I found an intriguing pair of articles on the BBC recently that seemed to have a common theme: the usefulness of ancient allergens in archeological study. I grant you, the fact that they’re allergens is not mentioned in the articles, but to an allergy sufferer, that was what made the link for me and I now find it odd that both articles were up on the same day.
The first article was about using ancient pollen to find the origins of the various types of terra cotta soldiers at the Emperor’s tomb in Xi’an, China. I have had a fascination with the imperial tomb for a while, since I wrote a paper on Qin Shihuang during college, and then traveled to China, where I actually got to stand on top of the tomb itself, imagining what was inside.
But anyway, back to the article. The traces of pollen in the clay of the soldiers can be used to figure out where all the different figures were made. As the article states:
Soils from different regions contain distinct pollen “signatures”, reflecting variations in vegetation.
However, it may not be an entirely accurate technique, because:
…if the clay came from an area near a river or stream, it could contain pollen from many sources washed in by the water. And if the clay was from a very old source, it could preserve information about vegetation that existed long before the time of the terracotta army.
And while the expert interviewed pointed out that there were probably better ways to figure out the origins of the figures, I still thought it was very neat that pollen could be so useful. It’s certainly abundant here in North Carolina right now. Maybe someday it will have a purpose beyond coating my car.
The second article was about using fossilized dung mites to chart the rise and fall of anciet civilizations. Scientists in Peru were studying mud core samples and noticed such a strong presence of mites that they decided to investigate.
When the scientists started to record the numbers of mites, they obtained a plot with a very distinctive pattern…
They found a huge increase in the number of fossil mites as the empire expanded from the Cuzco area in the early 1400s. A sudden drop in numbers corresponded with the collapse of the native population after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
Historical accounts from the time also document that two-thirds of the llamas in the Cuzco area died of skin diseases.
The scientists believe that this technique could be successful in obtaining more information about prehistoric societies in many areas of the world, having gotten such accurate information from the Inca investigation. On the other hand, it was probably easier to interpret the Inca evidence because they did have historical documentation from the time, but I’m probably being pessimistic. All further knowledge can only add detail to the current picture of such societies, and it’s really neat that such a small thing as a mite could end up revealing so much.