Mexico archaeology discoveries help scientists unlock mysteries of earliest humans in the Americas

One research team’s findings challenge the longstanding theory of when humans first arrived in the Americas

Today's expression: Piece together
Explore more: Lesson #285
August 13, 2020:

Mexico is rich with archaeological gems, but one recent discovery in a cave in central Mexico is challenging the history of humans in the Americas. The research team found thousands of stones, human DNA, and charcoal to back up their claims – but not everyone is convinced. Another discovery sheds light on Mesoamerican life in the Sixth Century. Plus, learn the English expression “piece together.”

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A discovery in Mexico claims—claims—to revise the history of humans in the Americas

Lesson summary

Here we go again for another Plain English lesson. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and this full lesson can be found at PlainEnglish.com/285.

Coming up today: Two teams of archaeologists in two different parts of Mexico have made discoveries that shed light on life long ago. One team thinks it has made a big discovery about the earliest humans in the Americas. We’ll see if you agree—all that and more coming up today, including the expression, which is “piece together.”

Recent discoveries in Mexico

Two recent discoveries in Mexico show just how rich that country is in archaeological history.

Let’s start with the splashier of the two discoveries. In central Mexico, a research team with the University of Zacatecas appears to have discovered evidence that humans were in the Americas much earlier than previously thought. The prevailing scientific opinion is that early humans crossed the Bering Strait from Asia to North America only about 13,500 years ago. Based on their findings, the researchers believe people were in that area 26,000 years ago. If that’s true, based on what we know about ice sheets that once covered the area, early humans would have had to cross into the Americas over 30,000 years ago. If these researchers are right, then humans have been in the Americas for up to twice as long as previously thought. But that’s a big “if.”

For almost ten years, researchers have been excavating deep into the Chiquihuite Cave in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. They uncovered thousands of stones they believe were tools crafted by early humans. They also found charcoal that radiocarbon dating pegs between 12,000 and 32,000 years old. Charcoal is significant because it suggests there was human activity creating fire, but it’s not clear whether it was burned by humans or whether it burned naturally.

The research team didn’t find any human bones, but they did find some human DNA in the sediment layers nearby. However, since it’s not possible to accurately date human DNA, it’s unclear whether the DNA was just contamination from modern humans in the cave. The research team published its findings in the prestigious scientific journal “Nature.”

Not everyone is buying it. The evidence in the paper has been extremely controversial, and many think it’s a stretch to claim that the stone tools were created by humans. Many critics say that the recently-published evidence isn’t strong enough to overturn the current scientific theory about how humans got to the Americas. Some experts think it’s more likely that the stones were formed by natural geological processes. As one expert put it, “Humans don’t have a monopoly on the physics required to break rocks.”

In another story, local residents in the central Mexican state of Puebla recently found two ancient carved stone monuments on a mountaintop. The monuments are believed to date back more than 1,500 years to sixth century Mesoamerica.

Mesoamerica is a historical region in modern-day Central America, spanning parts of what is now Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Some of the most well-known Mesoamerican cultures are the Maya and Aztec. There were many unique cultures during this time, but Mesoamerican people are broadly known for their advanced pictographic writing systems, following a 260-day ritual calendar, and believing in many gods within each culture.

To get to the mountaintop site where the monuments were found is not an easy feat. You would have to hike about two and a half hours along a rocky path, and climb up to a height of 6,000 feet, so it’s no wonder that locals stumbled upon the site before archaeologists did. It’s also not surprising that the monuments were found in Puebla. The area is rich with hidden archaeological gems from thousands of years of indigenous settlement.

The recent excavation has unearthed two large, etched stone panels and many smaller carved stones that are all well-preserved. In total, 87 glyphs, or symbols, have been found so far – hinting at a sophisticated writing style. The glyphs are helping archaeologists piece together what life was like there in the Sixth Century.

Some of the carvings depict horned figures and animals, including iguanas and eagles. There is also a large female figure in one of the glyphs, possibly a goddess, that resembles a bat.

Experts are still analyzing the site: it’s a very long, careful process. But they think it might have been built by the Zapotecs. They are a Mesoamerican culture that populated modern-day Puebla in Mexico, originating there about 2,500 years ago. Zapotecs are also known as the “Cloud People” because the leaders believed that they descended from supernatural beings who lived in the clouds. After they died, they believed they would return to the clouds to be with their supernatural ancestors. Experts say the leaders’ homes would have been located at the top of the mountain, close to where the monuments were found, and closest to the clouds.

Writing contest winners

We have a winner! No, we have three winners! When we debuted the new web site back in June, we included a free coronavirus writing challenge. It was a five-day course and it’s part of all membership levels at Plain English, including the free level. And the end of the course, you have the chance to produce your own written essay about your experience with the coronavirus.

I said that anyone who finished by June 30 would have the chance to win some prizes, so we have three winners. They are, in third place, Cristian from Italy; in second place, Arwa from the United Arab Emirates; and in first place, Camila from Brazil.

Now look, there were a lot of submissions, and I read them all. And they were honestly all great. Dozens of you finished that course and produced a final description of your experience with the virus. As I was reading these, I had this sinking feeling in my stomach when I realized I could only pick three winners. It was hard, but I did it. Congratulations to all of you who finished the course. But big congratulations to Cristian, Arwa, and Camila.

For their efforts, Arwa and Cristian will receive a free Kindle e-book of their choice. And I have offered to work directly with Camila to help her even more on the final product. So three winners, three prizes.

The writing course is still open. You do have to be a member, though, and it’s included in the free membership . If you’re not yet a member, you can join right from the home page at PlainEnglish.com. If you are a member, you can see a link to the course on your dashboard.

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Expression: Piece together