Crocs Uncover

Bizarre Species

miércoles, 26 de noviembre de 2008

Tiny Tropical Island Yields a Wealth of Species

Scientists sampled some 4,000 different mollusk species in Espiritu Santo. Mollusk expert Philippe Bouchet speculates that as many as 1,000 of these could be new species.

Among the finds: this sundial snail, already known to science and so named for the swirling pattern on its shell.

In a career spanning dozens of deep-sea expeditions in three oceans, Bouchet has already described more than 400 new mollusk species.

The thick, solid spines of a pencil sea urchin jut out like the writing instruments that lend this creature its name.

These nocturnal animals hide in coral reef cavities during the day and crawl out after dark to forage for food.

Found in the Pacific and Indian oceans, pencil urchins are popular in the aquarium trade because they fare well in captivity. Their sturdy spines are sometimes used for making mounts for jewelry.

A ballerina-like red dragonfly hunts for smaller insects on a sunlit rock by the side of a small river in Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific.

Insect expert Emmanuel Boitier spotted this one catching tiny flies before it darted off to the next rock. This genus of dragonfly is found in Asia, Africa, and Australia as well as the southwest Pacific.

Discoveries like these will provide a benchmark for measuring future ecological change in a little-studied corner of the world

French insect expert Emmanuel Boitier came across this cicada at night, newly hatched and coming to life under a leaf. The insect was found in a forest on Espiritu Santo, the 1,548-square-mile (4,010-square-kilometer) island in Vanuatu where the Santo 2006 expedition took place.

After a few hours, as the young insects dry off, their salmon color usually changes to brown or green.

Slipper lobsters usually resemble stones, blending in with their rocky habitats.

This one, collected by crustacean experts during the Santo 2006 expedition, funded in part by the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration, bears a bright blue band at its middle--a striking contrast with the dull color of the rest of its body. (National Geographic owns National Geographic News.)

This lobster species is one of many collected during the expedition that are already known to science.

Even on tiny remote islands, scientists can find an impressive array of life.

During the Santo 2006 biodiversity survey in Vanuatu, 153 scientists from 20 countries fanned out across the remote South Pacific island of Espiritu Santo, examining mountains, forests, caves, reefs, and water for all living organisms.

In five months, they collected 10,000 species. Some 2,000 of these may be new to science.

This squat lobster, found in waters 150 meters (492 feet) deep, is one of the new species. Eighty percent of the world's species remain to be discovered, notes French scientist Philippe Bouchet, one of the expedition's leaders.

martes, 25 de noviembre de 2008

Ancient Armenian Origins

One of the world's oldest civilizations, Armenia once included Mount Ararat, which biblical tradition identifies as the mountain that Noah's ark rested on after the flood.

It was the first country in the world to officially embrace Christianity as its religion (c. 300). In the 6th century b.c.e., Armenians settled in the kingdom of Urarty (the Assyrian name for Ararat), which was in decline. Under Tigrane the Great (fl. 95-55 c.c.e.) the Armenian empire reached its height and became one of the most powerful in Asia, stretching from the Caspian to the Mediterranean Seas. Throughout most of its long history, however, Armenia has been invaded by a succession of empires. Under constant threat of domination by foreign forces, Armenians became both cosmopolitan as well as fierce protectors of their culture and tradition. Over the centuries Armenia was conquered by Greeks, Roman and, Persians.

The Temple of Garni, built by the Romans during their occupation of Armenia

Armenians consider themselves direct descendants of Noah, survivor of the Biblical flood. According to Genesis, ...the boat came to rest on a mountain in the Ararat range. Ararat, located in the heart of Armenia, was a Holy Mountain for the peoples of the ancient world. Many ancient scriptures placed the Biblical Garden of Eden in the Land of Armenia also called the Land of Ararat. Tradition states that Noah founded Nakhichevan, the oldest of the Armenian cities. Moses Khorenatsi , historian of the 5th century, presents a detailed genealogy of the Armenian forefather Haik from Japheth, Noah's son. Thus, the territory of the Armenian Plateau is regarded as the cradle of civilization, the initial point for the further spreading of mankind all around the world.
Depiction of Armenian warrior from Persopolis.

The oldest myths reflect the wars of ancient Armenians against the neighboring Assyrians. Haik, considered the patriarch of the Armenian people, led his army to defeat the Assyrian giant Baeleus. By approximately 2100 BC, a prototype of the first Armenian state was founded. Even now, Armenians call themselves Hai (pronounced high), and their country - Haik or Haiastan, in honor of Haik. The Hittite scripts also mention a Haiasa country. Meanwhile, the Assyrian cuneiform writings designate Armenia as Urartu (Arartu), which means Ararat.

The Old Testament also associates Armenia with the Mount Ararat (the Kingdom of Ararat). In ancient times, Armenia was equally associated with the rivers Tigris, Euphrates, Araks and Kura. That is why the neighboring Assyrians also called Armenia, Nairi, standing for Riverland, Country of Rivers. Haik, once thought to be just a hero of an epic legend, is presently accepted by some researches as an actual chieftain of Armens in the 3rd millennium BC. Historians proved that later Haik was deified and proclaimed the prime god in the pantheon of gods in the pagan Armenia. One of Haik's most famous scions, Aram, considerably extended the borders of his country, transforming it into a powerful state. Since then, Greeks and Persian began to call the country Armenia, i.e. the country of Aram.

Aram's son, Ara the Beautiful succeeded him. A very romantic Armenian legend tells that Ara was so handsome that the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (the same who founded Babylon and planted its marvelous hanging gardens) fell in love with him. Ara repeatedly rejected her love proposals until the desperate queen began war with him. The Assyrians troops won the furious battle, and Ara was killed, in despite of Semiramis's order to preserve his life. Inconsolable Semiramis reputed to be sorceress took his body and tried in vain to enliven him. When Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers and spread the rumor that Gods brought Ara back to life. As a result, the war was ceased.

Rise of an Armenian Kingdom
Armenian vassal bringing tribute to Persian King from great staircase at Persopolis.

Aram's son, Ara the Beautiful succeeded him. A very romantic Armenian legend tells that Ara was so handsome that the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (the same who founded Babylon and planted its marvelous hanging gardens) fell in love with him. Ara repeatedly rejected her love proposals until the desperate queen began war with him. The Assyrians troops won the furious battle, and Ara was killed, in despite of Semiramis's order to preserve his life. Inconsolable Semiramis reputed to be sorceress took his body and tried in vain to enliven him. When Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers and spread the rumor that Gods brought Ara back to life. As a result, the war was ceased.

In 612 BC the Medes destroyed Nineveh and brought the Assyrian power to an end. Armenia's eternal antagonist abandoned the political arena. Some 50 years later, the king Tigranes the First in alliance with Cyrus the Great, founder of Achaemenid dynasty conquered the lands controlled by the Medes and reinforced the Armenian kingdom. Tigranes the First had 3 sons; the third son's name was Vahagn the Dragonfighter. The Armenian pagan tradition covered this Vahagn with glory and legends: he was even deified and worshipped like Hercules. However, the era of peace ended as a number of weak and insignificant kings ruled Armenia over the following years, and finally the country became tributary to Persia. An inscription on a rock (around 520 BC) called the Behestun Stone, found in Iran, mentions Armenia in the list of countries Darius I controlled. The dynasty of Hayk stopped: the kings of Armenia were henceforward anointed by the Persian kings. During the following centuries the Armenian troops fought for Persia in all major battles. The Armenian cavalry was well known for its valor. Vahe, the last offspring of Hayk dynasty, was killed in 331 BC, fighting for Darius in a battle against Alexander the Great.

Armenia regained independence after the death of Alexander the Macedonian, when the monarchy of the latter was split into many parts. By 190 BC, Prince Artashes, the governor of Greater Armenia, united the shattered Armenian lands, establishing the Atashesian dynasty. He built the city of Artashat. According to some Roman historians, the construction of this new Armenian capital was supervised by famous commander Hannibal the Carthaginian, who took refuge in Armenia fleeing from the Romans. The country enjoyed peace and prosperity under the rule of Vagharshak, who came to throne in 149 BC. He set up the institute of nobility in his kingdom and established the new senior official ranking system. Vagharshak made the city of Armavir his royal residence. Several Greek inscriptions from around that period found in Armavir witness about the influence of the Greek culture in Armenia.

Aram's son, Ara the Beautiful succeeded him. A very romantic Armenian legend tells that Ara was so handsome that the Assyrian Queen Semiramis (the same who founded Babylon and planted its marvelous hanging gardens) fell in love with him. Ara repeatedly rejected her love proposals until the desperate queen began war with him. The Assyrians troops won the furious battle, and Ara was killed, in despite of Semiramis's order to preserve his life. Inconsolable Semiramis reputed to be sorceress took his body and tried in vain to enliven him. When Armenians advanced to avenge their leader, she disguised one of her lovers and spread the rumor that Gods brought Ara back to life. As a result, the war was ceased.

Tigranes the Great of Armenia
Vagharshak's son Arshak and his grandson Artashes were very successful rulers as well, but it was perhaps the son of the latter, Tigranes II, who distinguished himself as the most glorious among all Armenian kings.
He succeeded his father in 95 BC. Brother-in-law and true ally of Mithridates the Great, the glorious King of Pontus, he struggled together with his formidable relative against the Roman dominance. Tigranes the Second also known as Tigranes the Great, extended the Armenian borders from Caspian Sea to Egypt, gaining full control over the vast territories. After having subdued the provinces in Syria, Cappadocia and Mesopotamia, Tigranes also conquered Palestine, taking many thousands of prisoners. He united all the Armenian lands and built 4 large cities in different parts of his empire all 4 called Tigranakert. Just like his father Artashes, Tigranes transported from Greece many statues of the Greek Gods. A gigantic statue of Zeus was erected in Ani fortress, and sanctuary for Anahit (Aphrodite) was raised in the city of Ashtishat.

lunes, 24 de noviembre de 2008

Herod's Lost Tomb

Herod's bloody reputation has always hidden another side of one of the Bible's greatest villains - an architectural mastermind of breathtaking proportions. An Israeli archaeologist claims to have found Herod's most intimate creation of all - his tomb.

Herod's tepidarium (Roman sauna bath) is a building with the oldest dome in Israel, where Herod entertained friends.Herod built single-mission barges made of a mixture of Italian concrete and stones that were poured into wooden frameworks.
Herodium served as a pleasure palace and Herod's chosen tomb.

Massive Prehistoric Fort Emerges From Welsh Woods

James Owen
Cloaked by time's leafy shroud, the prehistoric settlement of Gaer Fawr lies all but invisible beneath a forest in the lush Welsh countryside.

Commanded by warrior chiefs who loomed over the everyday lives of their people, the massive Iron Age fortress once dominated the landscape. Now the 2,900-year-old structure lives again, thanks to a digital recreation following a painstaking survey by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

The Iron Age hill fort in central Wales was a major feat of civil engineering, researchers say.

"Because Gaer Fawr is densely wooded, it's been little understood in the past," said Royal Commission archaeologist Toby Driver.

"Our new survey has shown what a very impressive and advanced building it was.

"This was a very bold architectural statement by Iron Age people," he said.

Survey Says

The study involved thousands of measurements taken in 2007, which were used build a digital terrain model of the 21-acre (5.8-hectare) site.

Measurements were made manually using lasers beamed to handheld posts, each bearing a reflector, Driver said.

"The thought behind the survey was that if we could map the contours underneath the woods, we could then strip the trees off and then see what the fort looked like in the landscape," he added.

The results show the oval-shaped stronghold was defended by five tiers of stone-faced earthen ramparts, each measuring up to 26 feet (8 meters) in height.

Two entranceways led up to gates to the northeast and southwest of the summit, where a timber fortress once stood.

The hill fort's flat summit was later extended to the west, possibly to accommodate a growing population.
"It's not a single build," Driver said. "New ramparts and new gateways were constructed over earlier ones."

Monumental Task
Past archaeological finds, including a nearby cache of Bronze Age weapons, suggest the hill fort was active from about 900 B.C. until the Roman invasion of Britain in A.D. 43.

A bronze sculpture of a wild boar—a symbol of power—discovered in the 19th century in an adjacent field might be a relic of the ancient chiefs who ruled over Gaer Fawr, Driver suggested.

"It's a very rare find," he said. "One could conceive someone fairly powerful running the fort with this bronze boar mounted on his helmet."

The study team says the fort occupied a strategically important area for trade and agriculture between the fertile plains of England and the Welsh hills.

The border region has the highest concentration of Iron Age hill forts in Western Europe, Driver noted.

"This land would have supported a lot of people and hill forts would have risen up to control these populations," he said.

Phil Bennett is archaeological manager of one of the few extensively excavated Iron Age forts in Britain: Castell Henllys in southwestern Wales.

Larger hill forts such as Gaer Fawr commanded the surrounding landscape not just visually, but in terms of natural resources, Bennett said.

Huge amounts of timber would have been required both for building the fort palisades—strong defensive fences—and the dwellings people lived in, he said.

Roundhouses—circular buildings used as living quarters—excavated at Castell Henllys, for example, are estimated to have required some 30 oak trees, 80 to 100 hazel bushes, and 2,000 bundles of reeds, Bennett said.

(Related: "Badgers, Rabbits Undermine England's Ancient Monuments" [July 11, 2008].)

Status Symbol

"We think these hill forts owed as much to elites showing off their status and power as any real need for defense," he added.

The terraced ramparts wouldn't have held an enemy at bay for long, according Bennett.

"Probably what was going on in the Iron Age was raiding rather than sieges and open warfare," Bennett said. "They would have taken things like cattle and people as slaves."

Another newly revealed feature at Gaer Fawr also hints at a much later period of occupation.

An angular bank dividing the interior of the fort is so different from the site's other earthworks that researchers suspect it dates to early medieval times.

"The fort has these prehistoric curving ramparts, but when you get to the top there's this big, straight bank which is very unprehistoric," the study team's Driver said.

After the Roman period, Welsh princes rose to prominence in the region, he added. "It may be that Gaer Fawr, in common with other hilltops in central Wales, was occupied by the court or castle of one of these early Welsh princes," Driver said.

Today, the once majestic site is a woodland recreation area.

"It's very difficult to imagine you're walking over an Iron Age hill fort," Driver said.

viernes, 21 de noviembre de 2008

Dark Matter Proof Found Over Antarctica?

Dark Matter Proof Found Over Antarctica?
Anne Minard

High-energy electrons captured over Antarctica could reveal the presence of a nearby but mysterious astrophysical object that's bombarding Earth with cosmic rays, researchers say.

Or the electrons may be the long-awaited physical evidence of elusive dark matter.

Either way, the unusual particles are exciting for astrophysicists, who say they could someday confirm or deny decades of unproven theories.

"In the first case, we have now seen for the first time a nearby source of cosmic rays. Nobody's seen that before," said study co-author John Wefel, a physicist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

"In the second case, we may be seeing something even more stupendous."

Annihilation Signal

Cosmic rays are not beams per se but are any protons, electrons, and other subatomic particles that careen toward Earth from a variety of sources, including the supernova explosions that mark the deaths of stars.

Most of the cosmic electrons that reach Earth are low-energy, because the highest-energy ones fizzle the fastest and don't last long enough to get here.

Capturing any electrons at all from the high end of the energy spectrum requires a sustained sampling effort.

The authors of the new study flew a balloon-borne particle collector called the Advanced Thin Ionization Calorimeter (ATIC) over Antarctica.

Circular winds at that latitude allow the balloon to stay aloft for up to 30 days at a time, capturing electrons and measuring their charges, energies, and trajectories.

The team got a surprise: ATIC found inflated numbers of high-energy electrons that match the signal expected from the destruction of dark matter.

Dark matter is one of astrophysics' greatest enigmas. It is thought to be five times more common than visible matter, but there is no proof of what it is made of.

The existence of dark matter has largely been inferred from its gravitational effects, such as the fact that most galaxies have enough mass to remain as well-defined objects despite having too little visible matter to account for the necessary gravity.

A few exotic particles have been suggested as dark matter ingredients. One of these, named the Kaluza-Klein particle, is predicted to have the same mass as 550 to 650 protons.

When these theoretical Kaluza-Klein particles collide and annihilate, they're expected to produce electrons with energies between 550 and 650 gigaelectron volts, or GeV. One GeV is roughly the energy locked up in the mass of a single proton, according to Einstein's famous formula E=mc2.

At 620 GeV, the odd energy spike in the Antarctic electrons falls within that range, the authors report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

Mystery Object

As an alternative theory, the authors say, a nearby astrophysical object could be churning out high-energy electrons that are reaching Earth.

Possibilities include a pulsar, which is the highly magnetic, rotating remnant of a collapsed star, or a microquasar, the luminous, energetic collection of material orbiting a small black hole.

Astrophysicist Okkie de Jager, of North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa, and colleagues announced the discovery in April that two pulsars—Geminga and B0656+14—are local sources of high-energy cosmic rays.

These pulsars could be producing the newly discovered electrons, de Jager said.

"I would put my money on a local source, simply because we do have the smoking gun to this effect," said de Jager, who was not involved in the new study.

Yousaf Butt, an astrophysicist at the National Academy of Sciences, wrote a commentary on the work also appearing in Nature.

"Let's not forget that a completely new type of astrophysical object could also produce the detected electron excess," Butt said.

"After all, pulsars were discovered only in 1967, and until 1992 we were blissfully unaware of microquasars."

For its high-energy electrons to reach Earth, such an object would need to be close, astrophysically speaking—within about 3,000 light-years of Earth.


Study co-author Wefel said his research team doesn't favor either theory just yet.

"We're sort of stuck in between the two. We can't decide."

No known object precisely matches the data on hand, and the results aren't conclusive for the detection of dark matter, he noted.

"We just do not have enough events to prove they're responsible," he said, referring to the Kaluza-Klein particles. "It's suggestive but it's not proven."

Further sampling is key, he said, but funding has not been renewed for his team to continue using ATIC over Antarctica.

Giant neutrino telescopes like IceCube, A University of Wisconsin-led project built at the South Pole, could find more dark matter clues.

And an instrument called CALorimetric Electron Telescope, or CALET, is now being designed in Japan with the hope that it will join the International Space Station in 2013.

CALET would collect electrons over Earth for at least 1,000 days, as opposed to ATIC's 30.

Fermi, NASA's gamma-ray space telescope formerly known as GLAST, is also capable of measuring an electron spectrum. And the European Union's Cherenkov Telescope Array, now under development, may be able to locate dark matter hot spots in the universe.

Finally, when it's running smoothly, the Large Hadron Collider in Europe will function in part as an experimental dark matter factory, producing collisions at 14,000 GeV that could help shed light on dark matter's exotic particles.

jueves, 20 de noviembre de 2008

Cancer victim Randy Pausch's wife speaks

New Finds at King Herod's Tomb

Archaeologists exploring King Herod's tomb complex near Jerusalem have uncovered rare Roman paintings as well as two sarcophagi, or stone coffins, that could have contained the remains of Herod's sons.

In May 2007, veteran Hebrew University archaeologist Ehud Netzer solved one of Israel's great archaeological mysteries when he first uncovered the remains of Herod's first century-B.C. grave at the Herodium complex, located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south of Jerusalem.

King Herod, appointed by the Romans to rule Judea between 37 and 4 B.C., is renowned for his monumental construction projects, including the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the Caesarea complex, and the palace atop Masada.

Herod constructed Herodium as a massive and lavish administrative, residential, and burial center. The style of the paintings has not been seen before in the Middle East, according to Netzer, who has been working amid Herod's ruins since the 1960s, at times with funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration.
The window painting style existed in Rome and Campania only between 15 and 10 B.C. Netzer's team believes Italian artists were brought to the Holy Land to decorate this theater, as happened at a site in nearby Jericho.

"Normally in Judean art you wouldn't paint scenes such as these with animals. The style is so similar to what is known from Italy, it really looks like a team came over to do the painting," said Rachel Chachy-Laureys, a surveyor working with Nezter. "It fits the context."
In addition, two relatively intact coffins, perhaps belonging to Herod's sons, were recently found in the mausoleum and show no signs of deliberate damage. Herod was rumored to have murdered his sons.

The coffins are in good shape compared to what archaeologists are labeling Herod's sarcophagus, discovered in 2007 and crafted of reddish-pink limestone with carved rosettes.

Herod's coffin was likely vandalized during the first Jewish revolt against Roman rule sometime between A.D. 66 and 72, Netzer said.

The king was likely despised by Jewish rebels as a puppet appointed by Judea's Roman rulers, and Netzer said the damage was probably a deliberate expression of hatred or revenge.

The Mystery Remains

One big question remains: Where is Herod's body?

"We have only found a very small number of human bones at the site and have not been able to come to any conclusions," Netzer said. "We have not yet finished digging and have only uncovered a small area."

But he does not believe the king's remains will ever be recovered.

At the conclusion of the first Jewish revolt in A.D. 70, the rebels handed the site back over to the Romans.

Jewish fighters also briefly made use of the site during the Bar Kokhva revolt 50 years later, building a network of tunnels that served their efforts at guerilla warfare against the Romans.

Netzer began to excavate at the Herodium site in 1972. He and his colleagues Ya'akov Kalman, Ro'i Porath, and Chachy-Laureys—with the assistance of local Bedouins—began excavations higher up on the mountain's slope in 2006.

The Israel Museum is slated to open an exhibition in 2010 of archaeological findings from Herodium, which is managed by Israel's Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.

Netzer revealed new discoveries at a Wednesday press conference in Jerusalem.

Recent excavations uncovered an elaborate theater dating slightly earlier than Herod's burial complex that had been demolished to enable construction of the artificial mountain that served as his tomb.

The walls of the theater's loggia—a balcony that served as a VIP room and viewing box—are decorated with well-preserved Roman paintings of windows and outdoor scenes.

lunes, 17 de noviembre de 2008

Mysterious Aurora Spotted on Saturn

November 13, 2008—Saturn has given scientists a light show like nothing they've ever seen, NASA announced Wednesday.

The Cassini orbiter has captured a unique aurora (shown in blue) on the ringed planet that illuminates much of its northern polar cap.

Auroras occur when charged particles stream across a planet's magnetic field lines and into its atmosphere.

But they don't usually light up such a wide area.

"It's not just a ring of auroras like those we've seen at Jupiter or Earth," Tom Stallard, a scientist at the University of Leichester, U.K., said in a statement. He added that "finding such a bright aurora here is a fantastic surprise."

The newfound aurora is often elusive, sometimes disappearing within 45 minutes, the researchers say.

Explaining the oddity will undoubtedly unearth new laws of physics found only on Saturn, said Nick Achilleos of University College London.

viernes, 14 de noviembre de 2008

Chinese Kingdoms Rose, Fell With Monsoons?

Ker Than

Throughout centuries, the fortunes of China's ancient kingdoms rose and fell with monsoon cycles, a new study suggests.

The discovery is based on a nearly 2,000-year-old record of monsoon activity recently discovered in a cave.
Monsoon winds carry rain-laden clouds through China every summer, providing nearly 80 percent of the annual precipitation in some parts of the country.

When the winds are weak, little to no rain reaches large expanses of China, often plunging those areas into drought.

The new study "is a brilliant analysis of the problematic coincidence of abrupt climate changes and changes in political organization," said Harvey Weiss, an archaeologist at Yale University who was not involved in the study.

"Really Surprised"

In the Wanxiang cave in north-central China, researchers discovered a record of monsoon activity preserved in a stalagmite—a rock formed by mineral-rich waters dripping onto the cave floor year after year.

The rock had been growing continuously for 1,800 years, from A.D. 190 to 2003.

Like trees, stalagmites have annual growth rings that can provide clues about local environmental conditions for a particular year.

The team measured the amount of oxygen-18—a rare form of "heavy" oxygen—in the stalagmite growth rings. Growth rings with large amounts of oxygen-18 indicate years of weak summer monsoons and less rains.

Comparing the stalagmite record with Chinese history, the researchers found that a period of strong monsoons was associated with the "golden age" of the Northern Song dynasty.

During that time, improved rice yields allowed the population to increase from 60 million to as many as 120 million.

"I was really surprised," said study co-author Hai Cheng, a geologist at the University of Minnesota.

Furthermore, weak monsoon seasons coincided with droughts and the declines of the Tang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

Weak monsoons may have helped trigger one of the most tumultuous eras in Chinese history, called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, according to the study, detailed tomorrow in the journal Science.

During this time, five dynasties rose and fell within only a few decades, and China fractured into several independent nation-states.

(Read about the brilliant, cruel emperors of the Han Dynasty in National Geographic magazine.)


Peter deMenocal is a paleoclimatologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York.

"The synchrony between these cultural events and climate change events is really compelling," deMenocal said.

DeMenocal's research has examined the role of climate change in the declines of ancient civilizations, including those of the Maya and Mesopotamians.

Throughout history, climate change has likely exacerbated already tense situations within empires caused by political upheavals or societal unrest, he said.

"Climate in many cases acts like the straw that broke the camel's back," deMenocal said.

Continuous Effect

The monsoon effect on China continues today, the study authors added.

Scientists have linked droughts plaguing large swaths of modern China to weakening monsoon winds during the past half century.

"The local government has sometimes had to move people out of some regions because they don't have enough water," said study co-author Cheng.

Monsoon variability in the past was driven by natural influences—such as changes in solar cycles and global temperatures. But today's waning monsoons are the results of human-driven greenhouse gas emissions, the new study suggests.

"I do think it's useful to look at this [study] as a lesson for our future," Columbia's deMenocal said.

"In their time, these ancient cultures were in many ways just as impressive as modern societies."

jueves, 13 de noviembre de 2008

New Pyramid Found in Egypt: 4,300-Year-Old Queen's Tomb

Tomb Andrew Bossone in Cairo

A new pyramid has been discovered deep beneath Egyptian sands, archaeologists announced today.

The 4,300-year-old monument is believed to be the tomb of Queen Sesheshet, the mother of Pharaoh Teti, the founder ancient Egypt's 6th dynasty.

Once nearly five stories tall, the pyramid—or at least what remains of it—lay beneath 23 feet (7 meters) of sand.

The discovery is the third known subsidiary, or satellite, pyramid to the tomb of Teti. It's also the second pyramid found this year in Saqqara, an ancient royal burial complex near current-day Cairo.

"I always say you never know what the sands of Egypt might hide," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

"This might be the most complete subsidiary pyramid ever found at Saqqara," added Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Surprise in the Sand

Archaeologists also found remnants of a white limestone casing for the surviving, 16-foot-tall (5-meter-tall) pyramid base. The angle of the base helped them determine that the pyramid's walls stood at a 51-degree angle.

Based on that angle, the team determined that the pyramid was originally 46 feet (14 meters) tall and about 72 feet (22 meters) square at its base.

The researchers were somewhat surprised to find a pyramid at the Teti site, since they thought the area had been thoroughly searched. Archaeologists had already found subsidiary pyramids for Teti's two principal wives Iput I and Khuit, about a hundred years ago and in 1994, respectively.
Teams have been digging in the area for more than 20 years.

"One hundred years ago they used to take sand and put it in unexcavated areas," Hawass said.

"The archaeologists in the past used this area as a location for the sand. No one could think there is anything here."

Tomb robbers, however, had known the pyramid was there—archaeologists found that a shaft had been created to allow access to Sesheshet's funerary chamber.

Due to those assumed tomb raids, archaeologists don't expect to find Sesheshet's mummy when they reach the burial chamber weeks from now. But they do anticipate finding inscriptions about the queen, whose name, perhaps coincidentally, evokes the goddess of history and writing, Seshat.

Mother Love

Starting from the 4th dynasty (2616 to 2494 B.C.), pharaohs often built pyramids for their wives and mothers.

"Mothers were revered in ancient Egypt," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, who was not involved in the discovery.

"Building pyramids for one's mother in her dead state … was fairly emphasized in the whole vision of kingship that the ancient Egyptians had," Ikram said.

"That was something that was instituted during [a pharaoh's] lifetime and was a very public way of expressing his debt to her, his connection to her, and her importance in Egypt politically and as a symbol for kingship."

Sesheshet's son Teti might have been more motivated than the average pharaoh to pay homage to his mother. Sesheshet had come from a powerful family and probably supported his ascendancy to the throne during turmoil at the end of the 5th dynasty.

"She's one of the important ladies at that time," said Hakim Haddad, general director of excavations in Egypt.

"At the end of the 5th dynasty and the beginning of the 6th dynasty, there was a conflict between two branches of the royal families."

The American University's Ikram added, "I assume Teti thought it would be a good plan to make his mother a pyramid."

Regardless of Teti's motivations, SCA director Hawass says the newfound pyramid is special because of its association with a female ruler.

"You can discover a tomb or a statue, but to discover a pyramid it makes you happy. And a pyramid of a queen—queens have magic."

miércoles, 12 de noviembre de 2008


New evidence shows that human sacrifice helped populate the royal city of the dead.

King Aha, "The Fighter," was not killed while unifying the Nile's two warring kingdoms, nor while building the capital of Memphis. No, one legend has it that the first ruler of a united Egypt was killed in a hunting accident after a reign of 62 years, unceremoniously trampled to death by a rampaging hippopotamus. News of his demise brought a separate, special terror to his staff. For many, the honor of serving the king in life would lead to the more dubious distinction of serving the king in death.

On the day of Aha's burial a solemn procession made its way through the sacred precincts of Abydos, royal necropolis of Egypt's first kings. Led by priests in flowing white gowns, the funeral retinue included the royal family, vizier, treasurer, administrators, trade and tax officers, and Aha's successor, Djer. Just beyond the town's gates the procession stopped at a monumental structure with imposing brick walls surrounding an open plaza. Inside the walls the priests waded through a cloud of incense to a small chapel, where they performed cryptic rites to seal Aha's immortality.

Outside, situated around the enclosure's walls, were six open graves. In a final act of devotion, or coercion, six people were poisoned and buried along with wine and food to take into the afterlife. One was a child of just four or five, perhaps the king's beloved son or daughter, who was expensively furnished with ivory bracelets and tiny lapis beads.

The procession then walked westward into the setting sun, crossing sand dunes and moving up a dry riverbed to a remote cemetery at the base of a high desert plateau. Here Aha's three-chambered tomb was stockpiled with provisions for a lavish life in eternity. There were large cuts of ox meat, freshly killed waterbirds, loaves of bread, cheese, dried figs, jars of beer, and dozens of wine vessels, each bearing Aha's official seal. Beside his tomb more than 30 graves were laid out in three neat rows. As the ceremony climaxed, several lions were slain and placed in a separate burial pit. As Aha's body was lowered into a brick-lined burial chamber, a select group of loyal courtiers and servants also took poison and joined their king in the next world.

Is this how a pharaoh's funeral in 2900 b.c. actually unfolded? It's a plausible scenario, experts say. Archaeologists have been sifting through the dry sands of Abydos for more than a century. Now they have found compelling evidence that ancient Egyptians indeed engaged in human sacrifice, shedding new—and not always welcome—light on one of the ancient world's great civilizations.

"Yellah! Yellah! Yellah!" barks Ibrahim Mohammed Ali, the Egyptian crew boss, spurring his workers to move it, move it, move it. "You are big fat water buffalo! You are dung!" The mostly teenage boys hauling buckets of sand giggle nervously but pick up the pace while keeping an eye on their still ranting foreman. "You chatter worse than a bunch of women!" Standing tall in a loose, flowing galabia and white head wrap, Ibrahim looks somehow wizardly, maybe capable of vaporizing slackers with a cast from the long, intimidating stick-wand he keeps clutched behind his back. Ibrahim's 125-person crew is working with a team of archaeologists to uncover part of the immense royal burial center at Abydos, located 260 miles (420 kilometers) up the Nile from Cairo. As a line of workers use hoe-like tureyas to scrape away the sand, the so-named bucket boys haul away clanking pails of dirt and pour it like water into the laps of sifters. Excavators are on the ground with trowels in hand, surveyors are plotting the coordinates of artifacts, a photographer is documenting each new find, and illustrators are pencil-drawing an ancient coffin and an infant skeleton.

Kneeling on one knee in the center of this swarm is Matthew Adams, associate director of a multiyear project sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Yale University, and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. Adams is brushing sand away to reveal a smooth, ancient mud floor. "If this is from the time of Aha," he says in a raspy voice dried out from months in the desert, "then it's the oldest funerary enclosure ever found in Egypt. We're talking about the beginning of Egyptian history. Not one trowel has been laid here before now."

Abydos is the source of many of Egypt's most ancient artifacts. In 1988 Günter Dreyer, a German archaeologist, unearthed small bone and ivory tags intricately inscribed with one of the world's earliest forms of writing—crude hieroglyphs developed at about the same time as Mesopotamian cuneiform. In 1991 Adams's mentor and the project's director, David O'Connor, uncovered an eerie fleet of wooden boats buried in enormous brick-lined graves.

Now O'Connor and Adams are digging down into the beginning of Egypt's 1st dynasty, a pivotal period when kings laid down the roots of religion, government, and architecture that would last for the next 3,000 years. Unlike the colossal pyramids of later pharaohs, the more modest burial complexes of the Abydos kings consisted of two separate structures—a tomb and a ceremonial enclosure. The large, walled enclosures where mortuary rituals were performed were situated on the edge of town, while the underground tombs were located more than a mile away on the threshold of the desolate Western Desert, a place known to ancient Egyptians as the land of the dead.

All of the 1st-dynasty tombs and most of the enclosures excavated so far are accompanied by subsidiary graves—hundreds in some cases—containing the remains of elite officials and courtiers. Egyptologists have long speculated that these graves might hold victims of sacrifice but also acknowledged that they could simply be graves reserved for the king's staff, ready to use as each person died naturally.

The question of whether ancient Egyptians practiced human sacrifice has intrigued archaeologists since the late 1800s. Frenchman Émile Amélineau and his English rival Sir Flinders Petrie excavated all the 1st-dynasty desert tombs by 1902. Each had been heavily looted in antiquity, and no royal remains were found except a single bejeweled arm. Still, there was much yet to discover. In Aha's tomb were the remains of dozens of wine vessels, tools, some jewelry, and signs of food. Beside the tomb Petrie discovered 35 subsidiary graves, which he called the Great Cemetery of the Domestics. While he didn't dwell on it in his published papers, he hinted at human sacrifice. Later, in the 1980s, German archaeologists uncovered the remains of at least seven young lions.

The only funerary enclosure standing during Petrie's time was the massive 4,600-year-old Shunet el-Zebib, built by the 2nd-dynasty king Khasekhemwy. The towering shuneh (storehouse), with its three-story walls enclosing nearly two acres of space, still dominates the landscape. Two of Petrie's associates discovered another 2nd-dynasty enclosure, built by King Peribsen, and Petrie returned in the 1920s and found hundreds of subsidiary graves. The graves surrounded three 1st-dynasty enclosures, but curi-ously, Petrie located only one of them. These discoveries led archaeologists to speculate that they had found only half the puzzle of Abydos, and that for each tomb they had uncovered out in the desert, there should be a corresponding enclosure still hidden on the city's edge.
In 1967 David O'Connor came to Abydos to search for, among other things, the funerary enclosures that had eluded Petrie. Almost 20 years later, while digging in the shadow of the shuneh, he made a totally unexpected discovery.

"I opened an excavation pit, and poking into one corner of it was this intrusion," O'Connor recalls. "I knew it was something from the earliest dynasty, I just didn't know what." To O'Connor's amazement, the "intrusion" turned out to be one of 14 ancient boats, each buried in its own brick-lined tomb adjacent to the enclosure of a still unknown king. The boats, which measured up to 75 feet (23 meters) long, were expertly crafted and had been fully functional when buried. They proved to be the world's oldest surviving boats built of planks (as opposed to those made of reeds or hollowed-out logs).

"The boats are like the servants who were buried at Abydos," says O'Connor. "The king intended to use t hem in the afterlife in the same manner that he used them before his death." In life the boats enabled the king to travel rapidly up and down the Nile in a powerful display of wealth and military might. As the Egyptian kings also expected to be kings in the afterlife, the boats would be useful tools.

News of the boats'discovery rippled through the Egyptology world and also energized O'Connor's hunt for the lost enclosures of the first kings. To help focus the search, O'Connor and Adams sought out Tomasz Herbich, a Polish archaeologist who specializes in finding buried ruins with a device called a fluxgate gradiometer, a type of magnetometer. It measures slight variations in the Earth's magnetic field caused by certain types of iron oxides beneath the surface. "These oxides are present in Nile mud," explains Herbich. "And what's the main material used by ancient Egyptian builders? Sun-dried bricks made of Nile mud!"

For nearly a week in 2001 Herbich's assistant walked more than ten miles (16 kilometers) a day over a numbing grid, taking over 80,000 measurements. The survey turned up several small funerary chapels but no enclosures. Then, during Herbich's last hour in the field, his magnetic divining rod finally found royal mud. He downloaded the data onto his laptop, and as the digital map came into focus, he called out, "We have an enclosure!"

Adams and a small crew went to work uncovering part of the enclosure, but the field season was ending, and they had to rebury it and return home. In 2002 O'Connor again asked Adams to go to Abydos, this time to undertake a massive excavation of the new discovery.

After a month of tediously peeling back layers of sand, Adams uncovered jars and wine stoppers bearing Aha's name, confirming that his lost funerary enclosure was at last found.

Once the crew reached the enclosure's floor, they discovered six surrounding graves. Three contained the bodies of adult women, one held the remains of a man, and one held a young child with 25 ivory bracelets embellished with tiny lapis beads. The sixth grave remains unexcavated. In each case the archaeological evidence pointed to a sacrificial death.

"The graves were dug and lined with bricks, then roofed with wood and capped with mud-brick masonry," says Adams. "Above that masonry cap, a plaster floor extends out from the enclosure and covers all the graves." The floor extension is seamless-an important clue, for it would have been impossible to entomb people under the floor except all at the same time.

It's unlikely that 41 people-the six at Aha's enclosure plus 35 at his tomb-would have died of natural causes at the same time. Another possibility is that they died randomly over time and were then stockpiled and reburied en masse. But for O'Connor and Adams, the evidence strongly suggests they were sacrificed.

How were they killed? Petrie believed that he saw signs of post-burial movement in the tomb graves, suggesting that people were alive or semiconscious when buried. Brenda Baker, a physical anthropologist from Arizona State University, examined all the skeletons from Aha's enclosure and found no signs of trauma. "The method of their demise is still a mystery," says Adams. "My guess is that they were drugged."

Or strangled, suggests Nancy Lovell, a physical anthropologist at the University of Alberta. Lovell studied skulls from Aha's tomb and found telltale stains inside the victims' teeth. "When someone is strangled," she explains, "increased blood pressure can cause blood cells inside the teeth to rupture and stain the dentin, the part of the tooth just under the enamel."

It now seems clear that human sacrifice was practiced in early Egypt-as was true in other parts of the ancient world. Sir Leonard Woolley's excavation during the 1920s and '30s at Ur in modern-day Iraq revealed hundreds of sacrificial graves dating back to 2500 b.c. and related to the burial of Mesopotamian kings and queens. Evidence for sacrifice has also been seen in Nubian, Mesoamerican, and several other ancient cultures.

In Egypt enthusiasm for the grim practice seems to have waned quickly. Aha's subsidiary graves are the earliest to be found, and his successor, Djer, embraced the practice with fervor-more than 300 graves flank his tomb, and another 269 surround his mortuary enclosure. But Qaa, the last ruler of the 1st dynasty, had fewer than 30 sacrificial graves beside his tomb, although his enclosure remains lost. And by the 2nd dynasty the practice simply stopped.

O'Connor thinks it ended because the royal staff rebelled. "People tend to say that the Egyptians were becoming more civilized and that's why it stopped, but I think that reflects our own prejudices. These graves included relatively high-ranking people, and the reason it stopped might be more political than ethical." Perhaps it was an honor to serve the king in the afterlife, but it was an honor that could wait.

By the 3rd dynasty Egypt's pharaohs began building their tombs more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) downstream at Saqqara. There, a new tradition arose: The separate tomb and enclosure were combined into a single complex that included a colossal pyramid tomb bounded by the walls of a ceremonial enclosure. The royal necropolis at Abydos lay abandoned for the next 700 years.

Then during the Middle Kingdom the cult of Osiris became a major force in Egyptian religion. Legend held that Osiris, lord of the afterlife, was also Egypt's first king, and so pharaohs dispatched priests to Abydos on a kind of archaeological expedition to locate Osiris's tomb. They excavated several of the 1st-dynasty tombs and ultimately decided that Djer's belonged to Osiris. In so doing they turned Abydos into the mecca of ancient Egypt. Over the next 2,000 years several pharaohs, including Senusret III and Ramses II, built great monuments and temples at Abydos to honor Osiris. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, farmers and pharaohs alike, made the pilgrimage to take part in an annual celebration of Osiris's resurrection. The festival culminated in an elaborate parade that wound from the town past a series of small chapels built to honor the god-king, then up a dry riverbed to the ancient desert cemetery.

Arriving at Osiris's tomb, the pilgrims had no inkling that hundreds of their ancestors-royal staff members sacrificed more than a thousand years earlier-lay buried beneath their feet. Seeking Osiris's blessing for their own passage to the afterlife, the worshippers brought millions of small clay offering pots filled with fruit and smoldering incense. You can still see the potsherds today, piled high like so many hopes that in the wake of death comes eternal life.

Damaged Egyptian "Mecca" To Be Restored

Andrew Bossone in Cairo

A development boom near Egypt's Abydos archaeological site is damaging one of the most sacred gathering places for ancient pilgrims, experts say.

Millions of Egyptians crossed the desert surrounding Abydos from 664 B.C. to A.D. 395 to pay homage to the god of the dead, Osiris. Many of Egypt's earliest pharaohs were buried at the site.

Modern pressures in the form of new farms and buildings have taken their toll on the 3.1-mile (5-kilometer) wide area, sometimes called the Mecca of ancient Egypt.

The temples and tombs are also home to the earliest known Egyptian hieroglyphics.

But now, an international team of archaeologists are rallying to protect Abydos from future harm.

This month, a government-run project to renovate Abydos will begin, according to archaeologists and architects involved in the effort.

"It is the site where we learn the most about the origins of [pharaohs in] Egyptian culture," said Günter Dreyer, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo.

"Imagine a road running though this."

Balancing Act

The Abydos site has been nicknamed Omm El Qaab, or Mother of Pots in Arabic, because pilgrims left millions of pieces of pottery in the desert around several cemeteries and temples built by Seti I, Ramses I, Ramses II, and Ramses IV.

Ancient pharaohs built in the desert partly to avoid damage from the annual floods and farming practices in the Nile Valley.

But arable land comes at a premium in Egypt, where desert makes up the majority of the country. Today most of the country's population are clustered around the Nile River.

"In Egypt, because there are so many monuments, the area for living is restricted by nature," Dreyer said.

As a result, local farmers have begun to reclaim land in the Abydos desert up to the walls of ancient temples.

(Read how Egyptian farmers are "greening" the desert.)

Of course the living have their rights, Dreyer pointed out.

"We can't say we'll make all of Egypt a museum for ancient culture and living people starve or die."

Special Importance

Despite the recent growth in farms, much of the damage to the structures happened decades ago. Rapid population growth in towns near Abydos has led to construction around the region's monuments, ruining some of them.

In the 1970s the government moved all the inhabitants within the archaeological zone and compensated them. Their empty homes, however, are still standing.

For example, only the stump of a pillar from the temple of Ramses I remains today—and it stands inside the living room of a vacant house.

As part of the new effort, however, architects will remove the empty houses, clean up rubble, landscape the area, and build a new visitors' center. Archaeologists will create a plan on how to protect the monuments.

"There are certain sites—and Abydos is one of them—where one must be really careful because of the special importance that is the cultural heritage of mankind and of Egypt," Dreyer said.

Original Design

Architects on the project say their plans respect the site's original design.

The edge of Abydos formed a clear demarcation between the town for the living and sacred structures for the dead, said architect Tarek Waly.

"The line between life and death, the Nile Valley, and the desert—you can see it," Waly said.

He believes the sacred line that divided the farmland and the tombs dissolved when townspeople moved into the site in the past, and he hopes to restore it.

"If you cross the line you enter into the other life. This has to be clear on our minds."

lunes, 10 de noviembre de 2008

Mystery Deepens Over Unseen Antarctic "Alps"

Antarctica Interactive Map
For one, the range is situated in the middle of the continent instead of on the edge—at the plate-tectonic boundaries—like most other mountains. (See a high-resolution map of Antarctica.)

Rebecca Carroll
The existence of a massive Antarctic mountain range buried under miles of ice has become an even deeper mystery, a new study says.

The little-researched Gamburtsev Mountains seem to challenge geologic patterns seen in other mountain ranges on Earth.

The range's high peaks reach an elevation of about 10,000 feet (more than 3,000 meters)—heights typical of relatively young mountain ranges, such as the spiky Rockies and the European Alps.

New findings based on river sediments, which suggest the range is more than 500 million years old, are intriguing, experts say.

Older mountains, such as the Appalachian range in the eastern U.S., are thought to be shorter and less rugged after hundreds of millions of years of erosion.

Because the Gamburtsev range is tall, some scientists have argued it must have formed relatively recently—within the last 60 million years or so.

And because it's not near a tectonic boundary, some have suggested the range rose up as the result of magma buildup around a theoretical volcanic hot spot.

(Related: "Under-Ice Volcano Eruption Spewed Ash Over Antarctica" [January 21, 2008].)

"The hypothesis that the mountains are derived from young volcanic activity is hard to reconcile with our data," said study lead author Tina van de Flierdt of the Imperial College London.

Hard to Reconcile

Scientists examined sediments collected from a coastal area that would have been a vast delta about 35 million years ago, when Antarctica's rivers carried flowing water instead of glacier ice.

The frozen features of the coldest place on Earth have come into their sharpest focus ever, thanks to recent satellite technology.

A thousand images from NASA's Landsat satellite data, taken mostly between 1999 and 2001, were pieced together to create a first true-color map with ten times greater resolution than previous images of Antarctica.

The map is so detailed it includes features that are as small as half the size of a basketball court.

In the above sample image of the region around McMurdo Station in southern Antarctica, ice shelves, mountains, and glaciers can be seen in unprecedented detail.

"This innovation is like watching high-definition TV in living color versus watching the picture on a grainy black-and-white television," Robert Bindschadler, chief scientist of the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

The new map is more than a pretty picture—for one, it will help researchers plan better scientific expeditions to the remote landscape.

Scientists will also rely on the high-resolution data to study changes in land elevation and to map various rock formations.

Even the public can explore the polar region via a public-access Web portal found at

The Landsat satellite program, which has captured images of Antarctica since 1972, represents the longest continuous record of the continent.

If the mountains were made of relatively recent volcanic material, some of it should have been in the sediment as Gamburtsev runoff passed through the delta.

Instead, all mineral grains the researchers dated—such as zircon and hornblende—were more than 500 million years old.

"Volcanic activity of the extent to form a mountain range bigger than the European Alps would leave a 'geochemical fingerprint' in the preglacial to present-day sediments—we simply can't see this fingerprint," van de Flierdt said.

The study, which is based in part on van de Flierdt's work at Columbia University, was published online this week by Geophysical Research Letters.

Missing Erosion

A remaining mystery, according to study co-author Sidney Hemming, is why the mountains have not eroded more.

"The new data we're collecting makes it look like the erosion rates are so extremely low," said the Columbia University geochemist.

Hemming cautioned that researchers can't be certain the sediments are from the mountain.

It's possible, she added, that the ice has helped keep the rocks in place, but that does not explain the lack of erosion from ancient periods when the ice was not there.

"We can say that they're either not hot spot volcanic [mountains] or that they formed after the ice basically capped them off," Hemming said.

But, she said, later formation is highly unlikely: "It would be hard to imagine that it wouldn't leave some evidence in the ice or sediments."

Not Volcanic

The study makes a good case for the theory that the mountains were not formed by recent volcanic activity, said University of Arizona geochemist Peter Reiners, who was not involved with the research.

"If the mountains themselves are anywhere close to the same age as the rocks, then the Gamburtsevs are trying to tell us something about how really old topography can persist for hundreds of millions of years without being worn down by water, wind, and glaciers," said Reiners, who also studies the range.

Norm Sleep, a Stanford University geophysicist who also studies the Gamburtsev Mountains but wasn't involved with this study, agreed with the data but not the interpretation.

Sleep worried that "550-million-year-old highlands would have long since eroded away."

Instead, he suggests a gooey, semi-solid plume of material could have formed a pond deep under Earth's cooler outer lid of rock. This would have caused the mountains to rise without spewing magma all over the surface.

Such an event may have happened within the last 50 million years, he said

viernes, 7 de noviembre de 2008

Tales from the Bog

By Karen E. Lange
Photograph by Robert Clark

The man—or what was left of him—emerged from the Irish sod one winter day in 2003, his hair still styled the way he wore it during his last moments alive. The back was cropped short; the top, eight inches long, rose in a pompadour, stiffened with pine resin. And that was only the beginning of the mystery.

Spotted in the industrial-size sieve of a peat processing plant, he was naked, his head wrenched sharply to the left, his legs and lower arms missing, ripped away by the machine that had dug him from a bog in the townland of Clonycavan. His head and trunk carried marks of deliberate violence, inflicted before he was cast into the mire: His nose had been broken, his skull shattered, his abdomen sliced open. While he lay in the bog, the weight of sodden sphagnum moss had flattened his crushed head, and the dark waters had tanned his skin to leather and dyed his hair orange red.

A call went out to archaeologists, for this was no ordinary murder victim: Clonycavan Man was a bog body, a naturally embalmed testament to mysterious rituals during northern Europe’s Iron Age, the centuries just before and after Christ. Hundreds of these unusual mummies have been found in the wetlands of Ireland, the U.K., Germany, the Netherlands, and especially Denmark, preserved by lack of oxygen and anti-microbial compounds from the sphagnum.

People have been spinning tales about bog bodies ever since they were widely recognized as ancient in the late 1800s. Their sculpted repose contrasting with their cruel deaths, the bodies inspire fascination and a longing to connect with a remote ancestral past, when miry wetlands—now drained and dug out for profit—were portals to another world. Gods inhabited bogs; so did restless outcast spirits. Here Iron Age peoples might have buried the most feared or loathed among them, or sacrificed loved ones and even the powerful to win the gods’ favor.

These days investigators have new tools—CT scans, three-dimensional imaging, and radiocarbon dating—to make sense of the bodies and the few artifacts found with them. There is little else to go on. Iron Age Europeans left no written records of their beliefs and customs. Many of the bodies themselves vanished when they were reburied or left to decompose. Some, in museums, suffered the restoration efforts of overeager conservators and curators. Others are phantoms: Last year two scholars published an article called “Imaginary People” in a German archaeology journal. They reluctantly concluded that the late Alfred Dieck, a German archaeologist who made cataloging bog bodies his life’s work, fabricated many of the more than 1,800 cases he recorded.
Not surprisingly, bog body research has taken wildly wrong turns. Desperate for historical accounts of preliterate Germanic societies, researchers turned decades ago to the writings of Tacitus, a first-century A.D. Roman historian. But his description of customs beyond the Rhine was based on second- and thirdhand accounts and written to shame Romans for what he considered decadent behavior. Tacitus declared approvingly that the Germans killed homosexuals and cowards and staked their bodies down in bogs.

Accordingly, many bog bodies were interpreted as people in disgrace, supposedly punished with torture, execution, and burial in the bog instead of cremation, the customary Iron Age practice. Windeby Girl, discovered in northern Germany in 1952, was said to be an adulteress whose head had been shaved in a manner described by Tacitus. Then, researchers speculated, she was blindfolded and drowned in the bog. A body found nearby was identified as her lover.

But the theory unraveled after Heather Gill-Robinson of North Dakota State University took a close look at the body and tested its DNA: Windeby Girl was likely a young man. Radiocarbon dating by other scientists revealed that the supposed lover lived three centuries earlier. The Windeby “girl” may have lost his hair when archaeologists digging out the body were careless with their trowels. And growth interruptions in the bones indicated that the young man was malnourished and sickly and might have simply died of natural causes. University of Hamburg archaeologist Michael Gebühr speculates that the body was blindfolded before burial to protect the living from the gaze of the dead.

In Denmark, a team of forensic investigators including Niels Lynnerup of the University of Copenhagen has reexamined that country’s bog bodies and found that some of the damage once interpreted as torture or mutilation was actually inflicted centuries after death. Grauballe Man, discovered in a bog northwest of Copenhagen in 1952, is one of the best preserved bog bodies and now the most thoroughly examined. Previous x-rays of his body were hard to read—the bones, demineralized by acidic bog waters, looked like glass. Now CT scans have shown that Grauballe Man’s skull was fractured by the pressure of the bog, abetted when a boy wearing clogs accidentally stepped on the body as it was being excavated. Grauballe Man’s broken leg could also be the work of the bog and not, as some scholars had thought, proof of a vicious blow to force him to kneel for execution.
Lynnerup, archaeologist Pauline Asingh, and other members of the team now interpret Grauballe Man’s death some 2,300 years ago as a sacrifice to one of the fertility goddesses that Celtic and Germanic peoples believed held the power of life and death. It could have happened one winter after a bad harvest, the researchers say. People were hungry, reduced to eating chaff and weeds. They believed that one of their number had to die so the rest could survive.

Grauballe Man, a strapping 34-year-old, apparently learned his fate a few days in advance: Stubble on his jaw indicates that he stopped shaving. Then came the terrible hour when the villagers—perhaps his friends and family—led him into a nearby bog. They picked their way among holes dug for peat and bog iron, the ore from which Iron Age people forged tools and weapons. At the edge of a flooded pit, one of them pulled back Grauballe Man’s head and, with a short knife, slit his throat from ear to ear. The executioner pushed the dying man into the pit. The body twisted as it fell and was swallowed by the bog.

Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, thinks similar scenes of sacri�ce may have played out in his country’s ancient kingdoms. Three months after Clonycavan Man came to light, another ancient body fell from the bucket of a backhoe digging in a bog 25 miles away. This man had once stood almost six feet four inches tall, but only his trunk and arms remained. Arm wounds suggested he had tried to fend off a knife before he was fatally stabbed in the heart.

Then his body had been oddly mutilated—his nipples apparently cut, his upper arms pierced and small wreaths (withies) of twisted hazel threaded through the holes. Encircling one biceps was an armband of braided leather with a bronze amulet incised with Celtic designs. Like Clonycavan Man’s hair pomade, made with resin that archaeologists concluded must have been imported from the south of France, these were costly marks of status.
Another clue linked this new body, called Oldcroghan Man, to some 40 other Irish bog bodies including Clonycavan Man: All were buried on borders between ancient Irish kingdoms. Together with the costly ornaments, Kelly says, the locations suggest tales of royal sacrifice. In ancient times, he explains, Irish kings symbolically married the fertility goddess; famine meant the goddess had turned against the king and had to be mollified. Kelly believes the bog bodies represented the most splendid of offerings: high-ranking hostages taken to force rebellious lords into obedience, pretenders to the throne, or even the failed kings themselves. Each injury they suffered honored a different aspect of the goddess—fertility, sovereignty, and war. “It’s controlled violence,” Kelly says. “They are giving the goddess her due.”

Oldcroghan Man normally ate meat, laboratory analysis of his hair and nails showed. But residues in his gut indicated that his last meal consisted of cereals and buttermilk, emblems of fertility befitting a sacrifice to the goddess. After his death, his nipples may have been cut to mark him as a rejected ruler, says Kelly—in ancient Ireland a king’s subjects ritually demonstrated their submission by sucking on the ruler’s nipples. Then his body was hacked to pieces and sown along the border of the kingdom, his arms threaded with withies to confer protective magic that would guard the territory.

Science can’t prove Kelly’s scenario. Other researchers say, for example, that the bog rather than the killers might be responsible for the damage to Oldcroghan Man’s nipples; his waterlogged body was as fragile as wet cardboard. And even if Kelly is right about the royal status of Irish bog bodies, people on the Continent had a different culture—Germanic rather than Celtic—chiefs instead of kings, and, almost certainly, other rites of sacrifice.

Bodies still lying undiscovered in the bogs of northern Europe will yield more clues about how and why the bog people met their ends. But new finds are likely to be rare and often damaged when they are ripped from the earth by peat cutters and backhoes.

Lynnerup, who has applied the most powerful science available to the secrets of Grauballe Man and who can call up three-dimensional images of the body’s bones and muscles and tendons on his computer, doesn’t mind the lingering mysteries. “Strange things happen in the bog. There will always be some ambiguity.” Lynnerup smiles. “I sort of like the idea that there’s just some stuff we’ll really never know.”

Unknown "Structures" Tugging at Universe, Study Says

John Roach
Something may be out there. Way out there.

On the outskirts of creation, unknown, unseen "structures" are tugging on our universe like cosmic magnets, a controversial new study says.
Everything in the known universe is said to be racing toward the massive clumps of matter at more than 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) an hour—a movement the researchers have dubbed dark flow.

The presence of the extra-universal matter suggests that our universe is part of something bigger—a multiverse—and that whatever is out there is very different from the universe we know, according to study leader Alexander Kashlinsky, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The theory could rewrite the laws of physics. Current models say the known, or visible, universe—which extends as far as light could have traveled since the big bang—is essentially the same as the rest of space-time (the three dimensions of space plus time).

Picturing Dark Flow

Dark flow was named in a nod to dark energy and dark matter—two other unexplained astrophysical phenomena.

The newfound flow cannot be explained by, and is not directly related to, the expansion of the universe, though the researchers believe the two types of movement are happening at the same time.

In an attempt to simplify the mind-bending concept, Kashlinsky says to picture yourself floating in the middle of a vast ocean. As far as the eye can see, the ocean is smooth and the same in every direction, just as most astronomers believe the universe is. You would think that beyond the horizon, therefore, nothing is different.

"But then you discover a faint but coherent flow in your ocean," Kashlinsky said. "You would deduce that the entire cosmos is not exactly like what you can see within your own horizon."

There must be an out-of-sight mountain river or ravine pushing or pulling the water. Or in the cosmological case, Kashlinsky speculates that "this motion is caused by structures well beyond the current cosmological horizon, which is more than 14 billion light-years away."

"We Found a Great Surprise"

Unknown "Structures" Tugging at Universe, Study Says<< Back to Page 1 Page 2 of 2
The study team didn't set out to explode physics as we know it.

They simply wanted to confirm the longstanding notion that the farther away galaxies are, the slower their motion should appear.

That movement is detectable in data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which NASA says "reveals conditions as they existed in the early universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation over the full sky"—radiation thought to have been released about 380,000 years after the birth of the universe.

Hot gas in galaxy clusters warms the microwave background radiation, and "a very tiny component of this temperature fluctuation also contains in itself information about cluster velocity," Kashlinsky said.

If a cluster were moving faster or slower than the universe's background radiation, you'd expect to see the background heated slightly in that region of the universe—the result of a sort of electron-scattering "friction" between the cluster's hot gas and particles in the background radiation.

Because these fluctuations are so faint, the team studied more than 700 galaxy clusters.

The researchers had expected to find that, the farther away clusters are, the slower they appear to be moving.

Instead, Kashlinsky said, "We found a great surprise."

The clusters were all moving at the same speed—nearly 2 million miles (3.2 million kilometers) an hour —and in a single direction.

Though this dark flow was detected only in galaxy clusters, it should apply to every structure in the known universe, Kashlinsky said.

Explaining the Unexplainable

To explain the unexplainable flow, the team turned to the longstanding theory that rapid inflation just after the big bang had pushed chunks of matter beyond the known universe.

The extra-universal matter's extreme mass means it "could still pull—tug on—the matter in our universe, causing this flow of galaxies across our observable horizon," said Kashlinsky, whose team's study appeared in the October 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

"Strong Doubts"

Not everyone is ready to rewrite physics just yet.

Astrophysicist Hume Feldman of the University of Kansas has detected a similar, but weaker, flow.

He said the Kashlinsky team's study is "very interesting, very intriguing, [but] a lot more work needs to be done.

"It's suggestive that something's going on, but what exactly is going on? It basically tells us to investigate," he said.

David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, echoed the sentiment.

"Until these results are reanalyzed by another group, I have strong doubts about the validity of the conclusions of this paper," he wrote in an email.

He added that, if the result does hold up, "it would have an important implication for our understanding of cosmology."

Study leader Kashlinsky agrees many questions remain unanswered. For starters: What exactly are these things that are apparently tugging our universe?

"They could be anything. As bizarre as you could imagine—some warped space-time," Kashlinsky said.

"Or maybe something dull."

jueves, 6 de noviembre de 2008

"Star Trek" Shield May Protect Astronauts

Richard A. Lovett

A powerful magnetic shield may be able to deflect dangerous solar radiation from spacecraft traveling to the moon and other planets, a new study says.

Magnets tested in a recent laboratory experiment could divert radiation safely, a discovery that's "like Star Trek coming to life," said lead author Ruth Bamford, a plasma physicist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the U.K.
On Earth, humans are protected from radiation partly by the atmosphere. But our planet's magnetic field, called the magnetosphere, repels many of the harmful particles before they reach us.

"Life might not have been possible on Earth without a magnetic field as this first line of defense," Bamford said.

"With a journey to Mars, [radiation] is the most difficult problem," she said. "So the idea is, Why don't we just bring a magnetosphere with us?"

The idea of using magnetic fields as radiation shields was first proposed in the 1960s, but the concept languished until a resurgence of interest in manned expeditions to the moon and Mars.

Little Earthlings

One of the greatest dangers facing future astronauts is radiation, much of which comes from the sun via solar wind, a stream of particles from the sun's atmosphere.

Solar flares can be as deadly to life on Earth, and prolonged exposure to lower doses can cause cancer.
Until recently, however, scientists thought shielding spacecraft would require an impractically large magnet—one capable of generating a field 60 miles (100 kilometers) or more across.

We said, Hang on," Bamford explained. "People are small. We only need to make a little hole in the solar wind."

To test the idea, her team borrowed laboratory equipment used for work in fusion power, a process that also involves magnets. The scientists placed a small magnetized object—a simulated "spaceship"—into a flow of supersonic plasma, which consists of charged particles.
"You don't expect experiments to work first time," she said of the research, which is published today in the journal Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion.

"But this did. It was very clear that it was doing its job."

Magnetic Bubble

Erika Harnett, a space physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, isn't surprised that the magnetic shield worked.

A few years ago, Harnett and colleagues researched an idea for a spaceship-propulsion system called mini-magnetosphere plasma propulsion (M2P2) and saw similar results.

M2P2 creates a magnetic bubble, then fills it with plasma. In space, the bubble would be battered by the same solar radiation particles that pose a hazard to astronauts. (See sun photos.)

"The solar wind would sort of push this bubble away from the sun," she said.

Not only would this reaction protect the spacecraft from radiation, "[but] we thought it was a practical means of propulsion."

But the concept has only been tested in laboratories at a small scale, she added.

Exposure Concern

Lead author Bamford notes that her team's work is restricted to the laboratory. "We're [just] working on the physics of what would be possible," she said.

One of the problems is making sure a space crew isn't exposed to the magnetic field.

"One would have to make sure the field doesn't enter the ship itself," said Carl Frederick, a physicist and science fiction writer in Ithaca, New York.

"But the idea of having a ship, in effect, carrying its own magnetosphere with it is appealing," he added by email.

Bamford agrees that it may be necessary to protect the crew from magnetic forces.

But she believes this could be solved by careful engineering: for instance, balancing fields on the inside of a spacecraft so that the magnetic field is canceled out.

Alternatively, two spacecraft might fly in formation, with astronauts living on one and the magnetic field being generated on another.

Oldest Shaman Grave Found; Includes Foot, Animal Parts

Archaeologists in northern Israel say they have discovered the world's oldest known grave of a shaman. The 12,000-year-old grave holds an elderly female of the mysterious Natufian culture, animal parts, and a human foot.

The immediate area contains several burials, but the shaman's grave is unique in its construction, contents, and arrangement.
"From the standpoint of the status of the grave and its contents, no Natufian burial like this one has ever been found," lead archaeologist Leore Grosman said.

"This indicates the woman had a distinct societal position."

The Hilazon Tachtit site—9 miles (14 kilometers) inland from Israel's Mediterranean coastline—is associated with the Natufian culture, which flourished in the eastern Mediterranean between 11,500 and 15,000 years ago.

Hundreds of Natufian graves have been excavated in Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. But only the one uncovered by Grosman contains a woman believed to have been a shaman.

The term "shaman" originated in Siberia, but these magic-invoking priest-doctors are common in cultures around the globe.

The 1.5-meter-tall (nearly 5-foot-tall), 45-year-old woman was relatively old for her time. After her death, she was placed in a mud-plastered and rock-lined pit in a cave and was buried beneath a large stone slab.

She was not buried with everyday items and tools, as hunters, warriors, or political leaders were. Instead, her grave contained 50 arranged turtle shells and parts of wild pigs, eagles, cows, leopards, martens, and a human foot, among other artifacts.

Shedding Light on Strange Rites

During this period Natufian culture changed from a nomadic, hunting-and-gathering culture to a sedentary, agriculture-based lifestyle, according to Grosman, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Grosman received partial funding from the National Geographic Society's Committee for Research and Exploration for her work on the Natufian site.

This transition was likely accompanied by an evolution of the culture's social structure as well as new rules, rituals, and belief systems.

The artifacts found in the woman's grave shed light on some of the specifics of Natufian rituals from this period, said Grosman, whose study was published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For example, the turtles appear to have been eaten as part of the burial ceremony. Their shells were then placed around the deceased woman. Pig bones were cracked open and their marrow was removed before the bones were placed beneath the woman's hand. The grave was closed with the slab perhaps to prevent damage caused by animals.

"Like Finding Napolean's Grave"

Harvard University anthropologist Ofer Bar-Yosef said the shaman grave is a rare find. For every 50 Natufian hunter-gatherers, only one would have been a shaman, he said.

"Finding a shaman's burial is like finding Napolean's grave," said Bar-Yosef, who was not involved in the study but who served with a group of fellow scientists who reviewed the report for inclusion in the journal.

"I've spent many years digging other Natufian sites, and I've found a bunch of graves, but I've never found anything like this."

The shaman's grave and its contents "finally give another view into a society that didn't leave behind a written record. … It's almost equivalent to a textual record."

Grosman's findings can assist researchers investigating shamanistic societies in other parts of the world, Bar-Yosef said. Though burial rituals differ from culture to culture, the graves of shamanic or religious leaders generally stand out from those of the general public, he added.