Thursday, March 29, 2007

A Mite Unusual




Whether you are a great emperor, or even just an ordinary Joan, all of us hope that our accomplishments will survive somehow across the generations into the distant future. At the least, perhaps archaeologists to come will discover our bones or our discarded trash and learn something about us. However, when you are identified not by your great works, or your physical remains, but by the tiny animals living in the dung of your domesticated livestock, well, let's just say that takes my feelings of self-importance down a notch or two.

Archaeologists working on samples from the bottom of the now silted up Lake Marcacocha, near Cuzco, Peru, have discovered the remains of tiny fossilized mites, like the one pictured above. These mites typically live on the dung of large herbivores, such as llamas. Furthermore, you can date the mites by how far down they are in the sediment. It turns out that there is a huge peak in the number of mites right after the founding of the Inca empire. This can be correlated with the growth of llama caravan routes radiating out from Cuzco to peripheral regions of the empire. After the Spanish conquest, trade collapsed, partly due to warfare and partly due to animal diseases brought by the Europeans that decimated the llama herds, and the mite population fell in tandem. By the 17th century, the number of mites increases again as the Spanish replace the native animals with horses and cattle.

There you go. The rise and fall of a great empire, written in the skeletons of tiny mites.

5 comments:

H Lime said...

Fascinating! More, more!
Have other cultures' expansions been similarly traced with fossilized dung mites? Do these fossils survive for thousands of years -- that is, could they be used to trace prehistoric Man?
Lime

Scott de Brestian said...

H Lime,

In principle, these mite remains can last indefinitely. However, since they are associated with herd animals, they could only be associated with human activity after the period of domestication. I'm not aware of any similar studies -- it requires rather specific circumstances (a lakebed near caravan routes, with a long period of deposition). You suggest an intriguing possibility, however; it may well be possible to trace the beginnings of domestication if we can find deposits old enough.

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