Archive for August, 2007

Jurassic Arachnophobia (ca. 160,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

One of the new 160-million-year-old sea spider fossils!

In the summer of 2007, a collection of ancient sea spiders was discovered in French fossil beds around La Voulte-sur-Rhone, which has previously yielded other examples of ancient sea creatures. This trove of ancient spiders, however, now fills in a 400-million-year gap in their fossil record.

The scientific term for the sea spiders is ‘pycnogonids’, and they were found during routine work in the area. The fossils were extremely well-preserved, and the specimens are described in detail inside of a paper published online through The Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The paper talks about 70 the specimens of ancient sea spiders, divided into 3 distinct species, all uncovered in the area’s Lagerstatte, which is a type of sedimentary rock formation. During the Jurassic period – which lasted from 199.6 to 145.5 million years ago – this Lagerstatte was actually covered by water that was 200 meters deep!

Although there are plenty of modern sea spiders, their relationship to the mysterious ancient creatures has remained mostly speculative. Researchers are hoping that this large cache of fossils will help to piece together the creatures’ evolutionary history, especially considering the very distant relationship between sea spiders and “true” spiders.

The current vein of thought is that the ancient pycnogodis appear to be remarkably similar to today’s living sea spiders, even though they likely began colonizing very deep parts of the sea well before the start of the Jurassic period.

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“Volcanic Mega-Eruption? No Problem, How’ve You Been?” ca. 74,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

Ash layers from a volcanic eruption 76,000 years ago.

About 76,000 years ago, the volcano Toba – located in what is now Indonesia – erupted to create the largest and most devastating volcanic event of the past 2 million years. Almost 3,000 cubic kilometers of magma was spewed out, while sulfuric acid rained over the earth as far away as Greenland. The world became subject to a volcanic winter, and what followed was one of the most severe ice ages in documented history.

Over in India, the land was showered with 15 centimeters of volcanic ash, which can be seen today, working as a distinct age marker in the earth’s stratigraphy. And yet, contrary to all logic, archaeologists have unearthed assemblages of stone tools both above and below the ash deposit in India’s Jwalapuram Valley.

The tools look remarkably similar to those made by humans in Africa, which indicates that these tools were also human-formed – and yet, if humans were still in India after the depositing of ash (an incredible feat it itself), they would have had an extremely difficult time trying to survive. After all, the sheer magnitude of the eruption suspended both volcanic gas and sulfuric acid in the earth’s atmosphere for years, causing warm sunlight to be redirected away from Earth – and plunging the world into several centuries of temperatures that were at least 3-5 degrees C lower than normal after the event.

The Toba Caldera.

Along with the tools, a large piece of ochre was found – something that early humans used to create art, make symbols, cure animal hides, and sometimes help attach stone tool pieces to a wooden shaft. There are some archaeologists who are skeptical at the tool findings, believing that these did not come from what has been termed “modern” humans, but instead should possibly be attributed to an earlier hominid species – such as the European Neanderthals – which eventually died out.

While it is thought that humans had begun to develop the ability to make complex tools and form cohesive and sophisticated social behavior at this time, the notion that these early humans survived such a global catastrophe certainly paints a picture of the resilience and determined human instinct for survival that shows through human actions even today.

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Tomorrow: Sea Spider Fossil

Tooth Filing: Not Just for Vampires Anymore (ca. 800 – 1050 AD)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

One of the 24 Viking skeletons with deep, filed grooves on their teeth… the “why” is not yet certain.

As fierce and merciless as their reputation may have been, one thing is now clear: the Vikings took pride in their outward appearance. In fact, they were so concerned with looking good that they actually did something that might be considered strange to those who were not part Viking culture – they filed their teeth.

A study of 557 Viking skeletons revealed that 24 of the bodies’ mouths had deep, horizontal grooves across their set of upper front teeth. Although other cultures around the world were known to have practiced dental modification in ancient times, this is the first known occurrence of it on human skeletons from this part of Europe.

It is an interesting find, because Vikings have typically been known for their seafaring abilities and violent church and monastery raids in ancient Britain and France. Facial decoration simply does not seem to conform to the habits of gold and silver acquisition that the Vikings practiced – however, it is entirely likely that they picked up on the idea from another foreign culture.

Since the Vikings were expert seafarers, it is possible that they learned of dental modification after coming into contact with some West African cultures during one of their voyages across the Mediterranean, or perhaps even as far away as North America – the only other known place where horizontal tooth marks occur is in the Great Lakes region and several other adjoining American states.

The actual tooth markings appeared to cut quite deeply into the enamel, and the markings tended to happen either in pairs or sets of three. The consistency of the markings also rules out any suggestion of this occurring through natural wear or using the teeth as a tool – the depth of filing and the placement on the teeth indicate that the grooves are decorative and were probably done by a very skilled hand.

Why these Vikings chose to file their teeth remains a mystery, however the most likely explanation is that it was representative of an achievement. It could have been a way to socially identity certain individuals of marked status, and if filled in with colored pigment – which Vikings often used to color their faces or tattoo their own skin – they would have looked even more terrifying to the villagers they were raiding.

On the other hand, there is evidence that most Vikings spent time combing their hair and ironing their clothes with hot rocks – so perhaps filing one’s teeth was an expensive way of making oneself more aesthetically pleasing… a kind of Viking answer to modern plastic surgery.

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Tomorrow: Mega volcano eruption? No problem!

Ancient Olympians on the Atkins Diet (776 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007

The ancient training grounds at Olympia.]

While the modern-day Olympics have certainly changed since their inception in 776 BC, one thing has certainly remained the same: all athletes, past and present, have been concerned with their diet. An athlete’s mealtime can make or break his performance, which the ancient Greeks were well aware of. In fact, food historians are realizing that the diet of the first Olympians wasn’t that far off from what people in the 21st century would identify with the popular “Atkins” diet!

There are a wealth of Greek and Latin texts, such as The Deipnosophists – or in English, The Philosopher’s Banquet – which is a 15-volume tale of a long feast that was written around 200 AD, wherein food origins and quality are discussed at length. This tale, written by a Greek named Athenaeus, centers around a banquet where diners talk extensively about all different kinds of food and where it came from – and not only that, but each character provides the ancient literary source for their own words! Essentially, it’s an ancient document wherein the characters talk about food using quotes from other real, ancient documents.

Unfortunately, out of the 1,500 documents that were cited in the work, only 15 still survive. Still, these documents provide valuable insight into ancient Mediterranean cuisine and how it was prepared.

For most people, a regular diet would consist of items like bread, fruit, and vegetables, while fish was the primary meat source for an average citizen. But Olympians, who typically came from the upper social classes in ancient Greece, had families who could afford to feed their children heartier meats and other protein-rich foods that helped to condition and build muscle.

Ancient Olympians ate a lot of meat… too bad they didn’t have BBQs.

Although the earliest reports of Olympic diets seemed to center around eating mostly cheese and fruit, the focus was shifted toward meat somewhere along the way. Apparently, this happened after one ancient Olympic runner won multiple competitions after eating a meat-only diet – which naturally started a copycat craze. The athletes were also advised to avoid eating bread right before their competition, and to snack instead on dried figs.

The Deipnosophists also includes this intriguing tale about a wrestler named Milon of Croton, who is recorded to have attended six different Olympic games and won competitions at each one:

“Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds of meat and as many of bread, and he drank 3 pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.”

– Theodorus of Hierapolis’ “On Athletic Contests”, cited by Athenaeus.

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Tomorrow: Pointy teeth are not just for vampires.

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