Archive for January, 2008

A Brief History of New Year’s (ca. 2000 BC – onward)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

Contrary to popular opinion, the ball dropping in Times Square hasn’t *always* marked the entrance into the New Year…

While most of the modern world could likely not conceive of the possibility of not celebrating New Year’s Day on January 1st, the reality is that celebrating the New Year in January is a relatively recent idea.

The first New Year’s celebrations were held about 4000 years ago, when the Babylonians celebrated the first new moon that appeared after the Vernal Equinox. This fell around what is now known as late March, which made logical sense to the Babylonians – it was a time when spring was just beginning and the crops could be planted, giving it an agricultural significance. The Babylonians also had a longer holiday than the modern celebrant – the New Year’s festival lasted for 11 days.

In ancient Rome, New Year’s was celebrated on March 25 – the only problem was, each emperor kept tampering with the Roman calendar and causing the sun’s synchronization with the date to shift. To get everything back in order, in 153 BC the Roman Senate declared that January 1st be known as the start of the New Year… but it didn’t last for long. More emperors meant more tampering, until Julius Caesar set the record straight at January 1st again, but in order to get the dates back in sync with the sun, Caesar allowed the year 46 BC to drag on for 445 days.

This was all well and good, until the Catholic Church decided that New Year’s festivities were pagan and evil. In order to provide an acceptable alternative – instead of trying to shut down the popular celebrations – the Church started to have its own celebrations on January 1st. This was often referred to as the celebration of the ‘Feast of the Circumcision of Christ’, which corresponded to December 25th as the Christ child’s birth date. Jewish tradition dictates that newborn males are circumcised on the 8th day after their birth, which in this case falls on January 1st.

Many people ring in the New Year with fireworks… and most governments give people a break about it, even if bylaws prohibit their use at any other time.

Similarly to today’s festivities, in 600 BC the ancient Greeks began using a baby to symbolize the New Year. The Greeks used the start of the new agricultural year to honor Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility, and parading a baby around was intended to symbolize the god’s rebirth. Although the early Church would see this practice as pagan, the popularity of the symbol resulted in the church conceding to using a baby in their own festivities – and explaining it as symbolic of the birth of baby Jesus.

With the arrival of the Middle Ages, the Church still abhorred New Year’s celebrations, and in some areas, the festivities were banned outright. It wasn’t until around 400 years ago that Western countries actually started celebrating January 1st as a holiday again.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Carnivorous Fungus Trapped in Amber (ca. 100,000,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

Inside this lump of ancient amber was a nematode worm, which was probably the prey of a carnivorous fungus found inside the amber alongside it.

Ah, for the good old days when meat-eating fungi ravaged the earth, eating tiny animals…

Actually, that’s a pretty frightening thought… which is why scientists were shocked – but also somewhat relieved – to find remnants of a carnivorous fungus trapped inside a piece of one hundred million-year-old amber.

The amber was found in a quarry in southwestern France, but the first noticeable thing about the amber was that there were a number of tiny worms trapped inside it. These worms are called ‘nematodes’, and the fungus actually trapped the worms inside of sticky loops before descending on them… and eating the worms.

Analysis of the meat-eating fungus shows that this ‘micropredator’ had developed this complex trapping and eating process about 145 million years ago, during the Cretaceous period. The fungus itself was made up of branching protrusions, also called ‘hyphae’, that had small rings around them that were coated with particles. These particles would have produced a sticky, sap-like resin that trapped their prey – in this case, the nematode worms.

Once the fungus trapped a worm inside its sticky loops, additional hyphae called ‘infestation hyphae’ would have pierced the worm and begun digesting its flesh.

The only problem with this piece of amber is that none of the worms were actually found inside the amber still trapped in the hyphae rings, leading some scientists to suggest that this trapping method is pure speculation. However, some modern trapping fungi have similar methods for capturing their prey, which is what led scientists to their conclusions.

While the carnivorous fungi cannot be assigned as relative to any of today’s modern meat-eating fungal species, it seems that trapping devices on fungus evolved independently on multiple occasions over the course of Earth’s history. Modern carnivorous fungi are known to use such trapping methods as adhesive knobs, projections, and constricting rings to catch their prey.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

Who – or What – is the Peking Man? – Part 1/3 (ca. 400,000 – 250,000 BC)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

A source of great controversy, the bones of Homo erectus pekinensus – “Peking Man” – are supposedly those of a human ancestor who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.

First discovered in 1921 during excavations at the site of Zhoukoudian near Beijing, the fossils of Homo erectus pekinensis have since been the source of controversy, speculation, and rather extensive research into human ancestry. Known more colloquially as ‘Peking Man’, the fossils have been dated to about 250,000-400,000 years ago, placing them in the Pleistocene.

The story of the fossils’ discovery begins in 1921, which was when the first surveys of the region were conducted. Locals told the men organizing the dig – the famous Swedish archaeologists Johan Gunnar Andersson and Otto Zdansky, a well known Austrian palaeontologist – that there were fossils on a hill opposite from where they were working, and figuring that locals probably knew the area better than they did, the men began a survey of the area and found two human-like teeth.

The teeth weren’t formally announced to the scientific community until a few years later, in 1926 – but the news was still potent enough to astonish the world, since up until that time, absolutely no ancient human fossils had been found in China, let alone the entire Asian world! As for which teeth they were, one was an upper molar, while the second was an unerupted lower premolar.

A Canadian anthropologist then had the opportunity to study the fossils, noting that it appeared to belong to an entirely new species of Hominidae! It was around this time that academics dubbed the molars as belonging to a “Peking Man”, though its official name is either Sinanthropus pekinensis, or more commonly, Homo erectus pekinensis. It was decided that further excavations were needed of the area, and in 1927, a second excavation was begun at Zhoukoudian.

This was the first skullcap from a Peking Man ever found, discovered in 1929 inside a cave fissure.

The results were far greater than anyone had expected. In 1928, two lower jars were unearthed, allowing for the establishment of a specific research laboratory just for these fossils. Over the next seven years, archaeologists would find more than 40 fossil specimens, including 6 almost fully intact skullcaps.

While previous “human” fossils had caused considerable argumentation and unrest in the scientific community, it seemed that the Peking Man was indisputably human. Results from examination of the fossils deduced that Homo erectus was quite different from apes in terms of physical characteristics and cranial capacity, and that the skullcaps of Peking Man indicated by their physical form that they belonged to a creature capable of creativity, cultural development, the creation of fire, and systemized hunting.

What was more, scientists argued that Peking Man stood in a position to occupy the intermediate stage of human evolution. Since then, scientists and historians have since admitted that this statement was perhaps too bold and premature, but they still consider Peking Man to occupy an important phase of human history.

In 1937, the Japanese moved into Beijing and occupied the area, forcing excavations to end. They were stored in a safe location until 1941, when they were packed up to be sent to the USA for safekeeping until the war had ended. However, as the fossils were en route to the port city of Qinghuangdao, the crate containing all the pieces mysteriously vanished…

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Tomorrow: Part 2!

Scandinavians: Skating for 5000 Years (ca. 3000 BC)

By: The Scribe on January, 2008

The earliest skates were created by Scandinavians about 5000 years ago… and were made of horse or cow bone!

The earliest form of alternate transportation for humans wasn’t the wheel after all – it was something much simpler, and much less time-consuming to build… not to mention convenient for winter! That’s right: northern Europeans invented ice skates around 3000 BC, which would have assisted humans in saving energy on their daily travels – not to mention help them move from one place to another much more quickly!

The first skates were made of animal bones in southern Finland, where the extremely high density of lakes would have resulted in a rather treacherous landscape for humans trying to cross frozen bodies of water on foot. And so, someone devised the brilliant idea of trimming down horse and cow bones, piercing them at either end, and strapping them onto one’s feet with leather thongs.

Unlike the skates known to Olympic athletes and minor hockey players today, these ancient skates actually were not used on their own, but were complemented by a long stick that was used at the same time. Skaters would strap the skates to their feet, straddle the stick, and pole themselves along the ice – think of cross-country skiing, except with only one pole and on skates instead of skis.

The thing is, skating is an awfully strange activity to have developed as a hobby – it seems like a much more practical idea to have come from humans living in the frozen lands of northern Europe, where surviving was a priority and winters were incredibly harsh. Ice skates would then allow hunters to find food with less energy expenditure, which meant that less food needed to be consumed to survive – which tends to be a bonus under extreme winter conditions.

Although experiments in reconstructing the ancient skates showed that a person would have moved quite slowly while using them – around 2.5 miles per hour – the energy expenditure in using the skates on Finland’s nearly 60,000 frozen lakes would have reduced a human’s energy requirements by around 10%.

Talk about a legacy in human history!

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard

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