Category Archives: history

Neandertals among us

Neandertals lived in Europe and Asia from about 250,000 to 30,000 years ago.  They had bigger brains than modern humans, but they never advanced technically beyond the stone age.  Not too many years ago, archeologists and paleoanthropologists thought that modern humans had outcompeted the Neandertals and caused their demise.

Advances in analysis of ancient DNA and genetic testing have revealed that the Neandertals did not just disappear.  They mated with modern humans when they met in Europe thousands of years ago and produced offspring with genes from both species.  Modern humans of non-African origin have up to 3% Neandertal DNA.  The people with the greatest concentration of Neandertal DNA are found in the region of Tuscany, Italy.

The story of human evolution is becoming clearer with the use of genetic testing.  A tiny bone found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia provided DNA of previously unknown people which were different from Neandertals and modern humans.  It turned out that these Denisovan people actually contributed 3% to 5% of their DNA to modern Melanesians and Australian Aborigines.  The importance of the tiny bone would not have been recognized without genetic testing of its DNA.

Learn more about Human Evolution

The End of the World is coming

The End of the World is coming on December 21, 2012 according to some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.  Enough people are concerned about this doomsday prediction that they are taking special precautions.  In Michigan, Matt Wandrie, superintendent for Lapeer Community Schools, closed 30 Michigan schools two days early for the Christmas holidays.  There were numerous rumors circulating about potential threats of violence against students following the recent shootings that killed 20 children in Connecticut.  According to Wandrie, the ancient predictions of apocalypse were a secondary concern, but the rumblings about violent threats against schoolchildren were more serious.

Rational people should know that time does not stop just because your clock stops.  Calendars are just clocks that measure time in days instead of minutes.  So, reaching the last day of the calendar does not mean that the world will end.  It just means that you need to flip the page of the calendar to start measuring a new era.

Calendar adjustments have been made throughout the ages.  Pope Gregory XIII introduced the calendar that we now use on February 24, 1582.  The Gregorian calendar corrected an error in the Julian calendar that preceded it.  The Julian calendar considered the year to consist of 365.25 days, when in fact it is about 11 minutes shorter. This discrepancy, although small, caused the seasons to drift by about three days every 400 years. At the time of Gregory’s reform, the vernal equinox that marks springtime was already 10 days earlier than in Roman times.  The new calendar skipped 10 days to get the seasons in agreement with earlier times.  This was equivalent to setting the hands of a clock forward for a clock that had been running too slowly.  Superstitious people believed that this change of the calendar would cut their lives short by 10 days.

The end of the world has been predicted and described many times.  The Biblical story of Noah’s Ark tells how the world survived when God decided to destroy the world because of mankind’s evil deeds.  But the world did not end. The real end of the world will come in about 5000 million years when the Earth is engulfed by our Sun after it runs out of hydrogen and changes into a red giant star.  We will not be around to see that.  Before then, a supervolcanic eruption or a collision with a large asteroid would be two natural events that could wipe out mankind, but we cannot predict when that might happen.  In the meantime, we will be lucky if we are able to survive the next thousand years without becoming extinct from our own pollution and our weapons.

Learn more about the End of the World

Did Cleopatra bathe in milk?

At last, healthy feet

It has been widely reported, although not confirmed, that Cleopatra bathed in milk. The practice may seem eccentric and somewhat bizarre, but close analysis indicates that bathing in milk or washing the skin with milk has some merits.

At room temperature, milk is fermented by bacteria that produce lactic acid. Such bacteria are commonly found in yogurt. Lactic acid is an alpha-hydroxy acid with the chemical formula CH3CH(OH)COOH. Alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA) are used extensively in the cosmetics industry in products claiming to reduce wrinkles, fade age spots and improve the overall look and feel of the skin. They are also used by dermatologists in chemical peels, and by beauty spas and home kits in lower concentrations. The effectiveness of alpha-hydroxy acids for improving the skin is well documented, although there are many cosmetic products with exaggerated claims. It is quite reasonable to expect that washing the skin with milk could promote the growth of lactobacilli bacteria that would help to remove dead skin cells by the action of the acid generated. In addition, the butterfat in milk would act as a moisturizer to prevent the skin from becoming dry.

Recent studies have revealed that many microbes inhabit the skin and mucosa of the digestive system of healthy humans. It is estimated that there are at least ten times as many bacteria as human cells in the body and that these bacteria are beneficial by preventing the growth of pathogenic organisms.[1] In view of this, we should question whether the use of antibacterial soaps is useful or harmful. Killing the beneficial bacteria on our skin could leave us vulnerable to infections by fungi and disease-causing bacteria.

I recently read Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. This book describes the life cycle of fungi and the lengths to which people go to find edible wild mushrooms. The book points out the pervasiveness of fungi throughout nature, the fungal infections that afflict humans, and the intricate and delicate balance of conditions required to culture mushrooms.

I decided to integrate some of the ideas of the human microbiome and the knowledge that I had gained from reading this book to fight a minor, but persistent athlete’s foot infection that I had had since my early twenties. For more than 40 years, I had used antifungal powders and creams to keep the infection in check, but nevertheless, I still had scaly feet and rough heels.

My new treatment consisted of scrubbing the feet with a lava stone to remove dead skin while showering. After the shower, I rubbed about one tablespoon of hydrogen peroxide to each foot so that the bubbling action of the hydrogen peroxide could loosen flaky skin. While the feet dried, I mixed one teaspoon of plain yogurt with a quarter cup of milk and stirred. Once the feet were dry, I applied the milk inoculated with yogurt to my feet making sure to rub the feet thoroughly, including between the toes. I allowed the milk to air dry, and applied a little bit of coconut oil to the feet as a moisturizer. My feet looked healthy with no sign of fungus infection after two weeks of this daily treatment, as shown in the picture above.

I feel that this experiment, although not scientifically rigorous, demonstrates that the milk-yogurt mixture changed the environment of my feet to promote the growth of bacteria that inhibited the persistent fungus. Looking at Cleopatra’s milk baths from this perspective makes a lot more sense now.

[1] Human microbiome, Wikipedia

Christmas cookies and candies

German Honey CookiesChristmas is a time of the year when the family gets together to eat delicious food and celebrate.  On Christmas eve, cookies and a glass of milk are placed for Santa Claus near the Christmas tree, and Santa places gifts under the tree while the children sleep.

The tradition of baking cookies and sweet treats for the Christmas holidays was started in medieval Europe.  By the 16th century, cookies were being flavored with many types of spices and fruits.  In Germany, honey cookies like the ones pictured above are particularly popular.

Honiglebkuchen – Honey Cookie Recipe

Candies are also popular during Christmas, and almond brittle is a favorite because the new crop of almonds is harvested in the fall.  Brittle is a hard candy embedded with nuts such as pecans, almonds, or peanuts.   The candy is easy to make by just melting sugar and adding the nuts.

Almond BrittleAlmond Brittle Recipe

Learn about the History and Traditions of Christmas

Mulberry trees and silkworms

Late May and Early June is the season for mulberries in the United States.  Mulberry trees thrive in warm temperate and subtropical regions of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.  Mulberries are widely distributed because the berries are a favorite food of the birds who scatter the seeds in their droppings.

A mulberry tree is not very distinctive, but if it is close to a sidewalk, the sidewalk will be covered with berries that fall from the tree.  The immature berries are white or light green, and they turn red and then dark purple as they ripen.  The berries can be harvested individually from the low-hanging branches, but it is easier to put a sheet under a branch of a tree and then shake the branch.  Some of the berries will bruise and the sheet will be stained with purple spots, but this is the best way to gather enough berries to make a pie or some preserves.  Wine can also be made from the berries.  Mulberries are rich in anthocyanins which are colorful pigments with beneficial health effects that may include the prevention of cancer.

There are many varieties of mulberry trees.  Silkworms will only eat the leaves of the white mulberry tree (Morus alba).  Silk production, or sericulture, has been practiced in China for at least 5,000 years.  Domesticated silkworms are entirely dependent on humans and no longer occur naturally in the wild. Domesticated silkworm moths cannot fly. They have been bred selectively for improving the quality of the cocoon and silk production.

Silk moths lay their eggs on the mulberry leaves, and the worms hatch after fourteen days.  The worms feed on the leaves continuously, and they molt as they grow.  After molting four times, the larvae enclose themselves in a cocoon of raw silk produced by their salivary glands.  Silk is basically a protein consisting of the amino acids glycine (60%), alanine (20%), and serine (20%).   Inside the cocoon, a silkworm transforms into a pupa that emerges as a moth in about three weeks.  The moths reproduce and die within five days, but in this time the female manages to lay from 200 to 500 eggs to continue the life cycle.

Silk is harvested by dipping cocoons in boiling water to kill the pupa and help unravel the thread.  Each cocoon contains a single silk thread that is about 300 to 900 meters long.  Silk from China was known to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  The silk road toward the west was opened by the Chinese in the 2nd century AD.  Large caravans carried huge quantities of beautiful textiles to the coasts of the Mediterranean.  Although silk has been displaced from many applications by synthetic fabrics, more than 80,000 metric tons of silk are produced yearly, principally by China and India.

Shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington

The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. opened in 1993 as a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazi persecution during World War II.  The museum contains belongings of some of the victims, film footage of witnesses, testimony of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and pictures of the ghettos, gas chambers, and detention camps.  The museum is a gruesome place that serves to remind us of the malice that one person can inflict on another.

On June 10, 2009, an 88-year old man who had a record as a white supremacist, brought a rifle into the museum and shot a guard.  The shooter was immediately shot by security staff, thus preventing further chaos.  At the time, there were many school children touring the museum and they fortunately escaped injury due to the fast action of the security staff.

In trying to find the motivation for the shooting, the news media have reported that the shooter had a long history of writing hateful racist and anti-Semitic diatribes, and that he had been arrested in 1981 for entering a Federal building with a handgun and a shotgun for the purpose of holding hostage the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board so that he could voice his opinions through the news media.

How is it that someone who emanates so much hatred and who has shown dangerous tendencies is free to walk the streets?  It is equally incomprehensible that Muslims, Christians, and Jews should hate each other, given that the Biblical patriarch Abraham established the principles of monotheism practiced by all three religions.  Frequently, Christians often forget that Jesus himself was Jewish.  Is a harmonious world too much to hope for?

Learn about Famous Jews

Native Americans wiped out by comet explosion over Canada

Clovis Spear Point
Clovis spear point

Approximately 15,000 years ago, the Earth started coming out of an ice age.  There were glaciers several miles thick in North America which trapped great volumes of water, and the sea level was 130 meters (426 feet) lower than today.  As the weather warmed, a land bridge opened between Alaska and Siberia in what is now the Bering strait.  This allowed humans to walk from Asia to America and establish new colonies.

At the time, the wildlife in North America was like Africa.  There were huge animals like mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and saber tooth tigers.  The Clovis people, who had spread throughout what is now the United States, hunted these animals with finely-crafted flint spear points and arrow heads.  And then, around 12,900 years ago, all the large animals disappeared from North America, and with them, the Clovis culture.

It was long thought that the Clovis people had annihilated the megafauna, but new studies reveal that the large animals and the Clovis people themselves were destroyed by a comet explosion over south-east Canada, around the great lakes.  The explosion was so bright and so intense that it ignited much of the vegetation of North America.  The forest fires created a layer of black dirt which became mixed with a thin dusting of microscopic diamonds from the comet.[1,2]  The smoke and dust from the impact blocked the light of the sun for many years and the global temperature dropped, creating a rapid return to glacial conditions. Without vegetation, the large herbivores could not survive, and the carnivores were left with nothing to eat.  The catastrophe started what is now called the Younger Dryas cool interval, which was a period of cold weather lasting approximately 1300 years.

band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona Younger Dryas cooling event

A band of dark sediment at Murray Spring, Arizona contains evidence for a cosmic impact that started an abrupt period of global cooling and a mass extinction in North America.  Similar deposits have been found in five other widely separated locations:  Bull Creek, Oklahoma, Gainey, Michigan, Topper, South Carolina, as well as Lake Hind, Manitoba, and Chobot, Alberta, in Canada. The highest concentrations of extraterrestrial impact materials occur in the Great Lakes area.

[1] D. J. Kennett, et al., Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas Boundary Sediment Layer, Science 2 January 2009: Vol. 323. no. 5910, p. 94. DOI: 10.1126/science.1162819 [link]

[2] University of Cincinnati. “Exploding Asteroid Theory Strengthened By New Evidence Located In Ohio, Indiana.” ScienceDaily 3 July 2008. [link]

Baking Bread in Ancient Egypt

Royal Bakery in Ancient Egypt

The development of agriculture approximately 10,000 years ago gave rise to permanent settlements which grew into cities and civilizations.  Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccon), also known as farro, was one of the first crops domesticated in the Ancient Near East, which included the modern countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Egypt.  Emmer wheat is not cultivated today because it is a low yielding variety.  Also, Emmer wheat is more difficult to mill into flour because the chaff does not come off through threshing.

Much of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian bread comes from archeological excavations that have found dessicated bread in tombs.  The bread was placed as a funerary offering to nourish the dead during their journey to the afterlife.  Some of these loaves of bread have been preserved since predynastic times by the arid Egyptian weather for as long as 5,000 years.

The illustration above is an etching from the tomb of Ramesses III, who reigned from 1186 BC to 1155 BC.[1]  It depicts the process of making bread at the royal bakery.  Bread was baked in many shapes, including the shapes of animals.  At the top left, there are two workers with poles.  The poles were used as pestles to pound the grains and remove the chaff.  On the top right, there are illustrations of two methods of baking.  There is an oven with legs and a lid, and there is a brick oven into which a worker is sticking his hand.  The open-top oven worked like the tandoor clay ovens which are used today to bake breads like lavash and naan.

Egyptian grain was turned into flour by milling it on a saddle quern, which functioned by moving the grindstone back and forth.  Grit from the quern stones was released into the flour and was baked in the bread.  Many Egyptian mummies show severe abrasion of the teeth from eating bread containing sand and particles from the grindstones.

[1] Ancient Egyptian cuisine