Newly Discovered 10,000 Year Old Las Vegas Culture Burials are the Oldest in Ecuador

Newly Discovered 10,000 Year Old Las Vegas Culture Burials are the Oldest in Ecuador

Las Vegas doesn’t just refer to the ‘city of lights’; for archaeologists in Ecuador Las Vegas also denotes an ancient culture that once thrived on the Pacific coast. But just because a culture is known to be ancient that doesn’t mean that all artifacts related to it have been found. In fact, as we’ve seen repeatedly around the world, some of the most ancient civilizations can still surprise us with fascinating archaeological discoveries. Such is the way with the recent discovery of three burials dating as far back as 10,000 years ago. This places them among the oldest graves found in Ecuador to date.

The graves were found by a joint Russian-Ecuadorian team who are researching the development of one of the earliest settlements in Ecuador . The researchers from Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) and Primorsky Polytechnic University in Guayaquil (ESPOL, Ecuador) were rewarded for their efforts with the discovery of three burials and stone tools at Loma Atahualpa in the Atahualpa canton.

Artifacts and artifact reconstruction, the Las Vegas culture of Ecuador. ( Not Your Average American )

The dating of the burials places them as part of the Las Vegas culture. This culture is considered the only preceramic culture on the coast of Ecuador and also the earliest settlement in what is now called Ecuador. It has been dated to the Holocene period from 8000-4600 BC. Theirs was one of the first societies in South America to make the shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture. Some of the Las Vegas settlements may now be covered due to rising sea levels. No one knows what happened to the Las Vegas culture, but the area they lived in was deserted for 1000 years following 4600 BC. Then the Valdivia culture arose in the same location.

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Artistic representation of a Las Vegas culture settlement. ( Nuestra cultura )

Today, Las Vegas archaeological sites are situated in the province of Santa Elena on the Ecuadorian coast. One of the most famous archaeological finds from this cultural period is the “ Amantes de Sumpa ” (Lovers of Sumpa), which is a double burial held in a museum in La Libertad. The Amantes de Sumpa died when they were between 20-25 years old and the nature of their burial suggests that they were close to each other and important members of their society. In general, Las Vegas era burials show that this culture had specific funerary rites. They wrapped the bodies of the deceased in fabric and then buried them with grave goods, such as shell objects, beside their houses. Large rocks were placed over the burial to protect it.

Los Amantes de Sumpa – a double burial from the Las Vegas culture. ( Manabi….Ecuador)

The researchers told reporters that they found stone tools and human remains dating to between 6,000 to 10,000 years old, but they gave few details on the nature of the burials or the artifacts. Alexander Popov, head of the FEFU expedition, said:

“The archaeological site of Loma Atahualpa is more archaic than Real Alto, its materials are transitional from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. We excavated three burials that were probably made at different times. This will make it possible to compare their materials and retrieve the new information on the development of ancient cultures.”

Real Alto is an ancient settlement in Ecuador. Last year, the team discovered ceramics at that site and declared them 6,000 years old. The newer findings suggest that Loma Atahualpa may have been even older.

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Ceramics found by FEFU at the excavation site in Real Alto, Ecuador. ( Far Eastern Federal University )

Since 2014, the researchers have been exploring the coastal region of Ecuador for indications on how the earliest inhabitants adapted to environmental changes. They hope the discovery will shed more light on the development of the earliest cultures to inhabit this area.

There is a similar project going on in Asia.


    A Long, Complicated Battle Over 9,000-Year-Old Bones Is Finally Over

    A reconstruction of Kennewick Man sculpted to resemble the Ainu people of Japan, considered by some at the time to be his closest living relatives. Now, a link to Native Americans has been confirmed. Brittney Tatchell/Smithsonian Institute hide caption

    A reconstruction of Kennewick Man sculpted to resemble the Ainu people of Japan, considered by some at the time to be his closest living relatives. Now, a link to Native Americans has been confirmed.

    Last week, there was a big development in the long-running, bitter, complicated battle over a 9,000-year-old set of bones known variously as "Kennewick Man" or "The Ancient One," depending on whom you ask.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed that the ancient bearer of the bones is genetically linked to modern-day Native Americans. Now, under federal law, a group of tribes that has been fighting to rebury him will almost certainly get to do so.

    The skeleton of Kennewick Man is represented by nearly 300 bones and bone fragments. Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institute hide caption

    It also means that scientists will probably never get another chance to study him, though ancient human remains from North America are incredibly rare, and forensic technology gets better all the time.

    "It's the chafe between science and spirituality," writes Kevin Taylor at Indian Country Today, "between people who say the remains have so much to tell us about the ancient human past that they should remain available for research, versus people who feel a kinship with the ancient bones and say they should be reburied to show proper reverence for the dead."

    There's a history to bitter tensions of this sort. Take the recent fight between native Hawaiian protesters and scientists who wanted to erect a telescope on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano considered sacred by some and "the best location in the world to observe the stars and study the origins of our universe" by others.

    None of these clashes exists in a vacuum they often come on the heels of decades, if not centuries, of genocide and erasure aimed at indigenous peoples and their ways of life. And so an object of scientific interest, be it a bone or a mountain, can come to stand for an entire civilization.

    Some say scientists need to rethink their whole approach to culturally sensitive research. Others say the unfettered pursuit of knowledge ought to trump belief if the faithful always got their way, we'd still think the Earth was flat. Who gets to decide? The twists and turns in the story of Kennewick Man — which has been told before, and well — suggest there's no easy answer, of course, but certainly provide an incredible case study for the future of this debate.

    A forensic mystery, or a moot point?

    Archaeologists hoped that Kennewick Man could help settle one of the greatest mysteries in the story of human migration: How did Homo sapiens make it to the Americas? Kevin P. Casey/AP hide caption

    Archaeologists hoped that Kennewick Man could help settle one of the greatest mysteries in the story of human migration: How did Homo sapiens make it to the Americas?

    The fight has been raging for 20 years, ever since a couple of college kids stumbled — literally — across a human skull while wading in a river in Washington state. They thought they'd found a murder victim, and flagged down a nearby cop, who called in a local expert. Instead, they had discovered some of the oldest, most complete human remains ever dug up in North America.

    Archaeologists dubbed the skeleton Kennewick Man, after the place he was found, and hoped his bones could help settle one of the greatest mysteries in the story of human migration: how did Homo sapiens, originating in Africa, end up in the Americas?

    The dominant theory was that humans trekked here on foot around 13,000 years ago, during the Ice Age, when seas were lower and a land bridge temporarily connected Siberia and Alaska. But other evidence suggests humans were already living on this continent well before that particular pathway was possible.

    So which was it? Did humans walk here, or somehow — incredible to imagine — paddle? Was there one wave of migration, or more? A study of Kennewick Man's bones could reveal what he ate, what he drank, how he hunted, and, of course, his DNA — all clues that could ultimately tell the story of where he, and his forebears, came from and how they got here.

    But a group of Native American tribes considered The Ancient One, as they call him, a direct tribal ancestor — and they didn't need science to explain how people ended up here. "From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time," a leader of the Umatilla tribe wrote in a statement at the time. "We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do."

    Working together, five tribes demanded that The Ancient One's remains not be poked or prodded in the name of science, and instead be promptly reburied in accordance with tribal custom — and under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. That federal law, passed in 1990, requires certain Native American artifacts and remains to be handed over to culturally affiliated tribes or provable descendants.

    "The tribes had good reason to be sensitive," writes Smithsonian Magazine's Douglas Preston. "The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people."

    But for these bones to fall under the protection of NAGPRA, there had to be proof of a connection between the remains and the people fighting to reclaim them today. The scientists said no such connection existed. The tribal leaders insisted it did they could feel it in their bones.

    That question ended up spawning an unprecedented legal and ethical battle in which prominent archaeologists and anthropologists would sue the U.S. government for the chance to study the bones. Femur bones would go missing under unexplained circumstances. Bitter arguments would be pitched over the migration patterns and feeding habits of sea lions, the curvature and racial implications of cheekbones, the validity of oral tradition as courtroom evidence.

    Eventually, the scientists did get a legally approved (though very brief and highly constricted) look at Kennewick Man, and what they learned is truly amazing. Based on the shape of his skull and other features, they theorized that he or his forebears may have been Asian coastal seafarers. They may have journeyed by boat along the south Alaskan shoreline and ultimately all the way down the Americas, hugging the coast and living off kelp, fish, sea lions and the like.

    This is the "coastal migration" theory of the peopling of the Americas, which suggests that a wave, or waves, of people traveled and lived along the Pacific coast long before other travelers chased herds of tasty mastodons and mammoths across a land bridge into Alaska.

    They also learned a tremendous amount about what Kennewick Man's life may have been like. Here's

    "Kennewick Man spent a lot of time holding something in front of him while forcibly raising and lowering it the researchers theorize he was hurling a spear downward into the water, as seal hunters do. His leg bones suggest he often waded in shallow rapids, and he had bone growths consistent with 'surfer's ear,' caused by frequent immersion in cold water. His knee joints suggest he often squatted on his heels. . Many years before Kennewick Man's death, a heavy blow to his chest broke six ribs. Because he used his right hand to throw spears, five broken ribs on his right side never knitted together. This man was one tough dude."

    Conflict, or collaboration?

    As of last week, it's likely that this tough dude is headed back to the earth. University of Chicago scientists confirmed another study, from last year, showing that Kennewick Man's DNA has genetic similarities to those of modern-day Colville tribal members. Now, members of the Colville tribe and four others say they'll work together to complete the repatriation — or reburial — process, and the government has shown zero interest in standing in their way.

    But while scientists may never get another chance to study these remains, even as biomolecular science is "advancing so rapidly that within five to ten years it may be possible to know what diseases Kennewick Man suffered from and what caused his death," writes Preston, the story of Kennewick Man raises all sorts of questions as to how researchers might avoid antagonizing local cultures to begin with — or whether they should have to try.

    One of the scientists involved in revealing a genetic connection between Kennewick Man and living Native Americans invited members of the five tribes into the lab, where they put on body suits and entered a "clean room" to pay their respects to The Ancient One. In the wake of Kennewick, scientists have been reflecting on ways to work with indigenous communities when these kinds of conflicts come up:

    "Many other researchers are taking a similar approach. [Dennis O'Rourke, a biological anthropologist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City] says that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy to working with native communities. He finds some of the North American Arctic groups he works with eager to contribute to his research, others are less so and their opinions shift over time.

    " 'We really have to change the top-down approach, where we come to people and say "these are our research questions and you should participate, because — SCIENCE," ' says Jennifer Raff, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin."

    Other scientists say there's a real danger in altering scientific methods to accommodate religious belief. Elizabeth Weiss, an anthropologist at San Jose State, outlined impediments to her own work in a 2001 paper on the Kennewick controversy, and argued that regulations like NAGPRA require far too little evidence proving a cultural connection to modern-day native communities. She also suggested that such regulations — which increased around the world in the wake of NAGPRA — can have a chilling effect on scientific research:

    "Consider having dedicated a large part of one's life to unearthing the materials that are now being examined. Even casts and other important works — such as videotapes, photos, and excavation records — are in increasing danger of confiscation. Some scientists have expressed fear that their federal grants would be in jeopardy if they objected too openly to current policies. Under such circumstances, most scientists do not even begin 'high-risk' projects. Finds that could threaten Native American origin beliefs are especially likely to be targeted. Defendants could become embroiled for years in expensive lawsuits that neither they nor their institutions can afford .

    "The politics of bone gathering in Africa are notorious . and one shudders to imagine what might happen if activists could convince modern Africans to claim early human skeletons as their ancestors, so that they too could be reburied."

    As this saga draws to a close, perhaps only one thing is certain. Wherever science, ethics and history collide, easy answers don't exist. The distinction between pioneering researcher and grave robber can depend entirely on whom you ask. But there's one more story worth telling here, that of another very old pile of North American bones that got a whisper of the attention that Kennewick Man has gotten, because the raging fight over what to do with them simply never got started. From Nature:

    "Just weeks before Kennewick Man's remains were discovered, researchers working in Alaska discovered a 10,000-year-old human skeleton. They notified local tribes and quickly came to an agreement that allowed them to excavate and study the remains and keep the tribes involved in the research. 'You don't really hear so much about the good cases,' says Raff."


    Assorted References

    Asia and North America remained connected until about 12,000 years ago. Although most of the routes used by the Paleo-Indians are difficult to investigate because they are now under water or deeply buried or have been destroyed by erosion and other geological processes,…

    …Native Americans are known as Paleo-Indians. They shared certain cultural traits with their Asian contemporaries, such as the use of fire and domesticated dogs they do not seem to have used other Old World technologies such as grazing animals, domesticated plants, and the wheel.

    The oldest remains of the Paleo-Indian tradition are found on sites where large Pleistocene mammals were killed and butchered. The most distinctive artifact type of this horizon is the Clovis Fluted projectile point, a lanceolate point of chipped stone that has had one…

    Remains in

    Paleo-Indians inhabited the Connecticut region some 10,000 years ago, exploiting the resources along rivers and streams. They used a wide range of stone tools and engaged in hunting, gathering, fishing, woodworking, and ceremonial observances. They are thought to have been seminomadic, moving their habitations during…

    A Paleo-Indian culture existed in southern Illinois from about 8000 bc . The Mississippian people, whose religious centre was at Cahokia in southwestern Illinois, constituted probably the largest pre-Columbian (c. ad 1300) community north of Mexico in the Mississippi floodplain. Native American tribes in Illinois were all…

    …the state of Iowa were Paleo-Indians, the earliest ancestors of Native Americans. They probably occupied ice-free land during the time when the Des Moines lobe was covered by glaciers, about 14,000 years ago. The earliest archaeological evidence of settlement, however, dates from about 8,500 years ago. The hunters and food…

    Paleo-Indian peoples, whose descendants include the Paiute, were the first inhabitants in the area, some 12,000 years ago. Their tools have been discovered at several sites in the Las Vegas Valley. The Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi) and Paiute peoples came later and migrated between seasonal camps…

    Remains of ancient peoples dating to 9000 bce have been found in Ohio. The later Adena and Hopewell cultures built elaborate burial and ceremonial mounds and also produced pottery, stone tools, polished stone pipes and other carvings, and ornamental metalwork. Both cultures had disappeared from the area…

    …by the great inland sea, prehistoric Lake Bonneville. By about 8000 bce , Utah’s ancient people had developed a local version of the widespread Archaic culture. Known as the Desert culture, these people used more diverse foods and implements than their Paleoindian forebears. Their way of life persisted until between 2500…

    Paleo-Indians, the earliest ancestors of Native Americans, arrived in what is now Wisconsin during or after the retreat of the last continental glacier, about 12,000 years ago. They built effigy mounds, of which at least 20 remain in the Madison area alone. When the first…


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    Archaeologists found the burial of Scythian Amazon with a head dress on Don
    The burial of the Amazon with a head dress made of precious metal dated back to the second half of the 4th c BC was found by the staff of the Don expedition of IA RAS during the examination of the cemetery Devitsa V of Voronezh Oblast.

    Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold
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    Tiny ear bones help archaeologists piece together the past
    For the first time archaeologists have used the small bones found in the ear to look at the health of women and children from 160 years ago.

    FEFU archaeologists have found the oldest burials in Ecuador
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    Nazca Lines and Aliens?

    Toribio Mejia Xesspe, a Peruvian archaeologist, began a systematic study of the lines in 1926, but the geoglyphs only gained widespread attention when pilots flew over them in the 1930s. Experts have debated the purpose of the Nazca Lines since then.

    In the late 1930s and early 1940s, American historian Paul Kosok studied the geoglyphs from the ground and air. Based on the relative position of one of the lines he studied to the sun around the winter solstice, he concluded that the geoglyphs had an astronomy-related purpose.

    Soon after, Mar໚ Reiche, a German archaeologist and translator, also concluded that the designs had an astronomical and calendrical purpose. She further believed that some of the animal geoglyphs were representative of groups of stars in the sky.

    In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, other researchers, including American astronomer Gerald Hawkins, examined the Nazca Lines and disagreed with the astronomical explanation for the geoglyphs. They also poked holes in other far-out explanations, such as those relating to aliens or ancient astronauts.


    Camarasaurus Bones

    The woman who approached Harrison and his team about purchasing her grandfather's dinosaur bones was pretty clueless about which dinosaur they came from and the origin of the bones. That made proving authenticity and estimating the value very tricky. As always, the Pawn Stars team called an expert in to provide an evaluation and offer advice.

    Andre LuJan determined the fossil was a leg from a camarasaurus. The camarasaurus was a giant herbivore that lived approximately 150 million years ago. Intrigued by its rarity, Harrison bought the fossil for the bargain price of $18,000.


    10 Oldest Churches in the World

    Churches are some of the most majestic buildings in existence. Since the dawn of time, civilizations and cultures have gathered in these buildings for worship, and many of these ancient buildings are still standing, today. We have found some of the oldest churches in the world, and present them to you, below:

    10. Hagia Sophia

    Years Built: 532 – 537 AD
    Location: Istanbul, Turkey
    Denomination: Christian
    Today: Museum

    photo source: staticflickr.com

    For more than 1,000 years, Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian church in existence. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia went through several changes over the years. Originally, the church was a Christian cathedral, but also has been a Greek Orthodox cathedral,
    a Roman Catholic cathedral, and an Imperial mosque.

    Today, Hagia Sophia still stands, but it is now a museum, not a church. Visitors to Istanbul can tour the museum, and there are estimates that approximately 10,000 people go through it each day.

    9. Etchmiadzin Cathedral

    Years Built: Construction began in 483 AD
    Location: Vagharshapat, Armenia
    Denomination: Christia
    Today: Still Operational

    photo source: Wikimedia

    Etchmiadzin Cathedral was the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia, and it remains the oldest Christian cathedral in existence. Originally, a church was built in the same site in 301 AD, but it was replaced by the current church in 483 AD.

    Today, the cathedral still stands and serves as a major shrine for Christians in Armenia. Etchmiadzin Cathedral is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is one of the most popular spots for tourists to visit in the entire country.

    8. Basilica of San Lorenzo, Milan

    Years Built: Construction began in 364 AD
    Location: Milan, Italy
    Denomination: Roman Catholic
    Today: Still Operational

    photo source: Wikimedia

    The Basilica of San Lorenzo is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Milan. When built, the basilica was the largest construction project that the Western world has ever seen. When construction was complete, it was the largest circular church in the world, and it was the inspiration for Hagia Sophia, which is also on this list.

    Today, the Basilica of San Lorenzo is still an operational church, and some of the original features still remain, though much of it has been rebuilt over the years.

    7. Cathedral of Trier

    Years Built: 340 AD
    Location: Trier, Germany
    Denomination: Roman Catholic
    Today: Still Operational

    photo source: Wikimedia

    The Cathedral of Trier is the oldest cathedral in Germany. Originally, it was built on a Roman site that broke ground in the late third century. The most interesting thing about the Cathedral of Trier are its relics. It holds one of the Holy Nails that was said to hold Jesus to the cross when he was crucified, but that’s not the most remarkable relic.

    The church also has an artifact known as the Seamless Robe of Jesus. This relic is said to be the robe Jesus wore shortly before his crucifixion. It is rarely available for public viewing, however, and the last time it was displayed was back in 2012.

    6. St. Peter’s Basilica

    Years Built: 326 to 360 AD
    Location: Vatican City
    Denomination: Roman Catholic
    Today: Rebuilt in the 16th century

    photo source: Wikimedia

    The most famous church on our list is St. Peter’s Basilica, home of some of the most famous works of art in the world, including Michelangelo’s, Pieta. Originally, the church was commissioned by Constantine I, and was the site of the crowning of Charlemagne, when he was named Holy Roman Emperor.

    The original church stood until the 16th century, when the new building, the one standing today, was built. Some original features are still at the site, including the Tomb of St. Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus from the Bible.

    5. Church of the Nativity

    Years Built: Construction began in 325 AD
    Location: Bethlehem, Palestine
    Denomination: Multiple
    Today: Under reconstruction

    photo source: Wikimedia

    The Church of the nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is currently under reconstruction. The site is also the home of four monastic communities including those from the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Syriac Orthodox churches. Interestingly enough, this church is often in the news due to clashes between these communities.

    4. Mar Sarkas

    Years Built: Pre-325 AD
    Location: Maalula, Syria
    Denomination: Greek Catholic
    Today: Still Operational as a monastery and church

    photo source: Wikimedia

    Mar Sarkas is a monastery and convent that was built before 325 AD, but the exact date of construction is unknown. This makes it one of the oldest monasteries in the whole of Christendom. The convent on site holds several ancient icons, including several from the fourth century.

    Within the community, there are a few nuns at the site who speak English. They are happy to take visitors around the site for a short tour if asked. The church is also the site of several festivals that take place throughout the year, including the Festival of Mar Sarkas. This festival is held each year on October 7th.

    3. Aqaba Church

    Years Built: 293 – 303 AD
    Location: Aqaba, Jordan
    Denomination: Christian
    Today: In Ruins

    photo source: Wikimedia

    Aqaba Church was hidden for thousands of years until it was discovered by a team of archaeologists in 1998. It is thought to be the oldest remaining Christian church in the world, or at least the oldest site that was meant to be a church.

    During the excavation, the team found tombs with golden crosses on them, as well as glass lamps, a cemetery with more than 20 skeletal remains, and coins in a collection box. The researchers estimate that the church could hold 60 worshipers when it was first built, but it is believed that it was destroyed in an earthquake in 363 AD. When the church was rebuilt, the capacity of the church almost doubled.

    2. Megiddo Church

    Years Built: Late 3rd to Early 4th Century AD
    Location: Tel Megiddo, Israel
    Denomination: Christian
    Today: Ruins

    photo source: Wikimedia

    One of the most interesting things about the Megiddo Church is that it was built on the site of a modern prison, and inmates discovered the first clues of an archaeological site in 2005. Archaeologists began excavating it very quickly, and they found some remarkable information. The building was a rectangle shape, and archaeologists also found a well-preserved mosaic and several Christian artifacts.

    The language of the words inscribed in the mosaic is Greek, and it also features fish, an early symbol of Christianity. Experts also believe that the site was not originally a church, but turned into a church around the early 4th century.

    1. Dura-Europos Church

    Years Built: Approximately 233 AD
    Location: Dura-Europos, Syria
    Denomination: Christian
    Today: Ruins

    photo source: Wikimedia

    The Dura-Europos Church is likely the oldest Christian church in existence. Before it was used as a church, however, it is believed that the building was a private home. Today, the site is in ruins, but it was fully excavated during the 1920s and 1930s by a team of French and American archaeologists.

    Several frescoes were removed during that period, which are visible at the art gallery at Yale University. Unfortunately, we believe the church remains in ruins, but it is located in an ISIS occupied area, so researchers have been unable to access the site.


    5 Shape-shifting



    Although the mutable rain frog was first discovered in 2006, in the rain forest of Ecuador, the amphibian&rsquos awesome ability to shift its shape wasn&rsquot known until some years later, when a second of its species was found. Its ability to change the texture of its skin from rough and &ldquospiny&rdquo to &ldquosmooth&rdquo in only minutes made one researcher, in catching the frog for a photograph, thought she&rsquod grabbed the wrong specimen. Later, intending to return it to its natural habitat, the researchers placed moss in the amphibian&rsquos container. When they looked in on the frog after a while, it had reverted to its rough skin.

    A series of photographs show the mutable rain frog at various segments of time&mdash90 seconds, 150 seconds, 180 seconds, 270 seconds, and 330 seconds. Within three minutes, it could be mistaken for a different frog within five and a half minutes, it probably would be.

    The scientists were even more amazed when a second species of frog, the Sobetes robber frog, was found to have this same astonishing ability. Now, researchers think, many other amphibian species may be able to shift their shapes as well. [6]


    7. That time when some of the oldest-known human remains in North America were found here…

    Photo: Sydney Martinez/TravelNevada

    One of the oldest-known mummies found in North America was discovered in a cave just outside of Fallon, Nevada. Referred to as the Spirit Cave Mummy, the remains are over 10,000 years old — for some comparison, the Egyptian Pyramids (and associated tombs) were built around 5,000 years ago. Yeah, the Spirit Cave Mummy is really old.

    The discovery of the Spirit Cave Mummy launched a decades-long court battle over whether it had any relation to local indigenous tribes. In 2016, genome sequencing proved once and for all that the Spirit Cave Mummy was, in fact, most likely related to the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, and the remains were returned for a proper burial.

    Experience it: Get a taste of Fallon’s native history by visiting Grimes Point Archaeological Area, about 10 miles southwest of downtown Fallon, just off the Loneliest Road. Within the archaeological area are various examples of rock art, and you can also tour Hidden Cave, home to artifacts that are thousands of years old. Just another awesome history lesson in Nevada.


    A message to an unknown reader…

    I want you to picture the following scenario: You are an archaeologist, and you are digging at a site about 125 miles east of Karachi, Pakistan. A lot of the terrain in Pakistan is mountainous, difficult to inhabit, but not the part of the land we’re talking about. Check a satellite image of the region on Google Maps, if you’ve got a phone or a computer nearby: You are in that rich green ribbon of land that snakes down through the middle of the country. This is the Indus river basin, a place that has fed and raised cultures for thousands of years. Humans have wandered everywhere, but it was places like this, with running water and fertile soil, that first lured us into the role of settler. It was places like this where the combination of bountiful resources and our growing ingenuity first allowed us to develop systemic methods of agriculture, build cities, and begin our struggle to achieve things beyond mere survival, or so it is said. Because of this, river basins are nicknamed “the cradle of civilization.” Civilization is what we call it when humans begin to think of themselves not as dependents of their environment, but as masters.

    From the distance of the satellite, note that you cannot see Pakistan’s cities or factories, or any sign of activity from the 200 million people living within the lines we call its borders. All that stands out to your eye is that luscious green ribbon, swirling from the mountains to the sea, a gift from God or the earth or whomever you believe to be the benefactor. You are an archaeologist, and this is where you are digging.

    The site you are excavating was only recently discovered, a chance find by a construction crew. There are many sites in the region, all dating back to the Bronze Age, but we cannot discern the exact relationship between the settlements we’ve found, whether they considered themselves part of the same culture or were sworn enemies part of the reason we do not know this is we cannot read their writing. Therefore, what you find in your excavation might be similar to other settlements in the region—simply an extension of the discoveries made before—or you might find something different. You are full of human curiosity, and ambition. You are hoping to find something different.

    Here in the cradle of civilization, you find something buried. It is a bronze box covered in engravings, clearly designed by a skilled hand, and since you found it at the center of what appeared to be the site’s biggest temple, you judge it to be of some importance. You know the field well, and you know that this is unlike anything found before, and that excites you. The engraving contains a lot of symbols—part of the script no-one can read, it tells you nothing—and under the symbols, artfully etched, is the unmistakable image of a human skull.

    For thousands of years and across continents, skulls have been used to signify danger. But history is long and full of turns, and even this most obvious and literal symbol could signify a multitude of things. You trace the skull with your finger, trying to connect with the intent of its long-dead creator. It seems designed to look intimidating, but when you first brushed the dirt from the surface and saw the graven image, you didn’t think for one second about danger—in fact, the first thing it reminded you of was the skulls on your brother’s goofy band shirts. (It wouldn’t make sense to think of danger. Whatever once threatened here is quiet. There is no danger here.) What could this skull have meant, you wonder, to the people who lived here? What’s the connection to the building, or the contents of the box? You think of human sacrifices, burial places, commemorations of wars.

    Then you think of your career. You open the box.

    In the 1960s, the U.S. Department of Energy began wondering what on earth it was going to do with all its nuclear waste. This question had never been highly prioritized before in the years following World War II, the prevailing attitudes towards nuclear energy had run the gamut between sunny optimism and mortal fear, powerful emotions which leave little space for mundane concerns about the high-tech equivalent of garbage disposal. After research into nuclear fission had successfully served its first purpose—vaporizing and mutilating countless Japanese civilians—the U.S. government had been enthusiastic about the many potential uses of its superhuman creation, and invested heavily both in nuclear weapons and nuclear energy production for civilian use. It was predicted that nuclear power could do everything, from keeping the lights on to preserving food. A nation drunk on the promises of the atom had little interest in thinking about the hangover.

    By the 1960s, however, the novelty of the so-called “atomic age” was starting to wear off, and the government realized it had a problem on its hands. The production of nuclear energy was creating large amounts of radioactive waste, which could not be converted into safe material, and which would remain dangerous to human beings for at least 10,000 years. (10,000 years is a conservative estimate. Many scientists have suggested that number should have one or two more zeroes on the end.) The waste was being kept in temporary storage facilities dotted around the country, and there was no obvious place where it could be safely deposited and sealed away. And even if a permanent place could be found, there was the question of how to keep people away from it.

    The government’s concern was not so much for its contemporary citizens, who had been bombarded with enough Cold War propaganda to understand the threat of nuclear radiation. If a 20th-century American were to somehow get lost on their way home from the drive-in theater and stumble into a radioactive waste disposal site, all it would take to warn them off was a sign bearing the word “danger” and the image of the trefoil. (The trefoil is the internationally-recognized symbol for radiation, usually black on a yellow background, a circle surrounded by three blades. You knew the image before you knew the word.) Rather, the government’s concern was for the people who would come later. For comparison, the entire concept of complex human civilization, at least as we tend to define it, is about 5,000 years old. Now we had created something that would curse us for at least twice as long as that, maybe many times longer, and we had to work out not only how to bury it, but to protect whoever might disturb its burial place.

    While Americans fretted over whether their grandchildren would grow up speaking English or Russian, the Department of Energy recognized that whoever came across their disposal site might be as distant to both those languages as we are to the dead scripts of the Indus valley. It was possible that they might not know written language at all. Perhaps they would have progressed so far beyond writing that the concept would be unthinkably primitive to them. Perhaps the opposite would happen, and they wouldn’t know anything of writing because the sum of human knowledge was lost to them in some catastrophic event—or even deliberately discarded, after the sum of human knowledge was examined and found, on the whole, not to have done us any good. No matter how desperately we wish to communicate with future peoples, there is no way to guarantee the sanctity of the written word, and it is considered likely that any written warning will be meaningless to them.

    Communication through images seems an obvious choice—that’s the option we usually go for when we’re facing a language barrier—until you consider that the reader might have no concept of radiation. Right now the meaning of the trefoil is recognized across nations and languages, but that meaning is just an arbitrary one that we’ve constructed for ourselves, as fragile and temporally dependent as nations and languages themselves. To us, the sight of the trefoil signifies generations of scientific progress, terror, the future, something to be respected an invisible energy that is sometimes used to kill hostile growths in our bodies, and in other cases will make them grow. None of that knowledge is communicated through the image. To our unknown recipient, it’s just a black circle and three blades. If you forget what it means to you, it could almost be a flower.

    If one were looking for a hint at how these sites might be treated by our distant descendants, one might find it in the deserts of Egypt. Of all the myriad civilizations that ever lived and died in the “non-Western” world, Ancient Egypt is the only one most Westerners know much about, and there are two obvious reasons for this. First, Egypt’s exoticism and long history was a great source of fascination for the Greeks and the Romans—remember that the Great Sphinx was older to Caesar than Caesar is to us—and so it has somehow been pulled into Western canon, despite its location right in the middle of the region we are supposed to think of as the West’s eternal enemy. (This view is incorrect for many reasons, not least because nothing human is eternal.) Second, they left us the pyramids. The pyramids of Giza are not the world’s largest pyramids, nor the oldest, but for the last 4,500 years their image has captivated humanity across millennia and continents like nothing else on the planet. We cannot know the intent of the pharaohs, but one might guess they wanted to be buried somewhere that would assure they would always be remembered by imprinting their deaths physically and unforgettably on the landscape, they were sending a message to future generations.

    Illustration by Skutch

    However, while the pyramids are still here, the meaning of the message is forgotten. Most people couldn’t tell you much about any individual pharaoh buried there. Almost no-one still believes that the pharaohs were gods. Some will want to tell you their own interpretation of the intended meaning or purpose of the buildings, or their theories about the culture in general what was once a tomb for the world’s most influential figures is now reduced to a sort of personal amusement for amateur detectives. The burial chambers have been looted countless times. We unsealed the coffins and desecrated the dead, shipping them out to museums on new landmasses and displaying their bodies as curiosities, and no rumors of a curse could slake our thirst for trophies.

    Very occasionally, we have a moment of vulnerability, of self-reflection. When it was announced last year that a new sarcophagus had been uncovered, and that it was filled with a mysterious red liquid, many responded to the news with expressions of dread. Was it because we still had a little lingering respect for a culture that had achieved so much, a culture that had not quite revealed all its mysteries to us, and its production of an as-yet unknown substance filled us with awe? Were we afraid that our knowledge of science had missed something old, and abhorrent, something lurking under the sands waiting to be set free?

    The moment didn’t last long. A representative of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities pointed out the liquid was most likely just sewage, and our discomfort promptly evaporated. Someone even started a petition demanding people be allowed to drink the “sarcophagus juice” so that they could “assume its powers.” A joke, of course, but jokes often contain a grain of truth. Across the entirety of our history as builders of civilizations, all our sins and achievements have stemmed from our metaphorical urge to drink the sarcophagus juice: to salivate at the promise of new knowledge and power, to disturb and break open anything that is unknown, to ransack the earth and, giving no thought to the consequences, consume whatever we find there.

    By 1980, “atomic optimism” was dead, or at least dormant, in the United States. Throughout the 1970s, the anti-nuclear movement had gained momentum, along with the rest of the counterculture. A partial meltdown had just occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, stoking further panic about the dangers of radiation. There was still no confirmed plan to build a permanent waste disposal site.

    The Department of Energy knew it was time to face some difficult questions. They assembled a team of experts from fields as diverse as environmental science, nuclear engineering, waste management, semiotics, linguistics, behavioral psychology and anthropology. They called it the Human Interference Task Force, and their goal was to develop a strategy to prevent any future nuclear waste depository from being disturbed by future generations. Although there was technology available to design a well-protected depository, the Task Force knew that there was little hope of building something totally indestructible. They could try and discourage interference with the depository by drawing on the concept of “hostile architecture”—designing a site that was deliberately difficult and uncomfortable to navigate—but a species that insisted on going to the Moon was unlikely to be deterred by a few spikes or a maze. Therefore, the main focus of the Task Force was not fortification, but communication. We could not keep people out by force we could only plead.

    In 1982, the German Journal of Semiotics (Zeitschrift für Semiotik) posed the depository problem to its readers, who responded with admirable, if slightly over-optimistic levels of imagination. One suggested solution was the development of a new breed of domestic cats, whose fur would change color in reaction to high levels of radioactivity. The world’s governments could then promote the development of art and literature in which cats changing color were an oft-repeated symbol for danger thus, when future generations came across depository sites and tried to settle there, their cats would change color and they would become frightened and leave. Another suggestion was an “atomic priesthood,” a group of people who vowed to live near the sites, and passed on the secrets of radiation from generation to generation, in mythologized and ritualized form if need be. A theme that crops up again and again with the depository problem is the need for the message to be distilled into something simple and accessible: Call it universal, if you like, or primitive if you prefer.

    Stanisław Lem, one of the world’s foremost science fiction authors, proposed that botanists use genetic modification to encode information about nuclear waste into the DNA of flowers, which could be planted and nurtured near the site. Although he admitted it was risky to assume future peoples would know how to decode the DNA, there was a sort of logic to it. To take plants that grew spontaneously and manipulate them to our liking, breeding and growing them at our convenience so we could propagate our own species was, after all, civilization’s first trick. Perhaps it had some lasting power.

    The Human Interference Task Force began to draw up designs. A multiplicity of images, symbols and words were proposed as part of the initial blueprints for the depository site, with the Task Force noting that any method of inscribing the messages at the site would have to outlast theft, weathering, and changes in climate. Because we could not predict any future civilizations’ level of knowledge, the danger would have to be communicated in a way that was comprehensible to any type of reader. There could be some complex, technical messages at the site, but in case they couldn’t be understood, there needed to be some simpler messages too, and repeated in a number of ways so the meaning was less likely to be misinterpreted.

    A 1993 report by Sandia National Laboratories—charged by the Department of Energy with the task of researching nuclear safety—took this concept further, and proposed some specific messages that might work. Some of the images might include: A periodic table. A world map of all known waste sites. A diagram showing the precession of stars in the sky over tens of thousands of years, from which readers might calculate the date the depository was built. (The places where we build depositories tend to be far from human life, and therefore relatively free from air pollution if you want a perfect view of the night sky, go to a nuclear silo and look up.) There was some measure of disagreement on what type of pictographs to use. Some researchers wanted to focus on more functional pictographs, while others gave more prominence to “human facial expressions (horror and sickness).” The messages would begin from the outside, becoming more complex as one got closer and closer to the center. The Sandia report gives a suggestion for one of the more complex written warnings at a location close to the center. It was more technical in substance, though still simple in style:

    “This place is a burial place for radioactive wastes. We believe this place is not dangerous IF IT IS LEFT ALONE! We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. By giving you this information, we want you to protect yourselves and future generations from the dangers of this waste. The waste is buried __ kilometers down in a salt layer. Salt was chosen because there is very little water in it…We found out that the worst things happen when people disturb the site. For example, drilling or digging through the site could connect the salt water below the radioactive waste with the water above the waste or with the surface…

    The message goes on at some length, giving explanations as to the chemistry involved, the nature of illnesses caused by radiation, and the structure of the building. The writing would be inscribed on the wall, complete with instructional pictures. (Today, this scenario might remind one of an escape room or a puzzle in a videogame, amusing simulations of mortal danger made real.)

    The writing would not be enough, though. The report also noted that the site would need to convey in its physical form a feeling, something that would touch the basest instincts of a living being. The authors noted in words, as best they could, what that feeling was:

    “This place is not a place of honor… no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.

    The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill.

    This place is a message… and part of a system of messages …pay attention to it!

    Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.”

    At the end of the Sandia report, the writers quote a poem. If you’re into poetry, you might be able to guess what it is, and maybe the lines have already whispered through your mind as you’ve been reading this article.

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    Ozymandias by Percy Shelley was published on 11 January 1818, at the height of what was called “Egyptomania,” the burning obsession of Western aristocrats with finding and swallowing up all the treasures of the Nile. Shelley might have been inspired by the romance of the desert for his setting, but the underlying message of his poem—even the greatest empires fall and are forgotten—can also read as a warning to his own nation’s empire, to the new wave of philosophers and scientists, to anyone so caught up in the heady power of 19th-century Britain that they forgot they were only mortal. Just 10 days before the poem was published, his wife, Mary Shelley, published a work of her own, a novel about a scientist who creates a monster he cannot control.

    Not many paid attention to the warnings. The allure of power—power from knowledge, from technology, from resources, from land—dominated the mindset of those who ran empires, and those who ran empires dominated the world.

    The same year Frankenstein and Ozymandias were published, Egypt conquered the Arabian Peninsula. This was a critical victory, because it put the holy cities of Mecca and Medina back under the control of the Ottoman Empire, the great power to which Egypt was subordinate. The Empire had held the holy cities for centuries, yet inexplicably, for the previous 13 years, Mecca and Medina had been out of their grasp, having fallen into the hands of a small upstart tribe with their own version of Islam—an extremely strict and literalist doctrine that seemed totally at odds with the rest of the world’s tendency towards modernization. But the recapturing of the cities meant balance was restored to the world, after this strange temporary interlude. The upstart tribe with its fundamentalist religion was brutally crushed, its leaders executed, and all was in its rightful place. If one were to go back in time to 1818, and ask a well-read man about the civilizational struggles in Arabia, it is likely he would have thought a lot about the strong, old, Western-facing Ottoman Empire—which had changed the shape of the world and produced so much of interest—and very little, if at all, about a defeated family called the House of Saud.

    But the path of human history isn’t a straight line, and we can’t see what lies ahead of us. 100 years later, in 1918, the world’s most brutal war ended and the Ottoman Empire turned to dust, leaving the House of Saud space to consolidate their power. In 1932 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was born. One of the king’s first moves was to invite American geologists, engineers, and businessmen to plunge through the sand and drill holes into the earth, suspecting that the ground beneath their feet was hiding black and glistening treasure that could make them rich.

    In 1938, the Americans found what they were looking for, and the House of Saud turned from an upstart tribe to transformers of the desert, with the wealth and power to do anything they wished. Western cities grew upwards and outwards, feeding off the oil under the surface of Saudi land. In 1984, an exiled Saudi national named Abdul Rahman Munif wrote a novel about the oil boom called Cities of Salt, and when asked the meaning of the name, explained that one day the glimmering Saudi cities would dissolve and be forgotten, like salt in water. All this happened within a fraction of human history, and the finest minds of the early 19th-century could never have foreseen it—just as they couldn’t have foreseen how our lust for oil would cause the temperatures to rise.

    The Department of Energy still does not have a permanent depository site, but it’s had a location picked out since the 1980s: Yucca Mountain, Nevada, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain is just by the Nevada Test Site, where nuclear weapons have been tested off-and-on since 1951 (the last test was in 2012). In this desert, workers would build mock neighborhoods of picture-perfect brick houses, sit families of mannequins at the dinner table, and see what remained of them after the mushroom cloud had dispersed. (No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.) The location was partly chosen because almost no one lives there now, though remnants of the gold and silver mining industries have left the sands strewn with ghost towns. A lot of the names around here tell stories: Gold Center, Eureka, Saline, Chloride City, Hells Gate. Occasionally, you’ll see an indigenous name.

    The Sandia report said the depository should send the message: We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This raises the question of who the “we” is supposed to be. It could mean the contemporary world in general, if we wanted to label ourselves one culture (we don’t know how apparent any differences would be to future readers between the United States and anywhere else.) Or it could mean the United States government. But there’s another “we” with a claim to this land. As far as the Western Shoshone people are concerned, Yucca Mountain doesn’t even belong to the federal government. The government claims to have legally purchased the land during the Civil War, when they needed it to acquire gold. The Western Shoshone dispute that the government has rights to the land, since the government only made a fraction of promised payment after it was appropriated. (This is not a place of honor.) Shoshone activists, as well as other peoples indigenous to the area, express their outrage both at the theft of their land and the polluting of the environment, but it does little good.

    At any given point in time, some civilizations have power, and some do not. At the moment, the United States has power and the Shoshone do not, because in the European settlers’ quest to take the land, they had killed the majority of the people who were already there, wiping entire societies off the map as they went, whether intentionally by murder and cruelty, or unintentionally, by disease. (The danger is to the body, and it can kill.)

    The Yucca Mountain plan is currently at a standstill, lacking in funding and lurking low on the priorities list, and for the moment, the permanent site shows no signs of being built. In its place, waste is temporarily being stored at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, which one day might become the permanent site. If the site there is developed for permanent storage, its written warnings are to be in seven languages: the six official languages of the UN, and Navajo. One might interpret this as the federal government throwing a tiny token to the people it knows it has mistreated. Or one might consider it a recognition of the impossibility of predicting history’s twists and turns: We have no idea who might be here 10,000 years from now, and who might not.

    When reading through the Human Interference Task Force and WIPP documents—after overcoming the initial wave of eldritch horror brought on by the sight of chapter headings like “Menacing Earthworks” and “Forbidding Blocks”— one starts to get the sense that something is unusual about these reports. For starters, the sheer level of vision on display is quite remarkable, making them at times seem more like science fiction novels than a government report. What’s more, from the perspective of our era—when the humanities and social sciences are frequently defunded, dismissed, and derided—it’s surprising to see an unquestioned faith in the essential relationship between “hard” science and social science. The U.S. Department of Energy understood that the nuclear waste disposal problem could not be solved by technological innovation alone no alloy or neat little locking mechanism would save us from our future selves. Only by examining human nature, and allowing ourselves to conceive of a world beyond all contemporary understanding, could we attempt to protect the planet from the magnitude of what we’d done to it.

    Perhaps, damaging though it was in terms of its siege mentality, there was something in the Cold War mindset that allowed the U.S. researchers to think in such epochal terms. The older researchers on the initial project would have grown up in the midst of the Second World War, the near-apocalyptic battle between inextricably opposed ideologies—fascism, communism, liberal democracy—that had all still been in their cradle just a century before, and had then grown into giants, who in their battles spilled blood into the earth and left cities in shreds. The younger researchers were bathed in the spirit of the Cold War, a Manichean atmosphere wherein the fate of the earth depended on the outcome of a constant struggle between two opposing forces, and where children learned that at the press of a button in Moscow, they might one day simply evaporate. This ingrained knowledge of the knife-edge fragility of civilization, a sense of an America proud and strong and wealthy and yet always teetering at the edge of a precipice, might have instilled in those researchers a quiet understanding that they, their hometown, their country, their planet was a place where all could be annihilated. Perhaps this enabled them to look calmly in the face of their own civilization’s destruction, and accept their obligation to do whatever they could for those who came next.

    After the early 󈨞s, reports continued to come out, occasionally, but there were no big breakthroughs in the communication side of things, or any more radical approaches to the problem. This period, after the fall of the Soviet Union, is what Francis Fukuyama called “the end of history”: the epic battles between visions for humanity’s future were done, the West had won, we were all to put our imaginations away in safety deposit boxes and get to focusing on technocratic tweaks and institutional tune-ups for the rest of time. It is remarkable to note the difference in attitude toward the nuclear crisis in the Cold War, and the climate crisis today. Moderate proposals for a Green New Deal are hand-waved away as “unrealistic” in response to suggestions of a move to renewable energy, sensible people shake their heads and point to their graphs of electricity prices, jobs, and GDP, graphs that stretch back 20 or 30 years, which is as far back as anyone can remember. Quietly, without fuss, long-term survival slips further and further down the priorities list.

    The United States understands danger in the form of external threats, but not the danger within itself: the desire of civilizations to consume the land they perch on, to draw resources out from the ground and use them all up, to create great pestilences as a byproduct of its inventions, and realize (too late) the ramifications of what’s been done. There is something different between the inventive, enthusiastic way the U.S. Department of Energy reacted to the nuclear waste problem in the 1980s, and the timid, bounded way it reacts to climate change now. We have lost the ability to imagine the future.

    Our nuclear waste sits in silos, waiting for a home the question of what to do with them is in stasis. The Department of Energy has ensured that on a technical level, when they are eventually buried, they will survive any war or terrorist attack within the short-term—which, no matter how painful they might be to us, are bound to be mere scratches on the surface of the earth’s history. Wherever their resting place—as the situation stands, it will be somewhere quiet in the Southwestern deserts—when they are buried we will probably hear about them on the news, and there may be a wave of excitement, and then the dirt will be shoveled over them, and we’ll forget. A thousand crises will come and pass. Nations will be formed and abandoned, the sea will sweep in, the deserts will get hotter, the riverbeds will dry up. To think about a time 10,000 years from now is frightening, and bleak, knowing what we know about the current trends, but a stretch of time that long has room for faith as well as despair. Hopefully humanity will save itself, somehow we will turn our desire to shape the earth to a good purpose, and build a new way of existing on the land, something none of us can predict. We can only pray that they will not be as greedy as us. We can only hope they hear our message.

    Somewhere beyond any distance we can picture, an archaeologist is digging. The sand stretches all around him, to all horizons. He has hit stone, a monument to something, and after some time, it is revealed in its entirety. It it etched all over with lines of different shapes, that he cannot understand, but he understands enough to realize this was once a special place. To either side of the words, he recognizes drawings of human faces: one has a mouth open in terror, the other twisted in pain. This could be a memorial to some horrific event, or it could be a curse meant to punish unwanted intruders. Intruders were not well-liked by these people, or so the archaeologist has read, though he finds it difficult to understand their concepts of property and trespass.

    Exhausted from digging, he sits at the foot of the monument, and he spends a moment taking in its magnificence, trying to connect with its makers. At the top of the monolith is a mysterious symbol—a circle, surrounded by three blades. The archaeologist smiles. He has never seen it before, but it fills him with a sense of serenity. It was a plant that grew in their time, perhaps, or the insignia of a nation, or a representation of a god. Whatever it was, it’s long gone now, but in any case it’s pretty. Like a child, he traces the trefoil in the sand, digging his thumb into the earth to make the center, dragging his fingers outwards one, two, three times. The ground moves easily for him, giving way to his desire to destroy the surface and create something new. He looks down at the trefoil he has drawn, his little sign that he has been here. He is just the latest in an immeasurable line of human beings who desire to put some sort of mark on the earth.

    He is proud of his creation, but he forgets that it is drawn in sand. It’s visible only for a minute, before the winds blow it away.

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