The Niger River narrows as it nears Lake Debo, an inland sea formed by the seasonal flooding of central Mali’s Niger Delta. With sandy banks covered in reeds and tall grass, this stretch of the river makes an ideal sanctuary for bandits, and on January 20, 2013, the area was particularly violent and lawless. French military helicopters swept through the skies, bound for Timbuktu, to drive out militants who had occupied the city. Skirmishes between French ground troops and jihadists were breaking out just a few dozen miles away.
Into this chaos came a fleet of 20 motorized skiffs, sticking close to the center of the waterway. At the entrance to Lake Debo, dozens of turbaned men brandishing Kalashnikovs appeared on both banks, and ordered the boats ashore. The men eyed the cargo—300 metal footlockers, 15 to a boat—with curiosity. Inside they found stacks of crumbling manuscripts, some bound in leather. Dense Arabic texts and brightly colored geometric patterns covered the brittle pages. It was clear that the books were old, and from the worried looks of the young men guarding them, they seemed valuable. The gunmen told the escorts that they would have to pay a ransom if they ever wanted to see the volumes again.
The young men tried to placate the hijackers. They peeled off their cheap Casio watches and proffered them, along with silver bracelets, rings and necklaces. “All the kids in the north wear jewelry, that’s part of their look,” says Stephanie Diakité, an American lawyer and manuscript restorer in Bamako, Mali’s capital, who helped organize the boatlift. “They gave them all of that, like that was going to suffice, but it didn’t do the job.”
At last the couriers called Abdel Kader Haidara, a Timbuktu native who had amassed Mali’s most valuable private collection of manuscripts, and also oversaw an association of Timbuktu residents holding their own libraries of manuscripts. “Abdel Kader got on the phone, and he said to the hijackers, ‘Trust me on this, we will get you your money,’” says Diakité. After some consideration, the gunmen allowed the boats and their footlockers, containing 75,000 manuscripts, to continue. “And we paid them four days later,” says Diakité. “We knew we had more boats coming.”
Contemporary scholars consider Timbuktu’s Arabic-language manuscripts to be among the glories of the medieval Islamic world. Produced for the most part between the 13th and 17th centuries, when Timbuktu was a vibrant commercial and academic crossroads at the edge of the Sahara, the volumes include Korans, books of poetry, history and scholarly treatises. Fields of inquiry ranged from the religious traditions of Sufi saints to the development of mathematics and surveys of breakthroughs in Graeco-Roman and Islamic astronomy. Merchants traded the literary treasures in Timbuktu’s markets alongside slaves, gold and salt, and local families passed them down from one generation to the next. The works reveal Timbuktu to have been a center of scientific inquiry and religious tolerance, an intellectual hub that drew scholars from across the Islamic world.
At a time when Europe was just emerging from the Middle Ages, Timbuktu’s historians were chronicling the rise and fall of Saharan and Sudanese monarchs. Physicians documented therapeutic properties of desert plants, and ethicists debated the morality of polygamy and smoking tobacco. “These manuscripts show a multiethnic, multilayered community in which science and religion coexisted,” says Deborah Stolk of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, which has supported manuscript preservation in Timbuktu. The family collections, she adds, “are filled with works laden with gold and beautiful drawings. We’re still discovering what is there.”
The crisis in Timbuktu began in the spring of 2012, when rebels from the Tuareg tribe—who have long aspired to create an independent state in northern Mali—allied with Islamic militants. The joint force, armed with heavy weapons looted from the armories of the late Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, overran the northern parts of the country and seized control of Timbuktu and other towns. The jihadists soon shoved aside the secular Tuaregs, declared sharia law and began attacking anything they perceived as haram—forbidden—according to their strict definitions of Islam. They banned singing and dancing, and forbade the celebration of Sufi Islamic festivals. They demolished 16 mausoleums of Timbuktu’s beloved Sufi saints and scholars, claiming that veneration of such figures was a sacrilege. Eventually the militants set their sights on the city’s ultimate symbols of open-mindedness and reasoned discourse: its manuscripts.
A network of activists was determined to thwart them. For five months, smugglers mounted a huge and secret operation whose full details are only now coming to light. The objective: to carry 350,000 manuscripts to safety in the government-held south. The treasures moved by road and by river, by day and by night, past checkpoints manned by armed Islamic police. Haidara and Diakité raised $1 million to finance the rescue, then arranged for safe storage once the manuscripts arrived in Bamako.
Scientists have extracted the entire genome of a 130,000-year-old Neanderthal from a single toe bone in a Siberian cave, an accomplishment that far outstrips any previous work on Neanderthal genes….
The new Neanderthal genome, which is described in the current issue of Nature, is part of an extraordinary flurry of advances in studying ancient human DNA. Earlier this month, for example, scientists reconstructed a small segment of genes from a 400,000-year-old fossil in Spain, setting a record for the oldest human DNA ever found.
While the Spanish DNA only provided faint, tantalizing clues about human evolution, the new Neanderthal genome is more like a genetic encyclopedia, rich with new insights. The Neanderthal to whom the bone belonged was highly inbred, for example, offering a glimpse into the social lives of Neanderthals.
The new Neanderthal genome also contains evidence of more interbreeding between ancient human populations than previously known.
The authors of the new study also compared the Neanderthal genome to modern human DNA to better understand what makes our own lineage unique. They have come up with a list of mutations that evolved in modern humans after their ancestors branched off from Neanderthals some 600,000 years ago.
Since its discovery in 1990, La Sima de los Huesos, an underground cave in Northern Spain’s Atapuerca Mountains, has yielded more than 6,000 fossils from 28 individual ancient human ancestors, making it Europe’s most significant site for the study of ancient humans. But despite years of analysis, the exact age and even the species to which these individuals belonged has been in doubt.
Now, though, an international group of scientists has extracted and sequenced DNA from the fossilized femur of one of these individuals for the first time. The resulting data—which represent the oldest genetic material ever sequenced from a hominin, or ancient human ancestor—finally give us an idea of the age and lineage of these mysterious individuals, and it’s not what many scientists expected.
The fossilized bone tested, a femur, is roughly 400,000 years old. But the big surprise is that, although scientists had previously believed the fossils belonged to Neanderthals because of their anatomical appearance, the DNA analysis actually shows they’re more closely related to Denisovans, a recently-discovered third lineage of human ancestors known only from DNA isolated from a few fossils found in Siberia in 2010. The findings, published today in Nature, will force anthropologists to further reconsider how the Denisovans, Neanderthals and the direct ancestors of modern-day humans fit together in a complicated family tree.
The oldest known stone-tipped projectiles have been discovered in Ethiopia. The javelins are roughly 280,000 years old and predate the earliest known fossils of our species, Homo sapiens, by about 80,000 years.
These javelins are some 200,000 years older than previous examples of similar weapons, suggesting that modern humans and their extinct relatives had the know-how to create these sorts of complex thrown projectiles much earlier than often thought.
Scientists investigated stone tools unearthed at the Gademotta Formation on the flanks of an ancient, large collapsed volcanic crater in central Ethiopia’s Rift Valley….
"We were only interested in testing the hypothesis that these tools were definitely used to tip spears," Sahle said. "The eureka came much later as we did the analysis and found out that the features we were dealing with were the result of throwing impact, not thrusting."
When pointed artifacts are used as weapons, V-shaped fractures, called fracture wings, can form at the moment of impact; the apexes mark where the cracks started. Past experiments in materials such as obsidian have shown that the narrower the V-shapes of fracture wings, the higher the speed of the fracturing that created them.
The researchers discovered that the fracture wings seen in a dozen of these obsidian points suggest that the fracture cracking sped faster than 1,820 miles an hour (2,930 kilometers an hour). In experiments with thrusting spears, that’s the maximum velocity seen in fracturing. And some of these artifacts apparently developed fractures after impact at speeds of up to 3,345 miles an hour (5,385 kilometers an hour), close to the maximum velocity seen with fracturing in thrown spears.
A number of these artifacts are among the oldest at the site, suggesting that javelins were used as early as 279,000 years ago. Such weapons are considered signs of complex behavior and were pivotal to the spread of modern humans.
"The implication is that certain behavioral traits that are considered complex and mostly only the domains of anatomically modern humans—such as the capacity to make and use projectiles—were not only incorporated into the technological repertoire of the African early Homo sapiens, but also had earlier roots and were present in populations ancestral to Homo sapiens,” Sahle said.
“ 'Yes: the gods took Enkidu's life.
But man’s life is short, at any moment
it can be snapped, like a reed in a canebrake.
The handsome young man, the lovely young woman-
in their prime, death comes and drags them away.
Though no one has seen death’s face or heard
death’s voice, suddenly, savagely, death
destroys us, all of us, old or young.’ ”
Gilgamesh Book X, translated by Stephen Mitchell (via thequietassyrian)
They weren’t expecting to find the ancient water, estimated to be 100 to 145 million years old, while boring a hole 1.1 miles (1.8 kilometers) deep into the massive crater, located under the Chesapeake Bay.
The crater was formed about 35 million years ago when a large rock or chunk of ice slammed into what’s now the mouth of the bay, off Cape Charles, Virginia, hollowing out a 56-mile-wide (90-kilometer-wide) hole in the floor of the North Atlantic Ocean….
The seawater trapped deep underground is now in an area roughly the size of a large lake—about 60 square miles (155 square kilometers) across.
Finding this unprecedented time capsule of Cretaceous seawater “was a little bit mind-blowing,” Sanford said.
Sanford and his colleagues drilled into the crater in 2005 during a joint project with the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program, but it took several years to gather additional data that could determine the water’s age.
In the new research, a team led by evolutionary geneticist Olaf Thalmann of Finland’s University of Turku used DNA analysis techniques to determine the origins of the first tamed wolves.
The scientists collected DNA from 18 mostly European ancient canid samples, eight of which were classified as doglike and ten that were wolflike. They compared the ancient DNA to samples gathered from 77 dogs from a wide variety of breeds; 49 modern wolves from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere; and four coyotes….
The researchers found that the DNA of modern dogs most closely matched that of ancient wolves from Europe, indicating that dog domestication began there. They also concluded that dogs are descended from a population of ancient European wolves that are now extinct.
"We found that instead of recent wolves being closest to domestic dogs, ancient European wolves were directly related to them," Wayne said.
"This brings the genetic record into agreement with the archaeological record. Europe is where the oldest dogs are found."
The dog fossils used in the study are dated to 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, around the time that hunter-gatherers were living in Europe.
Women made most of the oldest-known cave art paintings, suggests a new analysis of ancient handprints. Most scholars had assumed these ancient artists were predominantly men, so the finding overturns decades of archaeological dogma.
Archaeologist Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University analyzed hand stencils found in eight cave sites in France and Spain. By comparing the relative lengths of certain fingers, Snow determined that three-quarters of the handprints were female….
Snow’s study began more than a decade ago when he came across the work of John Manning, a British biologist who had found that men and women differ in the relative lengths of their fingers: Women tend to have ring and index fingers of about the same length, whereas men’s ring fingers tend to be longer than their index fingers….
For the new study, out this week in the journal American Antiquity, Snow examined hundreds of stencils in European caves, but most were too faint or smudged to use in the analysis. The study includes measurements from 32 stencils, including 16 from the cave of El Castillo in Spain, 6 from the caves of Gargas in France, and 5 from Pech Merle.
Snow ran the numbers through an algorithm that he had created based on a reference set of hands from people of European descent who lived near his university. Using several measurements—such as the length of the fingers, the length of the hand, the ratio of ring to index finger, and the ratio of index finger to little finger—the algorithm could predict whether a given handprint was male or female. Because there is a lot of overlap between men and women, however, the algorithm wasn’t especially precise: It predicted the sex of Snow’s modern sample with about 60 percent accuracy.
Luckily for Snow, that wasn’t a problem for the analysis of the prehistoric handprints. As it turned out—much to his surprise—the hands in the caves were much more sexually dimorphic than modern hands, meaning that there was little overlap in the various hand measurements….
Snow’s analysis determined that 24 of the 32 hands—75 percent—were female.
Some experts are skeptical. Several years ago, evolutionary biologist R. Dale Guthrie performed a similar analysis of Paleolithic handprints. His work—based mostly on differences in the width of the palm and the thumb—found that the vast majority of handprints came from adolescent boys.
Protective eyes of Horus adorn bracelets found on Pharaoh Sheshonq II’s mummy, Treasures of Tanis (via artemisdreaming)
[W]hat exactly makes honey such a special food?
The answer is ascomplex as honey’s flavor–you don’t get a food source with no expiration date without a whole slew of factors working in perfect harmony.
The first comes from the chemical make-up of honey itself. Honey is, first and foremost, a sugar. Sugars are hygroscopic, a term that means they contain very little water in their natural state but can readily suck in moisture if left unsealed. As Amina Harris, executive director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the Robert Mondavi Institute at Univeristy of California, Davis explains, “Honey in its natural form is very low moisture. Very few bacteria or microorganisms can survive in an environment like that, they just die. They’re smothered by it, essentially.” What Harris points out represents an important feature of honey’s longevity: for honey to spoil, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. With such an inhospitable environment, organisms can’t survive long enough within the jar of honey to have the chance to spoil.
It was a stunning discovery: the first unlooted imperial tomb of the Wari, the ancient civilization that built South America’s earliest empire between 700 and 1000 A.D…. [Milosz] Giersz and project co-director Roberto Pimentel Nita kept their discovery secret. Digging quietly for months in one of the burial chambers, the archaeologists collected more than a thousand artifacts, including sophisticated gold and silver jewelry, bronze axes, and gold tools, along with the bodies of three Wari queens and 60 other individuals, some of whom were probably human sacrifices….
The Wari lords have long been overshadowed by the later Inca, whose achievements were extensively documented by their Spanish conquerors. But in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D., the Wari built an empire that spanned much of present-day Peru. Their Andean capital, Huari, became one of the world’s great cities. At its zenith, Huari boasted a population conservatively estimated at about 40,000 people. Paris, by comparison, had just 25,000 residents at the time.
Just how the Wari forged this empire, whether by conquest or persuasion, is a long-standing archaeological mystery….
As the archaeologists carefully removed the fill, they discovered rows of human bodies buried in a seated position and wrapped in poorly preserved textiles. Nearby, in three small side chambers, were the remains of three Wari queens and many of their prized possessions, including weaving tools made of gold. “So what were these first ladies doing at the imperial court? They were weaving cloth with gold instruments,” says Makowski.
Mourners had also interred many other treasures in the room: inlaid gold and silver ear-ornaments, silver bowls, bronze ritual axes, a rare alabaster drinking cup, knives, coca leaf containers, brilliantly painted ceramics from many parts of the Andean world, and other precious objects.
Researchers from the University of Chicago and several international institutions found that several groups of genes in humans and dogs—including those related to diet and digestion, neurological processes, and disease—have been evolving in parallel for thousands of years.
This parallel evolution was likely driven by the shared environments of humans and dogs, wrote the authors in a study published May 14 in the journalNature Communications.
"As domestication is often associated with large increases in population density and crowded living conditions, these ‘unfavorable’ environments might be the selective pressure that drove the rewiring of both species," the authors surmise…. The study authors suggest that dogs were domesticated 32,000 years ago; that’s much earlier than current estimates, which place domestication at around 15,000 to 16,000 years ago.
View from atop the Great Pyramid at Giza (via Mail Online)