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of tea ... and the incan empire

I went to the university's Anthropology Club meeting last Wednesday and was quite surprised at how it turned out. There were a considerable number of people in attendance, including one of my instructors (a graduate student at the university) and five classmates that I recognized from those in attendance. A guest speaker from the faculty had been invited to speak about his research and, after hearing about his work, I'm incredibly glad that I was present for the evening's activities.

Dr. John Jones, the guest speaker, began his academic career studying coprolites (fossilized feces, in this case human) but switched to palynology (the study of pollens) during graduate school. Originally his work was for oil corporations - the second largest employer of archaeology graduates in the United States after government CRM (cultural resource management) projects - who would send over 7m core samples for examination. The presence of certain pollens generally serves as a good indication on the oil and natural gas reserves available in an area, and when it can cost $2,000 to drill 1m into the ground it's usually a good idea to take a few samples to avoid wasting a lot of money.

After curating the tropical pollen collection for Exxon-Mobil Dr. Jones began working on core samples from archaeological sites in Meso and South America, and this is where things get really interesting. One of his friends had been awarded a $250,000 grant from the NSF as well as a $4 million grant from Tokyo University (yes, that's supposed to be 'million') to do research among the ruins of Machu Picchu - the former capital of the Incan Empire. While at last Wednesday's meeting he mentioned how he had just finished analyzing the content from half a dozen core samples and found that there wasn't any trace of pollen from maize, corn, rye, barley, or potatoes ... any of the normal crops that the Incans would have grown to support the local population. Instead, the pollen came almost exclusively from a Hilex sp. found along the border between Paraguay and Brasil which was - and still is - used to make tea.

From the sound of it then the Incas were either growing or storing large quantities of tea within their capital.

Dr. Jones continues to do work with coprolites, and mentioned how the entire stock of samples from the East Coast is being shipped to WSU next year for study - which means the university here should have the largest collection of ancient human bodily waste in the world. He's also looking for students to assist him in examining the coprolites - primarily for pollen, but when I mentioned how I intended to minor in entomology and asked about the possibility of finding insect remains he said there were bound to be tons and that he wanted to contact the university's entomology department to see if anyone there was interested, but added that he didn't know who to talk to about such a proposal. His final joke was that, between pollens, insects, and everything else there were going to be plenty of opportunities for students to collect material to write "feces theses" after graduation. [insert groan here] He seems like a fun professor, so hopefully I can work on that project next year when the coprolites arrive.

Still ... Incan tea!