Peru: llama dung mites help study Inca history

LlamasFrom the BBC:

Llama dung mites track Inca fall

By Christine McGourty
BBC science correspondent

Scientists believe they have found a new way to track the rise and fall of some ancient civilisations – by studying fossilised mites that thrive in the dung of their livestock.

A team from America, France and Britain have been studying mites from the soil in the Andes in Peru and say the tiny creatures can provide clues to changing patterns of trade and of disease epidemics through history.

The researchers made the discovery, announced in the Journal of Archaeological Science, while studying mud cores from a lake near the town of Cuzco, the heart of the former Inca Empire.

Dr Mick Frogley, of Sussex University, UK, said: “We were looking at the lake sediments for evidence of climate change, but we found so many of these mites it piqued our interest.”

The tiny bugs – not much more than a millimetre across – are related to domestic dust mites often found in carpets or mattresses.

Some species live exclusively in moist grassland and pastures where they break down vegetable matter, including the droppings of grazing animals.

When the scientists started to record the numbers of mites, they obtained a plot with a very distinctive pattern.

Spanish signature

“It couldn’t have been better if we’d made it up,” Dr Frogley told BBC News. “It was that good.”

They found a huge increase in the number of fossil mites as the empire expanded from the Cuzco area in the early 1400s. A sudden drop in numbers corresponded with the collapse of the native population after the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

Historical accounts from the time also document that two-thirds of the llamas in the Cuzco area died of skin diseases.

Studying ancient civilisations can be difficult when they have left no detailed written records behind. But the researchers say they now have a new tool for examining the fortunes of native populations in the Andes.

The mite methodology could have more wide-ranging applications in the study of economic and social changes in other cultures through history.

“The Inca were a test-bed,” said Dr Frogley. “Now, the findings have given us confidence to look further back into the past at civilisations that pre-date the Inca.

“A lot less is known about their economic and social structures and why these other cultures disappeared from the archaeological record. The technique could help find some answers.”

He said it could also be used to study the Viking occupation of Greenland, which was also an animal-based economy.

See also here.

Spanish colonialism under Philip II: here.

First Known Gunshot Victim Of New World Found In Peruvian Inca Cemetery: here.

Peruvian Nazca culture: here.

Chibcha culture in Colombia: here.

Guanacos in Tierra del Fuego: here.

Alpaca surf video: here.


13 thoughts on “Peru: llama dung mites help study Inca history

  1. Ancient camel bones found in Arizona

    MESA, Ariz., April 28 (UPI) — The bones of a camel between eight and 10,000-years-old have been unearthed near Phoenix by a construction crew building a new Wal-Mart store.

    The find was made in Mesa, Ariz., by nursery owner and hobby-paleontologist John Babiarz, the East Valley (Ariz.) Tribune reported Saturday.

    Babiarz was supervising a work detail when the backhoe unearthed teeth, a lower jaw section, a hoof, a humerus, scapula, vertebrae and some rodent bones.

    The bones were four feet down in an area known as the Mesa Terrace where the Salt River was located during the Ice Age, said Brad Archer, curator of the R.S. Dietz Geology Museum at Arizona State University.

    Archer said the pre-historic camel would have been the size of a small pony and called the bones a unique find for the state.


  2. August 22, 2007

    Tennessee youth’s search uncovers Ice Age fossil

    of The Chronicle

    When the Ice Age Floods exhibit opens this fall at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, it will have a 14-year-old Tennessee boy to thank for one of the fossils on display.
    While visiting his grandparents in The Dalles, Mitchell Lauterbach and his father, Merl, found what are believed to be fossilized camel bones, while scouring the side of a nearby highway hill cut.
    “I was happy, excited, I always wanted to find something like a bone or an arrowhead,” said Mitchell. “I know you can’t pick up arrowheads, but I just like to explore.”
    That’s what he and his dad were doing in late July, as part of a longstanding tradition. His father, who grew up in The Dalles, used to do the same thing when he was his son’s age, hunting fossils with well-known local historian and fossil sleuth Lew Nichols.
    “He was like a second grandfather to me,” Merl Lauterbach said. “He took me all over Eastern Oregon. His hobby was rock-hunting and looking for fossils. Whatever I found, he’d put in his museum.” During much of Nichols’ lifetime his geology museum was located in what is now and was previously the Episcopal Church’s Eastern Oregon Diocese headquarters on Union Street.
    Because of Nichols’ influence, Lauterbach earned his college degree in geology.
    So when Mitchell started studying dinosaurs in school, his father knew just what to do.
    “There’s not much down here,” Merl said, “but we’d go out hunting, take walks through the creeks. We found a whole layer of bipods. That was pretty cool.”
    So it was natural that the two Lauterbachs should roam over familiar territory.
    “We just went around to the old places where he used to find fossils,” Mitchell said.
    The face of the highway cut offered a good prospects.
    “There’s a certain area — a darker layer of sediment — where the bones are,” Mitchell explained. “We just went up there and looked and we saw a black knob of a bone.”
    Mitchell wanted to take the bone home, but his father urged him to call an expert so the proper process could be followed.
    “He did exactly the right thing,” said Ken Karsmizki of the Discovery Center. “He found it and called somebody.”
    The Lauterbachs called Karsmizki who took on the responsibility of excavating the fossil, researching requirements and obtaining all the necessary permits.
    “Ken made it really neat,” Merl said. “He took Mitchell up to show him some of the other areas around Fifteenmile Creek [where they’ve found fossils]. He told Mitchell he would invite him along on future digs, if we’re out that way.”
    Karsmizki investigated what permissions would be necessary.
    “It depends on where it is,” Karsmizki explained. “If it’s on private land, the landowner owns the fossil.”
    Because the fossil was on highway right-of-way, Karsmizki contacted Wasco County, then finally the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Department of Geology and Mining Industries (DOGAMI).
    His investigations actually led to a change in how the procedure for initiating a fossil excavation is described on the DOGAMI website. Those interested are now required to check with the local ODOT office and insure themselves to protect the state from liability. Excavation of human remains is prohitibited, but fossilized animal remains may be gathered with appropriate permission.
    Karsmizki believes the fossil bones are part of a camel caught in mudstone.
    “It’s probably an Ice Age deposit,” he said, estimating the age at 70,000 to 10,000 years.
    Thomas Condon, the 19th century state geologist, wrote of finding camel bones here in the 1860s, Karsmizki noted.
    “One hundred fifty years later, we’re still able to go out and see camel bones,” he said.


  3. I just thought I’d let you know that the picture you have at the top of your website isn’t a picture of llamas it’s a picture of alpacas. A close cousin of the llama, however they have better temperments, have softer fleece and are smaller without banana ears.


  4. Peru lining its coffers with camelid fleece

    5:00AM Thursday August 21, 2008

    In this Andean nation far from glamorous runways, some of the most fashionable residents have four legs: vicunas, alpacas and llamas.

    Exports of the animals’ fleecy coats have nearly doubled to more than US$43 million ($60 million) in the past four years, as models strut catwalks from Paris to New York wearing fur from the long-necked animals in the form of pricey ponchos, pants and pea coats.

    Fleece shorn from the three species – known collectively as camelids – is “really soft and luxurious,” said New York-based designer Rachel Comey, who says she sold about US$200,000 worth of alpaca knitwear last year, including hats, gloves and alpaca-lined boots.

    Vicuna is the costliest, trimmed once every two years from the rarest of the three breeds, which roams the plateaued border region between Bolivia and Peru. A metre of the fabric sells for at least US$3000, while a basic stole starts at about US$950.

    A similar stole made of alpaca – which is farm-raised and makes up 99 per cent of camelid exports – sells for about US$47, while llama fleece is rarely commercially sold.

    The warm, dyeable fibres, long used for sportswear fleece, are being recast as a sexier luxury thread, spun into casual clothes and evening wear to appeal to deep-pocketed young professionals. Demand is partly driven by the fleece’s popularity with environmentally conscious designers, who want the softness of fur without the guilt, said Laird Borelli, a senior features editor at

    About 3863 tonnes of alpaca, vicuna and llama fleece were sold in 2006, the last year for which figures were available – mostly to Italy, Britain and China.

    – AP


  5. Pingback: Inca empire of llamas and maize | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: Pre-Inca archaeological discoveries in Peru | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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  9. Pingback: Alpacas helping to fight cancer? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  10. Pingback: Big fossil penguins found in Peru | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  11. Pingback: Prehistoric puma feces reveals oldest parasite DNA | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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