Archive for August, 2007

Astyages, Last King of the Medes – Part 1/2 (ca. 585 – 550 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

The Median King Astyages stabs a lion on this gold scabbard from the British Museum.

Since almost all the information available on the last king of the Medes comes from the Greek historian Herodotus’ Histories, it is difficult to sort the truth of his writings from tales he wrote down through hearsay. Needless to say, there are some details which can be confirmed: Astyages was the son of king Cyaraxes; he reigned from 585 BC until he was dethroned in 550 BC; and he was married to Aryenis, sister of the Lydian king Croesus, through the terms of a peace treaty agreement that Cyaraxes signed after fighting the Lydians for 5 years.

It is beyond this basic introduction that Herodotus’ ‘historical account’ provides more information, though one should always take Herodotus’ writings with a grain of salt – however, that does not mean that he doesn’t have interesting stories to tell!

According to Herodotus, Astyages was a superstitious and vain king. Sometime during his rule, he had a dream about his daughter Mandane: in the dream, his daughter gave birth to a son who would grow up to destroy his empire. In fear, Astyages arranged a marriage between his daughter and the Iranian prince Cambyses I, who had a reputation for being quiet, thoughtful, and “of little power.” In his mind, a marriage between Mandane and this kind of man would never result in the birth of a child capable of seizing the throne.

Harpagus probably had a cool hat like this guy, a terracotta figure of a random Persian nobleman.

After the birth of Mandane and Cambyses’ first son, Astyages had a second dream which he interpreted as a warning against the child’s future actions. Paranoid and fearful, Astyages ordered his courtier (and fellow member of the Median royal house) Harpagus to find and kill the baby. Harpagus, although realizing that disobedience would come with grave punishment, was naturally reluctant to spill royal blood. Hoping to pass the task off to another, Harpagus gave the child to a local herdsman named Mitridates, whose own wife had just given birth to a stillborn child. Mitridates and his wife then raised the child, Cyrus II, as their own – and Harpagus presented the stillborn baby to Astyages as his daughter’s dead son.

Herodotus goes on to explain that when the boy was about 10 years old, it became clear that the child was not the son of a herdsman – his behavior was “far too noble”. Coming across the boy on a chance encounter, Astyages began to be suspicious when realized that the child looked remarkably like himself. He immediately confronted Harpagus about what he had done, and the courtier confessed. Although Astyages spared the child’s life at the advice of his Magi – and allowed Cyrus II to return to his natural parents – Harpagus was subject to a horrendous punishment: Astyages fed Harpagus his own son at a banquet.

Enraged, Harpagus waited for a chance to avenge himself and his family…

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Tomorrow: Part two of the Astyages story

A Brief and Early History of Zero (ca. 2nd C BC – onward)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Early expressions of zero: Babylon, China, India, Central America.

Though undoubtedly taken for granted today, the number (or lack thereof) known as “zero” was not always a part of the human mathematical mindset. Since zero is more of a concept than an actual number, the development of ‘true zero’ took quite some time to enter into human consciousness.

By the 2nd century BC, the ancient Babylonians had developed their own highly sophisticated mathematical theories – however, the way they expressed the lack of a positional value (ie. nothing, zero) was by leaving a space between numerals. By 300 BC, instead of leaving a space, two slanted wedges were used as ‘zero’ punctuation, while a tablet from the city of Kish shows that at least one scribe – in this case, a man named Bel-ban-aplu – wrote his zeros by making three hook marks instead of the slanted wedges.

And yet even at this early stage, the Babylonian nothingness-placeholder was not a real zero in the ‘true’ sense of the word, since it was neither used alone, nor was it ever placed at the end of a number. For example, in the Babylonian sexagesimal system of numerals, both the numbers for 2 and 120 (since it would be 2 x 60) looked the same, and could only be differentiated through context.

Elsewhere in the world, the ancient Greeks had their own notions of what constituted zero: they were unsure of its status as a number, since they didn’t see how nothing could be counted as something… naturally for the Greeks, this vein of thinking led toward philosophical and religious arguments about the nature of zero and whether ‘nothing’ could ever be thought of as ‘existing’. As a result, the thought of zero and nothingness was an immensely terrifying concept to Greek philosophers!

The familiar numeral for ‘zero’ that we all know and love… except when it comes to bank accounts.Somewhere around the 5th to 2nd centuries BC, an Indian scholar named Pingala made use of the Sanskrit word “sunya” to refer to nothing or a void, which is actually the word that finally became the word “zero” after a series of translations over time. During the 4th century in India, scholars would often use a blank piece on a counting board to physically represent zero.

Separately from these other developments, the Mayans came up with their own system of representing zero – and although it became an integral part of the Mayan mathematical system, their isolation from other cultural groups did not result in any influence on Old World numeral systems.

The first documented use of zero as a number on its own came from ca. 130 BC, when the Greek mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy began writing a small ‘o’ with a long bar overtop as a symbol for nothing. However, this form of ‘zero’ still was not used for anything but fractions. It was not until sometime between the 6th and 8th century that a symbol for zero which could be used for representing an integral part of a number appeared on copper and stone tablets in India.

Although the history of ‘zero’ as a numerical concept is much lengthier than the small portion discussed above, it is worth noting that in 628 AD, the Indian mathematician and astronomer Brahmagupta wrote his definitive work Brahmasphuta-siddhanta (translated “The Opening of the Universe”), which attempted to definite the mathematical role of zero, thus ending the debate once and for all. Of course, the nature of zero was discussed and changed long afterward, but this work sparked a new direction and is still considered a piece of highly sophisticated mathematical theory for its time.

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Tomorrow: Astyages (Try saying that three times fast!)

So Much For Diversity (300 – 1000 AD)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Genetic diversity in England has taken a toll since the time of the Vikings.

A recent study on genetics in England has revealed that ancient Britons were far more genetically diverse than those living in the country today! By studying the DNA from skeletal remains dating between 300 and 1000 AD, and comparing it to that of modern-day Brits, scientists have come to the conclusion that several deadly plagues in ancient times may have been responsible for the decline of the populace’s diversity.

Although modern England is considered to be a cultural melting pot, the 48 skeletons appeared to have even more diversity than those living in today’s continental Europe and the Middle East. However, it was after the Viking era that two severe outbreaks of bubonic plague swept across England and many parts of Europe.

The Black Death arrived and lasted from 1347 to 1351 AD, while the second outbreak that was known as the Great Plague lasted only two years, 1665-1666 AD. During the Black Death, as much as 50% of the European population is estimated to have died, with at least 1/5th of London’s population disappearing in the short span of the Great Plague.

Notably, the plagues did not affect people randomly – some people were simply resistant to the disease, while other entire villages of related families were wiped out, sometimes causing an entire genetic lineage to disappear at once. As a result, if there were many smaller populations with each type of DNA, and many died out because of these plagues, a significant number of DNA types could have easily disappeared.

Since that time hundreds of years ago, it seems that the British population has not been able to once again reach that same level of diversity. Although some scientists remain skeptical of this explanation, the results of the DNA study are undisputable – at the very least, something caused the British population’s DNA types to be significantly reduced. It certainly appears as though the ancient Britons were more tolerant of ethnic diversity than anyone had previously thought!

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Tomorrow: A brief history of zip…zero…nadda!

Ancient Korean Mummies Named “Another Romeo & Juliet”

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

One of the new South Korean ‘accidental’ mummies.

In the late 1300s, the inhabitants of what is now South Korea developed a new burial process for their loved ones – a method that, instead of allowing the body to decay naturally, in many cases resulted in an excellent natural mummification! Unfortunately, preservation of the bodies was the one thing these people did not want.

The people of the area believed that the body should decompose naturally, without the interference of outside factors – this included things like worms or other animals and parasites. In an attempt to maintain this natural decomposition, the body of the deceased would be laid on ice for 3 to 30 days during the mourning period, and then placed inside a double pine coffin, surrounded by his or her clothes. The coffin would then be covered in a mixture of lime soil.

However, instead of decaying, the bodies ended up being preserved – and, since no one expected that there might be mummies in South Korea, the mummies were not discovered until the summer of 2007, when construction work in the country began to increase, forcing the relocation of many cemeteries. In some cases, the burial practice led to an even better preservation of DNA than ancient Egyptian artificial mummification processes, since the absence of chemicals in the preservation process took less of a toll on the body!

The 500-year-old body of a child actually still holds samples of the virus responsible for hepatitis B, which could help modern scientists to determine if the virus has changed or mutated over the past 500 years – perhaps leading toward clues for treating the modern-day strain.

The most intriguing burial was that of a nobleman who seemed to have fallen out of favor with the area’s rulers. Inside the grave was a poem written by his wife, dating to around the same time as Shakespeare would have been writing his famous play, Romeo and Juliet – and oddly enough, the poem bears a striking resemblance what is found within the bard’s famous tragedy:

You always said we would be living together, to die in the same day
However, why did you go to the heaven alone?
Why did you go alone leaving me and our child behind?

I cannot live without you anymore.
I hope I could be with you.
Please let me go with you.
My love to you, it is unforgettable in this world,
And my sorrow, it is without end.

According to local records, the man was 32-years-old, and was the second son of the clan’s senior member, who was actually involved in a revolt against the country’s emperor. Although the lines from this poem were only a part of the entire document, a total of 13 letters, as well as slippers that had been woven from his wife’s hair, were found inside the coffin with his mummified body. It is unknown what happened to his wife after her husband’s death, however it is likely that she would have fled the area to avoid retribution from the Emperor and for the sake of her child.

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Tomorrow: So much for diversity…

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