Tag Archives: history

Meet the tarascans by Todd Proa

Meet the Tarascans

When the Spanish landed in modern-day Mexico in the early 16th century, there were two major powers already there: the Aztecs and their fierce rivals, the Tarascans.  While the Aztecs are relatively well-known, for the most part the Tarascans have faded into obscurity.  Yet at the height of their power, the Tarascans could easily go to-to-toe with their Aztec rivals, and in many cases did.  I recently came across an interview with history professor James Blake Wiener, an expert on the archaeology and ethnohistory of the Tarascan Empire, about this ancient civilization.

The Tarascan state’s roots began around the year 1200, when a significant movement of people was occurring throughout Mesoamerica, and several large settlements were built in a lava field near present-day Zacapu, Mexico.  Yet by 1450, these settlements had been abandoned.  This corresponds loosely to the legends that the Tarascans have about their own origins: they settled in what is now Michoacán from elsewhere, although were greeted with hostility by the people living there, but were eventually able to conquer their foes in rapid succession.  During the 13th century, Michoacán was most likely invaded by warrior-centric people from the north, bringing about a reorganization of both the old and new populations, producing a complex society formed by independent towns or city-states joined under the rule of one single “king”.

The Tarascan people had a lot in common with their neighbors, with similar types of art, technology and religion with variations in style.  Their empire was made up of various different ethnic groups, some of which were conquered and others that voluntarily asked to become Tarascan subjects.  Ethnic groups maintained their own languages and the right to elect their own local authorities, on condition that they paid tribute to the Tarascan king and fought in his wars.  Their rapid expansion put them at odds with another aggressively expanding empire in the region: the Aztecs.  The two empires fought constantly, yet neither one of them was able to gain the upper hand in their struggle.

When the Spanish came to Mexico, they paid more attention to the Aztec Empire, meaning that there were plenty more records about them than other groups.  Since Mexican archaeology has been focused on tourism, and people are more interested in seeing huge monumental structures, the relatively modest and small-scale Tarascan sites are often overlooked.  After conquering the Aztecs, the Spanish turned their attention to the Tarascans, although their conquest was relatively peaceful.  Their descendants call themselves the “Purépecha” and can still be found around Michoacán, and although they retain a strong ethnic identity, knowledge of their ancestral state is neither widespread nor invoked in their culture.

Real Unicorns

Real UnicornsWhen you were a child, did you ever wonder if unicorns were real?  Maybe you did, but chances are your parents shut that down pretty fast.  But it turns out they might have been wrong, for in prehistoric Siberia, there were indeed unicorns.  However, the huge shaggy Siberian Unicorn looked more like a rhino than the creatures from “My Little Pony”.  According to early descriptions, this unicorn was over six feet tall and weighed about 4 tonnes, closer in size to a woolly mammoth than what you saw in that poster on your sister’s wall.

For decades, scientists have estimated that the Siberian Unicorn had died out some 350,000 years ago.  However, a skull was recently found in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan that researchers from Tomsk State University have dated to around 29,000 years ago, completely changing the game on this.  The size and condition of the skull hints that this was most likely a very old male, although its cause of death remains unknown.

This discovery has led to researchers wondering how the unicorn lasted so much longer than those many who died hundreds of thousands of years earlier.  One member of the research team has suggested that southwestern Siberia was a refugium where the Siberian Unicorn and other animals soldiered on.  There’s also a possibility that it could migrate and dwell in more southern areas.  The team has hoped that the find will lead to a better insight on how environmental factors played a role in the creature’s extinction, since understanding what allowed this species to last so long will help make more informed choices about the future of current species.

Numerous prehistoric mammals were able to last an incredibly long time in the remote and sparsely-populated Siberia.  Woolly mammoths, for instance, existed on Wrangel Island as recently as 2,000 BC, a full 6,000 years longer than anywhere else.  It would be interesting to see what other prehistoric creatures lasted in Siberia, since I’m sure mammoths and unicorns weren’t the only ones.

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here, or listen to this song that theorizes why unicorns aren’t around today:

10 Words Coined By Presidents

Over the years, each one of America’s Presidents have left their mark on America, whether that was political decisions or even coining new terms.  I recently came across an article that shares ten everyday words and phrases that were brought into usage by America’s Presidents over the years.  Here are some of them, from Paul Dickson’s book “Words From the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America’s Presidents”:

George Washington

Administration (George Washington): As the first President, George Washington defined the role of chief executive.  He was also the first person to refer to a President’s chief period of time in office as an “administration”.  He introduced the word in his Farewell Address in 1796.  The Oxford English Dictionary also credits Washington with the first evidence of 32 different words, including “average” and “indoors”.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean he coined the terms, only that he contained the earliest-recorded instances of them.

Zachary Taylor

First Lady (Zachary Taylor): In the earlier decades of the US, the President’s wife was referred to by the mouthful “presidentress”.  That changed in 1849, when Zachary Taylor eulogized Dolley Madison, the widow of James Madison, referring to her as the “First Lady”.  While Zachary Taylor’s Presidency was cut short, the term stayed on.

Warren G Harding

Founding Fathers (Warren G Harding): While the term “founding fathers” sounds old as the Declaration of Independence, it actually came about from a speech given by Ohio Senator (later President) Warren G Harding to the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution.  He later used the term during his 1920 presidential campaign, and it supplanted the usage of the previous term “framers”.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Iffy (FDR): Even though FDR had a high-class way of speaking, he nonetheless used slang at times, such as using the word “iffy” to describe some uncertainties or Supreme Court decisions with which he disagreed.  He also used the phrase when swatting away hypothetical questions from reporters at press conferences.

Teddy Roosevelt

Lunatic fringe (Theodore Roosevelt): Teddy Roosevelt brought plenty of great phrases into popular lexicon, including “bully pulpit”, “muckracker”, “loose cannon” and “pack rat”.  “Lunatic fringe”, however, comes from after he left office, when he reviewed the avant-garde Armory Show in 1913.  It soon crossed over from the art world into the political arena to characterize those whose beliefs weren’t held by the mainstream.

Dwight D Eisenhower

Mulligan (Dwight D Eisenhower): A noted golf enthusiast, Eisenhower popularized one term that was previously only heard on the golf course.  “Mulligan” was a term used for do-overs in gold, and when he entered the White House, similar do-overs were referred to as “mulligans”.

Thomas Jefferson

Pedicure (Thomas Jefferson): No President coined more words than the jack-of-all-trades Thomas Jefferson.  He introduced some 110 new words into the English language, including “mammoth”, “belittle” and :neologize”.  As a “founding father”, Jefferson and his peers felt it was their duty to create a new American language.  A committed francophile, Jefferson imported a number of French phrases into American vocabulary, including “pedicure”.

John Adams

Quixotic (John Adams): In 1815 John Adams described one Venezuelan revolutionary who hoped to unite all of Spanish America as a “Quixotic adventurer”, in reference to the title character of the classic Spanish novel “Don Quixote”.  While there had been earlier uses of the word, Adams’ reference helped popularize it.

James Madison

Squatter (James Madison): When writing to Washington in 1788, Madison referred to a group of settlers in Maine who occupied land to which they had no legal title as “squatters upon other people’s land”.

Abraham Lincoln

Sugarcoat (Abraham Lincoln): Lincoln had the ability to incorporate both soaring oratory and plain-spoken language when it was necessary to do so.  In a message to Congress in the aftermath of the secession of the Confederacy, Lincoln condemned those who were trying to “sugar-coat” the rebellion by calling it constitutional.

Older Than You Think

Snow White

While most of the better-known fairy tales in popular culture, such as Snow White, were collected by the Brothers Grimm in the early 19th century, many of them could actually be much older.

Fairy tales are a timeless part of our pop culture: for generations now, we’ve grown up with stories like “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Beauty and the Beast” and “Rumplestiltskin”.  Yet for all their timelessness, these fairy tales might be even older than we think; new research has opened up the possibility that popular folk tales have influenced writings in Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible and other religious works, negating the traditional view that most traditional fairy tales originated in the modern era.

The researchers have stated that versions of classic fairy tales have been around since before the advent of modern languages, and in some cases could be between 4,000 and 6,000 years old!  The researchers investigated whether 275 fairy tales from Indo-European mythology were more likely to be shared by closely-related populations than more distantly-related ones, testing whether the sharing of tales could be predicted by how close populations were geographically or by how related their languages are.  This process allowed researchers to separate the effects of tales traveling between neighboring groups from tales that had been inherited from common ancestral groups, which narrowed the number of tales down to 76 whose distributions could be primarily explained by common heritage.

After narrowing down these 76 tales, the researchers mapped the 76 tales on a “family tree” of Indo-European languages to see how far they could be traced back, using the same techniques that biologists use to reconstruct the evolution of genetically inherited traits.  One of the oldest tales was determined to be “the smith and the devil”, in which a blacksmith sells his soul to an evil spirit in return for exceptional skill in smithing, and was traced back to the Bronze Age.  The age of this tale and its subject help to resolve a long-standing issue among historians; it was previously believed that Indo-European languages originated before metallurgy, but the researchers now think that this is highly unlikely.

The researchers have credited the lasting appeal of these stories on the focus on magic and miracles, which has always fascinated humans from around the world; take, for instance, the interest in jedi, wizards and time machines that endures to this day.  The tensions in these stories also reflect such universal conflicts as love and good versus evil.

If you’re interested in learning more, feel free to click here!

Pensacola’s Forgotten Spanish Colony

Although it’s known that the first permanent European settlement in the United States was in St. Augustine, Florida, it wasn’t the first attempt.  In August of 1559, six years before St. Augustine was settled, Don Tristán de Luna y Arellano founded the colony Santa Maria de Ochuse near what is now Pensacola Bay.  Despite a devastating hurricane just five weeks after their arrival, the colony was able to survive for two more years, far outlasting earlier attempts at colonization in the US, none of which had lasted more than a few weeks.  Ye now, after a local historian turned up a shard of 16th-century Spanish pottery on the site of a bulldozed house, archaeologists have confirmed the location of this ill-fated settlement in downtown Pensacola.

Conquistadors in Florida

In 1539, some 20 years before this settlement was established, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto led an expedition into Florida, shown here, although it was ultimately ill-fated.

Early in October, local historian Tom Garner passed by a construction site in downtown Pensacola.  Having read the translated version of Luna’s papers and identified the neighborhood as a potential site for Santa Maria de Ochuse.  After Garner walked over to site, he found a shard of pottery that he identified as the rim of an olive jar from the mid-16th century.  He then contacted archaeologists at UWF about the discovery, and they were able to get permission from the property owner to investigate further.  Garner’s collections turned up plenty of pottery fragments, stunning archaeologists who examined these findings.

According to one of the archaeologists, the findings were extremely specific to mid-16th century Spanish colonial period artifacts.  Property owners granted a five-day window in early November so that the university team could excavate about half an acre of land before construction began on their new home, during which time archaeologists turned up many more fragments of Spanish, Aztec and Indian pottery at the site, such as nails and glass trade beads.

Santa Maria de Ochuse had a population of about 1,500, believed to have been stretched over many blocks of what is now downtown Pensacola.  The university isn’t revealing the exact location of these artifacts, to protect the neighborhood, although they did say it was in an urban downtown area within view of two shipwreck sites in Pensacola Bay.  The colony was founded by a group of 550 Spanish soldiers, 200 Aztecs and an unknown number of African slaves, and was tasked with forming a settlement on the coast before moving inland.  Just five weeks after landing, they were struck with a hurricane that destroyed half of the fleet, but the colony endured.  There’s evidence that some of the settlers moved inland to Alabama for about 6 months before returning to the coast due to lack of food.  The entire colony was abandoned in 1561, although the reasons for this remain unclear.

If you’d like to learn more, you can click here!

What You Didn’t Know About the Marquis de Lafayette

Marquis de LafayetteEarlier this week, bestselling author Sarah Vowell released the book “Lafayette in the Somewhat United States”, which tells the story of French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette and his role in the American Revolution.  As a teenager, he left France to fight for the American cause, and earned a place in the history books as one of early America’s great heroes.  I recently came across an article that features some facts about the Marquis de Lafayette you might not have known, listed below:

1. He had a very long birth name: As was quite common for aristocrats at this time, Lafayette’s full name was quite a mouthful: Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de la Fayette.  In his autobiography, Lafayette joked that he was baptized “with the name of every conceivable saint who might offer me more protection in battle”.

2. King George’s brother convinced Lafayette to fight the British: In 1775, Lafayette attended a dinner party where the Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of George III of England, was the guest of honor.  Angry at his older brother for condemning his recent choice of a bride, Gloucester hit back at his brother’s policies in the colonies, praising the exploits of liberty-loving Americans across the ocean.  This struck a chord with Lafayette, who immediately went to Paris so he could travel from there to America.

3. Lafayette arrived in America at the age of 19 and with no combat experience: Despite the fact that King Louis XVI had forbade Lafayette from going to America for fear of provoking the British King, the young Marquis eluded authorities and crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1777.  Even though he was from a military family and had been commissioned a French officer since he was 13, Lafayette had no battle experience and spoke little English.  Yet he was still able to convince the Continental Army to commission him a major general in July of 1777.

4. He was shot in the leg during his first battle: During the Battle of Brandywine in September of 1777, Lafayette was shot in the calf.  Refusing treatment, he managed to organize a successful retreat, and was given command over his own division after a two-month recuperation.

5. Lafayette named his only son after George Washington: Lafayette held George Washington in incredibly high esteem as both a “friend and a father”, remaining by his side from the harsh winter at Valley Forge in 1777 to the battle of Yorktown in 1781.  In 1779, he named his newly-born son Georges Washington de Lafayette, and three years later named his youngest daughter Marie Antoinette Virginie in honor of Virginia and the French queen.

American Foxhound

American foxhound

6. Lafayette helped create a new breed of dog: In 1785, Lafayette sent Washington seven large French hounds as a gift.  To increase the size of a pack of English foxhounds he owned, Washington bred them with the imports.  The combination of these hounds and Lafayette’s dogs created the American Foxhound, described by the American Kennel Club as “easy-going, sweet-tempered, independent”.

7. LaFayette co-authored the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen: Inspired by the ideals of the American Revolution, Lafayette, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, wrote one of history’s most important documents about human and civil rights.  The National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in August of 1789, and is still enshrined in France’s constitution to this day.

8. Lafayette is an honorary American citizen: In 1784, Maryland gave Lafayette honorary citizenship, and other states followed suit.  Yet in 1935, the US State Department determined that the measures did not result in the marquis becoming a US citizen after the Constitution was ratified.  This was remedied in 2002 after Lafayette became the sixth foreigner to be given honorary American citizenship.

Old Marquis de Lafayette

A painting of Lafayette from 1825, when he was just a couple years shy of 70.

9. He was still a revolutionary leader at the age of 72: After King Charles X dissolved the National Assembly and suspended the free press in 1830, Lafayette rushed to the aid of the revolutionaries that erected barricades in the streets of Paris, a scene immortalized in the novel and musical “Les Miserables”.  After the king was forced to abdicate, Lafayette turned down the opportunity to rule as a dictator, instead backing Louis-Philippe on the throne as a constitutional monarch.  Yet after being disappointed by a lack of reforms, Lafayette was up in arms again, leading the liberal opposition to the ruler in his last years.

10. Lafayette was buried in both French and American soil: After dying at the age of 76 in 1834, Lafayette was laid to rest next to his wife in the Picpus Cemetery in Paris.  Since he had requested to be buried in both American and French soil, Lafayette’s son covered his coffin with dirt taken from Bunker Hill in 1825.