Archive for June, 2013

What the Heck is a Solstice, Anyway?

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

summer solsticeSolstice is word that gets tossed around several times a year, and today marks the first day of summer for 2013—the Summer Solstice, if you will. But what does solstice actually mean, and where did this word and concept come from?

Simply put, a solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice a year, when the Sun reaches its highest or lowest point relative to “celestial equator” on the “celestial sphere.” The term itself comes from the Latin words sol (meaning ‘sun”) and sistere (meaning “to stand still”).

It was actually the ancient Greeks who were responsible for the concept of the “celestial sphere”, though they also believe that the stars rotated around the Earth over the course of a day—and that the Earth remained stationary. They thought that the stars were part of an invisible stationary surface, keeping them fixed and rotating. (This concept actually forms the basis of some modern astronomical thought, wherein the celestial sphere is acknowledged to exist, though only the stars rotate and not the sphere itself.)

Why is this important? In terms of the summer, it was through the acknowledgement of a Summer Solstice that some Greeks were able to make important and valuable contributions to science and our understanding of the Earth.

aristarchusWe know that one ancient Greek astronomer named Aristarchus observed a Summer Solstice in 280 B.C., and he was responsible for proposing the heliocentric hypothesis: the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. Sadly for Aristarchus, the idea wasn’t popular during his lifetime, and it was only when Copernicus made the same claim 1800 years later that it gained any ground.

Another ancient Greek, a mathematician and geographer named Eratosthenes, was able to calculate the circumference of the Earth after observing the sun’s shadow at the Summer Solstice’s noon in Alexandria and Syene. By knowing the geographical distance between the two cities, he calculated a circumference of about 250,000 stadia—or 24,662 miles.

The Summer Solstice has traditionally had less of an “urgent” feel about it—we’re not heading into winter, dreading the loss of the sun—but it has still contributed to scientific advancement both in ancient and modern times, and thus has an important place in human history!

America’s First Chocolate Craving

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

raw cacaoThe next time you’re craving a chocolate fix, remember—it’s only human! Humans have been yearning for the bittersweet treat for hundreds (maybe thousands?) of years… and a recent discovery at a settlement in Utah may have set the “chocolate in America” date back by 200 years!

The site, which dates back to the 8th century and is known as Alkali Ridge, contains the oldest known traces of chocolate found in the USA. Dr. Dorothy Washburn, a researcher from the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, studied residue from 18 pottery vessels taken from the site in the 1930s, and found that 13 of the vessels contained traces of cacao (more commonly known as “cocoa”).

The jars, bowls, and pitchers contained evidence of theobromine, which is a chemical compound found in chocolate (yep, that’s the one that’s safe for humans, toxic for dogs!). The only other North American plant that’s known to contain the substance is a toxic holly plan, occasionally used by Midwestern cultures to induce “ritual vomiting.”

Critics who cite that it might have been the holly in the jars are mistaken, according to Washburn. “The only conclusion can be that it’s cacao,” she says, because cacao was known to have been a staple of life in Mesoamerica—and the holly only grows in the Southeastern USA.

And as for how cacao made its way to the Southwest in Utah? Well, that’s another mystery. It’s possible that it arrived through trade routes… or, even more likely, through the movement of people from one place to another.

1200 year old bowl with traces of cacaoDuring this period, it’s possible that people living in Mesoamerica were making their way up to the American Southwest, using trade routes to migrate and find new places to live. Today, it’s not unusual for people to do that same thing—immigrate from Central America to the Southwestern United States. Maybe they just arrived earlier than we’d thought!

The pottery that the traces of cacao were found in is another clue as to what the plant was doing in Utah—the pottery isn’t at all like what was the typical local pottery of the time, indicating that different people were living alongside the Pueblo culture of the area and continuing to create their own traditional pottery and pot designs.

During the 8th century, Mesoamerica was in the midst of an upheaval—by the year 900 A.D., many Mayan city states had collapsed, and people were on the move… and Washburn believes some of them ended up at this little site in Utah.

(More research on this find has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.)

Life is an (Ancient) Highway

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

The next time you’re stuck in gridlock on the highway, spending hours in traffic to get to your destination, remember… the ancient Persians had it better than you. Despite the enormity of the Persian Empire in 5th-century BC, the Persian Royal Road was built for speed and efficiency. And it actually worked!

The Persian Royal Road was a reconstruction and rebuilding of an existing ancient highway by Darius I (also known as “Darius the Great”), king of the Achaemenid Empire from 522 BC to 486 BC. The intent behind constructing the road was so that rapid communication between corners of the vast empire—from Susa to Sardis—could be facilitated as effectively as possible.

top road is Persian highway

Moving along the road, couriers on horseback were able to travel 2699 kilometers in just seven days (1677 miles)! Even the famous Greek historian Herodotus was impressed by this feat, writing that “there is nothing in the world that travels faster than these Persian couriers.”

Through archaeological research, historical records, and Herodotus’ writings, most of the ancient highway’s route has been reconstructed, and it’s thought that there would have been many outposts—also known as caravanserai—along the route, where travelers could rest and refresh during their journey.

And the couriers definitely needed places to rest, because the road didn’t always follow the easiest route between cities! Rather, there were sections of road that Darius I reconstructed which likely had been built by Assyrian kings, since it heads through the heart of their empire—and like today’s road construction projects, it’s often easier to just fix a road than try to build a brand new one.

darius_the_greatThat said, Darius I’s reconstruction efforts were so good that the road continued to be in use until the Roman period, whereupon the Romans made some improvements of their own. The Romans used improved paving technology—ie. a hard-packed gravel surface held within stone cubing—and new posting stations to ensure travelers had access to fresh horses, particularly when messengers had to travel with an urgent message from one side of the empire to the other.

The most famous feature about the Persian Royal Road actually comes from Herodotus’ writings… a quotation about the Persian messengers and their travel speed along the reconstructed highway:


“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

And you thought he was talking about your mailman! Come on… 2699 kilometers in seven days? Next time your mail arrives late, tell that mailman he has no excuse!

Ancient Fossil Fish’s Ab Ripper Routine

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

Hey, you… yeah, you over there on the couch! What was it you said this morning? You were “too tired” to exercise? Or you “didn’t have enough time”? Or “it hurts”?

fish with absCome on. Seriously. You have no excuses anymore, and you know why? Apparently, paleontologists have discovered the remains of an ancient fossil fish that shows shocking signs of—get this—ripped abdominal muscles.

Look, if a fish from 380 million years ago could do it? You can too.

Nobody wants to get shown up by a fish.

But seriously, it was previously thought that only land animals developed abdominal muscles, but Gogo fish fossils found in the Kimberly region of Western Australia are causing scientists to question what they previously knew about muscle development in ancient creatures.

Did the abs found in the ancient fish serve the same function as they did in land mammals? It’s hard to say. It’s also strange because for fish, “their main mode of propulsion is of course to flap their tails to left and right so all the muscles are sitting on the side of the body",” says Gavin Young (of Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences).

A study on these ripped fish was published in Science, which mapped the musculature of the ancient fish for the very first time—and this was only possible because researchers discovered that some of the specimens still had preserved elements of soft tissue!

The fossil fish are considered Placoderms, which have often been compared with sharks, but not even sharks have abs. These fish had armored plating along their bodies, and are the earliest-known jawed vertebrates.

An associate professor at Curtin University explains why abs on ancient fish is so ludicrous—and remarkable: “Abdominal muscles were thought to be an invention of animals that first walked on land but this discovery shows that these muscles appeared much earlier in our evolutionary history.”

Despite the bizarre nature of abs on fish, any fitness buff will tell you—it’s probably because they didn’t eat carbs.

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