Archive for September, 2007

Ancient Global Warming Stunk. No, Literally! (ca. 55,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on September, 2007

Sediments in the wetlands around Kent showed that sediment from 55 million years ago had large methane emissions that probably contributed to ancient global warming.

It seems that 55 million years ago, some ancient British bogs had a serious case of indigestion. All across the countryside, bogs were releasing large belches of methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas now known to be more powerful than carbon dioxide – and as a result, the bogs probably contributed on a large scale of a period of global warming.

How can modern wetlands reveal clues about global warming from 55 million years ago? Researchers were able to take sediment cores from deep inside several wetland areas in Kent, and measure the internal chemistry of the ancient layers. The organic compound levels that were produced by bacteria were then used to estimate the ancient levels of methane-consuming microbes that lived in the bogs.

The results of the study showed that there were significantly more methane-eating microbes in Kentish wetlands around 55 million years ago than at any other period, and for this to have happened, there must have been an awful lot of methane emissions coming from the bogs themselves. Based on what is already known about ancient climate in this area, the region probably first began to warm up, causing plant material to decay much more rapidly than usual – which, as a result, triggered the increased methane levels and “burps” from Kent’s wetlands.

If Britain’s other wetlands had a similar response to the ones studied from Kent… well, the result would have been catastrophic, with enormous amounts of methane gas being released into the atmosphere, thus causing a rapid acceleration of the global warming process.

Essentially, burping bogs were one of the main factors for a severe period of global warming… and although scientists hope that there is not a repeat of this ancient catastrophe in the future, it might not hurt to invest in a few extra bottles of Febreze, just in case…

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Tomorrow: Giant Apes.

Ancient Chilies Turned Up the Heat (ca. 600 AD)

By: The Scribe on September, 2007

Remnants of ancient chili peppers were found in cave in southern Mexico, suggesting that the region’s Zapotec people enjoyed spicy cuisine similar to today’s Mexican fare!

It appears that the ancient inhabitants of a cave in southern Mexico weren’t very good about cleaning up after themselves in the kitchen – in 1966, an archaeologist working around the Mexican town of Mitla stumbled across the remains of about 122 ancient chili peppers! The pepper pieces were distributed between two caves, and represent at least ten different varieties of chili peppers.

Analysis of the chili pepper remains showed that some of the ancient fruits had actually been kept fresh while others were dried and stored – much in the same way a person could purchase dried chili pepper flakes in a grocery store today. The likely explanation is that the inhabitants here would chop up the fresh peppers and use them for salsa or as a meal garnish, while the dried pieces were probably thrown into a sauce or stew.

If this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because it is – further investigation into the caves also revealed the ancient remains of beans, corns, and squash, all staples in the diet of modern Mexicans today! However, the evidence certainly seems to lean toward the idea that today’s Mexicans borrowed their culinary traditions from the ancient Zapotec Indians, who lived in the area between 600 and 1521 AD.

But why would anyone store their food supplies in a cave, and was anyone actually cooking there? Considering the known locations of Zapotec settlements in the area, the caves were probably used by Zapotec hunters as night shelters – if they’d gone too far from their village on a hunt to be able to return safely in the same day, they could stay in the cave, eat a meal, and rest before continuing their journey in the morning.

A Zapotec palace in Mitla, the closest city to the ancient caves where chili pepper remains were found.

There also may have been crop fields nearby, which would have made the caves very handy for temporary crop storage, before transporting them to the village. Since the caves are about 1,900 meters above sea level, this would have made them ideal for crop storage – at this elevation, the harvested crops wouldn’t be threatened by flooding.

Although it remains to be seen whether the kinds of chili peppers found here are similar to modern species or if they are remnants of now-extinct varieties, the fact remains that the culinary heritage of southern Mexico has a much richer and distinct history than anyone had previously suspected.

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Tomorrow: Stinky global warming!

Sunstroke Really IS Fatal… (ca. 10th-12th C AD)

By: The Scribe on September, 2007

Don't wander out around noon, you might get struck with madness!Whether you call her Pscipolnitsa, Poluudnica, Psezpolnica, Polednice, Polednica, Poludnitsa or – mercifully – Lady Midday, ancient Slavic mythology suggests that you really don’t want to meet this woman on a hot day. In fact, Lady Midday is a noon demon, which is just one more reason why staying indoors at the hottest part of the day is always a good idea…

According to Slavic mythology, Lady Midday (or Pscipolnitsa, ad infinitum…) had a tendency of appearing to people in the middle of hot, summer days, showing herself as either an old hag, a 12-year-old girl, or a stunningly beautiful young woman. The lady would stop people as they walked through the countryside’s fields or while they were working, and would ask them difficult questions or perhaps simply engage them in conversation… and as harmless as it sounds, she apparently had a bit of a temper. If a person failed to answer her question, or if they attempted to change the subject, well… Lady Midday would cut off their head, or alternately, strike them with madness.

Theoretically, workers could see Lady Midday as she approached, since she tended to take the form of a dust cloud before becoming corporeal – and she would often carry a scythe or a pair of large shears in her hands. According to mythology, she was also quite efficient at scaring away small children who might be up to trouble around valuable crops.

Slavic artists often pictured Lady Midday as a young woman dressed in white, roaming around the edges of crop fields – however, it is useful to keep in mind that she was only seen during the hottest part of the day… namely, she was a personification of sunstroke, and was a useful tool in teaching workers about the dangers of working through the noon heat. What better reason to take a lunch break?

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Tomorrow: Red Hot Ancient Chili Peppers

Machu Picchu’s Fashionable Tupus (1438-1534 AD)

By: The Scribe on September, 2007

An Incan bone tupu, or shawl pin, with the image of two birds on top.Though the Inca are typically remembered for their complex societies and large-scale warfare, there’s something that often gets overlooked in the history books: women’s fashion! And yet, quite often, it’s the metal accessories from clothing and adornments that last in the historical record. Certainly, they’re nice to look at, but these kinds of artifacts also explain just a little bit more about how ancient societies functioned on a day-to-day level, and what was important to them.

“Tupus”, or long shawl pins, were a staple of women’s fashion during the Incan Empire. These long pins, created out of silver, bone, copper alloy, or even bronze, were used every day by women to pin their garments together or to help close the wrappings used as burial shrouds during funerary preparations.

Many, many tupus were discovered at Machu Picchu over the years of excavation, and it seems to be that, much like modern feminine ornamentation, tupus did not conform to a standard design or size. Instead, tupus like the one pictured above had a much higher value than a plain, silver tupu that might only have a small, curved flange on the top. After all, a bone-carved shawl pin would have to be hand-made – whereas the silver pins pictured below were cast in mass quantities and would have cost far less to purchase.

These silver tupus were cast metal, and thus worth far less than the very fashionable, hand-carved bone pins!

And yet, some women seem to have thought that even a hand-carved shawl pin wasn’t enough for them, and instead decided they needed… foreign imports! The image below is an example of a tupu that has a highly unusual shape, when compared to the other pins found around Machu Picchu – not to mention that it has three openings in the middle of the pin, which were likely created during the casting process. The unusual shape, combined with the odd décor, suggests that this pin was probably made outside of the region and later imported into the area for trade!

The unusual shape of this pin suggests that it was made elsewhere and imported into the area – talk about classy foreign fashion!

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Tomorrow: Sun-stroke really IS fatal.

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