Saturday, March 22, 2014

The digital unwrapping of the Egyptian priest Neswaiu

In the 19th century and even later, there was no shortage of people eager to watch the unwrapping of an Egyptian mummy.
In 1908 in Manchester, some 500 people gathered in a lecture theatre to see prominent Egyptologist Margaret Murray supervise the unwrapping of a body from the Tomb of the Two Brothers from Manchester Museum's mummy collection.
As Egyptology and archaeology evolved, the destructive practise came to an end, but it didn't mean researchers and the public were any less curious about what lies within a mummy.
Now 21st Century technology is being used to virtually unwrap mummies without causing any damage to the body and wrappings.
Museums around the world, including the very same Manchester Museum, have been sending their mummies to hospitals to undergo computed tomography (CT) scanning, creating density maps of their insides for researchers to analyse.
And now comes a chance for the public to digitally unwrap a mummified body themselves.
Stockholm's Medelhavsmuseet, the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities, has been working with the research group Interactive Institute Swedish ICT to digitally scan their eight human mummies as part of preparations for a new permanent exhibition.
The results for one of their mummies, the Egyptian priest Neswaiu, are now on show in the form of a digital autopsy table in an "embalmment room" beside his real mummified remains and coffins.
Egyptologist Margaret Murray, front centre, supervised an unwrapping in front of an audience of 500 people in Manchester in 1908
Using the table, visitors can virtually open the two coffins and then unpeel each layer of the mummy from his highly decorated cartonnage (the mummy's outer layer) down to his skeleton. They can also cut a cross-section through the multiple layers of the coffins and body.
Sofia Häggman, museum curator, told the BBC she wanted users to be able to "see this information first hand" and not always have to count on researchers explaining what can be found on this mummy.
"Now you can simply unwrap it virtually yourself," she said.
The autopsy table uses software called Inside Explorer developed by the Interactive Institute Swedish ICT.
The group first developed the platform for use in hospitals and by medical students but they've since gone on to work with the British Museum on a virtual autopsy table for the museum's Gebelein Man, a naturally mummified Egyptian man some 5,500 years old.
They've also worked with London's Natural History Museum, the Smithsonian in Washington and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
The Interactive Institute Swedish ICT say the Neswaiu project represents their most advanced work yet, combining data from both CT scanning and photogrammetry, by which 2D pictures of the coffins and mummy were taken from multiple angles to build an accurate 3D surface model using Autodesk's Recap Photo software.
"CT scanning gives you information about the interior of the mummy but it doesn't give you any colour or surface information," the research institute's Thomas Rydell told the BBC.
"So we continued the process by doing laser scanning and photogrammetry and that process gave us information about the surface and textures and colours of the mummy and then we're taking all that data and putting it on the table and making it accessible for museum visitors."
Neswaiu's coffins and mummy were photographed from multiple angles and the results used to generate a 3D surface map
Visitors can strip Neswaiu down to the tissue and bones and reveal the array of amulets which were placed on the body
Visitors can also cut through the coffins and mummy in cross-section
Neswaiu lived in the third century BC at the temple of the god Montu in Thebes - modern-day Luxor. His remains were gifted to the Medelhavsmuseet in 1928 when it first opened.
"We know that his mother's name was Takerheb and we also know that he belonged to the upper classes of Egyptian society because he could afford an expensive mummification. Not everybody could," said Sofia Häggman.
"He also has a gilded cartonnage, he has two coffins and he has a lot of amulets on his mummy, small pieces of jewellery that would aid him into eternal life."
Researchers have tried to see what was inside his mummy before. His stomach was opened in 1962 and a tissue sample removed and X-rays have also been taken previously. But the digital autopsy has added much more detail to their understanding.
"He was healthy, pretty muscular apparently. He lived until he was 50 or 60 years old which was comparatively old in ancient Egypt and he might have died from an infection in one of his teeth which affected the bone and could have caused blood poisoning," said Ms Häggman.
The scanning process has also given them further insight into the mummification process.
"You can see the cut where the internal organs were taken out. You can see the wrapped packages of intestines, of the lungs and the liver they put back inside the body and you can see how the cut was then resealed and they put an amulet in the shape of the embalmer's two fingers across the cut to protect it."
Scanning also pinpointed in three dimensions where 120 amulets found on his body were placed, including a falcon-shaped one. The data was used to 3D print a mould and then cast an exact replica of the falcon while leaving the original undisturbed on the mummy.
What Neswaiu doesn't have any more is a brain - that was not preserved. Humans, the Egyptians believed, thought with their hearts.
Source: BBC News

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth?

Strong and brave, the Amazons were a force to be reckoned with in Greek mythology—but did the fierce female warriors really exist?

Watching the “Wonder Woman” TV series when I was a girl. I never wanted to dress like her—the idea of wearing a gold lamé bustier and star-spangled blue underwear all day seemed problematic—but the Amazonian princess was strong and resourceful, with a rope trick for every problem. She seemed to be speaking directly to me, urging, “Go find your own inner Amazonian.” When I read the news that Wonder Woman was going to be resurrected for a blockbuster movie in 2016, Batman vs. Superman, it made me excited—and anxious. Would the producers give her a role as fierce as her origins—and maybe some shoulder straps—or would she just be cartoon eye candy?

The fact that she isn’t even getting billing in the title makes me suspicious. It wouldn’t have pleased Wonder Woman’s creator either. “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” declared the psychologist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston, offering a proto-feminist vision that undoubtedly sounded quite radical in 1943. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Not wanting to be girls, they don’t want to be tender, submissive, peace-loving as good women are.”
Over the years, the writers at DC Comics softened Wonder Woman’s powers in ways that would have infuriated Marston. During the 1960s, she was hardly wondrous at all, less a heroic warrior than the tomboyish girl next-door. It was no longer clear whether she was meant to empower the girls or captivate the boys. But the core brand was still strong enough for Gloria Steinem to put her on the cover of the first newsstand issue of Ms. magazine in 1972—with the slogan “Wonder Woman for President.”
The creators of Wonder Woman had no interest in proving an actual link to the past. In some parts of the academic world, however, the historical existence of the Amazons, or any matriarchal society, has long been a raging issue. The origins of the debate can be traced back to a Swiss law professor and classical scholar named Johann Jakob Bachofen. In 1861 Bachofen published his radical thesis that the Amazons were not a myth but a fact. In his view, humanity started out under the rule of womankind and only switched to patriarchy at the dawn of civilization. Despite his admiration for the earth-mother women/priestesses who once held sway, Bachofen believed that the domination of men was a necessary step toward progress. Women “only know of the physical life,” he wrote. “The triumph of patriarchy brings with it the liberation of the spirit from the manifestations of nature.”
It comes as no surprise that the composer Richard Wagner was enthralled by Bachofen’s writings. Brünnhilde and her fellow Valkyries could be easily mistaken for flying Amazons. But Bachofen’s influence went far beyond the Ring Cycle. Starting with Friedrich Engels, Bachofen inspired generations of Marxist and feminist theorists to write wistfully of a pre-patriarchal age when the evils of class, property and war were unknown. As Engels memorably put it: “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”
There was, however, one major problem with the Bachofen-inspired theory of matriarchy: There was not a shred of physical evidence to support it. In the 20th century, one school of thought claimed that the real Amazons were probably beardless “bow-toting Mongoloids” mistaken for women by the Greeks. Another insisted that they were simply a propaganda tool used by the Athenians during times of political stress. The only theorists who remained relatively unfazed by the debates swirling through academia were the Freudians, for whom the idea of the Amazons was far more interesting in the abstract than in a pottery fragment or arrowhead. The Amazonian myths appeared to hold the key to the innermost neuroses of the Athenian male. All those women sitting astride their horses, for example—surely the animal was nothing but a phallus substitute. As for their violent death in tale after tale, this was obviously an expression of unresolved sexual conflict.
Myth or fact, symbol or neurosis, none of the theories adequately explained the origins of the Amazons. If these warrior women were a figment of Greek imagination, there still remained the unanswered question of who or what had been the inspiration for such an elaborate fiction. Their very name was a puzzle that mystified the ancient Greeks. They searched for clues to its origins by analyzing the etymology of Amazones, the Greek for Amazon. The most popular explanation claimed that Amazones was a derivation of a, “without,” and mazos, “breasts”; another explanation suggested ama-zoosai, meaning “living together,” or possibly ama-zoonais, “with girdles.” The idea that Amazons cut or cauterized their right breasts in order to have better bow control offered a kind of savage plausibility that appealed to the Greeks.
The eighth-century B.C. poet Homer was the first to mention the existence of the Amazons. In the Iliad—which is set 500 years earlier, during the Bronze or Heroic Age—Homer referred to them somewhat cursorily as Amazons antianeirai, an ambiguous term that has resulted in many different translations, from “antagonistic to men” to “the equal of men.” In any case, these women were considered worthy enough opponents for Homer’s male characters to be able to boast of killing them—without looking like cowardly bullies.
Future generations of poets went further and gave the Amazons a fighting role in the fall of Troy—on the side of the Trojans. Arktinos of Miletus added a doomed romance, describing how the Greek Achilles killed the Amazonian queen Penthesilea in hand-to-hand combat, only to fall instantly in love with her as her helmet slipped to reveal the beautiful face beneath. From then on, the Amazons played an indispensable role in the foundation legends of Athens. Hercules, for example, last of the mortals to become a god, fulfills his ninth labor by taking the magic girdle from the Amazon queen Hippolyta.
By the mid-sixth century B.C., the foundation of Athens and the defeat of the Amazons had become inextricably linked, as had the notion of democracy and the subjugation of women. The Hercules versus the Amazons myth was adapted to include Theseus, whom the Athenians venerated as the unifier of ancient Greece. In the new version, the Amazons came storming after Theseus and attacked the city in a battle known as the Attic War. It was apparently a close-run thing. According to the first century A.D. Greek historian Plutarch, the Amazons “were no trivial nor womanish enterprise for Theseus. For they would not have pitched their camp within the city, nor fought hand-to-hand battles in the neighborhood of the Pynx and the Museum, had they not mastered the surrounding country and approached the city with impunity.” As ever, though, Athenian bravery saved the day.
The first pictorial representations of Greek heroes fighting scantily clad Amazons began to appear on ceramics around the sixth century B.C. The idea quickly caught on and soon “amazonomachy,” as the motif is called (meaning Amazon battle), could be found everywhere: on jewelry, friezes, household items and, of course, pottery. It became a ubiquitous trope in Greek culture, just like vampires are today, perfectly blending the allure of sex with the frisson of danger. The one substantial difference between the depictions of Amazons in art and in poetry was the breasts. Greek artists balked at presenting anything less than physical perfection.
The more important the Amazons became to Athenian national identity, the more the Greeks searched for evidence of their vanquished foe. The fifth century B.C. historian Herodotus did his best to fill in the missing gaps. The “father of history,” as he is known, located the Amazonian capital as Themiscyra, a fortified city on the banks of the Thermodon River near the coast of the Black Sea in what is now northern Turkey. The women divided their time between pillaging expeditions as far afield as Persia and, closer to home, founding such famous towns as Smyrna, Ephesus, Sinope and Paphos. Procreation was confined to an annual event with a neighboring tribe. Baby boys were sent back to their fathers, while the girls were trained to become warriors. An encounter with the Greeks at the Battle of Thermodon ended this idyllic existence. Three shiploads of captured Amazons ran aground near Scythia, on the southern coast of the Black Sea. At first, the Amazons and the Scythians were braced to fight each other. But love indeed conquered all and the two groups eventually intermarried. Their descendants became nomads, trekking northeast into the steppes where they founded a new race of Scythians called the Sauromatians. “The women of the Sauromatae have continued from that day to the present,” wrote Herodotus, “to observe their ancient customs, frequently hunting on horseback with their war taking the field and wearing the very same dress as the men....Their marriage law lays it down, that no girl shall wed until she has killed a man in battle.”
The trail of the Amazons nearly went cold after Herodotus. Until, that is, the early 1990s when a joint U.S.-Russian team of archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery while excavating 2,000-year-old burial mounds—known as kurgans—outside Pokrovka, a remote Russian outpost in the southern Ural Steppes near the Kazakhstan border. There, they found over 150 graves belonging to the Sauromatians and their descendants, the Sarmatians. Among the burials of “ordinary women,” the researchers uncovered evidence of women who were anything but ordinary. There were graves of warrior women who had been buried with their weapons. One young female, bowlegged from constant riding, lay with an iron dagger on her left side and a quiver containing 40 bronze-tipped arrows on her right. The skeleton of another female still had a bent arrowhead embedded in the cavity. Nor was it merely the presence of wounds and daggers that amazed the archaeologists. On average, the weapon-bearing females measured 5 feet 6 inches, making them preternaturally tall for their time.
Finally, here was evidence of the women warriors that could have inspired the Amazon myths. In recent years, a combination of new archaeological finds and a reappraisal of older discoveries has confirmed that Pokrovka was no anomaly. Though clearly not a matriarchal society, the ancient nomadic peoples of the steppes lived within a social order that was far more flexible and fluid than the polis of their Athenian contemporaries.
To the Greeks, the Scythian women must have seemed like incredible aberrations, ghastly even. To us, their graves provide an insight into the lives of the world beyond the Adriatic. Strong, resourceful and brave, these warrior women offer another reason for girls “to want to be girls” without the need of a mythical Wonder Woman.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Russian scientists: We have a "high chance" of cloning a wooly mammoth

An exquisitely preserved wooly mammoth is currently undergoing an autopsy in Siberia. Some experts believe they'll be able to extract high quality DNA and cells from the remains which could conceivably be used to clone the extinct mammal. The question now is, should we?

Back in May of last year, Russian scientists discovered the remains of the mammoth partially embedded in a chunk of ice at an excavation site on Lyakhovsky Island, the southernmost group of the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic seas of northeastern Russia.
Russian scientists: We have a "high chance" of cloning a wooly mammothThe samples were so amazingly well-preserved that fresh flowing blood was found within muscle tissue. Now, some 10 months later, an international team of biologists are conducting a thorough autopsy in Yakutsk, capital of the Sakha Republic (also called Yakutia). The team is comprised of scientists from Russia, the UK, the USA, Denmark, South Korea, and Moldova.

An Incredible Find

As reported by the Siberian Times, the scientists have dissected the mammoth, revealing 43,000-year-old soft tissue that's better preserved than those of a human buried for six months.
Russian scientists: We have a "high chance" of cloning a wooly mammothSEXPAND
Viktoria Egorova, chief of the Research and Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory of the Medical Clinic of North-Eastern Federal University, told Siberian Times that:
The tissue cut clearly shows blood vessels with strong walls. Inside the vessels there is haemolysed blood, where for the first time we have found erythrocytes. Muscle and adipose tissues are well preserved. We have also obtained very well visualised migrating cells of the lymphoid tissue, which is another great discovery. The upper part of the carcass has been eaten by animals, yet the lower part with the legs and, astonishingly, the trunk are very well preserved.
We also have the mammoth's liver — very well preserved, too, and looks like with some solid fragments inside it. We haven't managed to study them yet, but the first suggestion is that possibly these are kidney stones. Another discovery was intestines with remains of the vegetation the mammoth ate before its death, and a multi-chambered stomach what we've been working with today, collecting tissue samples. There is a lot more material that will have to go through laboratory research.
A full report is expected in several months.
Russian scientists: We have a "high chance" of cloning a wooly mammothSEXPAND
Radik Khayrullin, the vice-president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, was quoted as saying "The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth," adding that "we must have a reason to do this, as it is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity."

How to Clone a Mammoth

Despite the optimistic words, the scientists have yet to uncover the most critical element to cloning: actual living cells. If they can find some — and that's still a big if at this point — they'd have to inscribe them with the mammoth's genome. And indeed, the biologists are currently searching for the least damaged snippets of DNA, and most especially nuclear DNA, to create a "working" wooly mammoth genome.
Assuming both these elements can be found, molecular biologists could begin the arduous task of of trying to culture germ cells from a wooly mammoth. Once this is done, they would begin to manipulate the genetic code in a kind of "cut-and-paste" process, replacing segments of elephant DNA with synthesized segments of wooly mammoth DNA until the cell's genome matches the working mammoth genome. They'd likely use George Church's MAGE (Multiplex Automated Genome Engineering) technique to do it. This would likely be a protracted process given that the evolutionary path of wooly mammoths and elephants diverged a long time ago.
Following that, the next step would involve a relatively well-established process. Scientists would splice these living cells into an elephant embryo, thus creating a chimera. A female elephant would be implanted with the resulting embryo, eventually giving birth to a veritable wooly mammoth.
It's worth noting that failure to find a living cell would not necessarily be a deal breaker. Eventually, biotechnologists may be able to create such cells from artificial DNA — but that could be decades off.

Sure, But Should We Do It?

This is not an easy question to answer as there are many factors to consider.
There's no doubt that the scientific insights gleaned from such a project would be tremendous. It's already offering scientists the opportunity to completely decode the DNA of the mammoth and decipher its DNA, which packs a lot of information.
Assuming we could clone a wooly mammoth (or any extinct animal for that matter), the process would not only help us refine our cloning and reproductive technologies, it would offer us an unprecedented glimpse into the finer workings of an animal that's been extinct for 10,000 years — both from a genomic and morphological perspective. We would be able to study a living, breathing wooly mammoth. Scientists could study how it develops and how its behavior might differ from that of extant elephants.
That said, a cloned wooly mammoth would (1) not be "socialized" in the same way its ancestors were, and (2) it would not physically (and even epigenetically) develop the same way it ancestors did given its likely environment — a laboratory setting.
As for the whole de-extinction idea, I'm quite skeptical. Most, if not all extinct animals, are gone for a reason. Many predators have been hunted to extinction, a problem still faced by today's dwindling number of large carnivores. But in most cases, now-extinct animals were victims of habitat loss — a severe problem that's confronting many of today's extant animals. Given that wooly mammoths were ice age creatures, would there even be a natural home for them in this era of global warming?
Source: io9 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

How Elephant Armies Built the Ancient World

Without elephants, the ancient Library of Alexandria might not have existed. Every war has, as a byproduct, cultural and technological innovation: in our world, the US Civil War led to medical advancements and the Cold War put us in space. In the classical era, it was the race to build elephant armies that changed the world.
By 275 BCE, Alexandria was the largest, most beautiful city in the world. Its buildings were made of limestone and marble, imported from places worlds away. Its relatively temperate climate meant that flowers were almost always in bloom, impressing foreigners both from warmer and cooler climes. Scholars from around the world came to study and work at the Museum and Library. Life in the city was good.
But it wasn't always that way.
Just seven years earlier, when Ptolemy Philadelphos (second of the rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty) took the throne, Alexandria was but another city on the Mediterranean. In less than one hundred years, it went from a small seaside town founded by Alexander the Great to the city you learned about in your high school world history classes, with its famous lighthouse and library. All because of elephants.

Animal War Machines

Alexander the Great first came across the impressive creatures while invading the Persian Empire. It was 331 BCE, at what is now called the Battle of Gaugamela, where Darius, king of Persia, faced down the invaders with a phalanx of fifteen elephants. In the book The Medici Giraffe, historian Marina Belozerskaya writes, "[f]lapping their ears, trumpeting, and stomping the ground with their treelike feet, the giant beasts were terrifying to the uninitiated. They threw soldiers and horses into panic, trampled them underfoot, and wreaked havoc on the battlefield." While Alexander won the battle, his interaction with those magnificent creatures would forever change him. He realized the tactical value that elephant warriors held, and began to assemble his own elephantine army, starting with the defeated Darius's fifteen animals.
Some five years later, Alexander's army found itself in India readying for battle with Porus, king of India's western region, and his one hundred elephants, their tusks adorned with body-piercing metal tips. Porus had turned elephants into battering rams and attached lances to their faces. It is no wonder that Belozerskaya describes the trumpeting of Porus's elephantine army as "blood-chilling." As before, Alexander eventually prevailed, but only barely. His army gave up after their deadly encounter with the ivory-bearing war-machines. With an army unwilling to fight, Alexander was forced to retreat. He died soon thereafter.
Elephants themselves didn't guarantee triumph, as Alexander had himself proved. "Superior strategy and command proved more decisive," writes Belozerskaya. Still, the appearance of power was important. Indeed, Alexander never managed to turn his two hundred elephants into a functional faction of his army. His campaign was so fast moving that he couldn't train the animals he rapidly acquired, all Asian elephants, Elephas maximus, originating from India. Instead, the elephants were mainly used for transporting equipment, and to stand before his throne room as a symbol of power.
Upon his death, Alexander's generals carved up the empire, splitting it amongst themselves. Seleukos took northern Syria, most of Asia Minor, Persia, and Mesopotamia. He also got most of the elephants. Since he controlled the route to India, from whence all war elephants came, he could prevent his enemies from amassing their own elephant armies. He got an additional 500 elephants in exchange for returning some land to Indian rulers. It was not long before he became known as "Master of the Elephants," creatures which soon adorned the coins minted in his kingdom, stamped opposite his own portrait.
Thanks to Alexander, and to Seleukos, the military-minded began to gauge their enemies' strength, as well as their own, by the number of elephants they commanded. It was an ancient, escalating arms race, with elephants used more for threat than as actual tools of war.
It was a problem for Ptolemy. After Alexander's death, Ptolemy gained control of Egypt, and he quickly added Cyprus and part of Libya to his kingdom. Both he and Seleukos claimed southern Syria for themselves, which was the final stop on trade routes from the Far East, and a source of precious gems, spices, and more. It was also home to the famous cedars of Lebanon, wood that was preferred for building ships and temples because it grew so straight. But Seleukos's deal with the Indians prevented Ptolemy from acquiring more elephants than he already had. In this ancient arms race, Ptolemy found himself at a loss. He was a clever strategist, though, and managed to retain his territory long enough to pass it on to his son, Ptolemy Philadelphos.

Elephants for an Empire

When Philadelphos became king, southern Syria was still disputed, claimed also by Antiochos, son of Seleukos. Like his father, Antiochos retained a monopoly on Asian elephants. Like his father, Philadelphos's army suffered a lack of the animal war machines. But Philadelphos was highly educated, and having become familiar with the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, he knew of there were supposed to be other elephants, farther south in Africa.
Philadelphos's explorers eventually discovered African elephants, Loxodonta africana, along with a group of local Africans who knew how to capture and tame them, in the kingdom of Meroe.
Meroe, in modern-day Sudan, was the transfer point along the trade routes that connected Africa and Arabia, meaning that salt, copper, iron, gold, wood, ivory, and valuable wildlife all came through the city. An agreement with Eramenes, king of Meroe, would prove useful to Philadelphos, and not just for elephants, but for access to those trade routes. For his part, Eramenes wanted access to trade with the Mediterranean. The two men, both shrewd leaders, struck a deal.
It was impossible to transport the elephants up the Nile, so Philadelphos decided that they'd return by way of the Red Sea. But the sea is shallow and rocky, and elephants are heavy. Shipwrecks were common. Philadelphos hired naval engineers to invent special sailboats calledelephantagoi, meaning "elephant drivers," that could get the job done.
Those that survived the 8-day voyage without sinking would land at Berenike, a port city that Philadelphos built to facilitate his elephant transfer. Along with elephants, the port also received ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn, spices, frankincense, myrrh, and human slaves. It was also the place where Indian trading partners sent their wares by sea: diamonds, sapphires, pearls, turquoise, cotton, silk, sugar, and pepper. And ointments, perfumes, and cosmetics. Antiochos may have retained control over the terrestrial trade routes with India, but suddenly Philadelphos could now get there by sea. Philadelphos hired archers to protect his ships from pirates in the waters off the Horn of Africa.
Having established trade with India, Philadelphos sent emissaries to King Asoka, grandson of the Rajah who first struck that deal with Seleukos, some decades earlier. He didn't need elephants, but what he did need were folks who knew how to train them. Anymahouts that Ptolemy had inherited from his father were likely very old by now, if alive at all. It is safe to assume that Asoka gave Philadelphos the mahouts he desired. Otherwise, he never would have been able to safely transport so many from Meroe to Egypt and on to battle in Syria.
From Berenike, the elephants and their handlers had to walk 12 days to Coptos, a city on the Nile. Philadelphos had his soldiers clear tracks, dig wells, and build shade structures along the route. Watering stations were built at twenty-mile intervals. From Coptos, the elephants were loaded onto barges and shipped north to Memphis, where they could await their dispatch. To aid the elephant caravans, Philadelphos also imported the dromedary camel, native to the Arabian Peninsula. The camels, used to walking on hot desert sand, were better equipped to carry the material goods from Berenike to Coptos.

An Elephantine Arms Race

In the winter of 274 BCE, the entire city of Alexandria celebrated a festival called the Ptolemaia, which lasted several weeks. The festival was meant to be a show-and-tell for the newly enriched city, complete with music, theater, food, and drink. The biggest spectacle was a parading re-enactment of Dionysus's return from battle in India. A giant statue of the Greek god atop an artificial 18-foot-tall elephant was followed by twenty-four chariots, each drawn by four live elephants. It was not just a celebration; it was a show of force. By parading almost one hundred elephants through the city, Philadelphos was flexing his military might. It was clear to see that the balance of power in the classical world was shifting.
In the end, it wasn't the elephants themselves that mattered to history, it was the pursuit of those elephants. It was Philadelphos's unending drive to acquire an elephant army that built Alexandria into the city it was, that led to the establishment of one of the most important civilizations in ancient history.
It's a lot like the modern space race. It may have been borne out of post-war politics, but it spawned the invention of artificial satellites, and the launching of unmanned probes to study the Moon, Venus, and Mars. It resulted in advances made in human spaceflight both in low-earth orbit and to the Moon. The space race spurred increased spending on scientific research and for education. The modern environmental movement also grew directly out of early spaceflight thanks to color photos of our pale blue dot taken by astronauts.
Arms races of all kinds tend to have as byproducts technological, cultural, and diplomatic innovation. Because he was so committed to his elephants, Philadelphos developed new trade routes and forged diplomatic ties that he used to shore up his own territories. He built entire cities from the ground up. The elephant arms race also spurred him toward technological innovation, such as the invention of a new class of transport ship. The wealth and prosperity that he enjoyed because of those trade routes – developed initially for elephants! – would allow Alexandria to become known as a place of education, of mental pursuits, the location of the greatest library in history. The sparking jewel of the Mediterranean may never have achieved the glory it had if not for the lumbering pachyderms.
[For more on the history of elephants in warfare, read The Medici Giraffe]

Source: I09

Monday, March 17, 2014

Sexual Selection Lead to White Europeans in Just the Past 5000 Years

There has been much research into the factors that have influenced the human genome since the end of the last Ice Age. Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and geneticists at University College London (UCL), working in collaboration with archaeologists from Berlin and Kiev, have analyzed ancient DNA from skeletons and found that selection has had a significant effect on the human genome even in the past 5,000 years, resulting in sustained changes to the appearance of people. The results of this current research project have been published this week in an article entitled "Direct evidence for positive selection of skin, hair, and eye pigmentation in Europeans during the last 5,000 years" in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
For a number of years population geneticists have been able to detect echoes of natural selection in the genomes of living humans, but those techniques are typically not very accurate about when that natural selection took place. The researchers in Mainz and London now decided to take a new approach. This involved analyzing DNA from archaeological skeletons and then comparing the prehistoric data with that of contemporary Europeans using computer simulations. Where the genetic changes could not be explained by the randomness of inheritance, the researchers were able to infer that positive selection played a role, i.e., that frequency of a certain mutation increased significantly in a given population.

While investigating numerous genetic markers in archaeological and living individuals, Sandra Wilde of the Palaeogenetics Group at the JGU Institute of Anthropology noticed striking differences in genes associated with hair, skin, and eye pigmentation. "Prehistoric Europeans in the region we studied would have been consistently darker than their descendants today," says Wilde, first author of the PNAS article. "This is particularly interesting as the darker phenotype seems to have been preferred by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. All our early ancestors were more darkly pigmented." However, things must have changed in the last 50,000 years as humans began to migrate to northern latitudes.
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"In Europe we find a particularly wide range of genetic variation in terms of pigmentation," adds co-author Dr. Karola Kirsanow, who is also a member of the Palaeogenetics Group at Mainz University. "However, we did not expect to find that natural selection had been favoring lighter pigmentation over the past few thousand years." The signals of selection that the Mainz palaeogeneticists and their colleagues at University College London have identified are comparable to those for malaria resistance and lactase persistence, meaning that they are among the most pronounced that have been discovered to date in the human genome. The authors see several possible explanations. "Perhaps the most obvious is that this is the result of adaptation to the reduced level of sunlight in northern latitudes," says Professor Mark Thomas of UCL, corresponding author of the study. "Most people of the world make most of their vitamin D in their skin as a result UV exposure. But at northern latitudes and with dark skin, this would have been less efficient. If people weren’t getting much vitamin D in their diet, then having lighter skin may have been the best option."

"But this vitamin D explanation seems less convincing when it comes to hair and eye color," Wilde continues. "Instead, it may be that lighter hair and eye color functioned as a signal indicating group affiliation, which in turn played a role in the selection of a partner." Sexual selection of this kind is common in animals and may also have been one of the driving forces behind human evolution over the past few millennia.

"We were expecting to find that changes in the human genome were the result of population dynamics, such as migration. In general we expect genetic changes due to natural selection to be the exception rather than the rule. At the same time, it cannot be denied that lactase persistence, i.e., the ability to digest the main sugar in milk as an adult, and pigmentation genes have been favored by natural selection to a surprising degree over the last 10,000 years or so," adds Professor Joachim Burger, senior author of the study. "But it should be kept in mind that our findings do not necessarily mean that everything selected for in the past is still beneficial today. The characteristics handed down as a result of sexual selection can be more often explained as the result of preference on the part of individuals or groups rather than adaptation to the environment."