Archive for February, 2010

New giant prehistoric fish found in Kansas museums

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

Marion Bonner at fossil quarry site, Logan County, Kansas, 1972Researchers published in the journal Science have dusted off fossils uncovered 40 years ago by the Marion Bonner family in western Kansas and found a new genus of giant plankton-eating bony fish among them.

Filter-feeding fish known as pachycormids were previously thought to have been a brief phase in evolutionary history, appearing 170 million years ago and then leaving the scene until whales, sharks and rays stepped into the niche 56 million years ago.

The new finds suggest that instead the pachycormids were a hugely successful species who set up shop in oceans all over the world from 170 million years ago until 65 million years ago, when the K-T extinction event that killed the dinosaurs killed them (and most everything else on earth) too.

Co-author Kenshu Shimada, a research associate in paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, told Discovery News that one of the fish he and his colleagues identified, Bonnerichthys, grew to around 20 feet in length and swam through a seaway covering what is today the state of Kansas. […]

For the study, led by University of Oxford scientist Matt Friedman, the researchers analyzed both old and new fish fossils found in England, the U.S. and Japan. The Kansas fish was previously thought to have been like a gigantic swordfish, bearing fang-like teeth on its jawbones.

“However, our close examination of the specimen showed that such a long snout and fang-like teeth were not present in the fish,” Shimada said. “Rather, with a blunt massive head, the fish had long toothless jawbones and long gill-supporting bones that are characteristic of plankton-feeding fishes.”

The European Jurassic species Leedsichthys was even larger at 30 feet. Their huge mouths were an asset in keeping their even huger bodies fed off tiny plankton. Like baleen whales today, pachycormids opened their mouths wide and gulped as much water as they could, filtering the plankton-packed water through its gills.

There’s some great background on the fossil-hunting Bonner family in this article.

Over the seven decades that Marion climbed and combed the chalk buttes; and over the four decades his children accompanied him, the Bonners helped science immeasurably. They were resourceful and careful; when they found unusual-looking bones, they gave them to scientists and let them take published credit for the scientifically described “discoveries.”

Their discoveries lay now in museums in Kansas, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Grateful scientists named discoveries after the family: A few invertebrates. Pecten bonneri, a small-fin fish, pterandon bonneri, a flying reptile, niobrarateuthis bonneri, an ancient squid, found by Melanie.

This is their first genus, though.

Artist's rendition of Bonnerichthys compared to a human

OMG Drunk History HBO special!

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Drunk History, which I think we can all agree is the greatest YouTube channel of all time, is coming to HBO this Friday at midnight.

It looks like it’s going to be a particularly sweet one too, with Will Ferrel as Abraham Lincoln and Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass.

For those of you have HBO, mark your calendars. For those of you who don’t, I’m sure it’ll be online at some point since it’s part of the Funny or Die HBO comedy lineup.



King Tut died of malaria, bone disorder

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Using the latest radiological and genetic techniques, a team of researchers from Egypt, Germany and Italy have determined that the boy pharaoh King Tutankhamun most likely died of malaria and a degenerative bone disease which also forced him to walk using canes, 130 of which (some with signs of wear) were found in his tomb.

The study, reported Tuesday, turned up no evidence of foul play, as had been suspected by some historians and popular writers familiar with palace intrigues in ancient Egypt. Previous examinations of the Tut mummy had revealed a recent leg fracture, possibly from a fall. This might have contributed to a life-threatening condition in an immune system already weakened by malaria and other disorders, the researchers said. […]

The researchers said that several other pathologies were diagnosed in the Tut mummy, including a bone disorder known as Kohler disease II, which alone would not have caused death. But he was also afflicted with avascular bone necrosis, a condition in which diminished blood supply to the bone leads to serious weakening or destruction of tissue. The finding led to the team’s conclusion that it and malaria were the most probable causes of death.

Three other of mummies tested also had genetic traces of malaria tropica, the most virulent form of the disease, and several mummies shared a variety of genetic disorders like cleft palates, club feet and flat feet.

The mummies all seem to have been related to Tut. One was his father, Akhenaten, another his mother, Tiye, a third his grandmother, all of whom shared Tut’s blood group. The genetic testing indicates that Akhenaten and Tiye were siblings, and it’s thought Tut and his queen were also brother and sister, so it’s no surprise they are so many genetic disorders in the family.

There are more details about the methodology of the testing in this Scientific American article.

The Discovery Channel will be showing a two-part documentary of this study called “King Tut Unwrapped” on Sunday and Monday. You can see some clips of the shows on TDC’s website.

King Tut's face, reconstructed and as is


Rembrandt Bugatti

Monday, February 15th, 2010

In my random travels across the internet today, I’ve stumbled on an immensely talented sculptor with a great name and an all-too-brief life. Given the attention a certain Drowned Bugatti has gotten from this blog, I figure it’s only fair another Bugatti get some love too.

Born in 1884, Rembrandt Bugatti was the car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti’s brother. His father, Carlo, a successful Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry designer, encouraged both Rembrandt and Ettore to work with their hands in his workshop from the time they were 10 years old.

His family moved in some pretty rarified artistic circles. They were close friends of composers Giacomo Puccini and Leoncavallo. His uncle was the Italian painter Giovanni Segantini, and it was he who suggested the name “Rembrandt” for his infant nephew. It was family friend and famous Russian sculptor, Prince Paolo Troubetzkoy, who introduced Rembrandt to modeling and moulding with plasticine, a clay-like plaster that doesn’t dry.

Rembrandt Bugatti with 'Return to the Pasture' ca. 1900His first fully developed sculpture was a group of four cows, “Return to the Pasture” (ca. 1900-1901). From then on, his parents encouraged and supported him to develop his talents and become a professional sculptor.

In 1900 he studied at the Milan Academy of Arts, but by then–at just age 16–he was already a highly accomplished sculptor with his own distinct style. His favorite subjects at this time were domestic animals. The earliest extant bronze is a lowing cow he made in 1901, now in a private collection. Within two years he made a name for himself and had exhibited his sculptures in galleries in Milan, Turin, and Venice.

In 1903 he moved with his father to Paris where he was accepted in the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. It was at Paris’ national zoo in the Jardin des Plantes that he encountered his first exotic animals. Walking Panther, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, was one of his first wild subjects. Panthers, lions, elephants, deer, wolves, all captured his imagination.

Although he sculpted the human body as well — there’s a great selection of his plaster casts including many human forms at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris — it was his wild beasts that he become known for. Unlike his predecessors in the field, he didn’t depict them in ferocious combat. His wild animals were often individuals in movement or at rest, sometimes family groups or pairs just going about their daily lives.

In Paris he met A. A. Hébrard, a gallery and foundry owner who put on his first French show in 1904. Hébrard became a mentor and second father to him, and throughout his career even when he left Paris Rembrandt Bugatti sent his models back to Hébrard for bronze casting. He also showed his sculptures at Hébrard’s gallery every year.

It was when he moved to Antwerp in 1907 that his wild animal sculptures reached their fullest flower. Antwerp’s world-renowned zoo would become something of a muse to him. He would spend days watching the animals, freehand modeling what he saw in plasticine and plaster. He never made a quick sketch and then worked on the sculpture in his studio. If he wasn’t able to capture what he was going for while observing the animals, then he destroyed the model and started again the next day.

His style continued to evolve. In 1910 his forms moved from a more naturalistic sketch approach to an angular, proto-Art Deco, almost Cubist, geometric style.

By the early 1910s, his exclusive contract with the Hébrard Foundry had been unchanged for 8 years. He made very little money and suffered terribly from loneliness and depression. He wrote touchingly to his brother Ettore and his wife asking for money and for good thoughts, but Ettore was just starting the auto manufacturing business that would make their name a cultural icon so he didn’t have much money to spare and he didn’t realize how destitute Rembrandt really was. Rembrandt wrote in his letters that the sole happiness in his life came from a good day’s work.

Then came 1914 and the war. The animals at the Antwerp Zoo were all killed and a military hospital set up on the grounds. Rembrandt was devastated. He had been close with the keepers and had established a genuine bond with the animals.

He volunteered as a stretcher bearer at the Red Cross Military Hospital there in August of 1914. Plunged into a deep depression and completely broke, in December of that year he moved to Milan to stay with family. He put on one exhibit there, but remained in dire financial straits, and to add injury to insult, he became ill with the beginnings of tuberculosis.

Bugatti Royale hood ornament, cast from Rembrandt Bugatti bronzeIn December of 1915 he moved back to Paris to stay with his parents, but he found the prospect of depending on them utterly unbearable. In January of 1916, he turned on the gas in his studio and committed suicide. He was 31 years old.

His brother Ettore strove to keep his work in the public eye, even choosing one of his early Antwerp works, a rampant elephant, as the hood ornament for his most exclusive, most expensive car ever: the Bugatti Royale, a model so exclusive that he ended up making only 6 of them and selling only 4 of those. The Bugatti Royale is the Holy Grail of car collectors.

Bugatti Royale Coupe Napoleon, Ettore Bugatti's personal car

Rembrandt Bugatti sculptures are now worth almost as much as those rarest of cars. A cast of his 1910 bronze Babouin Sacré Hamadryas sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $2.56 million.

To see more of Bugatti’s pieces, please check out this beautiful virtual collection.


Bronze Age shipwreck cargo found off Devon coast

Sunday, February 14th, 2010

Gold wrist torc gleaming on the sea floorThe ship itself seems to have disintegrated over the past 3000 years, but its cargo of, among other things, 27 tin ingots, 259 copper ingots and 3 gold wrist torcs has stayed where it went down 300 feet from the Devon shore.

Other Bronze Age wrecks have been found in the area, but they left just a few dozen artifacts. This one carried such a huge cargo from all over Europe that it suggests an extensive trade network between England and the continent a thousand years before Christ.

Archaeologists believe the ship would have been large for the period, a bulk carrier of Bronze Age metal trade goods, about 40 feet long and 6 feet wide, manned by a crew of 15 and powered by paddles.

Archaeologists believe it would have been able to cross the Channel directly between Devon and France to link into European trade networks, rather than having to travel along the coast to the narrower crossing between modern day Dover and Calais.

Although the vessel’s cargo came from as far afield as southern Europe, it is unlikely it would have been carried all the way in the same craft, but in a series of boats, undertaking short coastal journeys.

259 9th c. B.C. copper ingots found off the coast of Dover, EnglandThis amazing find was made last year by amateur divers with a love of history from the South West Maritime Archaeological Group. They brought the recovered ingots to Dr. Peter Northover of the University of Oxford who analyzed several of the ingots.

Based on the composition of two of the copper ingots (low level of impurities and high sulfur content) he determined they were typical of Late Bronze Age copper ingots, most likely from the Ewart Park period, ca 10th-9th century B.C.

The flat tin ingots are also from Late Bronze Age, but the 9 kg (20 lb) one is far larger than any British ingot from the period. Though it is thought that Bronze Age Britons mined their own tin during this era, they did not melt that much metal at a time.

Gold wrist torcs Copper 'bun' ingots, 10th-9th c. B.C.


Scary historical vibrators

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

Gizmodo has a scary and interesting article on the history of the mechanical vibrator. They interviewed Dr. Rachel Maines, author of The Technology of Orgasm, who provides some background on the development of sex toys.

It turns out there actually were vibrators before electricity, industrialization and Victorian taboo combined to create the precursors to the motorized gadgets we know today. The first identifiable model was a hand-crank device made in 1734, believe it or not.

The notion that women could be relieved of the illness of “hysteria” by genital manipulation to the point of orgasm, pardon me, I mean “paroxysm”, had been current in medical circles since Galen in the 2nd century. It just took a few hundreds of years for motors to be involved.

According to Dr. Maines, all vibrators are just inefficient motors. “All motors vibrate. If you make a motor that’s especially sloppy, it’ll vibrate more. That’s the principle behind the vibrator: a very sloppy motor that’s designed to vibrate.” An efficient motor, such as the one that runs your fridge, would make for a seriously crappy vibrator. But the Manipulator, which was essentially an inefficient steam engine with a dildo attached to it, did the job swimmingly.

One of the first mechanical vibrators was the steam-powered Manipulator … invented by Dr. George Taylor in 1869. This monster machine hid its engine in another room with the apparatus sticking through the wall.

I’m going to put the picture after the jump because it’s basically a dildo attached to a train engine, so fair warning for the more delicate among us.



Italian court orders seizure of Getty bronze

Friday, February 12th, 2010

Getty bronzeAn appeals court in Pesaro, Italy, has ruled that the Greek bronze known as the Victorious Youth should be confiscated from the Getty Museum in Malibu and returned to Italy. This ruling comes as a surprise and not just to the Getty. Previous rulings on the ownership of the statue have all come down on the side of the Getty due to the nebulous circumstances of the bronze’s discovery and sale.

The life-size statue was fished out of the Adriatic off the coast of Fano in 1964. The fishermen never declared it to customs officials as required by law. Instead they buried it in a cabbage patch before selling it to Italian middlemen that same year for a measly $5,600. They hid it in a priest’s bathtub then smuggled it out of the country into the hands of dealer Elie Borowski in Switzerland, who in turn sold it to the Artemis Consortium. The Getty bought it 13 years later for $3.9 million.

The statue is thought to be from the 2nd or 3rd century B.C., possibly from the workshop of the great Greek sculptor Lyssipos, who was Alexander the Great’s court sculptor and the teacher of Chares of Lindos, the artist who built the Colossus of Rhodes. It is one of very few extant Greek bronzes. Most of what we have are Roman copies.

Italian prosecutors have tried to retrieve it for 40 plus years. In 1966 they prosecuted the Italian middlemen and the priest. They were convicted but their convictions were reversed on appeal in 1970 due to insufficient evidence. The statue itself was still in the shadowy antiquities underground at this point, so the prosecution didn’t even have stolen goods as evidence.

Most recently a case in 2007 prosecuted by Francesco Rutelli (who also prosecuted today’s case) was dismissed by the same Pesaro court who ruled in his favor today. It was a different judge though, and he ruled that the statute of limitations had expired, that since the fishermen were long dead there was no longer anyone to prosecute, and that the Getty had purchased the bronze in good faith.

So what changed, you asked? Some recent news cast serious doubt on the Getty’s good faith. An article in the LA Times last month pointed to a shady series of correspondence over the purchase of the bronse.

“It is clearly understood by us that no commitment is to be made by me on your behalf for the Greek Bronze until certain legal questions are clarified,” wrote Met director Thomas Hoving to Getty in a June 1973 letter. Hoving promised that the Met’s attorneys would talk with Italian officials to clarify the circumstances under which the statue had left Italy and whether the Italians were still pursuing a legal claim, records show.

The Met’s antiquities curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, raised legal concerns of his own, warning Hoving that the 1970 acquittal “does not permit the legal conclusion that the statue was . . . legally exported from Italy.”

In his acquisition proposal to the Met’s board, Von Bothmer wrote, “I recommend that legal opinions be solicited as to the possibility that a foreign government may at a later time, especially after publication of the statue, claim it as ‘artistic patrimony.’ “

The deal fell through for reasons neither the Met nor the Getty will discuss. After John Paul Getty died in 1976, however, the museum bought the statue for more than JP had offered and without the legal assurances from the Italian government that JP had required. Instead they just took the word of the dealers’ lawyers, which, let’s face it, is worth pretty much nothing.

Anyway, nasty horsetrading shenanigans aside, the legal questions surrounding the find remain thorny and the precedent of several failed cases is on the Getty’s side. The Getty said in a statement that they would pursue the case to Italy’s highest court. Given the glacial pace of the Italian legal system, the Victorious Youth won’t be leaving the Getty Villa in Malibu any time soon.


The origins of 10 Winter Olympic sports

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

Just in time for Friday’s Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, here’s a neat rundown of the history of 10 of the featured sports.

Did you know that Curling originated in Scotland? I assumed Canada because that’s where it’s a national obsession second only to hockey.

My favorite anecdote is the origin of the bobsled and luge events.

In the late 1860s, Swiss hotelier Caspar Badrutt had a problem: no one wanted to spend the winter at his chilly resort in St. Moritz. Rather than spend the winter with an empty hotel, Badrutt convinced some of his regulars that it would be fun to spend some time at a “winter resort,” and English guests started flocking to St. Moritz during the cold months.

The guests found a particularly exciting way to pass their time when they started modifying delivery boys’ sleds and zipping down the town’s streets. (If you lashed two of these sleds together, you had the precursor to the modern bobsled.) All of this sledding was great fun, but Badrutt soon had a new problem on his hands: since the only place to run the sleds was on the city’s streets, sledders kept careening into pedestrians.

To combat this dangerous problem, Badrutt built an icy halfpipe track to keep the sleds off of the streets. Within a decade, the sledding events had grown into competitive sports, and bobsled was on the program for the first Winter Olympics in 1924.

Badrutt didn’t just convince five of his wealthy regulars to give it a try, he actually made a bet: if they didn’t have fun at the Palace Hotel over a long winter stay, the vacation would be free. If they did have a good time, they had to spread the word among their spendy society circles for the whole next year.

So we owe the entire concept of winter Alpine sports to Caspar Badrutt’s willingness to take financial risks and rich Englishmen’s willingness to risk boredom (not to mention their willingness to haul ass down icy streets at top speed).

The sledding track Badrutt built was also world’s first halfpipe, so really you can say that Badrutt was the father of competitive skateboarding as well.

Postcard of Badrutt's Palace hotel


Bald Stone Age Siberians settled in Greenland

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

DNA testing performed on a 4000-year-old tuft of hair and bone chips embedded in the Greenland permafrost has overturned conventional wisdom on how the Arctic regions were settled and by whom.

The hair and bone are the only human remains ever found of the Saqqaq culture who lived on the coast of Greenland from around 2,500 B.C. until they petered out around 800 B.C.

University of Copenhagen researcher Eske Willerslev led a team that exhaustively analysed the precious Qeqertasussuk find.

Artists impression of Inuk, Saqqaq man who unwittingly donated his hair to science 4000 years agoThey teased out nearly 80 percent of the genetic code and identified 353,151 single variations in DNA that are telltale signs of body characteristics.

“What we can see from the genomic data is a number of traits,” Willerslev told journalists in a teleconference.

“For example, we can see the guy had most likely brown eyes, brown skin, he had shovel-form front teeth and he had dry earwax, which increased the chance of getting infection in the ear,” said Willerslev.

“We can also see that he had a tendency to baldness and because we found quite a lot of hair from this guy we presume he actually died quite young, and we can see he was genetically adapted to cold temperatures, living in the Arctic.”

Previously anthropologists thought Greenland was settled by people whose ancestors had crossed the Bering Strait via the Beringia land bridge 15,000 years ago then moved south, eventually reaching as far as the tip of South America, or from the second New World migration 6,000 to 8,000 years ago by the ancestors of western Native Americans in the Na-Dene language group.

But in fact Inuk’s DNA sequence indicates that Greenland — the Neolithic Saqqaq part of it anyway — seems to have been settled by direct descendants of Siberians who crossed the Bering Strait either by kayak or by walking over winter ice and then kept going east. This is solid evidence of a third New World migration, something that linguistic analysis has only hinted at before.

The technique used to extract DNA from Inuk’s fallen tufts was actually pioneered on mammoth hairs. It’s unlikely that a clean sample of DNA can be extracted from even relatively well-preserved tissues like bone or mummified skin because they’re highly susceptible to fungal and bacterial contamination.

Now that we know enough about the human genome that we can pinpoint things like ancient people’s ear wax problems, there’s a whole new world of historical discoveries to be found in preserved hair.


Medieval penitential sex flowchart

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Canons of Theodore, Corpus 190, pg. 404Penitentials were handbooks listing many sins a confessor could be expected to encounter during private confession and the appropriate penances he should assign for each act (or the appropriate moneys the penitent should pay to commute a penance).

They were first compiled by Irish monks in the 6th century when the practice of private confession began to supersede the public confessions of sins and imposition of penances of early Christianity and spread to the continent, continuing to be published through the 12th century even though they were officially condemned by the Catholic Church during the Council of Paris in 829.

The penances tended to be things like fasts, repetitions of psalms on your knees or standing, giving alms, and the sins were everything from fornication to murder. But it’s the fornication that took up the lion’s share of these handbooks, and every conceivable act was detailed along with the (heavy) price it exacted in penance.

Here’s an example from Corpus Christi College’s Corpus 190 of the Canons of Theodore:

Whoever fornicates with an effeminate male or with another man or with an animal must fast for 10 years.
Elsewhere it says that whoever fornicates with an animal must fast 15 years and sodomites must fast for 7 years.
If the effeminate male (bædling) fornicates with another effeminate male (bædling), (he is to) do penance for 10 years.
Whoever does this unintentionally (unwærlice) once must fast for 4 years; if it is habitual, as Basil says, for 15 years if he is not in orders and also one year (less?) so as a woman does. If it is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he is a boy, for the first time, 2 years; if he does it again, 4 years.
If he fornicates interfemorally (between the limbs), he must fast for 1 year or the 3 40-day periods.
If he defiles himself (masturbates), he is to abstain from meat for four days.
He who desires to fornicate (with) himself (i.e., to masturbate) and is not able to do so, he must fast for 40 days or 20 days.
If he is a boy and does it often, either he is to fast 20 days or one is to whip him.
If a woman fornicates [with another woman?] she must do penance for 3 years.
If she touches herself in the same way, i.e., in emulation of fornication, she must repent for 1 year.
One penance applies to a widow and a virgin; more (penance) is earned by her who has a husband if she fornicates.
Whoever ejaculates seed into the mouth, that is the worst evil. From someone it was judged that they repent this up to the end of their lives.

And it goes on and on like that. Marriage is no cure either, because there are endless strictures against marital sex as well. If it’s not procreative, it’s fornication. If it’s done on a holy day, it’s fornication. You see above what happens if it’s oral: you get a life sentence of penance.

The penitential writers saw marital sex as a concession, not as a right or even a gift from God. The pleasure it brought was inherently sinful, a gateway to lust, so sex within marriage should be carefully contained and scheduled to ensure the most possible procreation and the least possible pleasure. Married couples had to abstain regularly or the very state of their marriage would degenerate into an illegitimate and sinful union. Even the children born of sex during a period where the couple should have abstained — mainly based on the Church’s liturgical calendar and on the wife’s reproductive cycle — were to be considered bastards.

Which brings us to the inspiration of today’s little historical sermon. Many years ago in college I read a fascinating book called Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe by University of Kansas history professor emeritus James A. Brundage. It’s a remarkable analysis of Medieval authorities’ legal proscriptions about sex, starting with ancient Roman and Greek law codes, then moving on to Medieval strictures as seen in the penitentials, canon law, Germanic legal statutes, and ever so much more.

I regularly think of the chapter on the penitentials in particular, mainly because of one truly awesome flowchart. Unfortunately my copy of the book is squirreled away in my parents’ attic along with many of its college tome brethren, so yesterday when it popped into my head that I really need to blog about this greatest of historical graphs, I thought “Hey! There’s an interweb now! I bet I can find it online.” And so by Thor’s hammer I did.

It seems the chart has made a strong impression on many other people as well, and since Brundage’s book is standard in Medieval history and in history of sexuality studies, I am far from alone in wishing to pay it homage.

What it is is a flowchart Brundage compiled from many penitentials which helps the pious man figure out if he can have lawful intercourse. (Click for the large version.)

Penitential sex flowchart

Genius, is it not? I bet you’ll find yourself thinking “STOP! SIN!” at random/randy times now too. :giggle:

That’s not to say that Medieval folks actually lived according to the flowchart rules, of course. There’s always a huge gap between proscription and reality. People did it then like we do it now: whenever they could. But it is a fascinating glimpse into the both prurient and ascetic world of Medieval confessor literature, and what kind of standards Medieval people might have measured themselves against.





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