Category: Where We Came From & Where We’re Going

Iron Man Statue Was Molded From a Meteorite, Nabbed by Nazis, and Now Scrutinized by Scientists

By Sophie Bushwick | September 28, 2012 12:23 pm

Iron Man

This is an ancient Tibetan sculpture. Carved from an even older meteorite. Discovered by a Nazi archaeological expedition. And no, it doesn’t play a key role in an Indiana Jones movie.

According to a new paper in Meteoritics & Planetary Science (gloriously titled “Buddha from space”), the elements that compose a 23-pound Tibetan statue (even more gloriously nicknamed “Iron Man”) match the composition of known fragments from the iron Chinga meteorite. This space object hit Earth between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, near the Chinga stream on what is today the border of Russia and Mongolia. Although meteorites have been formed into weapons, jewelry, and art before, the Iron Man statue is the only known human figure to be crafted from a meteorite, which makes it truly priceless. The researchers suggest that an 11th-century Tibetan artist chiseled the sculpture as a representation of the Buddhist god Vaiśravaṇa.

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Burn Your Corsets? Women Wore Bras 600 Years Ago

By Sophie Bushwick | July 19, 2012 11:32 am

medieval bra
This 15th century brassiere (right) looked remarkably similar
to a long-line bra from the 1950s

Until the modern invention of the brassiere with cups, women had to bolster their busts with either unsupportive bands of cloth or constricting corsets—so the common knowledge went. But hidden away in an Austrian castle, long lost to the sands of time, a few scraps of linen waited for their chance to rewrite undergarment history. Excavations at Lengberg Castle in 2008 revealed a vault that architects had crammed with filler during a 15th-century renovation. Among the twigs and straw, the scrap material also contained the remains of discarded shoes and clothing. The more than 2,700 textile fragments included linen shirt scraps, underwear—and what looked like modern bras, complete with distinct cups and decorative lace.

At first, archaeologists were skeptical because there was no other proof that bras with cups existed before the 1800s. However, the undergarments were discovered amongst typical medieval clothing, and eventually, carbon dating confirmed that the brassieres dated back 600 years.

medieval underwear
A pair of underwear also discovered at Lengberg Castle

So did medieval ladies really wear lacy bras and underwear like this skimpy pair? Well, that’s only half right: the sexy panties belonged to a man. The bras, on the other hand, prove that even during the medieval era, women did not have to rely solely on breast-bands. In the words of Meister Reuauß, a satirical 15th century poem, “Many a woman makes two bags for the breasts with / it she roams the streets.” The full poem, and more details about medieval lingerie, are available at the page dedicated to this finding at the University of Innsbruck website.

[via io9]

Images and translation courtesy of Beatrix Nutz / University of Innsbruck

Thick, 1,000-Year-Old Dental Plaque Is Gross, Useful to Archaeologists

By Sarah Zhang | May 8, 2012 2:46 pm

dental plaque
What big plaque deposits you have!

A dentist will tell you to floss everyday, but an archeologist might, well, have different priorities. Turns out the nitrogen and carbon isotopes in dental plaque can give archeologists a look at 1,000-year-old diets.

The buildup of plaque on this set of teeth is, um, impressive. (Cut the skull some slack though, this was before we had dentists to chide us about daily flossing.) Without the benefit of modern dental hygiene, the plaque built up over a lifetime, layer upon layer like a stalagmite. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Archeological Science researchers exhumed 58 medieval Spanish skeletons and scraped off their dental plaque to test carbon and nitrogen isotopes. When they compared the isotope profiles of the Spaniards to that of plaque from an Alaskan Inuit, the scientists found the ratio of nitrogen-15 to be quite different. That makes sense, as the Intuit ate a predominantly marine diet, and there is more nitrogen-15 in the protein molecules of organisms living in sea than on land.

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3,500-Year-Old Jokes Have Something to Say About Yo Mama

By Veronique Greenwood | January 27, 2012 2:14 pm

sargon“That’s what SHE said!”

The study of jokes and riddles written in ancient languages we barely understand is, well, a little tricky. But in a recent paper in the journal Iraq, Middle East scholars Michael Streck and Nathan Wasserman describe and interpret some thigh-slappers scrawled on a badly damaged tablet from Babylon, circa 1500 BC. The scribe’s cuneiform is on the sloppy side. The translations are uncertain, too—but no doubt the humor will still shine through. Here’s one riddle for your pleasure:

The deflowered (girl) did not become pregnant
The undeflowered (girl) became pregnant (-What is it?)

The answer is, of course, is “auxiliary forces.” That was your guess too, right? No? If it makes you feel better, Wasserman and Streck didn’t really get it, either.

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Adopt a Calendar That Makes Sense? Fat Chance.

By Veronique Greenwood | December 29, 2011 2:38 pm

A logical calendar? Never! The pre-Julian Romans (see above) had a good thing going.

It’s almost the new year. And you know what that means: stories about academics’ plans to finally make the Western calendar reasonable and logical. And you know what that means on Discoblog: a quick tour through all of the times when we changed what we were doing because switching over just made sense.

Like the metric system, for example. The quick, unanimous adoption of this eminently logical system by grateful nations the world over has been a sterling example of how reasonable we all can be when we put our minds to it. Pretty much everyone is on board, except for Liberia, which is working to put itself back together after one of Africa’s ghastliest civil wars, and Myanmar, home of the WHO-certified world’s worst health care system. And, of course, the United States, which would rather incinerate a 125-million-dollar satellite in the Martian atmosphere than convert feet to meters. (It also has a pretty crappy health care system. Related?)

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The Perfect Gift This Holiday Season: The Neanderthal Test

By Veronique Greenwood | December 20, 2011 9:48 am

If you’ve ever wondered if your slothful spouse—he of the prominent brow and grunted endearments—has caveman blood, wonder no more. Genomics company 23andMe, purveyors of fine genotyping, would like to suggest a gift that will keep on giving this holiday season: the Neanderthal test, which will give you nagging rights for eternity.

The latest gossip says the Neanderthals, the other human species kicking around about 30,000 years ago, did not leave this earth without spreading a few wild oats among our Cro-Magnon ancestors (nudge nudge, wink wink). And genetics, as so many daytime talkshow guests can tell you, is where such secrets go to die. Everyone except Africans (who missed the shackin’ up party that was prehistoric Europe) now has a sort of genetic souvenir, a remnant of our forebears. Read More

Knights in Shining Armor Probably Had Terrible BO

By Valerie Ross | July 21, 2011 10:07 am

A knightly stroll, with treadmill and respiration mask

Medieval knighthood was physically grueling work: Jousting with massive lances. Charging into battle. Jogging on a treadmill in a full suit of armor. You know how it is.

It’s no surprise that beneath their shining armor, knights shimmered with sweat. Running around in up to 110 pounds of armor, or even advancing at a stately walk, would take a whole lot of effort. But, a team of scientists wondered, just how exhausting was it?

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Newsflash: Civilization Was Built on Llama Dung

By Valerie Ross | May 24, 2011 8:48 am

Far before the looming pyramids and the learned librarians at Alexandria, Egyptian civilization sprung up from the fertile banks of the Nile. Long predating the Inca empire and the sprawling structures of Macchu Picchu, Andean civilization emerged from a whole bunch of llama poop.

For civilizations to take root, people need to have enough food on hand to put time and energy into activities like waging war, building stuff, and composing epic poetry. In the high and rugged Andes, growing that much maize—the staple crop of ancient South America—isn’t easy. That’s what llama droppings are for, a new study suggests.

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Scientists Look for DNA on Envelopes That Amelia Earhart Licked

By Patrick Morgan | February 22, 2011 2:50 pm

Researchers hope to collect spit from someone who died more than 70 years ago: the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. By extracting the famous flyer’s DNA from old envelopes, researchers hope to finally put to rest one of the 20th century’s greatest mysteries.

Earhart disappeared–along with her navigator, Fred Noonan–in 1937, when she was trying to become the first female to fly around the globe. Communication with her plane was lost as she flew near Howland Island in the Pacific Ocean. The U.S. government searched in vain for the two adventurers’ remains, and on January 5, 1939, Earhart was officially pronounced dead. But speculation never stopped on whether the duo died in a crash at sea, or whether they survived for some time on a deserted island.

Just two years ago researchers from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery found bone fragments on Nikumaroro Island that could be part of Amelia Earhart’s finger. The finding is controversial because a dead sea turtle was also found nearby, raising suggestions that the purported piece of Earhart actually belongs to a turtle. According to National Geographic:

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Walk Like an Egyptian: With Prosthetic Toes

By Patrick Morgan | February 14, 2011 3:45 pm

One Egyptologist isn’t ready to close the book on the tale of two toes. Once thought to be mere ornamentation for the afterlife, the artificial toes found on two ancient Egyptian mummies may actually be the earliest known prosthetic limbs.

The fake toes in question are the Greville Chester and Tabaketenmut toes. The Greville toe dates to before 600 BC and is made of cartonnage (similar to papier mâché); the Tabaketenmut toe could date as far back as 710 BC and is made mostly of wood, though researchers believe it also contains leather, and it even has a hinge for flexibility.

Jacky Finch, an Egyptologist at the University of Manchester, UK, had a hunch that these artificial toes weren’t just for looks. Not only were the toes rigorously correct in their anatomy, but they also showed signs of wear and tear–which prompted an experiment that has been over 2,000 years in the making.

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