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World Roundup

  • Dominican-Republic-La-IsabelaDOMINICAN REPUBLIC: La Isabela was the first permanent, non-Viking European colony in the New World. Founded in 1494 by Christopher Columbus and more than 1,000 settlers, the town was haunted by sickness and death. Twenty-seven skeletons excavated from the site in the 1980s and 1990s were recently reexamined and showed that most were afflicted with severe scurvy, caused by vitamin C deficiency. The resulting fatigue and pain likely contributed to the colony’s dismal prospects—it lasted just four years.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Mexico-Chili-Pepper-DomesticationMEXICO: Plant scientists have used four approaches—ecological, linguistic, genetic, and archaeological—to zero in on the home region of the first domesticated chili peppers. All lines of evidence, including the range of Proto-Otomanguean, the oldest language thought to have a word for chili peppers, and the oldest known archaeological pepper remains, converge on north- and central-eastern Mexico. No wonder the mole sauce in Puebla is so good.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Chile-Mummy-ArsenicCHILE: Inca and Chinchorro mummies have long shown evidence of exposure to naturally occurring arsenic. Scientists applied sophisticated optical tests to hair from a 1,000- to 1,500-year-old mummy to determine how she had been exposed to the toxic element. Arsenic suffused the hair all the way through, indicating it had been ingested in contaminated groundwater, rather than deposited from surrounding soil after burial. Groundwater in some parts of the Atacama Desert is still tainted with arsenic today.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Ireland-Smuggler-StepsIRELAND: Steps and niches for candles or lanterns cut into the rocky coast near Baltimore, County Cork, may point to a hive of pirates and smugglers. The area was host to a pirate alliance that was defeated by a Dutch fleet in 1614. Underwater archaeologists hope that the rocky steps, one set of which leads to a cavern accessible by water (perfect for illicit activity), indicate that pirate ships, and perhaps the entire alliance fleet, might be in nearby waters.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Denmark-Medieval-LatrineDENMARK: Digs in Odense have exposed the town’s medieval history—and bouquet. Among the finds are a barrel-lined well connected to a building thought to have been a brewery. Wood at the site, including two more barrels that had been used as latrines, is well preserved. The privies are going to be troves of information on medieval diet, hygiene, and health. According to archaeologists, they also preserve the smell of the Middle Ages.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Saudi-Arabia-Lizard-Diet2SAUDI ARABIA: According to historical sources, people have long eaten Arabian spiny-tailed lizards. According to tradition, Muhammad did not eat them himself, but did not condemn the practice. At the site of al-Yamâma, archaeologists uncovered remains of lizards among those of other food animals, and at least one bone has a cut mark. The lizard bones appear in early layers (4th to 7th century, before and just after the establishment of Islam) and continue to the 18th century. The reptiles remain a source of protein and fat in some parts of the harsh desert today.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Kazakhstan-Silk-Road-CropsKAZAKHSTAN: Bands of nomadic herders were stepping stones for the spread of crops between opposite ends of Asia 5,000 years ago—the seeds of what would become the Silk Road. Archaeobotanical analysis at their seasonal camps shows that the pastoralists had access to both wheat from Central and Southwest Asia and millet from East Asia. The seeds were found only among cremation burials, so they might have served some ritual purpose. The nomads’ own agricultural tradition appears to have started 1,500 years later.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Mongolia-Genghis-KhanMONGOLIA: Adverse climate changes are often cited in the declines of civilizations—see the Indus, Ancestral Pueblo, Bronze Age Mesopotamia, Classic Maya, Tang Dynasty, and more. Surely good weather also made a mark on history. According to a study of tree rings in gnarled, ancient Siberian pines, Mongolia was pleasant—warm and wet—from 1211 to 1230, coinciding with the rise of Genghis Khan. More rain would have meant more grass, which meant more livestock, wealth, and warhorses—the engines of the Mongol army.—SAMIR S. PATEL

  • Vanuatu-Lapita-DietVANUATU: Most of what is known about the Lapita, the culture that colonized the remote South Pacific 3,000 years ago, comes from pots. Human remains are rare. Researchers have conducted isotopic studies on remains from the largest known Lapita cemetery—68 burials—for insight into their diet. They found that it was some time before crops were established as a significant part of the menu. The earliest colonists relied instead on a forager’s diet of fish, turtles, fruit bats, and free-range but domesticated pigs and chickens.—SAMIR S. PATEL