On November 10, 2011, at 17:25 UTC (or 11:25am Central Standard Time), a shallow quake occured in Greece about 11.8 miles NE of the town of Patras. According to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre, this earthquake had a magnitude of 5.1 (later downgraded to a 4.6) and was a relatively shallow quake at 5 km (approximately 3.1 miles) below the Earth's surface.
This region is characterized by a high level of seismicity, and small tremors are continually recorded along the coast of Patras. Another interesting aspect of Patras is that in antiquity, there was an ancient oracle, over a sacred spring, dedicated to the goddess Demeter. Professor Iain Stewart from the University of Plymouth has been studying a supposed link between ancient. sacred places in Greece and Turkey and seismic fault lines. Many ancient temples and cities lie along those fault lines and this may not be merely due to chance, but they may have been placed there deliberately.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For example, the Oracle at Delphi has been given a geological explanation. The Delphi Fault (running east-west) and the Kerna Fault (running SE-NW) intersect near the oracular chamber in the Temple of Apollo. In that area, bituminous limestone (i.e. limestone containing bitumen, a tarlike deriviative of petroleum) has a petrochemical content as high as 20%. Analysis of spring water in the area showed the presence of hydrocarbon gases, such as ethylene. Geologists have hypothesized that friction from fault movement heats the limestone, causing the petrochemicals within to vaporize. It has been suggested that exposure to low levels of the sweet-smelling gas ethylene would induce a trance, or euphoric state. Could the naturally occuring ethylene account for the strange, prophetic behavior of the Pythia (the priestess at the Temple of Apollo)?
The Delphi research is certainly persuasive, and received favorable coverage in the popular press and Scientific American, but it has come under criticism. Critics argue that the concentrations of ethylene identified by the researchers would not be sufficient to induce a trance-like state, and thus the connection to the mantic behavior of the Pythia is dubious.
Report: Geomythology: Geological Origins of Myths and Legends
Article: Breaking the Vapour Barrier: What Made the Delphic Oracle Work?
Report: Oracle at Delphi May Have Been Inhaling Ethylene Gas Fumes
Related Report: Earthquake Faulting at Ancient Cnidus, SW Turkey
Courtesy Bjørn Christian Tørrissen via Wikimedia CommonsOn November 4, 1922, after seven fruitless years of searching, and near the end of the last season his sponsor Lord Carnarvon planned to finance, laborers for British archaeologist Howard Carter uncovered in Egypt's Valley of the Kings the entrance to the 3000 year-old tomb of King Tutankhamun, the greatest collection of Egyptian treasures ever found.
Courtesy Wikimedia Creative CommonsHalloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.
Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,
In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!
Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”
And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:
“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“
[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]
The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.
The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.
The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.
In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)
So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.
Courtesy Photo by Heather Rousseau ©Denver Museum of Nature and ScienceThe last talk I attended at the Geological Society of America (GSA) convention this past week was one of my favorites. It was an update of the Snowmastodon Project given by Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). Just one year ago, a construction worker bulldozing for a dam-building project at the Zeigler Reservoir near Snowmass Village in Colorado unearthed a mammoth tusk. Paleontologists and archaeologists from the Denver museum were called in, and excavation of a small portion of the drained reservoir bottom soon got underway. The museum crew worked for just one month, until November 14, 2010, when snowfall halted the project. Then last spring scientists returned to the site and were allowed just 51 days to excavate the fossil deposits before the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District resumed their expansion work on the reservoir.
This time more research experts from the US, Canada, and England joined the dig along with a slew of interns and volunteers, totaling some 233 people working on the project. Over the next seven weeks excavation at the Zeigler Reservoir site progressed at a frantic pace. According to Johnson, anywhere from 15 to 90 diggers were on site each day digging out fossils from the ancient peat and mud deposits, from what once were the shores of a small glacial lake. Despite the short window of opportunity, the sheer number and diversity of fossils from the dig site has been truly remarkable.
Courtesy Dantheman9758 at en.wikipediaOf the nearly 5000 bones and skulls exhumed from the Snowmass fossil site, more than 60 percent were of mastodons (Mammut americanum) representing at least 30 individuals in various stages of life. The other 40 percent of the fauna included mammoths (Mammuthus columbi), camels, horses, giant bison (Bison latifrons) and ground sloths (Megalonyx jeffersonii), otters, muskrats, minks, bats voles, chipmunks, beavers, bats, rabbits, mice, salamanders, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, and birds, and iridescent beetles. No large carnivore remains were found in the deposits, and human remains were absent as well, although archaeological techniques were used during the dig just in case any were uncovered.
Flora from the prehistoric tundra environment included pollen, green leaves and cones, and tree logs, some with their bark still intact.
So far, age estimates for the deposits range between 43, 000 to 130,000 years old although further dating tests should narrow that down.
The talk included several photos of what Johnson termed “Flintstone moments”, i.e. shots of field workers posing with massive mammoth or mastodon femurs or tibia. And Johnson marveled at the incredible state of preservation of many of the fossils displayed. Some of the bones, he said, still emitted a very strong funk.
In terms of sheer number of bones and ecological data, Snowmastodon ranks up there as probably one of the best high altitude Ice Age ecology sites in the world, and certainly the best mastodon fossil site. A team of researchers at the DMNS lab will spend the next year and a half cleaning, cataloging, and analyzing all the fossils found at the Snowmass dig site, water was to be reintroduced into the reservoir on Oct. 13. Despite the loss of the site, the field crew did a tremendous job in the time they were given to excavate the fossil-rich site. And Kirk Johnson didn’t hide his excitement. In closing his talk, he said “It was one hell of a year!”
Here on good ol' Planet Earth, the human population is growing and boy are folks hungry. By 2050, there should be 9 billion of us running around, but Earth isn't getting any bigger and we probably don't want to try farming on the moon. On the Buzz, we've read about some plants that have been modified to resist drought and tough climates, but what about the wisdom of the ancient Andeans?
Courtesy David Almeida
No, no, not that wisdom, delicious as it is. I'm talking about Andean farmers. These guys are reviving tough heirloom potatoes, clever terraces, and Incan irrigation systems. The species and systems had been used for thousands of years, and were probably adapted to the uncertainties of agriculture in the high mountains.
But when Spaniards showed up a few centuries ago with their own methods, traditional ways slowly fell out of use even though they were better suited to the region's need. Now that farmers are rediscovering the benefits of these ancient traditions, they're hoping these methods can help hungry folks in other parts of the world, too. Now that's a wisdom I can sink my teeth into!
What a bleak two years those were, eh? In that time you’ve probably been married and impregnated, and then birthed a really boring baby. What did you name it? “Dullton”? “Cloudface”? “Eeyore”? Or could you not even think of a name, because everything has just seemed so boring and pointless?
You know what? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I’ve just been so preoccupied in the last couple years, what with the economy being so bad and all. I’ve been trying to figure out how to keep my horseracing operation financially feasible. But I think I’ve finally figured it out—whenever one of my horses looses a race, I have to stop setting them free in the woods. Or, if I really need to get that loser out of my sight, I’ve got to at least sell it to a glue factory or restaurant. (Sure, get all self-righteous. You’ve clearly never eaten horsemeat, or stuck two pieces of paper together with horseglue. Unparalleled experiences.)
So the Extravaganza is back! At least as a limited edition. I was so excited to do it, I couldn’t even wait for the usual Friday post. And so a Wednesday Extravaganza it is! A Food Extravaganza! A Foodstravaganza!
You may be aware that the Science Museum will soon be opening an exhibit called Future Earth, which explores how the many billions of us humans will get by in the coming decades. You might also be aware that food is going to be a big deal in our future (there will be more of us, and we’ll be eating more stuff that takes more resources to produce), and so, as both a Future Earth worker bee and a consumer of food, a couple of stories caught my eye this week.
Whoops! A little background information: agriculture isn’t screwing us over—it’s keeping us from starving. However, in our effort to keep ourselves from starving (a noble goal!) we’ve converted about 40% of the land surface of the Earth into cropland and pastureland, and not all of that is sustainable. I don’t mean that in the “cute animals have nowhere to live” way, I mean it in the “we weren’t always careful, and have caused tremendous environmental degradation” way. When farming practices allow topsoil to be stripped of nutrients, or erode too extensively, or contaminate water sources, it’s bad news. But at least we aren’t the first people to have done it. According to some recent archaeological work, ancient Peruvians were up to the same tricks. By looking at the ancient trash pits and the buried plant remains in the desolate-looking Ica region of Peru, archaeologists found that the area’s residents originally survived by gathering shellfish and the like from the coast, but eventually transitioned to an intensive agricultural lifestyle—that is, they cleared a lot of land, and grew a lot of food. They grew corn, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, and chillis for hundreds of years, and all was well. Until it wasn’t. It looks like they cleared too much of the natural plant life, and flooding, erosion, and nutrient depletion became problems (the natural trees and shrubs fixed nitrogen nutrients in the soil and held dirt and moisture in place in a way that the crops couldn’t.) The whole area went to pot, and the locals had to go back to eating snails, mussels and sea urchins again. Aw, nuts.
So what could they have done? For that matter, what can we do, if it looks like our conventional food sources can’t sustain a human population which will rapidly exceed 7 billion?
That brings me to my next story! Oh, good!
You know what everybody likes? Animal protein, also known as “meat.” The problem there is that animal protein requires animals to produce it, and not all animals make it very efficiently—a cow, for instance, eats about 30 pounds of cow feed to produce each pound of steak. There are more efficient creatures out there, but we don’t usually eat them: bugs.
Naturally, we’ve talked about bug eating on Science Buzz already. But that focused more on bug eating (or entomophagy) as a concept). An article I read this weekend examines bug eating in practice, and it’s pretty wild.
While the story does talk about some straight up bug recipes (e.g. “mealworm fried rice”), it also looks at a company in the Netherlands that’s already raising and processing insects just for their protein. The advantages of farm-raised bugs are that you get a pretty generic, healthy product (it sounds sort of like … hotdog filling, or something, but without all the fat) from animals that require less food and produce a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases created by normal livestock. However, efficiently separating the bug meat from the rest of the bug parts is a challenge, as is processing it without having it turn funky. Apparently, in the mysterious world of bug meat, funkiness is very much a possibility. But, really, when are we ever totally free of the threat of funkiness?
In any case, I’d like it if your takeaway message of this extravaganza was this: You should eat bugs, and like them, or you will be forced to eat bugs (and you probably won’t like them). Amiright?
If you can’t handle a takeaway message with that much raw power, try digesting this one instead: producing food has some serious challenges, so it behooves us to be innovative and foresightful with regards to our food sources.
Rendered insect meat!
(Herculaneum, by the way, was a neighboring city to Pompeii, and it was likewise destroyed and buried in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.)
I don’t want to get in trouble for corrupting young minds (again), so I can’t tell you straight out what the “brown gold” is. But let it be known that this rich seam is telling archaeologists a lot about what the ancient residents of Herculaneum ate. Also, it rhymes with “trap.”
Recovered from an 86-meter-long septic tank-like section of sewer, the ancient, compacted gold fills over 770 bags, and seems to indicate that the buildings’ former residents, despite their low- or middle-class status, had a surprisingly varied diet. They ate fish, vegetables, fruit, eggs, olives, walnuts, sea urchins, and lots of figs. Also, they ate dormice, which is simply adorable.
Archaeologists working at the site say that it’s lucky that the gold wasn’t discovered before, because the technology for analyzing the material wasn’t available until relatively recently. Also they just didn’t appreciate this sort of thing back then.*
*This last statement is based on how I imagine my grandmother would react if I explained the discovery to her. Fortunately she’s dead, so it probably won’t come up.
Even as the King Tut exhibit continues its run here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, headlines around the world continue to keep Egyptology at the forefront of people's attention, particularly in light of the recent political turmoil in Egypt.
Here's an interesting story of recent lost and found about one of the trumpets found in Tutankhamun's burial chamber.
And the head of Egyptian archaeology efforts, Zahi Hawass, finds himself entangled with post-revolution fallout with his connections to former deposed president Hosni Mubarak and other controversies. Here are a couple reports from the Washington Post and CNN.
The political turmoil in Egypt this past weekend spilled into the famous Egyptian Museum with reports that some ancient artifacts being damaged or stolen. But concerned citizens helped to secure the building and Army troops are now on the scene protecting the site. Here's a good report on the situation from NBC News.