018

May 3, 2018: The volcano erupted dramatically several hours after a magnitude-5.0 quake struck the Big Island.

The eruption spewed lava into residential subdivisions in the Puna district of the Big Island, prompting mandatory evacuations of the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions

Lava flow on May 3 was caused by a series of earthquakes on the eastern side of the Big Island

The island’s largest earthquake in more than 40 years struck a day later on May 4

The magnitude 6.9 tremor hit near the south part of the volcano, following a smaller quake that rattled the same area

May 12: The USGS reported a shallow but small earthquake with a magnitude of 3.5 had struck the island

May 13: New fissures roaring like jet engines and spewing magma opened up, piling lava as high as a four-story building

The 300m long crack is the 17th to have opened since the volcano began erupting

Locals say 45kg chunks of lava were hurled into the air as smoke and steam spewed into the air

May 15: Rumours circulated suggesting the volcano could cause a “mega-tsunami” – these claims were refuted by Hawaii County officials

May 16: Plumes of between 3,000 to 6,000 feet rose from the volcano

The Hawaiian Electric Company restored power to all 571 customers in Aiea affected by a power outage on the morning

May 17: The volcano erupted sending a plume of ash six miles into the air – Kilauea was also blasting out “ballistic blocks” the size of kitchen appliances

May 20: A man was injured by “lava splatter” – projectile molten rock – whilst he sat on his balcony

May 25: A 4.4 magnitude earthquake struck near the summit of Kilauea, according to the US Geological Survey

June 3: A 5.5 magnitude earthquake rattled the summit of Kilauea sending an ash plume 8,000 feet into the sky, officials said.

The huge quake was one of 500 in the summit area in a 24 hour period – which is a record for the Hawaiian volcano

June 5: A growing river of molten rock flowing from a fissure at the foot of the volcano is believed to have demolished scores of additional homes.

The latest estimates – up to 80 more structures – could bring the total number of homes and other buildings lost over the past month to nearly 200.

The massive lava flow has filled in a small bay at the eastern tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, civil defence officials said.

June 18: Lava continued to spew out of the volcano. More than 600 homes are believed to be destroyed by the violent eruptions.

July 16: Lava bomb sent molten rock crashing through tourist boat injuring 23 following another eruption

This description illustrates the human vulnerability to Nature and explains why humans have always been drawn to the magnificence of such power contrasted at the same moment with pure terror experienced by many who flee for the lives.

When the land masses of South America collided with the land mass which we now call North America, the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans were created, separating a much larger ocean in two and the land bridge (Panama) allowed land animals to move between North and South. This event occurred 2.8 million years ago, not long after what we refer to as the beginning of the dramatic Pleistocene, 2.5 million years BP. This area is a tectonic plate meeting point.

Almost all of Mexico sits atop the south-west corner of the massive North American plate (see map). Immediately to the south is the much smaller Caribbean plate. The North American plate extends westwards from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs through Iceland and down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, to the western edge of North America. In a north-south direction, it extends from close to the North Pole as far south as the Caribbean.

For more details see

Image of major Six Mexican Volcanoes which form the volcanic axis:

Left to right Ixtaccíhuatl, Popocatépetl, Matlalcueitl (Malinche), Cofre de Perote (most distant), Pico de Orizaba, Sierra Negra
Map of Mexico and volcanic sites

And map of obsidian sites

Since the Stone Age skills acquired by humans were extensive by the time the Osmec and Lapita cultures developed. Amongst other skills, they were by now adept at making tools, some of which were used to carve sophisticated and huge statues from the volcanic rock. Volcanic basalt rock is easier to carve than many other forms of rock. See my earlier blog on carved heads from basalt in Mexico, Easter Island at

Obsidian was valued in Stone Age cultures because, like flint, it could be chipped to produce hand axes, sharp blades or arrowheads.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans’ used obsidian often. It was worked for tools and decorative objects. It was also polished to create early mirrors. Mesoamericans also made a type of sword with obsidian blades mounted in a wooden body. Called a macuahuitl, the weapon could cause terrible injuries, because it combined the sharp cutting edge of an obsidian blade with the ragged cut of a serrated edge.

Native American people traded obsidian throughout North America. Each volcano and in some cases each volcanic eruption produces a distinguishable type of obsidian. So archaeologists can trace the origins of a particular artifact. Obsidian can be identified in Greece as coming from different islands in the Aegean Sea. Obsidian cores (unworked lumps) and blades were traded great distances inland from the coast.

Obsidian was named after a Roman explorer named Obsius who reportedly visited Ethiopia. His name serves as the origin of the term since his discovery of its use whilst on his travels in Ethiopia where obsidian was traded. 

Obsidian is more often dark, the colour varies on the presence of different materials. Iron and magnesium typically give the obsidian a dark green to brown to black color. A few samples are nearly colorless. In some stones, small crystals produce a snowflake pattern (snowflake obsidian). It may contain patterns of gas which produce effects such as a golden sheen (sheen obsidian) or a rainbow sheen (rainbow obsidian).

Image of obsidian:

The characteristics of the Lapita culture are the extension of human settlement to previously uninhabited Pacific Islands scattered over a large area, distinctive geometric dentate-stamped pottery, the use and widespread distribution of obsidian, and the spread of Oceanic languages.

The Lapita culture or tradition was a prehistoric Pacific Ocean people from c. 1600 BCE to c. 500 BCE, running concurrently with the amazing Osmec “cradle of civilisation” of Mesoamerica. 

Both used obsidian for practical and ornamental use. The Lapita sources of obsidian have been researched and presented in a paper  

Obsidian sources in Mesoamerica are limited in number and distribution, and are restricted to the volcanic regions of the Sierra Madre Mountains as it runs through Mexico and Guatemala.

The range extends from northern Sonora state near the Mexico-U.S. border at Arizona, southeastwards to the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt and Sierra Madre del Sur ranges. The high plateau that is formed by the range is cut by deep river valleys. This plateau is formed from volcanic rock overlying a basement of metamorphic rock.

Over thousands of years, the intelligent evolving human brain eventually recognised obsidian and ancestral memory ensured knowledge of its potential. The dexterous human hands honed the glass-like structure into whatever was required. From Africa, after travelling over thousands of years, this knowledge was passed down to generations and still, today, obsidian is used in beautiful jewellery and sometimes in the medical world as special scalpels for delicate work.  

In Part Two we will see how the Teotihuacan civilisation grew to become a major influence for centuries thanks to recognising the potential of an obsidian monopoly.

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