Health and Science

A teen’s fall and death during the last ice age

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Yucatan Peninsula. Even the tropical jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula reveal traces of the last ice age. The remains of them mammoth animals of the Late Pleistocene are safe and sound, not buried but submerged in the water-filled chambers in underground caves.

Cave divers discovered the skeletons of ice age animals that roamed the Earth before their extinction – giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, elephant-like gomphotheres and other megafauna. And then researchers discovered a young woman they call Naia,  preserved as one of the oldest human skeletons found in North America and the most complete. She is under 5 feet tall and may have been about 15 or 16 years old when she fell to her death some 13,000 years ago.

At the Yucatan Peninsula, freshwater from the underground cave system is the main source of water. In the search for fresh water, Naia’s people and the Late Pleistocene animals they hunted during the last ice age entered the cave, wandering slick passages. With a wrong step, they fell into a bell-shaped pit hole, now named Hoyo Negro, Spanish for “Black Hole.” The chamber is more than 100 feet deep and 200 feet at its widest.

Beddows, an expert cave diver, joined the research team that studied Naia and published their findings in Science magazine.

Today, Hoyo Negro is filled with water. But about 13,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, the sea level was some 250 feet lower than it is today, Sea levels drop in the grip of ice ages. And so did the water level in the caves.

Underwater caves and Pleistocene animals. (Tiffany Chen/MEDILL)

“The groundwater layer literally just sunk down through the rocks,” Beddows said. “Since fresh rain water floats on the heavier marine water that is down below across the whole peninsula, when marine water is lower, then the layer of the fresh water is lower.”

Beddows is looking at the water flows and rocks of the peninsula to assess how sea level change really does allow the fresh groundwater to go up and down. By knowing more about the rock beds, Beddows and her students are able to better interpret the water level in Hoyo Negro since the fresh water is tied to the sea.

“When Naia fell in, it looks like there would have been some shallow water still inside Hoyo Negro,” Beddows said. “She would have fallen over 100 feet, hit the water, hit the rocks. There is good evidence that she floated before the body finally settled on the rocks, because of the way her body is broken up.”

Researchers found Naia’s body in three sections: the upper body, middle part and legs found in clumps on rocks with some short distance between them, which is a trait found in bodies that float on water. When bodies biologically break down, the spinal columns separate and leave parts of the body floating in different directions.

“The skeletons are beautifully laid out,” said Beddows. “The caves have a low energy level. The sedimentation rate is very low, and because now the [caves] are flooded, the constant water temperature at 26 degrees Celsius also helps preserve the skeleton.”

Photo at top: Geologist Patricia Beddows’ research on the Yucatan Peninsula will help provide Naia and other skeletons with a timeline and a better interpretation of their fall. She is an expert diver pursuing her science in a vast network of caves. (Tiffany Chen/Medill)

Feral cats hunting down lizards in the Yucatan

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

Quintana Roo, Mexico – The lush forests, cobalt  blue waters and and rich biodiversity leaves the tourists in awe in the Yucatan Peninsula. Yet, over the past 20 years, locals and tourists at the coastal town  of Akumal noticed a drop in the population of lizards. And stray cats are to blame.

Something rattled in the bush. A cat with a grey-speckled coat gazed intensely into the green. Tip-toeing towards a tropical bush, the cat lowered its shoulder-blade making its belly closer to the floor. It stopped. It pounced. And it turned towards me. There, a gecko- looking reptile, waved its limbs and squirmed between the cat’s teeth. The cat held the amphibian hard enough so it couldn’t escape and light enough, so the cat didn’t kill it. I thought I’d just witnessed a lion hunting an antelope in the safari. But for these cats, the hunt isn’t for food, necessarily. It’s for sport.

Domestic cats are listed among the “100 of the world’s worst invasive alien species” in many areas, according to the Invasive Species Specialist Group. An estimated 1.4-3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals are killed annually in the U.S. by feral cats who have shed domestic life. These cats are posing threats to birds, amphibians and small mammals around the world.

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Chicago leads a national-level push towards mental well-being within poetry slam circuits

The 2018 National Poetry Slam, in Chicago this week, is addressing longtime wellness problems plaguing the slam world

by Vangmayi Parakala
Medill Reports 

CHICAGO – On Monday afternoon, the conference room at the Palmer House Hilton was abuzz. Under the ornate ceiling décor were busy-but-excited-seeming groups of volunteers streaming in for their official check-in. The National Poetry Slam 2018 is to begin in four hours.

Many of these people — they were loud, happy and welcoming each other with hugs — were meeting for the first time. Already, the group was making the Palmer House Hilton their home. The hotel in Chicago’s Loop district is playing host to the five-day poetry festival-and-competition which will end with the National Poetry Slam finals on Saturday August 18.

Over heaped plates of falafel and hummus, rice and pita, the group coordinators were getting to know their volunteers, distributing name tags, and briefing them about the duties that lay ahead. Sitting to one far corner of the conference room were the Wellness Team volunteers – three of the total 40 expected to join the team through the week. This is the first time that mental and physical health is being given dedicated attention of this scale at a national poetry event.

Since its early days in the late ’80s and early ’90s, slam poetry has been criticized for encouraging a certain type of poetry. The format rewards verse that is easily consumable and drawn from heart-wrenching personal stories of grief and trauma. Picked at random from the audience, judges tend to score highly poems that are powerful, moving and emotionally compelling. This, coupled with slam poetry’s being a genre heavy with stories of everyday and marginalized voices, can mean that violence, abuse, or oppression of some kind are dominant themes.

Add to that the very stress of competitive events, and the need for on-site mental and physical healthcare becomes obvious.

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Big Ten Media Days continues with Urban Meyer and Lovie Smith

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

Day 2 of Big Ten Media Days featured coaches with different realistic goals. Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer is searching for another national title while Illinois Head Coach Lovie Smith is looking to win a single game in the Big Ten conference this year.

Our reporters weighed on on both coaches and how one team is looking to heal after a death in the off season.


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Big Ten Media Days kicks off with Fitzgerald, Harbuagh & more

By Nick Mantas
Medill Reports

Big Ten conference head football coaches stepped up to the microphone to face the media and talk about their upcoming seasons. The Medill Reports sports team was at the 2018 Big Ten Media Days as well.


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Cherry Bombe Jubilee cultivates community for women changemakers in the food world

By Maia Welbel
Medill Reports

Between sips of Direct Trade coffee and hard kombucha, women at Cherry Bombe Jubilee this April in New York City talked food, business, and how they are making a difference in a male-dominated industry.

The Cherry Bombe Jubilee conference brings together and celebrates women in the food industry. Created by the founders of the indie magazine, Cherry Bombe, the Jubilee turns the tables on the lack of female attendance at the world’s most prestigious food conferences. Founders Kerry Diamond and Claudia Wu host the event and curate a lineup of chefs, bakers, restaurant owners, food writers, and more to speak and socialize. Continue reading

Science and tourism in the Rio Secreto caves of the Yucatan Peninsula

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports 

Rio Secreto, Yucatan Peninsula – The first thing that struck me was the darkness.  The feeble light from our helmets struggled to illuminate the cave around us.  You could either walk with your light pointing at the ground or use it to look around the cave.  Not both.  That was a challenge –  this was my first time in a cave and I wanted to see everything.

Where we start walking, the cave’s natural decorations of dramatic stalactites and stalagmites look ancient and fossilized.  These are the older formations. Geologist Patricia Beddows explained that she looks for younger stalagmites to monitor drips, but either can be sampled as a paleoclimate record.  All of the formations come from water moving through the calcified rock and soil, sometimes aided by tree roots.

As we walked further off of the tourist trail, we could see the difference between old and new.  The stalactites and stalagmites that are younger look more yellow, with a texture resembling  candlewax after a candle has been burning for awhile.  This  was the room in which Beddows did her research and affectionately called “the lab.”

A group of us gathered with Beddows at one of her data loggers in Rio Secreto. (Photo by Edward Mallon)

We also walk past a table and chairs where the highest paying tourists get to drink wine and enjoy food in a kind of cool and mysterious cave cafe. Beddows and our guide Fernanda Lases Hernandez ponder whether having a few higher paying tours rather than multiple cheaper ones can help reduce the impact of tourism on the cave system.

We were walking into the depths of Rio Secreto so that Beddows, a professor and researcher at Northwestern University, could check on her fleet of sensors that were busy collecting data on the number and frequency of drips of water hitting them from the stalactites above.  Each time a drip hit  the plastic drum of the data logger, a green light flashed.  Beddows is studying the groundwater recharge in the cave system, the process in which water moves from the surface  above into the cave. Recharge is a term for replenishing freshwater supplies. Working in Rio Secreto lets Beddows gather an entire population of drips.

Beddows checked to make sure all of her data loggers were working and pulled some that weren’t.  As we were walking on the way out, she stopped Lases and told me and my colleague, journalism student Tiffany Chen, how to guide ourselves out of the cave.  I looked for the red guide strings that led to the exit and tried to walk in between them to find the way out.  At times, it was difficult to find the strings and the path seemed mostly unfamiliar.  It felt easy to get lost here.

Small parts of Rio Secreto are devoted to guided tours. Photo provided by Rio Secreto.

Two days later, Chen and I came back to the cave to see it from a tourist’s perspective.  Ecotourism is wildly popular in the Yucatan Peninsula.  Rio Secreto is only partially commercialized for tourism, though.  Lases estimates that 10 percent is used for guided tours, and the guides switch routes to try to contain the direct impact.  The rest of the cave system is sequestered for research and conservation. The total  length of the Rio Secreto cave system is 38 kilometers (about 23 miles) and the total area of the cave we experienced is only a few hundred meters.

Lases and guide Raul Padilla Borja stopped before the tour to talk to us about the importance of conserving the cave ecosystem.  They warned us about keeping our heads down to prevent  breaking any of the stalactites.  Later, when we were in the water,  Padilla rubbed his hand on the side of his nose and then put it in the water to show us how the calcite in the cave rafts. It looks  like ice and disperses immediately.

“It is very important to inform our visitors, people that are coming as our guests to Rio Secreto, about the fragility, the importance, and the uniqueness of the aquifer of Rio Secreto,” Lases said.

Rio Secreto, like many other places in the Yucatan Peninsula, is in a struggle  to conserve the purity of  the groundwater.  I talked to a dry cave explorer, Peter Sprouse, about how he thought the cave operators were doing.

“They have made pretty significant efforts in conserving the watershed that leads to the caves. They have to fight off some developments from Playa del Carmen to the north.  It’s a constant battle to them, to keep the water clean,” Sprouse said. There is a threat of seepage of wastewater as the development accelerates.

But for now, the ecosystem seems to be doing well.  On our tour, we were lucky enough to see two blind fish – white fish that have empty eye sockets because they have evolved to live without eyesight since it isn’t useful in the cave.

“This fish is in the red list [of threatened species] and they are also very fragile to pollution. But, at the same time they are an indicator that everything is going well.  The presence of a blind fish means the ecosystem is in very good shape,” said Padilla.

Photo at top: Looking for the blind fish. (Photo by Rio Secreto)

Chicago’s Natural Healer

By Gwen Aviles
Medill Reports

Not too long ago, most “real” doctors would not consider employing natural medicine. In fact, naturopathic procedures were so stigmatized that even Dr. C. Leslie Smith, one of the pioneers of holistic medicine in the Midwest and an acupuncturist with her own practice in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, never foresaw herself practicing it.

Smith was training to become a general surgeon at the University of Illinois College of Medicine when hardship struck. With only one year of school remaining, she developed a repetitive stress injury in her arms, which impeded her ability to operate.

“The more I tried to compensate with my left hand, the more my right hand became inflamed and vice versa,” she says. At one point, her arms became completely immobilized and nothing—not the physical therapy she was completing nor the narcotics and anti-inflammatories she was prescribed—could mollify her acute pain.

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The Maritime Maya and building an ancient island pyramid

By Brittany Callan
Medill Reports

Vista Alegre, Mexico – Exploring an overgrown Mayan temple in the old Mayan port city of Vista Alegre – located on an island off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula – wasn’t quite what I expected.  Videogames such as Uncharted, Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag set up romantic over-the-top temples that I’m sure are responsible for my love of crumbling ancient ruins.  I knew better than to expect environments resembling the ones portrayed in my fantasies.  But I don’t have an archaeologist’s trained eye – I wouldn’t have been able to notice an archaeological pit on my own.

We were stopping at the island so that Northwestern University geologist Patricia Beddows could check on and replace some of the flow and temperature sensors she had deployed nearby.  She is an associate professor of instruction in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern and has spent years researching in the Yucatan. She decided to give a tour of the archaeological site while we were here.  I was following Beddows for an embedded reporting assignment.

The pits are typically divided into units, a meter square and 10 centimeters deep.  Archaeologists and their students sift and sort all of the material dug out of the pit, once used by the Mayans as storage chambers.  Anything that isn’t just geological material gets carefully collected and this includes pottery, shells and bones.  The rest of the material is put back into the pit at the end of the digging season and then covered up to look like the rest of the jungle floor.  There are about 20 to 30 pits at Vista Alegra and almost all of them included  some human remains, showing that the island didn’t have enough room for people to bury their dead.  All of the artifacts and remains are gathered for safe-keeping at a building owned by the multinational archaeologists who work on the site.

The site has a couple of different holes in the ground that are built by the Maya on high points. These holes, called “chultun,” were used for water or food storage.  However, because they are on high points, it seems unlikely that they were used to capture water, leaving a mystery as to where the people living on the island got their water.  People lived at the site intermittently from 800 B.C. to the mid-16th century.  Beddows lived on this site for a month at one point and says her group of a small number of people had challenges  maintaining a water supply.  Hundreds of people lived on this island in ages past. It served as a connection point between coastal and inland areas on a trade route for Mayan freight canoes.  Beddows says the site might lead to a piece in the basic equation of the area’s water budget that scientists are currently missing.  There might have been areas of coastal freshwater discharge that the ancient people could use.

One chultun goes deeper than the current water table where archaeologists were still finding material.  This material had clearly been on dry land when it was used, but it now is flooded by groundwater.  Beddows says that this might mean there is something scientists are missing about how the sea level has changed over time.

“There’s something here we don’t fully understand,” she says.  The site challenges what scientists currently accept about the tectonic stability in the area.  The archaeology at this site and at others nearby are forcing a fundamental rethinking of tectonic stability, which has been assumed to exist since a paper published in 1970.  Beddows compares the potential movement to a teeter totter where parts of the platform are rising while others are dropping.  This could mean that what looks like sea level rise actually is the land going down, or the opposite, which would inform the way adaptions measures to climate change are implemented.

The base of the central pyramid at Vista Alegre, looking up. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

We wander for a bit on the pathways that have been cleared for researchers as we look for the central pyramid.  A massive, beautiful carved stone of a snake head used to lie in front of the temple but was taken away by the National Institute of Archaeology out of concern that it would be stolen.  Looting – even in a remote site such as this one, only accessible by hiring a fishing boat – is still a real risk.  We find the pyramid, which is actually next to a plaza we encountered earlier. The pyramid, after centuries of erosion, looks like a pile of worn rock with weeds growing out from between them.  When it was first created, the outside of it would have been plaster.  The pyramids at popular tourist sites once also looked like this before clearing the vegetation and putting surface stones back in place.

We scramble up the rocks to the top, where we can see above the treetops of the jungle.  The pyramid is extremely steep.  Beddows says the reason for that is because it reduces the total volume of building materials needed to create it, which is important when all of the rock on the island would have been moved here from somewhere else.  The only methods of transport meant carrying the rocks or bringing them by canoe, both of which would have been difficult.

“It actually made more sense for them to invest in making more cement, which is made by burning lime,” requiring wood and labor,  Beddows says. “But that’s probably easier than hauling rocks.”

We carefully walk sideways down the pyramid, sliding and trying not to knock any of the rocks out of place or erode them.  We leave the scientific mysteries of the site behind us, where it awaits the next expedition of researchers to visit.

Photo at top: Northwester University geologist Patricia Beddows pulls out a disintegrating wooden ladder used by previous researchers to descend into a chultun, an underground Mayan storage chamber. (Brittany Callan/Medill)

Stop The Violence

By Richard Foster-Shelton
Medill Reports

In recent years, Chicago has made international headlines for the sky-high murder rates in the city. Unfortunately, this problem has cast a shadow on the people that are doing their part to reverse the trend. During this episode of Medill Newsmakers, Richard Foster-Shelton highlights the people in Chicago that are making a positive impact – from 1st District Commissioner Richard Boykin to Jenesis Scullark of the Jeremy Scullark Foundation.

Photo at top: Chicago’s iconic skyline masks the truth about the city. (Richard Foster-Shelton/MEDILL)