Did Romans shake hands with ancient Mexicans before Columbus?

February 08, 2000

COULD Romans have landed in the New World before Columbus? Quite possibly, say two anthropologists, who have produced the first reliable evidence that an artefact found in Mexico is of Roman origin, and that it almost certainly arrived in the New World before the Spanish.

Roman Hristov, an independent anthropologist formerly at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, decided to investigate a black terracotta head that was first unearthed in 1933 in the Toluca Valley, approximately 65 kilometres west of Mexico City (see Map). The head, which is just a few centimetres tall, represents a bearded man and is different in style from any other known pre-Columbian artwork.

Although much had been written about the head since its discovery, Hristov found that no one actually knew where it was. With the help of Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovs, he finally found it in 1994, locked away in a Mexico City museum.

To determine when the head was made, Hristov drilled some material from the remains of its neck. He then took the sample to be tested at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg using a technique called thermoluminescence.

In this method, heat forces high-energy electrons that have accumulated in the sample over time to release their energy as light. By measuring the light released, the researchers were able to estimate that the terracotta was fired 1800 years ago.

Hristov also consulted art experts, who agreed that the head was Roman, dating roughly to AD 200. Furthermore, a review of the circumstances surrounding the head's original discovery confirmed that the head was placed in the burial ground where it was found no later than 1510, a decade before the Spanish arrived in Meso-America.

Crucially, the head was excavated from the site by professionals, says David Kelley, an archaeologist at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. "This was sealed under three floors. It's as close to archaeological certainty as you can get."

Hristov believes the head is the first hard evidence of pre-Hispanic transoceaniccontacts between the Old and New Worlds. But it is unclear whether it will resolve what is one of the most contentious debates in modern cultural anthropology.

"I see no reason why ancient contact is not possible," says Betty Meggers, an anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, who says that ancient Ecuadorian and Japanese pottery have identical features.

David Grove, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Champaign agrees the head is Roman, but questions its significance. It could, for example, have been taken off a Roman shipwreck on the Mexican coast, which would not require significant interaction between ancient Americans and Romans, he says. There is also no evidence of ancient cultures from Europe or elsewhere making a significant mark on pre-Columbian cultures.
Author: Jonathan Knight, San Francisco
New Scientist issue 12th February 2000

Source: Ancient Mesoamerica (vol 10, p 207)


New Scientist

Related Anthropologist Articles from Brightsurf:

'Selfish and loveless' society in Uganda really is not
A mountain people in Uganda -- branded as selfish and loveless by an renowned anthropologist half a century ago -- really is not, according to a study led by a Baylor University anthropologist.

Leaving money on the table to stay in the game
Unlike businesses or governments, organisms can't go into evolutionary debt -- there is no borrowing one's way back from extinction.

Uganda's Ik are not unbelievably selfish and mean
The Ik, a small ethnic group in Uganda, are not incredibly selfish and mean as portrayed in a 1972 book by a prominent anthropologist, according to a Rutgers-led study.

Pro-science vs anti-science debates
Recent attacks on 'grievance' studies have occasioned renewed attention to the politics of knowledge in the academy.

Farmers have less leisure time than hunter-gatherers, study suggests
Hunter-gatherers in the Philippines who adopt farming work around ten hours a week longer than their forager neighbours, a new study suggests, complicating the idea that agriculture represents progress.

Scientists confirm pair of skeletons are from same early hominin species
Separate skeletons suggested to be from different early hominin species are, in fact, from the same species, a team of anthropologists has concluded in a comprehensive analysis of remains first discovered a decade ago.

Rapid genetic evolution linked to lighter skin pigmentation
The gene that causes lighter skin pigmentation, SLC24A5, was introduced from eastern African to southern African populations just 2,000 years ago.

Young, hip farmers: Coming to a city near you
The population of American farmers is aging, but a study in the journal Rural Sociology shows a new generation of farmers is flocking to cities with large populations, farmers markets and the purchasing power to support a market for niche goods.

UC anthropologist rewrites history using science, art
University of Cincinnati anthropology and University of Bordeaux medical science reveal ancient thyroid disease using science and art

Portland State study shows pitfalls of using the term middle class
Middle class describes an economic tier between rich and poor.

Read More: Anthropologist News and Anthropologist Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.