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How did female genital mutilation begin?

Surgical Tools
© Corbis
Forceps, rubber gloves, and other items used in female genital mutilation (FGM), lie on a table in Hargeysa, Somalia.
United Nations Member States recently approved the first-ever draft resolution calling for a global ban on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).

Hailed by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as a major step forward in protecting women and girls and ending impunity for the harmful practice, the text is expected to be endorsed by the UN general assembly this month.

How did the practice begin anyway?

Although theories on the origins of FGM abound, no one really knows when, how or why it started.

"There's no way of knowing the origins of FGM, it appears in many different cultures, from Australian aboriginal tribes to different African societies," medical historian David Gollaher, president and CEO of the California Healthcare Institute (CHI), and the author of Circumcision, told Discovery News.

Used to control women's sexuality, the practice involves the partial or total removal of external genitalia. In its severest form, called infibulation, the vaginal opening is also sewn up, leaving only a small hole for the release of urine and menstrual blood.

While the term infibulation has its roots in ancient Rome, where female slaves had fibulae (broochs) pierced through their labia to prevent them from getting pregnant, a widespread assumption places the origins of female genital cutting in pharaonic Egypt. This would be supported by the contemporary term "pharaonic circumcision."

The definition, however, might be misleading. While there's evidence of male circumcision in Old Kingdom Egypt, there is none for female.
Crusader

Baltic Crusades caused extinctions, end to pagan practices

Baltic Crusades
© Aleks Pluskowski
Stanford Assistant Professor Krish Seetah and Reading University student Rose Calis analyze animal bones in the basement of Riga Castle, Latvia.
The Baltic Crusades left major ecological and cultural scars on medieval pagan villages, and new archaeological evidence shows the campaign caused deforestation, pushed species to extinction and may have even ended a pagan practice of eating dogs.

From the 12th century to the 16th century, a group of a Germanic Christian knights known as the Teutonic Order waged war against pagans, who viewed much of nature as sacred, in what is today Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus and parts of Sweden and Russia. An archaeological and anthropological team, led by Stanford University researcher Krish Seetah, has been piecing together the changes that took place during this period, with an emphasis on the crusaders' use of wildlife.

"Underlying war was the use of animals for war," Seetah said in a statement. And some of the project's findings show how the Teutonic Order owed the success of its conquest in part to its horses, which were much larger than the ones used by the pagans. The researchers are also comparing food preparation across cultures, through an analysis of processing tools and cut marks on animal bones.
Pharoah

Oldest pharaoh carvings discovered in Egypt

Egyptian Boat
© Stan Hendrickx, John Coleman Darnell & Maria Carmela Gatto
Look closely -- standing on the top of this boat is a crowned figure who may represent Narmer, the first pharaoh to rule unified Egypt. Oarsmen propel the boat along.
The oldest-known representations of a pharaoh are carved on rocks near the Nile River in southern Egypt, researchers report.

The carvings were first observed and recorded in the 1890s, but only rediscovered in 2008. In them, a white-crowned figure travels in ceremonial processions and on sickle-shaped boats, perhaps representing an early tax-collecting tour of Egypt.

The scenes place the age of the carvings between 3200 B.C. and 3100 B.C., researchers report in the December issue of the journal Antiquity. During that time, Egypt was transitioning into the dynastic rule of the pharaohs.

"It's really the end of prehistory and the beginning of history," in Egypt, study researcher Maria Gatto told LiveScience.
Boat

Archaeologists uncover lost port of ancient Rome

French and Italian archaeologists have found the remains of a grain port that played a critical role in the rise of ancient Rome, France's National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said on Thursday.

Cores drilled at a location at the mouth of the River Tiber have revealed the site of a port whose existence has been sought for centuries, it said in a press release.
Family

Genes tell intricate tale of Jewish Diaspora

© Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock
The Aben Danan Synagogue in Fez, Morocco, brings a North African flare to the Jewish faith.
A new genetic map paints a comprehensive picture of the 2,000 or so years in which different Jewish groups migrated across the globe, with some becoming genetically isolated units while others seemed to mix and mingle more.

The new findings allow researchers to trace the diaspora, or the historical migration, of the Jews, which began in the sixth century B.C. when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah. Some Jews remained in Judah under Babylonian rule, while others fled to Egypt and other parts of the Middle East. Jewish migrations have continued into the present day.

The study researchers found that the genomes of Jewish North African groups are distinct from one another, but that they show linkages to each other absent from their non-Jewish North African neighbors. The findings reveal a history of close-knit communities prone to intermarriage, said study leader Harry Ostrer of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

"Virtually all the Jewish groups we've studied tend to be quite closely related to one another," Ostrer said. "It would seem for most Jewish groups, there is a biological basis for their Jewishness which is based on their sharing of DNA segments."
Map

Origin of the Romani people pinned down

© Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-J0525-0500-003 / CC-BY-SA, distributed under a Creative Commons license (German Federal Archives)
Romani with their wagon, photographed in the Rheinland of Germany in 1935.
Europe's largest minority group, the Romani, migrated from northwest India 1,500 years ago, new genetic study finds.

The Romani, also known as the Roma, were originally dubbed "gypsies" in the 16th century, because this widely dispersed group of people were first thought to have come from Egypt. Today, many consider "gypsy" to be a derogatory term.

Since the advent of better and better genetic technology, researchers have analyzed the genetic history of much of Europe, finding, for example, the history of the Jewish Diaspora written in DNA. But though there are 11 million Romani in Europe, their history has been neglected, said study researcher David Comas of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Spain

Linguistic history as well as a few limited genetic studies had already suggested the Romani originally hailed from India. To confirm this idea and uncover more details on the migration, Comas and his colleagues used a technique that compares DNA segments from across the whole genome with that of other populations. They used DNA samples from 13 groups of Romani spread across Europe.
Crusader

America's first Christmas happened in Florida

Xmas in Florida
© Visit Tallahassee
The first Christmas celebrated in the United States took place near Tallahassee, Fla., in 1539, according to historians there.

The region is known for its sunny weather, so it definitely was not a white Christmas.

"It was not a very festive celebration either," Rachel Porter, special programs coordinator for the Florida Department of State, told Discovery News. "There were no Christmas trees or presents. Instead, it was a religious observance with a Christmas mass."

Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto established his winter encampment site of 1539-40 near what is now the Historic Capitol in downtown Tallahassee. He, along with other members of his expedition, celebrated the first U.S. Christmas.

Porter, who is also an archaeologist that helped to excavate the Florida site, said a written chronicle from the 16th century sheds light on what took place there.

Eight months before Christmas, in May 1539, de Soto landed nine ships with over 620 men and 220 horses at present-day Shaw's Point in Bradenton. De Soto named it Espíritu Santo, meaning Holy Spirit. The ships brought priests, craftsmen, engineers, farmers, and merchants; some were with their families. Some came from Cuba, but most were from Europe and Africa. Few had traveled before outside of Spain.
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On the hunt for Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan
© Wikimedia Commons
Genghis Khan
For centuries historians and treasure seekers have searched for the burial site of history's most famous conqueror. New findings offer compelling evidence that it's been found. Oliver Steed reports

IN the 800 years since his death, people have sought in vain for the grave of Genghis Khan, the 13th-century conqueror and imperial ruler who, at the time of his death, occupied the largest contiguous empire, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific. In capturing most of central Asia and China, his armies killed and pillaged, but also forged new links between East and West. One of history's most brilliant and ruthless leaders, Khan remade the world.

But while the life of the conqueror is the stuff of legend, his death is shrouded in the mist of myths. Some historians believe he died from wounds sustained in battle; others that he fell off his horse or died from illness. And his final burial place has never been found. At the time great steps were taken to hide the grave to protect it from potential grave robbers. Tomb hunters have little to go on, given the dearth of primary historical sources. Legend has it that Khan's funeral escort killed anyone who crossed their path to conceal where the conqueror was buried. Those who constructed the funeral tomb were also killed - as were the soldiers who killed them. One historical source holds that 10,000 horsemen "trampled the ground so as to make it even"; another that a forest was planted over the site, a river diverted.

Scholars still debate the balance between fact and fiction, as accounts were forged and distorted. But many historians believe that Khan wasn't buried alone: his successors are thought to have been entombed with him in a vast necropolis, possibly containing treasures and loot from his extensive conquests.

Germans, Japanese, Americans, Russians, and the British all have led expeditions in search of his grave, spending millions of dollars. All have failed. The location of the tomb has been one of archeology's most enduring mysteries.

Until now.

A multidisciplinary research project uniting scientists in America with Mongolian scholars and archeologists has the first compelling evidence of the location of Khan's burial site and the necropolis of the Mongol imperial family on a mountain range in a remote area in northwestern Mongolia.

Among the discoveries by the team are the foundations of what appears to be a large structure from the 13th or 14th century, in an area that has historically been associated with this grave. Scientists have also found a wide range of artifacts that include arrowheads, porcelain, and a variety of building material.

"Everything lines up in a very compelling way," says Albert Lin, National Geographic explorer and principal investigator of the project, in an exclusive interview with Newsweek.
Pharoah

Largest ancient Egyptian sarcophagus identified in a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings

© General Antiquites Egyptiennes du Musee du Caire: The Royal Mummies Le Caire, 1912, public domain
The mummy of Merneptah was encased in a series of four sarcophagi, set one within the other. After his tomb was robbed, more than 3,000 years ago, he was reburied elsewhere and his two outer sarcophagi boxes were broken up.
The largest ancient Egyptian sarcophagus has been identified in a tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Kings, say archaeologists who are re-assembling the giant box that was reduced to fragments more than 3,000 years ago. Made of red granite, the royal sarcophagus was built for Merneptah, an Egyptian pharaoh who lived more than 3,200 years ago. A warrior king, he defeated the Libyans and a group called the "Sea Peoples" in a great battle.

He also waged a campaign in the Levant attacking, among others, a group he called "Israel" (the first mention of the people). When he died, his mummy was enclosed in a series of four stone sarcophagi, one nestled within the other.

Archaeologists are re-assembling the outermost of these nested sarcophagi, its size dwarfing the researchers working on it. It is more than 13 feet (4 meters) long, 7 feet (2.3 m) wide and towers more than 8 feet (2.5 m) above the ground. It was originally quite colorful and has a lid that is still intact. [See Photos of Pharaoh's Sarcophagus]
Bacon

Skeletons in Mediterranean cave show early settlers retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles from last Ice Age


The island of Favignana
Skeletal remains in an island cave in Favignana, Italy, reveal that modern humans first settled in Sicily around the time of the last ice age and despite living on Mediterranean islands, ate little seafood. The research is published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Marcello Mannino and colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany.

Genetic analysis of the bones discovered in caves on the Egadi islands provides some of the first mitochondrial DNA data available for early humans from the Mediterranean region, a crucial piece of evidence in ancestry analysis. This analysis reveals the time when modern humans reached these islands. Mannino says, "The definitive peopling of Sicily by modern humans only occurred at the peak of the last ice age, around 19,000 -26,500 years ago, when sea levels were low enough to expose a land bridge between the island and the Italian peninsula".

The authors also analyzed the chemical composition of the human remains and found that these early settlers retained their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, relying on terrestrial animals rather than marine sources for meat.
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