Category: History

Wormholes in old books preserve a history of insects

By Ed Yong | November 20, 2012 7:15 pm

Absence can speak volumes. The lack of sediment in a flat piece of ground—a track—can testify to the footstep of a dinosaur that once walked on it. The lack of minerals in a solid shell—a hole—can reveal the presence of parasite that was once trapped in it. The world’s museums are full of such “trace fossils”, but so are many of the world’s art galleries.

The image above is taken from a woodcut currently residing in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It was made by etching a pattern into a block of wood, so that the remaining raised edges could be dipped in ink and used to print an image. These woodcuts were the main way of illustrating European books between the 15th and 19th centuries, and were used for at least 7 million different titles.

But as you can see, the print is littered with tiny white holes. These are called wormholes, and inaccurately so—they’re actually the work of beetles. The adults laid their eggs in crevices within the trunks of trees. The grubs slowly bored their way through the wood, eventually transformed into adults, and burrowed their way out of their shelters. The artists who transformed the tree trunks into printing blocks also inherited the exit-holes of the adult beetles, which left small circles of empty whiteness when pressed onto pages.

The beetles only emerged a year or so after the blocks were carved. The holes they left must have been frustrating, but remaking them would have been expensive. So the blocks were kept and reused despite their defects, unless the beetles had really gone to town. The holes they left behind preserve a record of wood-boring beetles, across four centuries of European literature. These holes are trace fossils. They’re evidence of beetle behaviour that’s been printed into old pages, just as dinosaur tracks were printed into the earth.

Now, Blair Hedges from Pennsylvania State University has used these fossils to study the history of the beetles that made them.

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Sequencing the 99% of Ancient Rome

By Ed Yong | November 11, 2011 9:46 am

I’ve got a piece in CNN’s Light Years blog about Kristina Killgrove‘s cool project to reveal the origins of Ancient Rome’s 99%. Not only is the initiative fascinating, but Killgrove is also raising funds for it herself via the SciFund challenge. Here’s a teaser, but do read the full post at CNN:

From Gibbon to “Gladiator,” it might seem like we know a lot about Ancient Rome, but our view of this civilization is a skewed one. The Romans lived in one of the most stratified societies in history. Around 1.5% of the population controlled the government, military, economy and religion. Through the writings and possessions they left behind, these rich, upper-class men are also responsible for most of our information about Roman life.

The remaining people – commoners, slaves and others – are largely silent. They could not afford tombstones to record their names, and they were buried with little in the way of fancy pottery or jewellery. Their lives were documented by the elites, but they left few documents of their own.

Now, Kristina Killgrove, an archaeologist from Vanderbilt University, wants to tell their story by sequencing their DNA, and she is raising donations to do it. “Their DNA will tell me where these people, who aren’t in histories, were coming from,” she says. “They were quite literally the 99% of Rome.”

Photo by Patrick Reynolds.

Scientists finish a 53-year-old classic experiment on the origins of life

By Ed Yong | March 21, 2011 3:00 pm

In 1958, a young scientist called Stanley Miller electrified a mixture of simple gases, designed to mimic the atmosphere of our primordial lifeless planet. It was a sequel to one of the most evocative experiments in history, one that Miller himself had carried five years earlier. But for some reason, he never finished his follow-up. He dutifully collected his samples and stored them in vials but, whether for ill health or dissatisfaction, he never analysed them.

The vials languished in obscurity, sitting unopened in a cardboard box in Miller’s office. But possessed by the meticulousness of a scientist, he never threw them away. In 1999, the vials changed owners. Miller had suffered a stroke and bequeathed his old equipment, archives and notebooks to Jeffrey Bada, one of his former students. Bada only twigged to the historical treasures that he had inherited in 2007. “Inside, were all these tiny glass vials carefully labeled, with page numbers referring Stanley’s laboratory notes. I was dumbstruck. We were looking at history,” he said in a New York Times interview.

By then, Miller was completely incapacitated. He died of heart failure shortly after, but his legacy continues. Bada’s own student Eric Parker has finally analysed Miller’s samples using modern technology and published the results, completing an experiment that began 53 years earlier.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, History

Expedition records show severe orangutan decline

By Ed Yong | August 12, 2010 8:55 am

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“I heard a rustling in a tree near, and, looking up, saw a large red-haired animal moving slowly along, hanging from the branches by its arms. It passed on from tree to tree until it was lost in the jungle, which was so swampy that I could not follow it.”

These are the words of the great naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, describing how he caught sight of his very first orangutan. Around two weeks later, Wallace found his second individual and, as you would expect for a 19th century British explorer, he shot it dead.

During his fifteen-month stay in Borneo, Wallace ‘collected’ a further 28 orangutans and his tales of slaughter and science are vividly described in his famous tome, The Malay Archipelago (immortalised here by Google).

Wallace wasn’t the only explorer to shoot his way through Borneo’s orangutan population. Odoardo Beccari shot or saw at least 26 individuals in just over 5 weeks, while Emil Selenka collected around four hundred specimens over four years. All of these records attest to the fact that orangutans were relatively common in the late 19th century, such that zealous Europeans had no problems in finding them.

The same can’t be said now. Field scientists working in Borneo rarely see a wild orangutan and when they do, they’re usually alone or in very small groups. You can travel down the very rivers where naturalists once described seeing orangutans many times in the same day, and find only nests.

Today, we might raise an eyebrow at the trigger-happy antics of Wallace and his contemporaries but, at the very least, they carefully documented what they did. And those tales, together with museum collections, have allowed Erik Meijaard from The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia to reconstruct the history of the Bornean orangutan since the 19th century.

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MORE ABOUT: orangutan, Wallace

Norfolk – the home of the earliest known humans in Britain

By Ed Yong | July 7, 2010 1:00 pm
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Happisburgh, Norfolk is a fairly unassuming village on the English coast. Highlights include a pretty church and Britain’s only independently operated lighthouse. The entire lot might imminently fall into the sea, which would put it on the map just as it catastrophically disappears from it. But this tiny village is about to get a boost of fame – it turns out that Happisburgh was the site of the earliest known human settlement in Britain and, indeed, in Northern Europe.

Simon Parfitt from London’s Natural History Museum, together with a team of 15 British scientists, uncovered a set of over 70 flint tools from the Happisburgh shore, including hammers and cutting implements. These artefacts suggest that humans were living in this area over 800,000 years ago, some 100,000 years earlier than previously thought. The area is a treasure trove of information – the artefacts are one thing, but the sediment and fossils around them also tell us about the environment and climate that these prehistoric Britons lived in.

At a time when most Europeans were living in warm Mediterranean climes, the Happisburgh inhabitants were coping with an England that was on its way out of a warm spell. Edible plants were few and far between. Winter temperatures were freezing and daylight hours were short. Predators like sabre-toothed cats and hyenas prowled about. And yet, these early Britons survived. Previous studies suggested that early humans tracked their favourite climates and habitats as they expanded across the world. But Parfitt’s new find suggests that they were far more adaptable than we gave them credit for. They probably grumbled about it though…

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Tree rings reveal two droughts that sealed the fate of Angkor

By Ed Yong | March 29, 2010 3:00 pm

AngkorToday, the city of Angkor in Cambodia lies in ruins. But a thousand years ago, life there was very different. Then, Angkor was the heart of the Khmer empire and the largest preindustrial city of its day. It had a population of a million and an area that rivalled modern Los Angeles. And the key to this vast urban sprawl was water.

Radar images of the city by the Greater Angkor Project (GAP) revealed that Angkor was carefully designed to collect, store and distribute water. The “Hydraulic City” included miles of canals and dikes, irrigation channels for supplying crops, overflow channels to cope with a monsoon, massive storage areas (the largest of which was 16km2 in area), and even a river diverted into a reservoir. Water was the city’s most precious resource, allowing it to thrive in the most unlikely of locations – the middle of a tropical forest.

But water, or rather a lack of it, may have been part of Angkor’s downfall. Brendan Buckley from Columbia University has reconstructed the climate of Angkor over the last 750 years, encompassing the final centuries of the Khmer Empire. The records show that Angkor was hit by two ferocious droughts in the mid-14th and early-15th century, each lasting for a few decades. Without a reliable source of water, the Hydraulic City’s aquatic network dried up. It may have been the coup de grace for a civilisation that was already in severe decline.

Many theories have been put forward for the downfall of Angkor, from war with the Siamese to erosion of the state religion. All of these ideas have proved difficult to back up, despite a century of research. Partly, that’s because the area hasn’t yielded much in the way of historical texts after the 13th century. But texts aren’t the only way of studying Angkor’s history. Buckley’s reconstruction relies on a very different but more telling source of information – Fujian cypress trees.

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An 60,000-year old artistic movement recorded in ostrich egg shells

By Ed Yong | March 1, 2010 3:00 pm

Souvenir shops in South Africa are full of lamps made out of ostrich eggs. The eggs are so big and strong that you can carve and cut intricate designs into their shells. The egg’s contents are emptied through a hole and a bulb can be inserted instead, casting pretty shadows on walls and ceilings. The results are a big draw for modern tourists, but ostrich eggs have a long history of being used as art in South Africa. The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into these eggs as early as 60,000 years ago.

Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more.

Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.

As you might expect, the millennia haven’t been too kind to the shells but even so, their etchings are still well preserved and Texier even managed to fit some of the pieces together. Despite the variety of fragments, their patterns fall into a very limited set of motifs produced in the same way – a hatched band like a railway track, parallel(ish) lines, intersecting lines, and cross-hatching. It’s possible that, once assembled, these elements would have combined into a more complex artistic whole but Texier notes that he has never found a piece with more than one motif on it.

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Tuberculosis, not cancer, killed Dr Granville's mummy

By Ed Yong | October 5, 2009 8:00 am

Around 2600 years ago in Egypt, a woman called Irtyersenu died. She was mummified and buried at the necropolis at Thebes, where she remained for over two millennia before being unearthed in 1819. Her well-preserved body was brought to the British Museum where it was examined by the physician and obstetrician Augustus Bozzi Granville. It was the first ever medical autopsy of an Egyptian mummy and Granville presented his results to the Royal Society in 1825. His conclusion: Ityersenu died of ovarian cancer.

The mummification techniques of ancient Egypt were so good that Irtyersenu’s corpse still retained many soft tissues, and most of her organs intact. In particular, an unusual mass around her right ovary caught Granville’s attention. He interpreted it as a cancer and the cause of the lady’s death. But according to later studies, the tumour was a benign one, far from the fatal affliction that Granville envisaged.

Some scientists have since blamed malaria for Irtyersenu’s death but Helen Donoghue from University College London believes she has uncovered the true culprit – tuberculosis.

It’s clear that tuberculosis was a big killer of ancient Egyptians. Scientists have found DNA from Mycoplasma tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes the disease, in several mummies from both genders and all social circles. Donoghue managed to do the same for samples of Ityersenu’s lung, gall bladder and other tissues.

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The fall and rise of lefties in Victorian England

By Ed Yong | August 31, 2009 12:00 pm

And now for something completely different… This is a repost with a difference – it’s an edited interview I did with London scientist Chris McManus way back in September 2007. This has a fond place in my heart, for it was the first proper freelance writing assigment that I did after winning the Telegraph’s Science Writer award. This is where all the cool freelancing began. It was originally published on Nature Network, but I note that their news archives have disappeared. As such, here it is again.

Left-handers were less common in Victorian EnglandMcManus, a Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at UCL, is an expert on asymmetry and left-handedness. He won the Aventis Prize for Science Books in 2002 with his first book – Right Hand, Left Hand. Now, he’s turned his attention to the rise and fall of left-handedness during British history.

About 11% of the British population is currently left-handed. But that wasn’t always the case. Among people born in 1900, the proportion of lefties was just 3%. McManus and Alex Hartigan from University College London worked this out with the help of old films made at the turn of the 19th century and recently restored.

What made you want to study historical rates of left-handedness?

People have always assumed that the rate of left-handedness has been constant throughout history but it’s never been properly explored. Recent data showed us that left-handedness was less common in people born at the beginning of the twentieth century than those born later, by a factor of four.

We wanted to find out what happened before that and why things changed. But of course, there’s very little data. People have talked about left-handers in the literature since the time of Aristotle but they never say how many there were.

How did you find out?

It was a stroke of luck. We came across these wonderful films by Mitchell and Kenyon, made between 1900 and 1906, where they filmed people coming in and out of factories. They’re wonderfully evocative films. You really get a sense of that late Victorian era.

We noticed that the people in the films waved whenever they saw the camera. My student, Alex Hartigan, went through this footage and recorded every time someone waved and which hand they used.

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35,000-year-old German flutes display excellent kraftwerk

By Ed Yong | June 24, 2009 1:00 pm


Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchThirty-five thousands years before the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, the lands of Germany were resounding to a very different sort of musical sound – tunes emanating from flutes made of bird bones and ivory. These thin tubes have recently been uncovered by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen and they’re some of the oldest musical instruments ever discovered. 

The ancient flutes hail from the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany’s Ach Valley, a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric finds that have also yielded the oldest known figurative art. The flutes were found less than a metre away. Together, these finds show that Europeans had a rich artistic and musical culture as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 35,000 years ago.

Conard unearthed the new finds last year, including several flutes of ivory and bone. One of these was found in 12 separate pieces, but once they were recovered and united, the insturment proved to be remarkably complete. It was so beautifully preserved that we can even work out its source – its maker fashioned it from the arm bone of a griffon vulture, a large species with long bones that make for good wind instruments.

The flute is just 8mm in diameter and has five finger holes along its 22cm length. Around each hole, there are up to four precisely carved notches, which Conard thinks were measurement markers that told the tool-maker where to chip an opening. Two deep, V-shaped notches were also carved into one end, which was presumably where its maker blew into to make sweet, prehistoric music.

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