Unearthing a duck-billed hadrosaur

Paleontologists work on the fossilized skeleton of what they believe is a duck-billed hadrosaur, among the last and most common dinosaurs to roam the earth. The skeleton was discovered in 2005 in Coahuila state, abutting Texas, but an official dig didn't begin till July 2. So far, according to a press release from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (which provided the photo), the paleontologists have uncovered some 50 vertebrae of the giant beast, revealing details of articulation that will help scientists learn more about the way the bipedal hadrosaur moved about. The location of the dig is near the town of General Cepeda, in an area that is known for its fossilized dinosaur bones.  


Discovery of a new Mayan ruin

Deep in the jungles of southeast Campeche state, archaeologists have discovered a significant new Mayan site, called Chactun, or Red Rock, that was thrived roughly from 600 to 900 A.D.

DETALLE DE LA ESTELA 1. COMPLEJO OESTE. FOTO MAURICIO MARAT INAHThe site, never reported previously, is “one of the largest sites ever registered in the Central Lowlands,” the National Institute of Anthropology and History said.

Led by Ivan Šprajc, a team of Mexican and foreign archaeologists and experts financed by National Geographic came across the ruin a few weeks ago after studying aerial photos. The expedition was also financed by the Austrian firm Villas and the Slovenian company Ars longa. That's Šprajc in the photos, by the way.

"It is one of the largest sites in the Central Lowlands, comparable in extent and magnitude of its buildings to Becan, Nadzcaan and El Palmar in Campeche," said Šprajc, a Slovenian researcher.

It wasn’t easy to get to the 55-acre site. The explorers and archaeologists followed ancient trails used by gum tappers and loggers.

“The road is passable only with four-wheel drive and one must continually stop to cut back the vegetation with a machete that block the path,” the Institute press release said.

Here’s more from the press release. If language is a little stilted, it's because I ran Google Translate on it:

“The site comprises three monumental complexes. The West, which covers an area of over 11 hectares, while the Southeast and Northeast together account for a combined equal area.

“Around these spaces are scattered numerous pyramidal, palatial structures, including two ball courts, patios, plazas, sculptured monuments and residential areas. While the tallest pyramid, 23 meters high, is located in the West Complex, what is most impressive is the volume of building construction.

“It is the stelae and altars, some of which still contain stucco, that best reflect the splendor of this city in the so-called Late Classic Period (600-900 AD).

“Contemporary Maya cities to Chactun include Calakmul, Becan and El Palmar-known for their large number of altars and stelae, which combine carved inscriptions with painted stucco, a rare feature in this type of monument.

“Of the 19 stelae recorded so far, three are the best preserved.”



A mammoth find near the capital

Vista general de los huesos del Mamut descubierto en Santa Ana Tlacotenco, en Milpa Alta. FPTP DMC.INAH. M MARAT
Pity this poor prairie Mammoth. He apparently fell into a ditch at the moment of a volcanic eruption some 10,000 or 12,000 years ago. Hot ash buried him until the past month or so.

Mexican archaeologists are busily unearthing the remains of the mammoth in Santa Ana Tlacotenco, a village on the mountainous outskirts of Mexico City, according to a release by the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Costillas y vértebras del mamífero extinto. FOTO DMC.INAH. M. MARATArchaeologists have excavated 70 percent of the beast, which probably weighed 10 tons, stood 16 or 17 feet tall and was 30 years old, it said. It probably strayed from a mammoth herd in search of a female, it added.

The archaeologists are working at an elevation of about 9,200 feet above sea level, an altitude a little above where the mammoths were thought to live in the basin area around present day Mexico City before their extinction.

This mammoth is not the woolly mammoth made well known by the Ice Age animated movies. Rather it is a Mammuthus columbi, an extinct mammoth similar to an elephant. The Institute release describes the tusk-like protrusions as a bony “defense apparatus,” not tusks. But other sources I see (this one) calls the prairie mammoth had tusks as long as 16 feet. The tusks alone could weigh up to 500 pounds.

The dig is drawing crowds of curious residents of the region, at least 100 a day.

The mammoth skeleton “is one of the most complete ever found in the Mexico Basin, which will allow a more complete study of the animal,” the institute said.


Spring equinox at the pyramids

Some 41,000 tourists flocked to the main 12 pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico Thursday to celebrate the spring equinox. Apparently the tradition is to wear all white clothing, maybe some red beads, and to raise one's hands to "recharge" one's energies. It's not precisely my cup of tea, so I haven't done it, and I'm on the Texas border to boot where there are no ruins. Above is the Temple of Kukulkan at the Chichen Itza ruin in the Yucatan above. The government said the greatest number of tourists -- 21,200 -- went to the Teotihuacan ruins near Mexico City. Below is a photo from Teotihuacan today, provided by the National Institute of Anthropology and History, as is the one above.


Party like it's the End of the World

Will you await the End of the World cuddled up to the stone Snake Deity at the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza (above)? Don’t bring anything except a bottle of water.

There are going to be some crowds this week. December 21 marks the end of a 5,128-year Mayan cycle, and foreign tourists are already flocking to Mayan sites.

The learned folks over at INAH – Mexico’s anthropology institute – are rolling their eyes at the fuss. They have pooh-poohed any talk that the end of the Mayan cycle means Apocalypse. But I guess they got word not to deter any mini tourism boom among New Age mystics and spiritual adventurers. So they sent out a notice this week to alert tourists of conditions.

If you plan to party like the end of the world is nigh, it’ll be tough.

Be forewarned -- you cannot take the following into Mayan sites: Food, alcohol, backpacks, large bags, coolers, child strollers, bicycles, skates, tripods, firearms, umbrellas or anything sharp.

So that leaves sun tan lotion and a bottle of water. Maybe a hat.

At least you can hydrate while we pass from what the Mayans called the 13th Bak'tun into the next era under the Mayan Long Count calendar.

Luxury hotels in Cancun have been advertising End of the World promotions, replete with oceanfront suites and champagne. But apparently in Guatemala, some hoteliers say projections that 150,000 to 200,000 tourists would flock to the area of the beautiful Tikal ruins in the Peten region were overblown (link in Spanish).

Plenty of famed Mayan sites are open to the public – like Chichen Itza and Uxmal en Yucatan state, Edzna in Campeche, Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, and Tulum in Quintana Roo – but one key site is closed. That site is El Tortuguero in Tabasco state. It is there where archaeologists discovered Monument 6 – whose inscriptions are the only known reference to the end of the current 13th Bak'tun era and the commencement of a new era.

If you want to get NASA’s outlook on Dec. 21, click here. Here’s a sum up:

“The world will not end in 2012. Our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years, and credible scientists worldwide know of no threat associated with 2012.”
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper has amusing wall-to-wall coverage of End of the World fever. It notes here that dozens have been arrested in China in recent days for spreading doomsday fever. Russia also has some kooky goings on as citizens buy up emergency supplies.

The paper’s take: “So what is apocalypse fever, then? Just a few bulging pockets of apocalyptic stupidity.”


But did he eat Aztec Alpo?

Mexican anthropologists reported today that they are studying a mummified dog found in a cave in a semi-arid region of northern Mexico.

ESPECIALISTAS DEL INAH, ANALIZARÁN AL ÚNICO PERRO MOMIFICADO DE MÉXICO. EL CÁNIDO TIENE ALREDEDOR DE MIL AÑOS DE ANTIGÜEDAD.  FOTO DMC. INAH. M MARATMummified dogs have only been found in Egypt and Peru, so the recovery of the parched canine has got the National Institute of Anthropology and History excited.

The dog was found in the Candelaria Cave in the Lagunero area that stretches across parts of Coahuila and Durango states. Anthropologists say a hunter-gatherer group may have domesticated it.

Early estimates are that the mummified dog is 1,000 years old.

The contents of Candelaria Cave were actually discovered in 1953. The cave contained some 200 bodies and 2,500 relics, including funerary vessels, bows and arrows, knives, textiles, baskets, wooden figures and jewelry. The relics and the mummy of the dog were just returned by a regional museum to the Institute.

Anthropologists quoted in an Institute press release say they hope to learn if placing dogs as companions in human burial grounds was a tradition among the ancient peoples, or if it shows general domestication of dogs.

Anthropologists will measure the mummified dog carefully, X-ray it and conduct Carbon 14 testing to determine its exact age, the institute said.

Then they may discover its breed. Any bets on whether it's a precursor of a Chihuahua? Or a Coahuila Collie? Or a Lagunero Labrador? Then again, maybe it’s just an ancient mutt. 


A proliferation of 'Magical Towns'

Could there be such a thing as too many “Magical Towns” in Mexico?

The Magical Towns (Pueblos Magicos) program was started in 2001 by the Tourism Secretariat as a way to recognize the numerous colonial towns in the country with beauty and cultural relevance.

Many of the places awarded as Magical Towns have colonial houses, cobbled streets, ancient churches and beautiful settings.

Late in August, the state gave Valladolid, a colonial Yucatan city close to the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, the designation. The map above from the Tourism Secretariat lists some of the others.

Problem in my mind is, Valladolid now becomes the 56th Magical Town in Mexico. How many more will there be? Can they all be so magical? Wouldn’t it be better to limit the number to those that are knock-your-socks-off wonderful?

Item: Click here for a website that discusses various angles of the Magical Towns. It also notes that Loreto in Baja California Sur has also become a Magical Town, bringing the list to 57. 


Couple returns an unusual souvenir

There’s an interesting story I saw this morning out of the newspaper in Grand Junction, Colo. A couple there, Rob and Beverly Elliott, have decided to return a valuable book to Mexico.

The couple was on their honeymoon in 1972 in Mexico City, staying at the Hotel Maria Cristina near the Zona Rosa, when they wandered into a book store.

An unbound copy of the 1907 book "Los Calendarios Mexicanos” caught their eye. The clerk, apparently thinking they would take good care of it, offered to sell the book. They plopped down somewhere around $50 and carried it off, storing it for decades in a cedar chest.

Turns out the book is quite a rarity. Written by celebrated Mexican historian Mariano Fernandez de Echevarria Veytia in the mid-18th century, only six known copies exist today in reasonable condition. The book contains colorful illustrations that appear to explain Aztec and Mayan calendars. And with all these predictions that the Mayan calendar predicts apocalypse a year from now, we'd all better get to studying...

The Elliotts told the Grand Junction Sentinel that they met a Mexican cultural official in Denver last year and decided they had to return the book to the Mexican government. 

Some time this week, the Elliotts say they will turn over the book so that it can be held at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City and “contribute to a better understanding of Mexican history by Mexicans themselves.”

 “We decided we’ve got to do this,” Bev Elliott said.


On Trotsky, and new uses for pyramids

A surprising bit of world history unfolded in a tranquil corner of the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacan in 1940, and over the weekend I went to the museum dedicated to the event. I can highly recommend it, as well as a day trip we made to a rather extraordinary place outside the capital.

IMG_0302 Tucked in a tranquil corner of Coyoacan is the Leon Trotsky Museum, which documents how the iconic socialist leader fled the Soviet Union, hounded out by Josef Stalin, passing through Turkey, France, Norway and onward until he ended up in Mexico City.

It was here where as he sat in his study, a Spanish agent of Stalin who had gained the confidence of one of his secretaries buried an ice pick in his head on Aug. 20, 1940.

The Trotsky Museum has survived better than the Soviet Union, but like socialism in general it has seen better days.

Still, it is a remarkable repository of photos, and the brick home where Trotsky lived with his Russian wife Natalia, and briefly his grandson, is kept just as it was for the years he dwelled there. The books in multiple languages are lined up in bookshelves, and more than 70 bullet holes pock the walls (see photo above) where Trotsky survived an earlier assassination attempt partly organized partly by none other than the famed Mexican muralist David Siqueiros, a diehard Stalinist.

On Sunday, we went to Cholula, a town near Puebla famed for an iconic church built more than four centuries ago on top of a great pre-Columbian pyramid. You may have seen photos of the church, which features regularly on tourism posters for Mexico.

IMG_0402 The pyramid, now largely covered with vegetation, stands 180 feet above the surrounding plain, and the Our Lady of Remedies church is at its peak. The church was started in 1594, and I kept thinking that it was older than even Jamestown in Virginia. 

A steady wind blew and Mexican children flew kites from the flanks.

At the bottom were vendors and we tried pozol, the ancient drink made from cacao (the base for chocolate) and ground corn. It was served to us from a large clay vat, and as she stirred the vendor described to us how important it was to maintain the froth on top.

Can’t say I’d go back for a refill. But it certainly tasted nutritious. And the trip overall was fascinating. To get there, one takes the highway to Puebla that goes along the northern flank of Ixtaccihuatl, one of Mexico’s tallest volcanoes. At its highest point, the road is flanked by evergreen trees and any sense of being in a subtropical area vanishes.



Remote ruins along the Usumacinta

I traveled to the Mexican border with Guatemala this week to write a story. At the last minute, I decided to go to a border crossing called Frontera Corozal, which is about 150 kilometers southeast of Palenque, a town near famed Mayan ruins. It is in a remote area of Chiapas state.

IMG_0078 As it turns out, the village is on the Usumacinta River (River of the Sacred Monkeys) and you hear the howler monkeys everywhere. 

It also turns out that about a half-hour boat ride downriver are the Yaxchilan Mayan ruins so I took a few hours off and visited.  I can’t say I would recommend a similar visit to everyone. The security situation is somewhat dicey. But there were a few Mexican and foreign tourists.

That said, the ruins were really quite spectacular, partly because one is immersed in jungle and nothing else. The ranger there, an ethnic Chol, told me about an encounter his friend had had with a jaguar just a little further downriver. He was fishing on the bank when he heard a swooshing sound from something sliding down the embankment. Somehow the inkling arose in him that it might be a jaguar. He turned and looked about 20 yards away. The jaguar was licking his paws and alternately looking at the human before him. The fisherman, quivering no doubt, backed right into the waters of the Usumacinta and signaled to a friend in a motorized launch to get to him – FAST! The jaguar crept down the hill toward the wading fisherman but turned tail when the outboard motor roared to life on the launch. Close call.

The Usumacinta, by the way, is really beautiful. The waters were a sort of jade green and the outcroppings of limestone along side were really cool. Water levels are low at this time of year, which creates some eddies and slight whitewater. At some points, it’s only about 40 yards across. But swimming it might not be advisable. It’s said to contain crocodiles.



This blog is written by Tim Johnson, the Mexico bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers.

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