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SMITHSONIAN TROPICAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE—Police detectives analyze isotopes in human hair to find out where a murder victim was born and grew up. Ashley Sharpe, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, and colleagues combined clues from carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and strontium isotope analysis discovering the earliest evidence that the Maya raised and traded dogs and other animals, probably for ceremonial use.
Their results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of March 19.
Asia - Africa - Europe - Animal - Management
"In Asia, Africa and Europe, animal management went hand-in-hand with the development of cities," said Sharpe. "But in the Americas people may have raised animals for ceremonial purposes. The growth of cities doesn't seem to be directly tied to animal husbandry."
Sharpe found that animal trade and management began in the Preclassic Period some 2,500 years ago and intensified during the Classic Period, making it likely that organized ceremonies involving animal and human sacrifice and raising animals for food played important roles in the development of Maya civilization.
Isotopes - Atoms - Number - Protons - Electrons
Isotopes are atoms that have the same number of protons and electrons but different numbers of neutrons and therefore have different physical properties. For example, carbon has two stable isotopes: carbon 12 with six protons and six neutrons and carbon 13 with six protons and seven neutrons. Carbon in animals' bodies comes from the plant tissues they consume directly or indirectly. Most plants use the most common type of photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. This process leaves mostly the lighter carbon isotope, carbon 12, behind, bound up in carbohydrate molecules. Corn, sugar cane and other grasses use another type of photosynthesis that concentrates heavier, carbon 13 molecules. Nitrogen isotopes in proteins demonstrate a similar pattern.
Sharpe and colleagues analyzed the isotopes in animal remains from Ceibal, Guatemala, a Maya site with one...
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