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Anthropology: Florida anthropologists uncover a jungle town


New technologies have enabled researchers to uncover previously unknown areas of the ancient city of Caracol in Belize.

Arlen and Diane Chase, a husband-and-wife anthropology team from the University of Central Florida, spent 28 years bushwhacking their way through the jungles of west-central Belize, mapping and excavating Caracol, an ancient Mayan city buried under a thick canopy of rainforest.

They and their students had mapped nine square miles of settlement, 1.5 square miles of agricultural terracing and 25 miles of roadways but believed there was more. They estimated that as many as 100,000 people had lived in the city — a figure that some archeologists questioned without more evidence.

In 2009, the Chases began using a new remote-sensing technology called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) that enabled them — from the air — to see beneath the jungle’s canopy and cover more terrain more quickly. Four days of laser-mapping revealed that Caracol had been a huge city encompassing approximately 70 square miles, an area roughly as big as Washington, D.C. The laser images also uncovered tens of thousands of agricultural terraces the Mayans had built to feed the inhabitants of their sprawling city, 11 previously unknown causeways and numerous hidden buildings and structures obscured by dense tropical overgrowth.

The results astonished the Chases. “We didn’t expect it to go this well,” says Diane Chase. The terraced fields they had mapped, for instance, were far more extensive than they’d thought and covered virtually the entire metropolis. “They modified the city landscape on a mind-boggling scale,” she says.

Arlen Chase
Arlen Chase examines remains from Caracol. Chase and his wife, both UCF professors, use new remote-sensing technology to explore the terrain.

The LiDAR data also verified the couple’s previous population estimates for Caracol. “The data show the full extent of Caracol, how the settlement was structured and how the ancient Maya radically modified their landscape to create a sustainable urban environment, challenging long-held assumptions about the development of civilization in the tropics,” Chase wrote in a 2010 article in Archaelogy magazine.

The Chases hope that the new technique and other emerging technologies will help answer one of the greatest puzzles of modern archaeology — what led to the collapse of Maya civilization around 900 A.D.

While scientists have hypothesized that everything from drought to warfare to the overexploitation of natural resources decimated the Maya, the Chases say they believe that internal social and political stresses likely played a major role in the collapse. One potential clue: The distribution of goods and ritual items over the ages. Archaeological finds from 550 to 790 A.D. showed that the general population and the elite shared many of the same kinds of wares and tombs, for example. In later years, that “symbolic egalitarianism” vanished and may have, the Chases postulate, to Caracol’s eventual collapse.

The Chases are hopeful that they’ll be able to answer more questions as the technology evolves.

“As we have new technological advances — the LiDAR is certainly one (and) our ability to analyze skeletal material for dietary information is another — but I suspect there will be other things we’ll be able to do. When we can get to a place where we can actually look at genetic ties among the population, that will help give us answers,” says Diane Chase. “So we’re going to keep getting closer. Whether we’re going to be absolutely there, I’m not sure.”

Diane Chase
Diane Chase is hoping technological advances can help solve the mystery of Caracol’s demise.

» Interstate Commerce

Florida residents have apparently been cultivating business relationships with other regions for much longer than you might imagine. Keith Ashley and his students at the University of North Florida have unearthed evidence that the natives who lived in the Jacksonville area around 1000 A.D. participated in long-distance interaction and trade networks that brought mica, galena, copper and stone to the region. “We have copper that’s been sourced to the Appalachian Mountains and to the Lake Superior region” in the upper midwest, says Ashley, an anthropology professor and coordinator of archaeological research for UNF. Ashley says they likely moved the goods via waterways. “It’s just faster and easier to go by canoe, but undoubtedly there’s going to be areas where they’re going to have to move by land.”

Ashley and his students, along with colleague Robert Thunen, are also searching for La Caroline Colony, known today as Fort Caroline, which was built in the Jacksonville area in 1564 by French Huguenots. “What we’re trying to do is reconstruct the social geography of the Native American landscape in the 16th century,” says Ashley.

UNF dig
UNF students dig for clues to Florida’s past.


» A Home for Freedom

Uzi Baram
Uzi Baram

In the late 1700s until around 1821, as many as 700 escaped slaves lived in a community they founded called Angola somewhere along the Manatee River in what is now Bradenton. What we know about Angola today was pieced together by Florida historian Canter Brown Jr., who first read references to Angola in historical documents when he was researching his book “Florida’s Peace River Frontier” in the late 1980s. But the exact location of the settlement, which was destroyed in 1821 by members of the Lower Creek Native Americans, possibly under orders from Andrew Jackson, remains a mystery. Uzi Baram, a professor of anthropology at New College and lead archaeologist in the “Looking for Angola” research project that aims to locate the remains of the settlement, says its discovery would contribute significantly to African-American archaeology. “These communities show that people did not want to live as slaves. They refused to accept that tyranny, and they had to take great chances to escape it and live as free people,” Baram said.