Archive for June, 2013

So They Found This Primordial Water, Eh?

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

Deep in the Canadian North… in a frigid town called Timmins, where even polar bears fear to tread… there’s been–

Editor: Wait, wait. Hold up. What do you mean, “deep in the Canadian North?” You mean Timmins, Ontario, home of Canadian country pop sensation Shania Twain?

mine waterUmm… yes.

Editor: That’s what I thought. Please continue.

Right. Ahem.

So, as we were saying, in a small town in northeastern Ontario where it’s not quite as cold as some people would like to believe (you have to go much further north for that), a team from the University of Toronto made a rather incredible discovery.

Inside boreholes in the Timmins Mine, about 2.4 kilometers below ground level, the team collected samples of ancient water that is estimated to be between 1.1 and 2.6 billion years old.

Yes, that’s as old as the rocks in the mine! When the surrounding rocks formed, that depth of 2.4 kilometers down? Would have been ocean floor. That means folks who walk around in the Timmins Mine in those boreholes are walking on 2.6 billion-year-old seafloor.

The team who collected the samples found that the water contained rich amounts of dissolved gases, such as methane and hydrogen. These gases can provide energy for microbes that tend to be found around hydrothermal deep-ocean vents.

Barbara Sherwood Lollard, an Earth Scientist and co-author of the water study, says that a find like this “shows us that there’s been very little mixing between this water and the surface water; what we want to do … is see if we can narrow that [age range] down.”

By measuring the concentrations of other rare gases in the water—neon, helium, argon, and xenon—the team was able to make its estimation of the water’s age, ie. how long it had been trapped underground, and whether it had interacted with any other water or if it remained isolated all that time.

billion-year-old mine waterThe next step to this find is in testing the water for microbes—yes, living microbes that might be billions of years old! Some ancient microbes can survive for that long without access to sunlight, and can reveal new information about the development of life on Earth.

This ancient water provides the necessary evidence to prove that pockets of water can exist in isolation under the Earth’s crust for billions of years—and may have implications for the possibility of life on other planets!

Geochemist Steven Shirey has weighed in with his thoughts on the study, saying that “if you think that you can have microbial life throughout the entire crust of the Earth, then all of a sudden it becomes very possible that life could live on other planets under the right condition.”

Considering that there’s known to be warm rock under the cold surface of Mars, it’s possible that water may still exist… and perhaps some ancient Martian microbes?

(Editor: Hmm… The Ancient Standard: Mars Edition… that sounds pretty good…!)

Happy Hour Came Early in Ancient France

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

french wine 2It’s no secret that the French love their wine… but when did they begin this devotion-esque relationship with the vine? Recent chemical analysis of an ancient wine press from southern France has revealed that wine was produced quite a bit earlier than previously believed.

A team from the University of Pennsylvania, led by biomolecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern, investigated artefacts from the ancient French coastal town of Lattara. Lattara is one of the best-preserved Iron Age sites in the country—and using modern scientific technology (mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy), researchers were able to analyse the residue left behind in ancient Etruscan and Massaliote amphorae.

The amphorae were discovered in the town’s merchant quarters—not a surprise, considering that around 600 B.C., the Etruscans were trading wine across the coastal French Mediterranean… while the Greeks (who also loved themselves a serving of wine or six) had an established colony at what is present-day Marseilles, France (then called Massalia).

The analysis of the amphorae confirmed that they’d once held wine, due to the presence of 2,500-year-old tartaric acid (this acid is naturally occurring in grapes). There were also chemical “fingerprints” of pine resin, rosemary, and basil—things thought to have either been added for flavoring, preservation during transport, or perhaps to boost medicinal properties.

MICHEL PY, L'UNITÉ DE FOUILLES ET DE RECHERCHES ARCHÉOLOGIQUES DE LATTESNot too far from where the amphorae were found, archaeologists also found a limestone pressing platform with tartaric acid residue, as well as grape skins and seeds scattered around. According to McGovern, “the combination of botanical and chemical evidence makes a pretty tight argument” for wine production at the southern French town of Lattara during the 5th-century.

A full study on these findings has just been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Take Me Out to the (Mesoamerican) Ball Game…

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

ball playerIt’s well-known by historians that many pre-Columbian societies enjoyed playing ball games, though the details of these games remain scarce. At the site of Piedra Labrada, where archaeologists have discovered 50 buildings, five ball courts have also been revealed—along with over 20 sculptures.

And until now, those sculptures of anthropomorphic figures, snails, and snake heads, were fairly standard subject matter for this sort of site. Mesoamericans often painted their sculptures in red and ritually “killed” them as offerings in year-end rituals—meaning they broke the statues into pieces and buried them.

But at Piedra Labrada, archaeologists discovered something unusual… a 5 foot, 4 inches tall granite statue of a pre-Columbian ball player! That said, the statue was discovered decapitated—but that’s not too strange, considering the ritual use of some statues (as previously mentioned).

Archaeologists identified what the statue was supposed to be by its attributes—the head has a carved helmet, and the figure is wearing a yugo around the waist. A yugo is like a belt, but much stronger, in order to protect the mid-section of the body during ball games.

One of the figure’s wrists also has a what’s being called a protective yoke, which matches with the few details of pre-Columbian ball games that we do know. In some games, players used a heavy rubber ball that would be thrown from one side of the ball court to the other—and sometimes, the ball could only be hit with the wrist!

The statue was found in the largest of Piedra Labrada’s ball courts; the court platform is shaped like an “I”, running about 131 feet long.

Initial study of the Mesoamerican statue has archaeologists speculating that it might have been carved around 600 A.D. by the Mixtec, an indigenous people of the area. Plenty of additional study will be needed, but that’s no surprise—archaeologists are really just getting started on their understanding and investigation into the city’s history, having only begun work here about a year ago.

That Chris Columbus… Always Late to the Party…

By: The Scribe on June, 2013

phoenician.boatEveryone has that friend… you know who it is… the one who shows up late, but gets really excited about arriving and expects everyone else to get excited too? Well, it may be that Christopher Columbus was one of those friends.

Except with, you know, arriving on “newly discovered lands” and all that.

Christopher Columbus has long been known for being the “discoverer of the New World”, crossing the vast waters between Spain and the Caribbean in 1492—and of course, finally setting foot in America. Which he thought was India. Chris was definitely a special guy.

But here’s the thing—a British adventurer, a former Royal Navy officer named Philip Beale, believes that Columbus may not have been the first to set foot in the Americas. His theory is that the Phoenicians actually reached the New World a staggering 2,000 years before Columbus even knew what a boat was!

Beale said, “of all the ancient civilizations, they were the greatest seafarers—Lebanon had cedar trees perfect for building strong boats, they were the first to use iron nails, and they had knowledge of astronomy and currents.”

The theory is based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa in 600 B.C.

And whether this theory is true or not, it is known definitively that Columbus wasn’t the first man on the scene—Viking settlements in Newfoundland place the New World’s discovery at least at 900 A.D. That makes Chris the second arrival at best… but possibly the third.

Will it ever be known for sure whether the Phoenicians made it to the Americas? Probably not. A number of artifacts that were thought to be of Phoenician origin, discovered on American soil, turned out to be forgeries.

Still, the incredible sailing abilities of the Phoenicians make it worth considering… did they discover America?

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