Exploring Mesoamerican Ruins with Google Street View

Google Maps’ Street View has long been a wonderful tool for exploring urban environments from afar. Now Google, in a partnership with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, has taken Street View to the ruins of thirty ancient Mesoamerican cities, and hopefully up to sixty more within the next year. Viewers can explore a number of Classical Mayan sites, from the massive Temple of Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, to the stunning seaside ruins of Tulum. The project also features sites further north in the Valley of Mexico, including the city of Teotihuacan. Google gathered the footage using a 360-degree camera mounted on a specialized tricycle.

Chichen Itza. (all photos are screenshots of Google Street View)

This is not the first time Google has taken Street View beyond the confines of public road networks. Street View cameras have gone over mountain passes, floated down the Amazon River, explored the inner reaches of art museums, toured the narrow streets of medieval European cities, and much more. Clearly Street View is no substitute for actually visiting ruins, but it can still give users an interesting introduction to ancient Mesoamerican cities and the many differences between them.

For example, viewers can easily see that Teotihuacan (top picture) was built with a specific urban form in mind. The city is arranged orthogonally around a great central street known as the Calzada de los Muertos, with two major pyramids as well as many smaller buildings fitting into the pattern. Mayan cities, by contrast, clearly lack this kind of spatial orientation. Rather than streets, Mayan cities like Palenque tend to focus in on a central open space surrounded somewhat haphazardly by impressive temples. Unlike Teotihuacan, there is little evidence of stone buildings used for non-ceremonial purposes.


No doubt this new tool should please Michael E. Smith, an Arizona State Archaeologist and expert on Mesoamerican cities. Smith analyzes the evolution of Mesoamerican city planning on his blog, Wide Urban World, and draws a clear distinction between the layout of Teotihuacan and what he calls the “basic Mesoamerican urban plan.” The basic plan focuses on central plazas with a dense concentration of tall ceremonial structures and unplanned satellite residential areas. Teotihuacan “made several major innovations in urban layout”, including not only the grand central avenue but also the planned residential areas that are not readily visible in Street View.

Not all the Latin American cities making recent debuts on Google Street View are ancient. Several Brazilian cities including Fortaleza, Brasilia, Natal, Recife, and Salvador, headline the other additions. As the city that helped to define a generation of planned capitals, Brasilia almost cries out for a comparison to its Mesoamerican counterparts. Plazas and wide roads feature prominently in Brasilia, though instead of being a central focus, they actually seem to constitute most of the city. A viewer clicking through Brasilia could be forgiven for feeling that despite suffering between one and two millennia less decay than its Mesoamerican counterparts and being far larger, the city lacks the kind of immersive views that make the ancient cities so enchanting. In short, though Google Street View is a 21st Century technology, it sometimes works best when operating in decidedly less modern environments.

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Geographical Illiteracy in Civilization V

Since 1991, the Civilization series of computer games has been the best product on offer for the historically or geographically inclined gamer. The latest incarnation of the game, Civilization V, features dozens of unique playable “civilizations” that include broad linguistic or ethnic groups like the Celts and Polynesians, long-gone empires like Babylonia and Carthage, and modern states like the Netherlands. Each civilization has unique elements such as a leader (e.g., Boudicca or Nebuchadnezzar II) and a distinct play style that help it to achieve one of several victory conditions. The game also features innumerable scenarios, both official and fan-made, that allow players to immerse themselves in—and attempt to alter—historical events like the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the Japanese invasion of Korea. While the game is generally excellent, there are a number of historical and geographic mistakes in its ubiquitous loading-screen maps that are shown to well over one million unwitting pairs of eyes, and are thus worthy of correction.

When loading a game, players are presented with a map of their chosen civilization’s territory at the time the leader chosen for the game held power. Sometimes the game’s artists simply get carried away, showing Attila’s Hunnic Empire (if one can call it that) controlling all of Denmark. Most likely Attila—a horse-riding nomad who never even went further north than modern Cologne—didn’t even know such a place existed. A similar problem concerns the map of the Maya, which implies that Pacal the Great ruled all of the Mayan city-states in the 7th Century C.E. rather than just Palenque and its immediate hinterland. In contrast, the realm of Harold Bluetooth, a 10th Century Danish King and the namesake of the eponymous wireless technology, actually appears to be understated. Denmark at the time controlled much of Scandinavia, a fact not represented by the map.

A rather humorous error concerns the distinction between the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and the ancient Greek city of Thebes. In the map of Ramses II’s Egypt in the 13th Century B.C.E, Thebes, Egypt is not included. Rather, Thebes appears in Greece, a place that would not see an actual city named Thebes for several hundred years. On the map of Greece during the time of Alexander the Great, the artists have another chance to get the Thebes question right, but alas they fail once again. This time, Thebes, Egypt is shown while Thebes, Greece—arguably the most important Greek city at that time—disappears.

One of the most elegant features of Civilization V is the experience of negotiating with other leaders who speak in their native languages. For example, the game’s Hiawatha simulation speaks to the player in Mowhak, and the Theodora simulation speaks to the player in Medieval Greek. Designers even gave long-dead languages a shot, having Nebuchadnezzar II speak Akkadian. Nevertheless, it is somewhat disappointing to see Ramses II speaking modern Arabic when Middle and Late Egyptian are relatively well known. Languages also help highlight the incongruous nature of some “civilizations,” such as that of the Celts. The game’s Celtic leader, Boudicca, ruled an ancient tribe known as the Iceni in what is now Norfolk in Eastern England. The game’s Boudicca speaks modern Welsh, and then goes ahead and builds a capital city named Edinburgh.

Despite its many small mistakes and a one-size-fits-all definition of “civilization” that forces pretty much every kind of human grouping into the nation-state framework, Civilization remains a fantastic diversion with this author’s highest recommendation. Here’s hoping that the artists for Civilization VI spend a few more minutes on Google before drawing their maps.




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Mongolia’s Three Manly Skills, the Olympics, and Genghis Khan

In anticipation of future posts exploring the geography of Olympic medals, this post will focus on the sporting fortunes of one country in particular—Mongolia. Mongolia tends to perform very well in on the basis of medals won weighed by population or GDP. In 2012, Mongolia earned two silver and two bronze medals, placing it third in total medals per dollar of GDP and tenth in total medals per capita. Since Mongolia’s first summer Olympics in 1964, all of the country’s medals have come from just four sports: wrestling, boxing, judo, and shooting.

The sporting scene in Mongolia has remained remarkably stable for hundreds of years. The traditional Three Manly Skills of Mongolia—horseback riding, archery, and wrestling—remain the country’s most popular sports to this day. The cultural niche filled in the U.S. by the Super Bowl in in Europe by the UEFA Champions League is in Mongolia filled by the three-day Naadam festival (picture at left from Wikipedia). Most Mongolian communities have their own Naadam festival, but the national festival in Ulaanbaatar always takes center stage. At the festival, contestants gather to showcase their horsemanship, test their skill with a bow, and grapple in the traditional Mongolian wrestling style known as Bökh. The aim of Bökh is quite simple: to knock one’s opponent to the ground (picture at left from). Though wrestling is always the most anticipated event, the trick horsemanship on offer at the festival is extremely popular and immensely impressive.

Champions, or “Titans”, as Bökh winners are known in Mongolia, tend to transition fairly easily to foreign wrestling venues. Many have gone on to have successful careers in Japanese Sumo-Wrestling while others become the Olympic medalists that catapult Mongolia to its lofty position in the per capita medal rankings. Mongolia’s high position thus isn’t much of a mystery when one considers that a country’s per capita success in a sport will depend heavily on the share of its youth who are exposed to that sport. What is rather strange, then, is Mongolia’s inability to compete internationally in horse-based events.

The warriors of Genghis Khan practically lived on their horses. They could ride for days, gaining sustenance by cutting the veins of their cold-numbed horses and drinking as much blood as they could without physically compromising their mounts. In battle, they shot arrows with deadly accuracy no matter which way their horses happened to be running. The Mongols of today may not drink much horse blood, but many are still excellent riders, and riding maintains its place as a central experience in Mongolian life, especially outside of Ulaanbaatar. Horses in Mongolia outnumber people, and the winners of wrestling competitions often receive horses as a prize. According to Wikipedia, a well-known Mongolian military figure picked up coins from the ground while riding a horse at full speed. It seems that Mongolia’s relative failure in equestrian Olympic sports as well as non-Olympic thoroughbred racing is not due to a lack of horsemanship, but rather to huge differences between its style of horse competitions and those of the rest of the world.

Unlike skill in Bökh, which carries over well to more international forms of wrestling, Mongolian horsemanship spurns the kind of courses that define dressage and similar Olympic events. Mongolians have little use for horses that excel at jumping or sprinting, though those events are practiced to some degree. Instead, Mongolians today seek the same quality in horses as their ancestors did: endurance. To Genghis Khan’s rivals in China and Europe, Mongolian horses looked weak, slow and haggard compared to their well-fed counterparts. Mongolian horses usually triumphed in the end, however, as their supreme endurance allowed armies to move quickly and fight in the most favorable locations. During battle, Mongolian horses could run back and forth constantly without tiring, allowing fresh troops to fire wave after wave of arrows at confused enemies who usually mistook this maneuvering for a full retreat.

Mongolia’s most popular distances for horse racing are 25 kilometers or more, distances that utterly dwarf those of the rest of the world. Mongolians also do not coddle their horses, which live outside in temperatures as cold as -40°C. Though often mistaken for ponies due to their diminutive size, Mongolian horses are arguably the toughest in the world. Currently, Olympic equestrian sports are set up to represent a Western, upper-class conception of horsemanship that features fancy costumes and multi-million-dollar animals jumping over short fences. Perhaps a more balanced formulation of equestrian sports that included endurance events would allow Mongolia supplement its medal haul from wrestling and judo.


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Extreme Salt Lakes Around the World

The world has many famous salt lakes. Central Asia’s Caspian and Aral Seas, alongside the Dead Sea between Jordan and Israel, are perhaps the best known. Utah’s Great Salt Lake and California’s Mono Lake and Salton Sea are also by no means obscure. These bodies of water are all fascinating in their own right, but by the standards of the world’s “hypersaline lakes”, they are amateurs. In fact, the world’s most extreme salt lakes are to be found not in a hot Afro-Eurasian desert, but in some of the coldest places of the Earth.

With about 98 percent of its surface buried by around a mile of ice and almost no precipitation of any kind away from its coast, Antarctica is just about the last place one would expect to find bodies of liquid water. Nevertheless, tiny Don Juan Pond (see image at left from Ross Sea Info) in the Antarctic region of Victoria Land manages to remain free of ice year-round through by means of its staggering salinity. Widely considered the saltiest lake in the world, Don Juan Pond boasts salinity twelve times that of ocean water, allowing it to stay liquid at temperatures well below -50°C. Don Juan Pond may be the most extreme Antarctic salt lake, but it is not alone. Much larger Lake Vanda maintains roughly ten times the salinity of seawater. Lake Vanda is the final destination of Antarctica’s largest river, the Onyx, which flows only for brief periods during the summer, and looks more like a small creek than a continent’s mightiest river. Unlike Don Juan Pond, Lake Vanda’s surface remains covered in ice year-round, though during the summer liquid water tends to collect around the edges of the lake.

Compared to the miles of ice that define most Antarctic terrain, Antarctica’s salt-lakes support a veritable cornucopia of life. The algal blooms that occasionally grow in Lake Vanda may not seem like much, but by the standards of inland Antarctica they are quite significant. Salt lakes outside of Antarctica are much more hospitable to life, but their high salinity tends to result in a lack of biological activity relative to freshwater counterparts.

Djibouti’s Lake Assal (source)

The saltiest lake outside of Antarctica is Djibouti’s Lake Assal. Lake Assal is about as salty as Lake Vanda, and its relatively large size makes it the world’s largest reserve of commercially exploitable sea salt. Positioned at the bottom of a volcanic crater, Lake Assal finds itself in an awkward position as both a key pillar of Djibouti’s economy and one of the country’s most prized environmental assets. Only bacteria can survive inside the lake, but there are a few shrubs that manage to grow nearby. Most of the lake’s inflow comes from the Red Sea through subterranean waterways, which makes sense given that the shores of Lake Assal are the lowest land in Africa at 155 meters below sea level.

Though Turkmenistan’s Garabogazköl Aylagy is not technically a lake—it is a lagoon connected to the Caspain Sea by a narrow inlet—it maintains a salt concentration even higher than that of Lake Assal. The hypersalinity of the lagoon is quite remarkable considering that the Caspian Sea itself is only about half as salty as ocean water. Virtually no water enters the lagoon from other sources, which, when combined high rates of evaporation, results in a staggering fast inflow of water from the Caspian (see this picture from Wikipedia). The lagoon was cut off from the Caspian and completely dried out in the 1980s in an effort to maintain the volume of the then-shrinking lake, but the effort backfired when salts from the dried seabed wafted over the surrounding landscape causing health and environmental damage similar to what was experienced around the Aral Sea. The lagoon was restored to its former extent in 1992, when concerns about the Caspian Sea began to fade.

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Egypt’s Storied Wadi Tumilat

The Wadi Tumilat is the easily visible green branch stretching East from the Nile Delta to Lake Timsah and the larger Great Bitter Lake below it.

Most monuments from Egyptian antiquity are grand, conspicuous, stone-made, and thoroughly impractical. The Wadi Tumilat, a defunct Nile distributary branching East from the delta, boasts no such monuments. In ancient times it was a vital part of the Canal of the Pharaohs, a major feat of ancient civil engineering that linked the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Nile. Today the waters  of the Wadi Tumilat are mostly used for irrigation, though a trickle does arrive at lake Timsah where it enters the modern Suez Canal. The favored route in ancient times (see map below from Wikipedia) largely coincided with the current route south of Lake Timsah to the Red Sea, but from Lake Timsah it turned West through the Wadi Tumilat to join the Nile near the base of its alluvial fan.[1]

The earliest written evidence of the canal route comes from the so-called “Chalouf Stele” recorded by the Persian Emperor Darius I around 500 BCE and discovered by the Frenchman Charles de Lesseps in 1866. A portion of the stele reads: “I ordered [the Egyptians] to dig this canal from the river that is called Nile and flows in Egypt, to the sea that begins in Persia [the Red Sea]. Therefore, when this

canal had been dug as I had ordered, ships went from Egypt through this canal to Persia, as I had intended.” Greek and Roman authors would later claim that earlier Pharaohs such as Senruset III, who ruled from 1878 BCE to 1839 BCE, had at least begun work on the canal, though their efforts may have been unsuccessful. Both the Ptolemys, who ruled Egypt from 305 BC to 30 CE, and the Roman emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98 CE to 117 CE, are credited with repairing or re-digging the canal. The canal silted up due to neglect during the late Roman and Byzantine periods, but was reopened by Egypt’s Islamic conqueror Amr ibn al Aas by 642. The canal was closed for good in 767, ostensibly to cut off supplies to the rebellious cities of Mecca and Medina.

A new Suez Canal using a revived Wadi Tumilat almost became a reality in the early 19th Century. Napoleon was fascinated by classical authors’ descriptions of an ancient canal linking the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, and felt that control of such a waterway could allow France to supplant the British Empire as the dominant European power in India, with all the lucrative trade that entailed. Between 1798 and 1799, Napoleon’s top engineer Jacques-Marie Le Pére and his team traced the ancient canal from Suez up through the Wadi Tumilat to the Nile. Unfortunately for Napoleon’s aspirations, a mathematical error led Le Pére to conclude that the Red Sea was 8.5 meters higher than the Mediterranean, and that a new canal through the ancient route would be inadvisable.

It is difficult for us to appreciate the difficulty inherent in digging and dredging a canal without modern technology or even tools we would recognize as proper shovels. The Nile River’s famous silt, once the foundation of Egypt’s prosperity and now blocked by the Aswan Dam, would have been of a curse for canal navigation on and beyond the Wadi Tumilat. Workers in the deserts of Suez would likely need to have all of their supplies brought in from quite far away. So the next time you see a lone green line of the Wadi Tumilat branching off the Nile Delta, remember that the ships that once passed through it were as great a monument to Egyptian ingenuity as any obelisk or pyramid.

[1] The best overview of textual and archaeological sources on the ancient Suez Canal is Redmount, Carol A. 1995. “The Wadi Tumilat and the “Canal of the Pharaohs”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies. 54 (2): 127.

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The World According to Canada and Texas

The portrayal of other countries in the humorous map “How Typical (Central) Canadians See the Rest of the World” contrasts sharply with the global vision found in its counterpart about Texans. Though it lacks geographical precision, the map about Central Canadians’ attitudes, found on the Canadian creator’s blog, effusively praises different countries for their natural beauty, the friendliness of their people, and their historical significance. Meanwhile, the map from the perspective of Texans, originally from a British website but also found elsewhere, has vastly greater geographical distortions and angrily and ignorantly belittles most of the places that it includes.

The first map attempts to show the common worldview of the residents of Ontario and Quebec in Central Canada. These two provinces account for much of the Canadian population and tend to be more politically left-leaning than other parts of the country. The map’s creator makes a clear effort to distinguish the views of Central Canadians from those of Americans, labeling Cuba with “where Americans hate, but we love,” and labeling Europe with “It’s so nice we’ve got peace-keepers here – I bet the average American doesn’t even know half of you guys!” However, like farcical maps from the American perspective, this map crudely lumps together certain countries that have little in common. For example, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and insular Southeast Asia are grouped together as a single region, as are India, Southwest Asia, and the Caucasus.

The map from the perspective of Texas presents a much more insular and cranky view of the world. Texas occupies the center of a large, flat landmass apparently floating in outer space. The creator has labeled Mexico with an insulting slur and derisively named a mass that resembles Oklahoma as “Tarnation.” “The North” erroneously includes London as part of the “Feds,” and England has been misplaced below the Gulf of Mexico, labeled in the map as “The Sea.” These features, along with the note over the water, “Used to be called the meditrainian in olden times,” suggests that Texans hold geographical assumptions that are so ignorant and backward that they resemble those of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who had only a rough understanding of the world beyond the Mediterranean.

Canadians and Texans are commonly thought of as standing on opposite ends of the spectrum of global visions in North America.


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