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viernes, 30 de enero de 2009

Egyptian Mummification

A CAT scan of an Egyptian mummy from the second century. Researchers at the University of Illinois scanned the mummy one "slice" at a time, and then used this data to put together a 3-D computer model of the body.

In the course of its 3,000-year run, Egyptian embalming (artificial mummification) passed through many stages. As we learned in the last section, the practice began with the natural preservation qualities of the arid desert ground. For many generations, the Egyptians buried their dead this way -- in the hot sand, with ­a few belongings but no casket or housing. As their concept of the afterlife evolved, the Egyptians became concerned about the comfort of their departed family members. They began covering the bodies with long wicker baskets and later with sturdy wooden boxes. Eventually, this led to fully enclosed coffins and tomblike housings.

Of course, with the body fully enclosed, it was not exposed to the drying properties of the sand. The fluids remained in the body; the bacteria thrived, and the flesh naturally decomposed. This left the Egyptians with a real quandary -- they didn't want to leave their loved ones completely covered in sand, but they also didn't want the bodies reduced to skeletons. To ensure survival and comfort in the afterlife, the Egyptian scientists had to figure out a way to replicate the preservative qualities of the desert.

In the early days of mummification, the embalmers concentrated mostly on keeping the body away from the elements. They wrapped it up tightly in strips of linen soaked with resin. With careful application of these bandages, the embalmers were able to create shapely forms, giving bodies the filled-out appearance of the living. These wrapped corpses were impressive to be sure, but in most cases the bandages did little to stop decomposition. Bacteria survived inside, and the body was eventually reduced to a skeleton.

Through experimentation, the Egyptians discovered that decomposition worked largely from the inside out. Bacteria collected first in the body's internal organs and moved on from there. To stop the putrefaction process, the embalmers realized, they would have to remove the internal organs. This, combined with the discovery of the natural drying agent natron, led to the famous Egyptian mummies we know today.

The science and theology of embalming continued to evolve over the years, so there is no single Egyptian ritual. But the standard practices of the New Kingdom's 18th through 20th dynasties (1570 to 1075 B.C.), an era that produced some of the best preserved mummies, are fairly representative.

Egyptologists have determined that the mummification rituals were performed in the Red Land, a desert region removed from heavily populated areas, with easy access to the Nile River. Reason suggests that the embalmers may have worked in open tents, rather than solid structures, in order to allow proper ventilation.

Before beginning the embalming process, the Egyptians took the body to the Ibu, the "Place of Purification." In this house, they washed the body in water gathered from the Nile. This represented a sort of rebirth, as the person passed from one world into the next. Once the body was cleaned, the embalmers carried it to the Per-Nefer, the "House of Mummification," where they began the embalming process.

Why Mummify?
The ancient Egyptians paid a lot of attention to the afterlife, and it's no mystery why: Life in the hot desert was extremely difficult, leading the Egyptians to dream of an idyllic world beyond death. If a person was prepared, the three spirits that compose a person -- the Ka, the Ba and the Akh -- would pass on to that world after death. In order to be comfortable in the afterlife, the spirits would need all the comforts of daily life, including food, clothing and furniture.

They would also need their old body to be preserved on Earth. The Ka, the spirit that accompanied the physical body in life, was inexorably linked to the person's corpse. If the corpse were destroyed, the spirit was destroyed along with it. Unlike the first death, this second death was final. Consequently, immortality depended on the mummification of the physical body.


At the Per-Nefer, they laid the body out on a wooden table and prepared to remove the brain. To get into the cranium, the embalmers had to hammer a chisel through the bone of the nose. Then they inserted a long, iron hook into the skull and slowly pulled out the brain matter. Once they had removed most of the brain with the hook, they used a long spoon to scoop out any remaining bits. Finally, they rinsed the skull with water. Surprisingly, the brain was one of the few organs the Egyptians did not try to preserve.

They weren't sure what it was for, but they assumed you wouldn't need it in the next world. After they had removed the brain, the embalmers took a special blade made from obsidian (a sacred stone) and made a small incision along the left side of the body. They carefully removed the abdominal organs through this slit, setting each one aside (with the exception of the kidneys, which the Egyptians did not hold as important). After removing these organs, the embalmers cut open the diaphragm to remove the lungs. The Egyptians believed that the heart was the core of a person, the seat of emotion and the mind, so they almost always left it in the body. The other organs were washed, coated with resin, wrapped in linen strips and stored in decorative pottery. These vessels, which Egyptologists dubbed canopic jars, protected the organs for passage to the next world.

Once they removed the organs, the embalmers rinsed the empty chest cavity with palm wine, in order to purify it. Then, to maintain the body's lifelike form, they filled the cavity with incense and other material. This kept the skin from shrinking down inside the cavity when the body was dried out. In the next section, we'll look at this drying procedure and see how the body was finally prepared for the next world.

Drying and Wrapping

After the embalmers removed the organs and re-stuffed the body, they laid the body down on a sloped board and covered it completely with natron powder. The Egyptians collected this powder, a mixture of sodium compounds, from the shores of Egyptian lakes in the desert west of the Nile Delta. Unlike the hot sand that dried the earliest Egyptian mummies, the salty natron absorbed moisture without severely darkening and hardening the skin.

The embalmers left the body in the powder for 35 to 40 days to allow enough time for the body to dry completely. During this waiting period, somebody had to stand guard, as the body's strong odor attracted desert scavengers. After the 40 days were finished, the body was brought to the Wabet, the "House of Purification." The embalmers removed the incense and other stuffing from the body cavity and refilled it with natron, resin-soaked linen and various other materials. In some eras, to make the desiccated body more lifelike, the embalmers also stuffed material under the skin in the arms, legs and head. When the body was fully stuffed, the embalmers sewed up the incisions and covered the skin with a resin layer in order to keep moisture out. The body was then ready for the wrapping, or bandaging, procedure.

Bandaging was a very involved process, and it typically took a week or two to complete. While the deceased was drying in the desert, his or her family gathered roughly 4,000 square feet (372 sq. meters) of linen and brought it in to the embalmers. The wealthy sometimes used material that had clothed sacred statues, while the lower classes collected old clothing and other household linen. When the linen was delivered, the embalmers selected the highest-quality material and stripped it into long "bandages" measuring 3 to 8 inches across.

The embalmers then wrapped the body in a shroud and began methodically winding the bandages around the different parts of the body. Typically, they started with the hands and feet, wrapping all of the fingers and toes individually, and then moved on to the head, arms, legs and torso. Once all the parts of the body were wrapped, the embalmers began wrapping the body as a whole. As they applied new layers, the embalmers coated the linen with hot resin material to glue the bandages in place. During this entire process, the embalmers uttered spells and laid protective amulets on the body (for protection in the next world), wrapping them up at different layers.

a mummy cartonnage and funerary mask
Photo courtesy NC Museum of Art
Mummy cartonnage and funerary mask from about 300 B.C.
The Egyptians may have bandaged their mummies for a number of different reasons:

* First, the bandages kept moisture away from the body so it would not decompose.

* Second, the wrappings let the embalmers build up the shape of the mummy, to give it a more lifelike form.

* Third, the wrappings kept everything together. Without this binding system, the fragile, desiccated mummies would likely burst or fall apart. In order for the bandages to contain the mummy effectively, they had to be wound tightly and meticulously.

After the mummy was fully wrapped, the embalmers attached a rigid cartonnage cage to the body and affixed a funerary mask to the head. This new face, which was either a likeness of the deceased or a representation of an Egyptian god, played an important role in the passage to the afterlife. It helped the spirit of the deceased find the correct body among the many Egyptian tombs.

When the mummy was completed, it was housed in a suhet, a coffin decorated to look like a person. The suhet was brought to the tomb in a procession of mourners. At the tomb, the priest, dressed as the jackal god Anubis, performed the "ceremony of the mouth," a ritual in which sacred objects were touched to the suhet's face, giving the deceased the powers of speech, sight, touch, hearing and taste in the next world. The suhet was then leaned against the wall inside the tomb, where it was sealed up with all the food, furniture and supplies that the deceased would need in the next world.

Other Ancient Mummies

The ancient Egyptians are the most famous mummy-makers, but they were not the only ancient civilization, or even the first, to preserve their dead. The Chinchorro people of northern Chile developed a mummification process around 5000 B.C., some 2,000 years before the Egyptians. These mummies, the oldest in the world, are nothing like the famous Egyptian figures. The Chinchorros dismembered and disemboweled the body completely, then attached the pieces back together using straw, plant fibers and stick. They then covered this frame with black mud, which they sculpted into a human form with a face and other ornamentation.

Mummy from New Guinea

The resulting mummies are a strange hybrid of a corpse and a statue. It's unclear what the motivation behind this practice was, but many researchers believe it did not have to do with any concept of an afterlife. The mummies show signs of wear, and even repainting, indicating they were kept in households as statues for some time before being buried. This practice indicates that the mummies were created more for the sake of the deceased's family and friends, rather than for the good of the deceased. The Chinchorro people probably kept the mummies around as a way to honor and remember the dead, to help them mourn the loss.

Some later South American cultures also produced mummies, both by artificial and natural means. In the mountains of Peru, scientists have uncovered many Incan bodies preserved by the dry atmosphere and extremely cold temperatures. Even though the mummifying agent is completely natural, these mummies are, in a sense, man-made -- they were deliberately brought to the remote location with the understanding that the bodies would be preserved there. The Incans sacrificed children and took the bodies to these high points as an offering to their gods.

Some of the most amazing mummies have been found in China. Lady Cheng, a Chinese aristocrat who lived over 2,000 years ago, is the best-preserved ancient mummy in the world. She was laid to rest immersed in a special embalming fluid that kept her tissue relatively soft. Her body and some of her possessions were protected by a series of nested coffins housed in an airtight tomb. Chinese scientists have not studied her in detail, so they still don't know exactly how she was preserved. The embalming fluids seem to have a mercury component to them, which may have been one of the keys to her preservation.

When we think of mummies, we typically imagine bodies preserved from ancient times. But as we'll see in the next section, the practice of mummification continues today. Some of the most amazing mummies have been produced in the past hundred years.

Modern Mummies

­In the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a surge of interest in the mummies of ancient Egypt. "Unravelings" were a popular form of entertainment, and people­ from all classes were fascinated by the beliefs and practices of the Egyptian age. One effect of this phenomenon was that some people began revisiting the idea of mummification -- with the addition of some new technology.


The most famous modern mummies are Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the Russian revolutionist, and Eva Peron, the revered wife of Argentinean president Juan Peron. Lenin died in 1924, soon after the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb, which influenced the decision to preserve Lenin's body and display it at the Kremlin. The exact chemicals and procedure that keep his body perfectly preserved are a Russian secret, but we do know that the mummification is an ongoing process. The Russians periodically immerse him in a preservative bath and then dress him in a waterproof suit to hold the fluids inside.

Like Lenin, Eva Peron's body was so perfectly preserved that she appears to be alive. This was accomplished with a revolutionary embalming treatment that essentially replaced all the fluid in her body with wax. Peron and similar mummies are really a lot like the wax dummies you see in a wax museum, except, of course, that they are the actual remains of a person.

In the 1970s, a group of scientists expanded on this idea to create a process called plastination. In the complicated plastination process, all of the water and lipids in the body's cells are replaced with polymers. The body takes on the properties of plastic: It is durable, flexible, doesn't have a strong odor and, most importantly, doesn't decompose. Plastination is used to preserve body parts for anatomical research and education, but it is also used artistically. In a controversial exhibit that traveled through Europe and Asia, stripped-down, plastinated human bodies were sculpted into wild shapes and positioned in active poses. The exhibit showed all of the inner workings of the human body, in both healthy and diseased bodies.

Dr. Bob Brier, a renowned Egyptologist, used a very different approach with his modern mummy. Instead of advancing the mummification process with new technology, Dr. Brier endeavored to replicate the Egyptian technique exactly. In 1994, he pulled off this feat at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, with fascinating results. Among other things, his experiment demonstrated that it was the Egyptian mummification process itself, not the thousands of years sealed up in a coffin, that gave Egyptian mummies their distinctive withered appearance.

In the future, mummification technology will surely continue to evolve. It's a good bet that a lot of this development will be in technologies designed to preserve dead bodies so they may someday be brought back to life (cryogenics, for example). Like the ancient Egyptians, many people today are shelling out a fortune for these services, in the hopes that science may someday be able to reverse whatever killed them. Remarkably, in the thousands of years since the time of the Egyptians, people are still drawn to mummification as a means of insuring immortality.

Eva Peron Mummy

'Iceman' Oetzi Attacked Twice, Suggests Study

Oetzi, the 5,000-year old man whose frozen body was discovered in a glacier in the Alps in 1991, may have been attacked not once but twice in his final few days, German researchers said on Wednesday.

It was known that Oetzi, the oldest ice mummy ever found, was shot in the back with an arrow but scientists at Munich's LMU university have now concluded that he may have survived this, if only for a few minutes or hours at most.

And in addition to his being whacked with a blunt object just before Oetzi's 46-year existence in the Neolithic Age ended, he also sustained a nasty gash in his hand several days earlier, the LMU said.

"We are now able to make the first assertions as to the age and chronology of the injuries," said Professor Andreas Nerlich, who led the study. "It is now clear that Oetzi endured at least two events resulting in injury in his last days, which may imply two separate attacks."The new research, done together with the Institute for Pathology in Bolzano, Italy, is also giving science critical new information about life more than five millennia ago, not least from his equipment, the LMU said.

His copper axe, for example, reveals that metalworking was already much more advanced in that era than was previously assumed, and his body gives many details as to his diet and state of health.

Oetzi's body was found in an astonishing state of preservation in the eastern Alps near the Austrian-Italian border in 1991 thanks to 5,000 years in the deep freeze.

Zeus Cult Sacrificed Animals on Mountaintop Altar

Burnt animal bones, petrified lightning and a bronze male hand grasping a silver lightning bolt have all been unearthed at the mountaintop site of a Mycenaean Greek cult whose members gathered around an "open fire altar," according to University of Pennsylvania Museum archaeologists.

The evidence suggests the cult worshiped Zeus, the "king of gods" in Greek mythology, more than 3,200 years ago at the top of Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia.

Getting to the site is a challenge, even now.

"It was most certainly a pilgrimage and a trek," project field director David Gilman Romano told Discovery News. "It still feels like that to us today." Romano, who also is a senior research scientist in the museum's Mediterranean Section, added that "Zeus was a sky god, and the lightning bolt was one of his important emblems."

Romano and his team dug a trench at the high-altitude site and uncovered a trove of artifacts, including burnt bones -- mostly from goats and sheep -- human and animal figurines, drinking vessels, miniature bronze tripods, silver coins and a small double-headed axe known as a labrys, a motif incorporated into labyrinths found elsewhere in Greece and around the world.

Although the excavation is ongoing, a paper on the first three years of the project is in the works for Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

The bronze male hand holding the silver lightning bolt likely represents Zeus, according to the archaeologists. It was found near a sample of glass-like fulgurite, otherwise known as petrified lightning, which is formed when lightning strikes sandy soil. It is not clear if the fulgurite was formed on the mountain or elsewhere.

"The altar would have been situated on top of the hill and may have been represented by a ring of stones," Romano said, adding that it was flanked by a nearby sacred area known as a temenos, which appeared to have no temple or other structure. Early writings suggest that Mycenaean cult members sacrificed animals -- and possibly even humans -- before feasting. Romano and his colleagues haven't found any human bones at the site, but indicated they would not be surprised if they did.

The mountaintop site "is quite different in nature" from other lower elevation cult locations throughout Greece. In terms of the Mycenaean culture, marked by epic conquests dramatized by the poet Homer, cult meeting places were usually rooms or buildings connected to palaces. They often contain frescoes, statuettes and votive offerings.

The recent discoveries support the writings of Pausanias, a second century B.C. Greek historian who described "the birthplace of Zeus" at Arcadia in his multi-volume Description of Greece. Other early historians claimed it was in Crete on Mt. Ida.

Pausanias wrote, "On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesos can be seen. Before the altar on the east stand two pillars....On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus."

In addition to searching for human remains on the mountaintop, the archaeologists continue to look for a shrine to Pan -- god of mountain wilds -- that historical texts suggest might be nearby.

Rare 1,800-Year-Old Figurine Found in Jerusalem

A 1,800-year-old figurine believed to have originated from the eastern stretches of the Roman Empire has been discovered by archaeologists outside the walls of the Old City, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said. The 2-inch marble bust depicts the head of a man with a short curly beard and almond-shaped eyes who may portray a boxer, the authority said.

"The high level of finish on the figurine is extraordinary, while meticulously adhering to the tiniest of details," Doron Ben-Ami and Yana Tchekhanovets, directors of the excavation, said in a joint statement released Monday. Nothing similar has ever been uncovered in Israel, they said, calling it a "unique find."

Carved from pale yellow marble, archeologists think the figurine was most likely carried to Jerusalem by a merchant.

Archaeologists believe the figurine was used as a weight for a hanging scale of a type common in the Roman period. Tiny holes drilled in its neck were likely used to attach it to the scale, and remnants of metal remain. The miniature bust was found in the ruins of a building destroyed by an earthquake in the fourth or fifth century. The same dig outside the walls of Jerusalem's Old City also recently yielded a well-preserved gold earring inlaid with pearls and a trove of more than 250 gold coins.

The dig is in a former parking lot in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, in east Jerusalem. It is part of broader archaeological excavations at the site, known to Israeli scholars as the City of David, after the Biblical monarch who is believed to have ruled from there some 3,000 years ago.

Triceratops Battle Scars Found on Skull

-Triceratops's horns have long been theorized by palenontologists to have been used to lure members of the opposite sex. Now new data reveals that they were used to fight, a January 2009 study suggests.

Researchers examined the skulls of 53 of the beasts and found ten times more damage to a single bone in the frill at the rear of the skull when compared to a species of similar dinosaurs with less harmful horns.

In this picture of the squamosal, a bone that makes up part of the frill, abnormal bone lesions suggest ancient fights, a January 2009 study says.

Researchers have long theorized that Triceratops used its horns to show off to members of the opposite sex. A January 2009 study of 53 skulls suggests that the horns were also used to fight other Triceratops. The plant-eaters roamed part of what is now the U.S. West, between 65 and 144 million years ago.

The Martian surface

An artist's conception shows simple, translucent life-forms producing methane (blue spheres) under the Martian surface.

Recent images of Mars revealed seasonal methane plumes on the red planet, some releasing as much as 19,000 metric tons of the gas.

One theory is that active methane emissions could be signs of life on Mars—microbes deep underground could be giving off the gas as waste or using it as a food source.

Seen in a new image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, channels--some new, some faint and filled in--zigzag down a dune dusted with seasonal carbon dioxide frost on Mars.

What liquid or gas carved the gullies remains a mystery.

miércoles, 28 de enero de 2009

Autonomous Robots Invade Retail Warehouses

Next time you order a new pair of skinny jeans from, you should know that you are helping welcome in the hive-mind robot overlords of retail.

Warehouses run by Gap, as well as Zappos and Staples now use autonomous robots to pluck products from their shelves and send them to you.

All the robots are told is where products are located and where they need to go. From there, the robots, which look like massive orange Roombas, figure out the rest. They locate the stack of shelves with the needed product on it, slide beneath the stack to pick it up and then find their own routes from the stacks of stuff to human operators. And they manage to find just the right time to get themselves recharged for five minutes out of every hour.

"It's a major game-changer. There's no question about that. You can increase productivity immensely," said Michael Levans, editorial director for a group of supply-chain trade magazines like Logistics Management. "The Zappos guys claim that from the moment you put your order in and it is submitted to the time the box is on the dock and ready to be put on a truck is 12 minutes."

The robots, which in the largest distribution center currently number over 500, are built by a small company called Kiva Systems (no relation to the microfinance outfit). In total, they've installed more than 1,000 bots at a dozen warehouses and are growing quickly. By the end of this year, they expect single locations to have systems with 1,000 of the machines.

Dreamed up and executed by old M.I.T. buddies, these teams of retail robots presage an automated future in which multiagent robotic systems put computer science theories into practice.

"The basic technology will be the de facto way to run a warehouse," said Pete Wurman, the computer science Ph.D. who wrote the code that controls the robots. "We'll start to see these same techniques that become the de facto techniques in manufacturing."

While the humanoid robotic visions of the 1950s have never come to Jetsons-like fruition, less sexy robots have become indispensable parts of many industries and service professions. A recent report by the International Federation of Robotics found that 6.5 million robots serve humanity around the world. Still, most of them are standalone or primarily operated by human beings. Kiva robots are different: They're both autonomous and networked.

What that means for workers in the warehouse is that the Henry Ford-era distribution system of the conveyor belt has been broken into pieces and distributed across the entire operation. Any worker (sometimes called "pickers" in the industry jargon) can ask for anything from anywhere in the warehouse and ship it out.

"Every worker has random access to every product in the warehouse," Wurman said.

The system adjusts to the nature of the products and workers, too. In a typical setup, the humans are placed around the edges of the room. As the robots pick up loads of products and put them back, they adjust the warehouse for greater efficiency. More popular products end up around the edges of the warehouse while more obscure products, like those acid-washed bell bottoms, end up buried deep in the stacks. The self-tuning nature of the system creates big efficiencies.

"We find that it's two to four times more efficient [than the average warehouse]," said Wurman. "A big chunk of the benefit comes from the fact that we've eliminated all of the walking."

The success of Kiva Systems could help teams of autonomous robots gain ground outside the computer science lab.

"I could see some of the techniques that we are developing being applied outside the warehouse," Wurman said. "When we have autonomous automobiles, you could imagine they'll have similar types of coordination problems."

But autonomy won't work for all situations, Lonnie Freiburger, a robotics specialist with the U.S. Army's Tank Automotive Research, Development & Engineering Center. The military is looking more at "semi-autonomous" bots, rather than ones with relatively full control over their actions.

But Freiburger and the Kiva Systems engineers both agree that robots don't have to be humanoid to be useful. In fact, endowing them with characteristics humans don't have can be more useful than giving them eyes or opposable thumbs.

"Sure, it's nice to have robots that can do what the humans can do, but it's also nice to have robots to do what humans can't do," Freiburger said. "Humans have physical limitations but the robots don't necessarily have those limitations."

Unlike the Honda ASIMO, Kiva robots don't look anything like a human or try to perceive the world through humanlike senses. They don't use sophisticated visual sensors to navigate; instead, they know where they are by using a simple and cheap grid system that's stuck onto the floor of the warehouse.

That allows warehouse operators to switch off the lights and climate controls in the large areas of the warehouse that are patrolled solely by robots, cutting energy costs by as much as 50 percent over a standard warehouse. One marketing trick the company uses is to bring people out to the center of a warehouse and switch out the lights: The robots keep working around the people, cruising around in the dark.

While that may sound disconcerting, for now, at least, robots remain our underlings — fetching our underwear, delivering our jeans — not our overlords. At many sites, workers have begun to name their robots, complete with "Hello, My Name Is" name tags. From there, it's only a short step to playing fetch with your robot.

"One of our customers calls those name tags tattoos, and the robots are adopted by employees," said Mitch Rosenberg, Kiva Systems' VP of Marketing. "Your robot sends you a card on your birthday — this is a corporate sponsored thing, so I asked the management why they let them do it. They said, 'We do it because the employees get a lot of joy, a lot of happiness out of anthropomorphizing the robots and turning them into pets.'"

"Hobbits" Were Separate Species, Skull Suggests

John Roach

The skull of the so-called hobbit discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2003 suggests its owner was an archaic human ancestor, not a diminutive or diseased modern human, according to a new study.
The conclusion stems from a comparison of the skull to the noggins of modern humans and apes, as well as the fossil brain cases of early human ancestors.

"The shape of the skull is consistent with what we would expect for a small archaic Homo," said Karen Baab, a biological anthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York State. The genus Homo includes modern human beings as well as close relatives like Neanderthals and Home erectus.

Baab is the lead author of the study, published online in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Heady Debate

The paper is the latest volley in the debate over what, exactly, the tiny, 18,000-year-old fossils represent.

The hobbit, which was about the size of a modern three-year-old child, was originally hailed as belonging to a heretofore unknown species, Homo floresiensis. (Related: "'Hobbit' Human Was Unique Species, Wrist Bones Suggest" [September 20, 2007].)

Skeptical scientists have offered alternative identifications, suggesting, for example, that the hobbits were diminutive modern humans with a genetic disease that causes small brains, called microcephaly.

Abnormal or Just Uneven?

The new research focuses on the asymmetry—or unevenness—between the left and right sides of the hobbit's skull.

A paper published in 2006 concluded the skull is highly asymmetrical, consistent with abnormal development—a condition that would invalidate use of the skull to represent a new species.

The new study also finds the skull asymmetrical, but within the range of healthy human ancestors.

What unevenness exists, Baab said, can at least partially be explained by the process of fossilization.

Robert Eckhardt is a professor of developmental genetics and evolutionary morphology in the kinesiology department at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of the 2006 paper.

In an email, he dismissed the fossilization explanation and said the marked asymmetry "is strong evidence for developmental abnormality."

Robert Martin is the curator of biological anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. He said, though the paper examines skull shape and size, it ignores the tiny, asymmetrical brain, which could be seen as evidence of microcephaly.

"Why does this individual have such a tiny brain?" he said.

"If it was three million years old, it wouldn't be a problem. The problem is it is only 18,000 years old and it sticks out like a sore thumb."

Giant Toxic Coal Ash Spill Threatens Animals

Kelly Hearn in Kingston, Tennessee

It's been called the Exxon Valdez of coal ash—a wakeup call for a fossil fuel industry.

But the recent toxic ash spill in Tennessee is greater in scope than the 1989 oil spill, and despite what some conservationists are calling very real threats, the ash disaster has so far inspired apparently little concern for local wildlife.

On December 22 a billion gallons of poisonous sludge—largely coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning—broke through an earthen dike at the Kingston Fossil Plant. The torrent half-buried area homes and elevated long-running health concerns over heavy metals in the ash.

Those worries, experts say, are not limited to human health. In addition to the animals killed by the initial spill, wildlife may be threatened for years by the trace amounts of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, thallium, and other toxins in the coal ash.

"We're concerned about tremendous human health threats but also serious biological threats to animal species," said Stephen Smith, veterinarian and director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"Already mussels, snails, and aquatic species are in grave danger, but no one seems to be talking about it."

Other local animals that could be affected include river otters, mink, muskrat, ospreys, and black-crowned night herons, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. No endangered species are believed to inhabit the spill region.

Toxins Accumulating in Animals?

Of the dead animals retrieved from the spill site so far, none had died of poisoning, according to Dave McKinney, chief of the Environmental Service Division of the Tennessee government's Wildlife Resources Agency.

"They were either buried in mud or stranded when a water surge pushed them into fields and forests and then receded," McKinney said.

Even so, he said, "there is certainly the potential that toxins will bioaccumulate"—build up in animals' bodies. "But we're talking months to years, not days to weeks."
State wildlife officials said they have collected live fish and will collect more in the coming months to monitor the situation.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says it will work over the next three to five years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the long-term impact of contaminants from the Kingston spill on animals.

Food Warning

Eventually any toxic effects in animals could work their way up the food chain to humans, officials say.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has issued an advisory against eating striped bass caught in rivers around the spill zone as well as a precautionary advisory for catfish and sauger. A precautionary advisory means that children, pregnant women, and nursing mothers shouldn't eat those species, and everyone else should limit consumption to one meal a month.

Conservationists are particularly concerned over the fate of one ecologically important species, freshwater mussels, which live on river bottoms, where sediment and pollution accumulate.

Losing mussels could result in greater pollution levels in area rivers, because a single mussel can filter several gallons of water a day, "improving quality for human use," according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mussels are also a major food source for ducks, birds, and fish, which could in turn suffer if the mussels are tainted by the ash spill. (Related: "Hatcheries Strengthen Mussel Species on Appalachian River" [December 6, 2005].)

How Dangerous?

Coal ash, or fly ash, is a residue left over from burning coal for power. It is collected in ponds like the one at Kingston in 32 U.S. states, according to the Associated Press. Massive amounts of ash are sold for use in concrete, mulch, construction fill, and other purposes.

The U.S. government considers the ash a health and environmental risk, but the residue remains unregulated, and debate burns over just how toxic coal ash is.

A 1998 study by the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit association allied with the power industry, found that "health risks from coal ash are minimal, whether it is in the form of a waste coal combustion by-product or a material used in construction products."

The study pointed out that heavy metals make up a small proportion of coal ash—and that these same substances occur naturally in rocks and sand.

But other experts point to evidence that the toxins in coal ash—also called coal combustion residues (CCR)—build up in bodies over time, sometimes with lethal effects.

"Whether accidentally discharged into natural aquatic systems or present in impoundments that attract wildlife, CCR appears to present significant risks to aquatic and semiaquatic organisms," Michael McKinney, the chair of the University of Tennessee's environmental-studies program, said in an email.

Specifically, coal-ash spills have caused behavioral and physical problems in some vertebrates and invertebrates, McKinney said. For example, exposure to ash toxins has been found to lead to severe deformations of tadpoles and fish.

Coal-ash exposure has also led to "fish kills and extirpation [local extinction] of some fish species," McKinney added.

Biologist Robert Jenkins of Roanoke College in Virginia witnessed just such an event about 40 years ago on the Clinch River in Tennessee, which was partially filled with sludge from the December 22 spill.

"I saw hundreds of thousands of dead fish at that spill" in 1967, Jenkins said, noting that water alkalinity, or pH levels, shot to 12.0 to 12.7—slightly less alkaline than household bleach—from a normal range of 7.8 to 8.5. "That was a huge chemical shock," he said.

Tests to determine the post-spill alkalinity of the Clinch are pending.

Should Coal Ash Be Regulated?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long held that coal ash poses no substantial risks to the environment.

Currently, the EPA has produced no coal-ash regulations and strongly supports the substance's use in commercial products such as paints, kitchen countertops, concrete, and agricultural products such as mulch.

Jim Roewer, executive director of the industry-funded Utility Solid Waste Activities Group, said that while the EPA may not have broad-ranging regulations governing the ash, individual states do.

Critics, however, see a void and want coal ash declared a toxic substance.

Kert Davies, research director for the environmental group Greenpeace, says hundreds of coal ash dumps across the country lack meaningful oversight.

Green groups are now pointing to the Tennessee spill as evidence of regulatory need, and they're pressing the new U.S. President to act.

A group of six Tennessee environmental groups recently sent a letter to President Obama, requesting that he move to declare coal ash a hazardous waste.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has even filed a lawsuit seeking to force the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)—the federally owned utility that produced and stored the ash—to restore ecological health to the spill zone.

Dave Goss, executive director of the industry-affiliated American Coal Ash Association, said, "It doesn't surprise us that people are calling for a re-review of federal regulations.

"We are going to let the science speak for itself. It is dangerous to mix science, policy, and passion."

Lost "Sleeping Beauty" Mummy Formula Found

She's one of the world's best-preserved bodies: Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year-old Sicilian girl who died of pneumonia in 1920. "Sleeping Beauty," as she's known, appears to be merely dozing beneath the glass front of her coffin in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Italy.

Now an Italian biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, has discovered the secret formula that preserved Rosalia's body so well. (Piombino-Mascali is funded by the National Geographic Society's Expeditions Council. National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society.)

Piombino-Mascali tracked down living relatives of Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer who died in 1933. A search of Salafia's papers revealed a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemicals he injected into Rosalia's body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.

Formalin, now widely used by embalmers, is a mixture of formaldehyde and water that kills bacteria. Salafia was one of the first to use this for embalming bodies. Alcohol, along with the arid conditions in the catacombs, would have dried Rosalia's body and allowed it to mummify. Glycerin would have kept her body from drying out too much, and salicylic acid would have prevented the growth of fungi.

But it was the zinc salts, according to Melissa Johnson Williams, executive director of the American Society of Embalmers, that were most responsible for Rosalia's amazing state of preservation. Zinc, which is no longer used by embalmers in the United States, petrified Rosalia's body.

"[Zinc] gave her rigidity," Williams said. "You could take her out of the casket prop her up, and she would stand by herself."

Piombino-Mascali calls the self-taught Salafia an artist: "He elevated embalming to its highest level."

Rosalia in National Geographic magazine's Sicily Crypts and on the National Geographic Channel documentary "Italy's Mystery Mummies."

lunes, 26 de enero de 2009

FDA OKs First Human Trials of Embryonic Stem Cells

The Federal Drug Administration has approved the first human trials of embryonic stem cells — a sign of a new, liberal attitude toward stem cell research, which was hamstrung by the Bush administration.

Starting this summer, the biotech firm Geron will treat a small group of spinal-cord injury patients using neurons derived from stem cells, marking the first time embryonic stem cells will be tested in humans.

The trial is designed to test the safety of the treatment, not how well it works. Nonetheless, it's a huge first step for the field.

"It signals to me that we have the primary regulatory authorities on board for embryonic stem cells," said Alan Trounson, president of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, a $3 billion state initiative to support stem cell research. "That really is a tremendous piece of news."

Under the Bush administration, stem cell research was slowed by an executive order, signed in August 2001, that (severely) restricted the types of stem cells and stem cell research that could be conducted. President Barack Obama is widely expected to lift Bush’s executive order, perhaps as soon as next week.Working in a handful of medical centers around the country, Geron will treat eight to 10 recent paraplegics, who can use their arms but not their legs. The patients will receive an injection of neurons to the site of the damage, followed by a short treatment of anti-rejection drugs.

Previous animal studies suggest the new neurons will repair damaged neurons and secrete substances to help nerves function and grow.

Amy Rick, president of Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, a group of dozens of research institutions that support stem cell research, said the Geron trial is a milestone.

"It's hugely significant in the sense that it's the first approval of a human embryonic stem cell trial," she said. "In this week of hope and change, it feels even better."

While Geron scientists waited months for FDA approval of the stem cell treatment, they are reluctant to link the go-ahead directly to the inauguration of Obama.

A Geron spokeswoman said that the company had no evidence of political influence aiding their application.

“It’s just coincidental timing,” the spokeswoman said.

Karen Riley, an FDA spokeswoman, echoed that the timing was coincidental. "We make science-based decisions and politics is not a factor," she said.

But the new president surely didn't hurt matters. The chairman of Trounson's organization told the New York Times, "I think this approval is directly tied to the change in administration."

The approval is expected to the first of several trials involving embryonic stem cells. A recent CAMR report found that nine companies, including Geron, were in the process of developing human embryonic stem cell treatments.

Embryonic stem cells are like blank slates that can be transformed into different types of tissue. They've been hailed as the next big thing in medicine ever since University of Wisconsin scientist James Thomson showed their ability to regenerate in 1998. Since then, stem cells have been like a high school star turned NBA draft pick — talented and expensive but undisciplined and perhaps not quite ready for the glare of the big game. Like many biotechnology techniques, the lag between scientific discovery and clinical treatment can be decades.

Still, the Regenerative Medicine Institute’s Trounson, who was a stem cell scientist in Australia before heading the California institute, said that experimental treatments are outpacing his expectations.

"We're running an agency funding this work and I'm astounded at what's happening in this space,” he said.

Trounson said there’s evidence in animal trials that stem cells are effective in treating ailments as varied as diabetes, Alzheimers, multiple scleorsis and macular degeneration.

“It’s just fantastic,” Trounson said. "And I would expect some of these to enter clinical trials sooner, rather than later."

His agency expects to fund up to a dozen scientists who think they can submit their stem cell work to the FDA for clinical trial approval within four years.

From there, those so-called investigational new drugs will have to follow the path that Geron's treatment did. The company submitted its application early in 2008. It was then put on hold in May 2008 and kicked back to the company for further review. Seven months later, the company resubmitted the application and received approval Wednesday, the day after the inauguration.

That said, Obama's political influence is likely to invigorate a field that — despite impressive state-level and private efforts — has been ham-strung by Federal regulation and the specter of increased government regulation.

"With President Obama there, there will be a big change not only in government administration and the public sector, but I think it will encourage the pharmaceutical companies to be involved as well," Trounson said.

A life reveal

Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985. Now we can tell her story.

By Cathy Newman
Photograph by Steve McCurry

She remembers the moment. The photographer took her picture. She remembers her anger. The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since.

The photographer remembers the moment too. The light was soft. The refugee camp in Pakistan was a sea of tents. Inside the school tent he noticed her first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. "I didn't think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day," he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan's refugees.

The portrait by Steve McCurry turned out to be one of those images that sears the heart, and in June 1985 it ran on the cover of this magazine. Her eyes are sea green. They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war. She became known around National Geographic as the "Afghan girl," and for 17 years no one knew her name.

In January a team from National Geographic Television & Film's EXPLORER brought McCurry to Pakistan to search for the girl with green eyes. They showed her picture around Nasir Bagh, the still standing refugee camp near Peshawar where the photograph had been made. A teacher from the school claimed to know her name. A young woman named Alam Bibi was located in a village nearby, but McCurry decided it wasn't her.

No, said a man who got wind of the search. He knew the girl in the picture. They had lived at the camp together as children. She had returned to Afghanistan years ago, he said, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora. He would go get her.

It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives. When McCurry saw her walk into the room, he thought to himself: This is her.

Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist.

Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. "She's had a hard life," said McCurry. "So many here share her story." Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.

Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.

"There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war," a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat's photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.

"We left Afghanistan because of the fighting," said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. "The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice."

Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.

"You never knew when the planes would come," he recalled. "We hid in caves."

The journey that began with the loss of their parents and a trek across mountains by foot ended in a refugee camp tent living with strangers.

"Rural people like Sharbat find it difficult to live in the cramped surroundings of a refugee camp," explained Rahimullah Yusufzai, a respected Pakistani journalist who acted as interpreter for McCurry and the television crew. "There is no privacy. You live at the mercy of other people." More than that, you live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. "The Russian invasion destroyed our lives," her brother said.

It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? "Each change of government brings hope," said Yusufzai. "Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors."

In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow. To live in this earthen-colored village at the end of a thread of path means to scratch out an existence, nothing more. There are terraces planted with corn, wheat, and rice, some walnut trees, a stream that spills down the mountain (except in times of drought), but no school, clinic, roads, or running water.

Here is the bare outline of her day. She rises before sunrise and prays. She fetches water from the stream. She cooks, cleans, does laundry. She cares for her children; they are the center of her life. Robina is 13. Zahida is three. Alia, the baby, is one. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Sharbat has never known a happy day, her brother says, except perhaps the day of her marriage.

Her husband, Rahmat Gul, is slight in build, with a smile like the gleam of a lantern at dusk. She remembers being married at 13. No, he says, she was 16. The match was arranged.

He lives in Peshawar (there are few jobs in Afghanistan) and works in a bakery. He bears the burden of medical bills; the dollar a day he earns vanishes like smoke. Her asthma, which cannot tolerate the heat and pollution of Peshawar in summer, limits her time in the city and with her husband to the winter. The rest of the year she lives in the mountains.

At the age of 13, Yusufzai, the journalist, explained, she would have gone into purdah, the secluded existence followed by many Islamic women once they reach puberty.

"Women vanish from the public eye," he said. In the street she wears a plum-colored burka, which walls her off from the world and from the eyes of any man other than her husband. "It is a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse," she says.

Faced by questions, she retreats into the black shawl wrapped around her face, as if by doing so she might will herself to evaporate. The eyes flash anger. It is not her custom to subject herself to the questions of strangers.

Had she ever felt safe?

"No. But life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order."

Had she ever seen the photograph of herself as a girl?


She can write her name, but cannot read. She harbors the hope of education for her children. "I want my daughters to have skills," she said. "I wanted to finish school but could not. I was sorry when I had to leave."

Education, it is said, is the light in the eye. There is no such light for her. It is possibly too late for her 13-year-old daughter as well, Sharbat Gula said. The two younger daughters still have a chance.

The reunion between the woman with green eyes and the photographer was quiet. On the subject of married women, cultural tradition is strict. She must not look—and certainly must not smile—at a man who is not her husband. She did not smile at McCurry. Her expression, he said, was flat. She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.

Such knife-thin odds. That she would be alive. That she could be found. That she could endure such loss. Surely, in the face of such bitterness the spirit could atrophy. How, she was asked, had she survived?

The answer came wrapped in unshakable certitude.

"It was," said Sharbat Gula, "the will of God."

Mars and Mercury Formed From Planetary Scraps

Mars and Mercury were formed from the scraps of Earth and Venus, according to a radical new theory of rocky planet formation.

The model could explain some characteristics of Mars and Mercury that have long puzzled scientists, said Brad Hansen, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

"In this picture, Mars and Mercury are essentially byproducts" of Earth and Venus, said Hansen, who presented his research at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, California.

Merging Mountains

Scientists generally agree that Earth and the other rocky planets in the solar system formed from a wispy disk of gas and dust that ringed the infant sun some 4.5 billion years ago.

Over time, the microscopic dust particles coalesced into pebble-size clumps. The pebbles became boulders that became mountain-size "planetesimals," which merged into full-fledged planets.

In computer simulations of this process, scientists typically assume that the initial dust particles were distributed evenly in a disk around the sun.

"While this is a logical first guess, there are some problems," said Andrew Youdin, a planetary modeler at the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA) who was not involved in the research.

If the rocky planets formed from a homogenous debris disk, they should all be roughly the same size and orbit the sun in similar circular orbits, Youdin explained.

In reality, however, Venus and Earth are much more massive than Mercury and Mars, and the orbits of the latter two planets are more elliptical, or eccentric, than expected.

"The traditional explanation is that this is luck—or more scientifically, 'chaos'—with Jupiter's proximity to Mars perhaps playing a role," Youdin said, referring to the large gravitational pull of a planet as big as Jupiter. Planetary Afterthoughts

Hansen has a different interpretation. He proposes that the dust disk fragmented into bands of debris at various distances from the sun—much like the rings of Saturn.
According to this scenario, Earth and Venus formed within one particularly thick band, or annulus, in the inner solar system.

As the young Earth and Venus circled the sun, they waded through a sea of pebble- and mountain-size debris. The two planets captured and assimilated some of this debris, but hurled other chunks out of the annulus.

Most of these ejected particles eventually circled back, returning to the annulus. But other bits collided with one another during their exile.

"If this happens, the particles are put on a new orbit," Hansen said. "They become decoupled from the main annulus and don't come back."

Computer simulations by Hansen suggest Mercury and Mars could have formed from such separated debris.

Hansen estimates that about 90 percent of the debris in the annulus went into the formations of Earth and Venus, while the leftovers formed Mercury and Mars.

"Crazy or Inspired"

The new model is "simple and elegant," said Youdin of CITA.

In Hansen's model, "Earth and Venus are massive and [have circular orbits] because they form from the majority of the nearby ring material," Youdin said. "Mercury and Mars are smaller and eccentric because less material is expelled further from the ring."

Phil Armitage, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado in Boulder who also did not participate in the research, said Hansen's idea is "very provocative."

"Brad's model is an extremely original attempt to solve these problems starting with a hypothesis that's either crazy or inspired," Armitage said.

Hansen said his model makes specific predictions that could be scientifically tested.

"It predicts that all the terrestrial planets more or less came from the same parent reservoir," he said.

If Hansen's model is correct, the composition of the solar system's four rocky planets should be strikingly similar.

Armitage agreed. "In the standard model the composition varies with distance from the sun," he said.

viernes, 23 de enero de 2009

The Car of the Future Promised for October

The car of the future is almost here.

Aptera Motors has rolled out the first pre-production model of the 2e, an all-electric three-wheeled two-seater that gets the equivalent of 200 mpg and goes 100 miles on a charge. It's a significant milestone for the Southern California startup, which plans to put the first cars in driveways by Halloween and looks like a contender to win the $10 million Progressive Automotive X Prize.

"Everything is progressing nicely as we ramp up for full production of the 2e beginning in October," says chief marketing officer Marques McCammon. "We're still on target to build an ultra-efficient, high-mileage vehicle without sacrificing comfort and safety, and once Californians get behind the wheel this fall, we expect to change the world of commuter transportation."

In recent months, it has become clear that automakers big and small are focusing on electric vehicles as the next evolution of the automobile. If Aptera manages delivering its superstreamlined cars nine months from now, the 2e will be among the first mass-market, relatively affordable (at $25,000 to $45,000) EVs on the road.

And that would be a testament to the power of the $10 million X-Prize to spur innovation.

The 3-year-old company funded by Google, Idealab and others is among at least 20 teams competing in the X-Prize race to build the world's first mass production-ready vehicle that exceeds 100 mpg.

Most of the major automakers rolled into the Detroit auto show with EV concept cars, with Ford and Chrysler among the companies promising to begin putting cars with cords on the road in 2010. Tesla Motors has been building its all-electric Roadster for almost a year now, and Fisker Automotive says it will begin producing its $87,900 plug-in hybrid next fall.

But despite their advanced drivetrains, all those vehicles look like regular cars. The 2e is like nothing else in the auto industry, which might be why it scored a cameo in Star Trek. With its sleek, three-wheeled design, the 2e looks like something Spock might cruise around in. A lithium-ion battery powers an electric motor that can propel the car from zero to 60 in less than 10 seconds on its way to a top speed of 90 mph.

High performance obviously isn't the 2e's strong suit, but who cares when you're getting the equivalent of 200 mpg? Making the car as slippery as possible is key to the car's impressive efficiency. With a coefficient of drag around 0.15, the 2e is even more aerodynamic than the General Motors EV1, the most aerodynamic production car ever built.

The 2e's ultralight weight of just 1,700 pounds also contributes to its efficiency. But don't worry, the car's front crumple zone, race car-like passenger safety cell and airbags will keep everyone inside safe. Aptera says there's enough room inside to haul around 15 bags of groceries, two sets of golf clubs or a surfboard.

Aptera will flog the pre-production model mercilessly to ensure durability and safety are up to snuff. The 2e differs from an earlier prototype called the Typ-1 in several significant ways. Front-wheel drive replaces the prototype's belt-driven rear wheel to improve weight distribution and traction, the rear-view camera was ditched in favor of mirrors, and wider doors make it easier to get in and out. The interior is a little slicker too, with a stereo, roll-down windows and solar-assisted climate control (check out the PV cells on the roof).

In other words, the 2e has evolved from a spartan runabout into a real car. Aptera says it's already received 4,000 deposits from potential buyers, who will receive a car that Aptera says should look pretty much like the model shown here.

"We're getting close to finalizing our final prime-time vehicle, but there's still a lot of work to accomplish," company chief Paul Wilbur says.

Of course, nothing is certain in this economy, and the auto industry is taking such a beating that even Toyota is hurting, so there's no guarantee Aptera will meet its goal. And it's hardly the first startup to think it can beat Detroit at its own game. But Wilbur's spent more than 25 years in the auto industry, doing everything from product planning and development to bean counting for the likes of Ford and Chrysler, so he's got some idea what it takes to build a car.

"We now have to make the final refinements in the upcoming months, squeezing out every ounce of positive performance, and then we'll have the first safe, affordable all-electric vehicle on the market," he says.

Affordable is a relative term when you're talkin' EVs, and the 2e is expected to cost you something more than $25,000 but less than $45,000. That's a pretty wide range, and it includes such mass-market cars as the next-gen Toyota Prius hybrid, the forthcoming Chevrolet Volt range-extended EV and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric city car that may or may not be coming to America.

The first models will be classed as motorcycles and available only in California, but Aptera hopes to sell it nationwide and then get to work on a new model. "We hope to change everyday driving forever," Wilbur says.

Palermo - The Catacombe Cappuccini

The Dom and his Aussie mate Architetto McNamara chose to drive to the famous Catacombe Cappuccini from their seafront (Jolly) Palermo hotel on a Sunday in November 2003. The Catacombe is under a large surface cemetery with a parking challenge which becomes terminal on Sundays. No problem in Sicily - just toss the car keys to a willing bandito lookalike local and head off.

Architetto Mackers was worried about the possibility that the car would shortly be rebirthed elsewhere in Europe, especially as the custodian had no official badge of office (in common with all other car custodians in southern Italy). But the normally security cautious Dom was in cavalier mood and marched off confidently to knock on the creaking door to the Catacombe, which was opened by a toothless old male caretaker who extracted an entry fee and pointed to the "no photos for privacy reasons" notice, which logic was contradicted by the large number of corpse postcards which he later tried to persuade us to buy! So we did a few non flash dom-snaps and also bought what must be the most unusual high quality coffee table book around (which is the source of a few of the images below).

This is a photographic trip to the Capuchins' Catacombs located in Palermo, Italy, where there are thousands of corpses lined on the walls like paintings.

The catacombs date back to the 1599 when the local priests mummified a holy monk for all to see. They wanted to pray to him after death.

In time the locals wanted their relatives remembered in this same way. Soon there were hundreds of corpses. Some of the deceased wrote wills, expressing the clothes in which to bury them in. Some asked to have their clothes changed over a period of time. Included in the catacombs are hundreds of coffins as well. Some contain the corpse that was buried in them. The side is sometimes cut to expose the deceased.

Children are sometimes posed. Two are seated together in a small rocking chair. Rosalia Lombardo was one of the last corpses to make it to the catacombs before the local authorities discontinued the practice. Rosalia died about 1920 and is nicknamed the "Sleeping Beauty". It was said that her sister and family visited her coffin often after her death.

Some of the corpses have long ago lost their flesh and are skeletons. Others have mummified flesh, hair and even eyes! All are dressed in clothes from the period in which they lived. One such example is of Colonel Enea DiGiuliano. He is still wearing his 1800's French Bourbon uniform.

Several of the corpses seem to be "screaming" from the dead. Time and gravity have distorted the corpses to look this way. It is very creepy! Some have body parts which have fallen off over the years such as hands, jaws, parts of the skull, etc.

Upon entering the catacombs, one might think that the smell would be terrible, or at least musty. Yet, there was no trace of any odor. Many of the corpses were close enough to touch, if you were so inclined.

The method for embalming Rosalia Lombardo was invented by Dr. Solafia, a doctor in Palermo, who took the secret with him when he died. It is only known that it was based on injections of chemicals and nothing else.

A second method used was that of dipping the bodies in arsenic or lime. This was done espceially during periods of epidemics.

The most common method used was that of dehydration by placing the bodies in cells, situated along the passageways. These cells were called "strainers", and look like a BBQ pit. The bodies were dried in the cells for about eight months then taken out and washed in vinegar before being exposed to the fresh air. They were dressed and put in niches, coffins, or on the walls, as instructed by the person while still alive or by relatives after death.

Monks are buried in the clothes they wore in life. They sometimes have ropes, dangling from their necks. The ropes were worn by the monks, in life, as a penance. They remain with them in death. The first monk, and the oldest corpse, is that of Brother Silvestro from Gubbio who died in 1599. The last monk interred here was Brother Riccardo of Palermo, who died in 1871.

The halls are divided into catagories: Men, Women, Virgins, Children, Priests, Monks, and Professionals. The Professionals Hall includes at least one American, writers, lawyers, priests, and others.

The Professors' section contains the bodies of professors, doctors, lawyers, painters, officers and soldiers of the Bourbon and Italian army. Among the famous names are those of the painter Velasquez, the sculptors Filippo Pennino and Lorenzo Marabitti and the surgeon Salvatore Manzella.

Among the last laid to rest in Palermo's catacombs, two-year-old Rosalia Lombardo died of pneumonia in 1920. But it seems only yesterday, thanks to the artful work of embalmer Alfredo Salafia, whose formula was recently rediscovered. In Sicily's crypts the dead live on.

jueves, 22 de enero de 2009

Habitable Exoplanets Could Be Common in Our Galaxy

Earth-like planets may in fact be common in the galaxy, increasing the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

By observing the remains of smashed up asteroids around dead stars, astronomers were able to deduce their chemical composition. They found that the dust of many chewed-up asteroids resembles the materials inside Earth and the other small, rocky inner planets of our solar system.

"We found evidence that this asteroid dust is similar to rocks on Earth," said UCLA astronomer Michael Jura in a press conference today at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Long Beach, California. "This strengthens suspicions that Earth-like planets are common."

Asteroids and planets are made from the same stuff: the dusty material that circles around
young stars in disks. Eventually some of the dust clumps together and grows into planets, while asteroids represent the detritus left over. Because asteroids are formed from the same material as planets, observing asteroids around other stars can tell us crucial information about what ingredients are available to form planets around those stars.

"Asteroids are leftover building blocks that didn’t get incorporated into the planets," Jura said. "What we have now is a tool to measure the bulk composition of planets."

Jura and his team used NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope to observe six dead white-dwarf stars that were coated with the debris of shredded asteroids that had collided into them. By viewing the stars through a spectrograph, which separates out light from different wavelengths, the scientists were able to observe the telltale signatures of certain chemicals in the light. Since that starlight is passing through the film of the asteroid debris, the light picked up signatures of the asteroids’ composition, too.

The team found that the asteroid dust contains a glassy silicate mineral similar to minerals commonly found on Earth. They also detected a lack of carbon in the dust, which again echoes the solar system’s rocky planets and asteroids, which also have no carbon.

Finding planets similar to our own is a priority for scientists yearning for a hint that we are not alone, because Earth-like worlds may be the likeliest place for extraterrestrial life.

Jura said observing asteroid debris around dead stars represents a wealth of opportunity for learning about how planets are formed. The team hopes to find more stars with this asteroid film around them, and observe the current ones in further detail.

Hubble Detects First Organic Molecule Around Exoplanet

Hubble detected the organic molecule methane within the atmosphere of a large Jupiter-like planet 63 light years away. Although the planet, HD 189744b, is too hot to support life (1260 degrees), it is a breakthrough in that the discovery demonstrates the ability to detect organic molecules on exoplanets spectroscopically.

In the future this method could be used to take measurements of Earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of other stars to look for organic molecules that will help in the search for life.

The space-based telescope was used during five orbits last May to look at the atmosphere of HD 189744b with its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer. NASA has scheduled a full press conference this Wednesday, the day before the results are due to be published in Nature.

Images will be posted at the start of the press conference Wednesday at (unlike the artists impression of a completely unrelated Jupiter-like planet above.)

Scientists Mark R. Swain and Gautam Vasisht, of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and U.K. astronomer Giovanna Tinetti, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University College, London, are the authors of the paper.

The Maya: Glory and Ruin

By Guy Gugliotta

The doomed splendor of the Maya unfolded against the backdrop of the rain forests of southern Mexico and Central America. Here, Classic Maya civilization reached improbable heights. To chart a culture whose Preclassic roots reach back 3,000 years, we begin with new evidence suggesting that the arrival of a warlord from central Mexico ushered in an age of magnificence and masterpieces such as the death mask of Palenque's King Pakal. But empires rise only to fall. We conclude with the cascade of catastrophe—natural and man-made—that precipitated the Classic Maya collapse, leaving nature to reclaim the grandeur.

THE RISE:The Kingmaker

The stranger arrived as the dry season began to harden the jungle paths, allowing armies to pass. Flanked by his warriors, he marched into the Maya city of Waka, past temples and markets and across broad plazas. Its citizens must have gaped, impressed not just by the show of force but also by the men's extravagant feathered headdresses, javelins, and mirrored shields—the regalia of a distant imperial city.

Ancient inscriptions give the date as January 8, 378, and the stranger's name as Fire Is Born. He arrived in Waka, in present-day Guatemala, as an envoy from a great power in the highlands of Mexico. In the coming decades, his name would appear on monuments all across the territory of the Maya, the jungle civilization of Mesoamerica. And in his wake, the Maya reached an apogee that lasted five centuries.

The Maya have always been an enigma. Decades ago the glories of their ruined cities and their beautiful but undeciphered script had many researchers imagining a gentle society of priests and scribes. As epigraphers finally learned to read the Maya glyphs, a darker picture emerged, of warring dynasties, court rivalries, and palaces put to the torch. Maya history became a tapestry of precise dates and vividly named personages.

But deep mysteries remained, among them what spurred the Maya's final leap toward greatness. Around the time Fire Is Born's fame was spreading, a wave of change swept the Maya world. What had been a collection of inward-looking city-states expanded their ties with their neighbors and other cultures and reached the heights of artistic achievement that define the Classic Maya period.

New clues, unearthed from overgrown ruins and teased from newly deciphered texts, point to Fire Is Born as a central figure in this transformation. Though fragmentary, the evidence that has emerged over the past decade suggests that this mysterious outsider remade the political leadership of the Maya world. Mixing diplomacy and force, he forged alliances, installed new dynasties, and spread the influence of the distant city-state he represented, the great metropolis of Teotihuacan near present-day Mexico City.

Scholars disagree about the nature of his legacy—whether he ushered in a lasting era of foreign domination or catalyzed homegrown change. It is also possible that the Maya were already destined for greatness, and Fire Is Born just picked a lucky time to visit. But there is no question that his arrival marked a turning point. "I don't know if Fire Is Born invented the new system," says Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn, "but he was there at the beginning."

Even before Fire is Born, the Maya had risen to unlikely heights in a harsh land. Today, the lowlands of southern Mexico and Guatemala's Petén region yield little beyond bare subsistence to their inhabitants. "A high civilization," says Vanderbilt University Maya scholar Arthur Demarest, "had no business being there."

The setting of ancient Waka, now known as El Perú, is probably much as it was when the first Maya arrived, in perhaps 1000 B.C.—a dense rain forest where scarlet macaws, toucans, and vultures nest in towering tropical hardwoods. Spider monkeys swing from branches and vines, and howler monkeys bellow in the distance. When it rains in the Petén, mosquitoes swarm in such clouds that today's Maya have to drive them away with greasy smoke from torches burning cohune palm nuts. In the dry season, the heat bakes the swampy bajos, or bottomlands, the rivers fall, and drought threatens. It is a land of machetes and mud, serpents and sweat, and cats—most notably balam, the jaguar, lord of the jungle.

The earliest arrivals probably had no choice—overcrowding elsewhere may have forced them into this forbidding environment. But once there, they mastered its challenges. Settling near rivers, lakes, and swamps, they learned to maximize the thin soil's productivity. They cleared the forest for maize, squash, and other crops by slashing and burning, much as today's Maya do, then re-enriched the land by alternating crops and letting fields lie fallow.

As populations grew, they adopted more intensive methods of cultivation—composting, terracing, irrigation. They filled in swamps to create fields and carried silt and muck from bottomlands to fertilize enclosed gardens. Artificial ponds yielded fish, and corrals held deer and other game flushed from the forest. The ancient Maya ultimately coaxed enough sustenance from the meager land for several million people, many times more than now live in the region.

Over the centuries, as the Maya learned to prosper in the rain forest, the settlements grew into city-states, and the culture became ever more refined. The Maya built elegant multiroom palaces with vaulted ceilings; their temples rose hundreds of feet toward the heavens. Ceramics, murals, and sculpture displayed their distinctive artistic style, intricate and colorful. Though they used neither the wheel nor metal tools, they developed a complete hieroglyphic writing system and grasped the concept of zero, adopting it for everyday calculations. They also had a 365-day year and were sophisticated enough to make leap-year-like corrections. They regularly observed the stars, predicted solar eclipses, and angled their ceremonial buildings so that they faced sunrise or sunset at particular times of year.

Mediating between the heavens and earth were the Maya kings—the kuhul ajaw, or holy lords, who derived their power from the gods. They functioned both as shamans, interpreting religion and ideology, and rulers who led their subjects in peace and war. Demarest and others have described the Maya centers as "theater states" in which the kuhul ajaw conducted elaborate public rituals to give metaphysical meaning to movements of the heavens, changes of the calendar, and the royal succession.

Behind the cloak of ritual, the Maya cities acted like states everywhere, making alliances, fighting wars, and trading for goods over territory that ultimately stretched from what is today southern Mexico through the Petén to the Caribbean coast of Honduras. Well-worn trails and stucco-paved causeways crisscrossed the forest, and canoes plied the rivers. But until Fire Is Born arrived, the Maya remained politically fragmented, the city-states charting their own courses in the jungle.

By 378 Waka was a prestigious center, boasting four main plazas, hundreds of buildings, temple mounds up to 300 feet (90 meters) tall, ceremonial palaces clad in painted stucco, and courtyards graced with carved limestone altars and monuments. A trading power, it occupied a strategic location on the San Pedro River, which flowed westward from the heart of the Petén. Its market was filled with Maya foodstuffs such as maize, beans, chilies, and avocados, along with chicle harvested from sapodilla trees to make glue, and latex from rubber trees to make balls for ceremonial games. Exotic goods found their way to Waka as well. Jade for sculpture and jewelry and quetzal feathers for costumes came from the mountains to the south, and obsidian for weapons and pyrite for mirrors from the Mexican plateau to the west, the domain of Teotihuacan.

A sprawling metropolis of 100,000 people or more—perhaps the largest city in the world at the time—Teotihuacan left no records that epigraphers have been able to decipher. But its motives in dispatching Fire Is Born to the Maya region seem clear. Waka sat on a promontory overlooking a tributary of the San Pedro with a protected harbor, excellent for berthing large canoes. "It was a perfect staging area" for military action, notes Southern Methodist University archaeologist David Freidel, co-director of excavations at Waka. Which may be precisely what Fire Is Born had in mind.

Waka appears to have been key to the envoy's mission: to bring the entire central Petén into Teotihuacan's orbit, through persuasion if possible, force if necessary. His principal target was Tikal, a kingdom 50 miles (80 kilometers) east of Waka. Tikal was the most influential city-state in the central Petén. Bring Tikal into the fold, and the other cities would follow.

Fire Is Born's soldiers were probably shock troops, designed principally to display his bona fides and demonstrate good faith. He needed reinforcements, and he had come to Waka to get them. In return, he could offer the goodwill of his patron, a mysterious ruler known from inscriptions as Spear-thrower Owl, probably a highland king, perhaps even the lord of Teotihuacan.

Waka's ruler, Sun-faced Jaguar, apparently welcomed Fire Is Born. Based on hints in texts from Waka and other sources, Freidel, project co-director Héctor Escobedo, and epigrapher Stanley Guenter suggest that the two rulers cemented their alliance by building a fire shrine to house the sacred flame of Teotihuacan.

Along with moral support, Fire Is Born probably secured troops. His expeditionary force likely carried the spear-throwers and javelins typical of Teotihuacan and wore backshields covered with glittery pyrite, perhaps meant to dazzle the enemy when the soldiers spun around to hurl their weapons. Now warriors from the Petén, equipped with stone axes and short stabbing spears, swelled their ranks. As armor, many wore cotton vests stuffed with rock salt. Eleven hundred years later, the Spanish conquistadores shed their own metal armor in the sweltering rain forest in favor of these Maya "flak jackets."

The military expedition most likely set out for Tikal in war canoes, heading east, up the San Pedro River. Reaching the headwaters, the soldiers disembarked and marched either along the river or on the canyon rim overlooking it.

Garrisons probably dotted the route. News of the advancing column must have reached Tikal, and somewhere along the stretch of riverbank and roadway, perhaps at a break in the cliffs about 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the city, Tikal's army tried to stop Fire Is Born's advance. Inscribed slabs, called stelae, later erected at Tikal suggest that the defenders were routed. Fire Is Born's forces continued their march on the city. By January 16, 378—barely a week after his arrival in Waka—the conqueror was in Tikal.

The date is noted on Tikal's now famous Stela 31, which yielded early clues to Fire Is Born's importance when David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin deciphered it in 2000. The second passage on the stela records what happened after the city fell: Tikal's king, Great Jaguar Paw, died that very day, probably at the hands of the vanquishers.

Fire Is Born appears to have dropped whatever pretense he had assumed as a goodwill ambassador. His forces destroyed most of Tikal's existing monuments—stelae put in place by 14 earlier rulers of Tikal. A new era had begun, and later monuments celebrated the victors. Stela 31, erected long after the conquest, describes Fire Is Born as Ochkin Kaloomte, or Lord of the West, probably referring to his origins in Teotihuacan. Some Maya experts have also suggested another meaning: that Fire Is Born represented a faction that had fled to the west—to Teotihuacan—after a coup d'état by Great Jaguar Paw's father years earlier and had now returned to power.

It apparently took Fire Is Born some time to pacify Tikal and its environs. But a year after his arrival, Tikal's monuments record that he presided over the ascension of a new, foreign king. Inscriptions identify him as the son of Spear-thrower Owl, Fire Is Born's patron in Teotihuacan. According to Stela 31, the new king was less than 20 years old, so Fire Is Born probably became Tikal's regent. He was certainly the city's de facto overlord.

In the years that followed the conquest, Tikal itself went on the offensive, expanding its reach across the Maya region. Fire Is Born appears to have masterminded the campaign, or at least inspired it. References to him have been identified in cities as distant as Palenque, more than 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the northwest. But the most poignant testimony to his empire-building comes from Uaxactún, just 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Tikal. There a mural shows a Maya nobleman giving homage to a warrior in Teotihuacan regalia—perhaps one of Fire Is Born's troops. A stela depicting a similar warrior guards a tomb where archaeologists found the remains of two women, one pregnant, a child, and an infant. Freidel and others have concluded that these were the remains of Uaxactún's royal family, slain by Tikal's forces. The king, presumably, was taken to Tikal and sacrificed there.

Decades after the arrival of Fire Is Born and long after he must have died, the aggressive rulers of Tikal continued to invoke Fire Is Born and his patron state, Teotihuacan. In 426, Tikal took over Copán, 170 miles (274 kilometers) to the south in present-day Honduras, and crowned its own king, Kinich Yax Kuk Mo, who became the founder of a new dynasty. A posthumous portrait shows him wearing a costume typical of central Mexico—a reference to Teotihuacan—and like Fire Is Born, he bore the title Lord of the West.

Some Mayanists believe that Tikal was acting as a vassal state for Teotihuacan, expanding its dominion throughout the Maya lowlands, with Fire Is Born acting as a kind of military governor. Others see him less as a conqueror and more as a catalyst who spurred Tikal to expand its own power and influence.

His fate is a mystery. There is no known record of his death, and no evidence that he ever ruled a Maya kingdom. But his prestige lived on. The Waka stela recording his arrival there wasn't erected until a generation later, indicating that even a long-ago visit from the great Fire Is Born was a matter of civic pride.

The Maya were never the same after him. Later rulers transformed Tikal into what Nikolai Grube, and Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, have described as a Maya superpower. And in both religion and art, the Classic Maya began to embrace foreign motifs and themes, adding sophistication and cosmopolitan exuberance to an already flourishing culture.

Soon another political development fed this cultural flowering. In the sixth century, the kan (meaning "snake") lords of Calakmul, a city just north of the Petron, began their own expansion. In time Calakmul came to challenge Tikal, and the rivalry split the Maya world. Like the 20th century Cold War, this contest spurred heights of achievement even as it sowed tension and strife. But unlike our own, the Maya Cold War ended in catastrophe.

THE COLLAPSE Fatal Rivalries

One day in the year 800, the peaceful Maya city of Cancun reaped the whirlwind. King Kan Maax must have known that trouble was coming, for he had tried to build makeshift breastworks at the approaches to his 200-room palace. He didn't finish in time.

The attackers quickly overran the outskirts of the city and streamed into Cancun's ritual heart. The speed of the attack is obvious even today. Unfinished construction projects lay in tumbled heaps. Half-carved stone monuments littered the pathways. Pots and bowls were strewn about the palace kitchen.

The invaders took 31 hostages. The jewels and ornaments found with their remains marked them as nobles, perhaps members of Kan Maax's extended family or royal guests from stricken cities elsewhere. The captives included women and children; two of the women were pregnant.

All were led to the ceremonial courtyard of the palace and systematically executed. The killers wielded spears and axes, impaling or decapitating their victims. They laid the corpses in the palace's cistern. Roughly 30 feet (nine meters) long and 10 feet (three meters) deep, it was lined with red stucco and fed by an underground spring. The bodies, accompanied by ceremonial garments and precious ornaments, fit easily. Kan Maax and his queen were not spared. They were buried a hundred yards (90 meters) away in two feet (0.6 meters) of construction fill intended for remodeling the palace. The king still wore his elaborate ceremonial headdress and a mother-of-pearl necklace identifying him as Holy Lord of Cancun.

No one knows who the killers were or what they sought. Booty apparently did not interest them. Some 3,600 pieces of jade, including several jade boulders, were left untouched; household goods in the palace and ceramics in Cancuén's giant kitchen were undisturbed. But to archaeologists who have dug up the evidence over the past several years, the invaders' message is clear. By depositing the bodies in the cistern, "they poisoned the well," says Vanderbilt University archaeologist Arthur Demarest. They also chipped the faces from all the carved likenesses on Cancuén's stone monuments and pushed them over, facedown. "The site," says Demarest, "was ritually killed."

CANCUÉN WAS ONE OF the last major dominoes to fall in the Pasión River Valley, part of the ancient Maya heartland in present-day Guatemala. Many other cities had already met similarly decisive ends, and throughout the southern lowlands of Mesoamerica, what came to be known as the collapse of the Classic Maya was well under way. The civilization that had dominated the region for 500 years was sliding into a prolonged, irrevocable decline.

While warfare obliterated some vibrant city-states, others simply faded. The kuhul ajaw, or holy lords, who had celebrated their every deed in murals, sculpture, and architecture, no longer commissioned new works. Public displays of hieroglyphic writing became scarce, and dates in the Long Count calendar system all but disappeared from onuments. Population fell drastically. Nobles abandoned palaces and squatters moved in, lit cook fires in the old throne rooms, and built lean-tos next to crumbling walls. And then even the squatters left, and the jungle reclaimed what remained.

Elsewhere in the Petén lowlands of Guatemala and in southern Mexico, the collapse took longer. Even as Cancuén fell, rulers of the great city-state of Tikal in the northern Petén were building ceremonial structures. But 30 years later Tikal's population began to drop precipitously as well. Its last dated monument was inscribed in 869. By 1000, the Classic Maya had ceased to exist.

The question has fascinated scholars and the public since 19th-century explorers began discovering "lost cities" in the Petén: How could one of the ancient world's great civilizations simply dissolve?

Early speculation centered on sudden catastrophe, perhaps volcanism or an earthquake or a deadly hurricane. Or perhaps it was a mysterious disease, untraceable today—something like the Black Death in medieval Europe or the smallpox that wiped out Native American populations at the dawn of the colonial age. Modern researchers have discarded these one-event theories, however, because the collapse extended over at least 200 years. "There isn't any single factor that everybody agrees on," says Southern Illinois University's Prudence M. Rice.

Scholars have looked instead at combinations of afflictions in different parts of the Maya world, including overpopulation, environmental damage, famine, and drought. "You come away feeling that anything that can go wrong did," says Rice.

They have also focused on the one thing that appears to have happened everywhere during the prolonged decline: As resources grew scarce, the kuhul ajaw lost their divine luster, and, with it, the confidence of their subjects, both noble and commoner. Instability and desperation in turn fueled more destructive wars. What had been ritualized contests fought for glory or captives turned into spasms of savagery like the one that obliterated Cancuén. Says Simon Martin of the University of Pennsylvania Museum: "The system broke down and ran out of control."

For more than a millennium, the Maya had entrusted their religious and temporal well-being to their god-kings. These leaders displayed their might and majesty in lavish rituals and pageants, in opulent art and architecture, and in written records of their triumphs, inscribed on stone, murals, and ceramics.

The system prospered—indeed, its excesses created the artistic achievements and learning that defined the Maya as one of the ancient world's great cultures—as long as the land could satisfy people's basic needs. This was easy at first when cities were small and resources relatively plentiful, but over time, growing populations, an expanding nobility, and rivalry between the city-states strained the limits of the environment.

Today the Petén, geographically the largest province in Guatemala, has a population of 367,000, living in isolated towns scattered through a forested wilderness. In the eighth century, by some estimates, ten million people lived in the Maya lowlands. The landscape was an almost unbroken fabric of intensely cultivated farms, gardens, and villages, linked by a web of trails and paved causeways connecting monumental city-states.

Maya farmers were well schooled in sophisticated techniques designed to get maximum production from delicate tropical soils. But beginning in the ninth century, studies of lake-bed sediments show, a series of prolonged droughts struck the Maya world, hitting especially hard in cities like Tikal, which depended on rain both for drinking water and to reinvigorate the swampland bajos where farmers grew their crops. River ports like Cancuén might have escaped water shortages, but across much of the Maya region the lake-bed sediments also show ancient layers of eroded soil, testimony to deforestation and overuse of the land.

When bad times came, there was little the kuhul ajaw could do to help their people. Monoculture farming—growing one staple food crop that could be accumulated and stored for hard times or for trade—could not be sustained in the rain forest. Instead, each city-state produced small quantities of many different food items, such as maize, beans, squash, and cacao. There was enough, at least at first, to feed the kingdom, but little left over.

Meanwhile, Maya society was growing dangerously top heavy. Over time, elite polygamy and intermarriage among royal families swelled the ruling class. The lords demanded jade, shells, feathers from the exotic quetzal bird, fancy ceramics, and other expensive ceremonial accoutrements to affirm their status in the Maya cosmos. A king who could not meet the requirements of his relatives risked alienating them.

The traditional rivalry among states only made matters worse. The kuhul ajaw strove to outdo their neighbors, building bigger temples and more elegant palaces and staging more elaborate public pageants. All of this required more labor, which required larger populations and, perhaps, more wars to exact tribute in forced labor from fallen enemies. Overtaxed, the Maya political system began to falter.

The greatest rivalry of all helped propel the Classic Maya to their peak—and then tore their world apart. Beginning in the fifth century, the city-state of Tikal, probably bolstered by an alliance with the great Mexican highland state of Teotihuacan, expanded its influence, enlisting allies and vassal states in a swath southward through the Pasión River Valley to Copán in what is now Honduras. A century later a challenger arose: The northern city-state of Calakmul, in what is now the Mexican lowlands of Campeche, forged an alliance of city-states throughout the Petén, north to the Yucatán and east to what is now Belize. The two great alliances faced off in a rivalry that lasted more than 130 years.

This period marked the golden age of Classic Maya civilization. The kuhul ajaw were in full flower in these two great alliances, competing in art and monuments as well as in frequent but limited wars. Calakmul defeated Tikal in a major battle in 562 but destroyed neither the city nor its population. Eventually Tikal rebounded and defeated Calakmul, subsequently building many of its most spectacular monuments.

Simon Martin, with Nikolai Grube of the University of Bonn, compares the Tikal-Calakmul rivalry to the superpower struggle of the 20th century, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union competed to outdo each other in fields ranging from weaponry to space travel. With neither side ever able to gain the upper hand, the Cold War arguably brought stability, and so did the standoff in the Maya world. "There was a certain degree of destruction" because of the rivalry, says Guatemalan archaeologist Héctor Escobedo. "But there was also equilibrium."

It did not last. Martin suggests the balance may have been intrinsically unstable, like the competition among the city-states of ancient Greece, or the nervous grappling between North and South in the United States prior to the Civil War. Or perhaps an overstressed environment finally caught up with the proud Maya powers, bringing a new edge of desperation to their rivalry. Either way, the unraveling began at the small garrison state of Dos Pilas, near the Pasión River downstream of Cancuén.

In 630 Tikal, trying to reassert a presence along Pasión River trade routes increasingly dominated by Calakmul, expanded an existing outpost near two large springs—pilas, in Spanish. The site had little else to recommend it. Dos Pilas grew no crops and sold nothing. Scholars call it a "predator state" that depended on tribute from the surrounding countryside. War, for Dos Pilas, was not only a ritual to glorify kings and appease gods. War was what Dos Pilas did to survive.

The kingdom's history of violence and duplicity began when Tikal installed one of its princes, Balaj Chan Kawiil, as Dos Pilas's ruler in 635. The garrison slapped together a fancy-looking capital for the young prince, using carved facades to mask loose and unstable construction fill. But in 658 Calakmul overran Dos Pilas and drove Balaj Chan Kawiil into exile.

We know the next chapter thanks to a thunderstorm that toppled a tree at Dos Pilas six years ago, exposing a carved stairway hidden beneath its roots. Inscriptions on the stairway reveal that Balaj Chan Kawiil returned two years after his exile—but as a Calakmul surrogate. Dos Pilas's turncoat king helped Calakmul cement its control over the Pasión Valley during the next two decades. Then Calakmul delivered fateful news. Its rulers ordered Balaj Chan Kawiil to fight his brother in Tikal itself.

In 679 he attacked his native city. "Mountains of skulls were piled up, and blood flowed," the stairway records. Balaj Chan Kawiil triumphed, and his brother died in the battle. The victory brought Calakmul to apogee and transformed Dos Pilas into the overlord of the Petexbatún, the southwestern part of the Petén.

Tikal survived, rebuilt, and less than 20 years later attacked and defeated Calakmul. Stucco sculpture at Tikal's central acropolis depicts a Calakmul noble awaiting sacrifice. It was a defeat from which Calakmul never fully recovered, but Tikal itself was never the same after the wars finally concluded. "Even though Tikal wins in the end," says the University of Pennsylvania's Robert Sharer, "it's never in shape to control everything."

What happened next is not entirely clear. Calakmul's power was broken, yet its allies, including Dos Pilas, continued to battle Tikal in Calakmul's name. Dos Pilas consolidated its hegemony in the Petexbatún through alliances and war. Its rulers commissioned new monuments and built a second capital.

But in 761 Dos Pilas's luck ran out. Former allies and vassals conquered the city and sent its ruler into exile. Dos Pilas would never be resettled, and with its obliteration the Maya world crossed a divide. Instead of reestablishing order, wars would create greater disorder; instead of one ruler emerging triumphant from a decisive battle, each conflict simply created more pretenders. Victories, instead of inspiring new monuments and temples, were transient and, increasingly, unremarked. Defeats spurred desperate citizens to rip apart their ceremonial buildings, using the stones and fill to build redoubts in hopes of staving off future invaders. Cities no longer rebuilt and rebounded. They simply ceased to exist.

Smaller states tried to assert themselves in the spreading chaos, but none could. Instead, the warring states sought temporary advantage in a land of dwindling resources. The commoners probably hid, fled, or died.

For a time, fleeing nobles could find refuge in Cancuén, a quiet port at the headwaters of the Pasión River. Even as downriver cities sank into chaos during the eighth century, Cancuén prospered by trading luxury items and providing sumptuous lodgings for elite visitors. The architect of this golden age was King Taj Chan Ahk, who came to power in 757 at the age of 15. Cancuén had a long history as a strategic trading post, but Taj Chan Ahk transformed the city into a stunning ceremonial center. Its heart was a 270,000-square-foot (25,000 square meters), three-story royal palace with vaulted ceilings and 11 courtyards, made of solid limestone and elegantly placed on a riverside promontory. It was a perfect stage for a Maya god-king, and Taj Chan Ahk was master of the role, even as it was dying out elsewhere.

There is no evidence that Taj Chan Ahk ever fought a war or even won a battle. Instead he managed to dominate the upper Pasión Valley for nearly 40 years by coaxing advantage through patronage and alliances. An altar monument at Cancuén dated 790 shows him in action, engaged in a ceremonial ball game with an unknown noble, perhaps to celebrate a treaty or a state visit.

Taj Chan Ahk died in 795 and was succeeded by his son Kan Maax, who sought to trump his father by expanding the palace. But pomp and ritual—the old trappings of kingship—could no longer hold the Maya universe together. Within five years the spreading chaos had reached the gates of the city. In one terrible day its glory winked out, another light extinguished in the world of the Classic Maya.