Secret History


Stone-tipped spears predate existence of humans

© TD White
Remains of the world's oldest known stone-tipped throwing spears, described in a new paper, and so ancient that they actually predate the earliest known fossils for our species by 85,000 years.

There are a few possible implications, and both are mind-blowing. The first is that our species could be much older than previously thought, which would forever change the existing human family tree.

The second, and more likely at this point, is that a predecessor species to ours was extremely crafty and clever, making sophisticated tools long before Homo sapiens emerged.


Plot to kill JFK foiled three years before his assassination

© Cape Cod Times/Steve Heaslip
Copy photo of the Cape Cod Standard-Times from December 16, 1960.
Three years before that fateful day in Dallas 50 years ago, an assassination attempt on John F. Kennedy was thwarted by a New Hampshire postmaster, a small-town Florida patrolman and some quick investigative work by federal law enforcement officials.

The attempt on the president-elect's life was barely a blip on the news radar screen, overshadowed by a mid-air crash of two airplanes over New York City that killed 134 people.

In the Cape Cod Times of Dec. 16, 1960, the arrest of Richard Pavlick got two paragraphs under a headline, "Man Tells Plan To Bomb Kennedy." According to that story, Pavlick, a New Hampshire man with a history of mental illness, had "cased" both Kennedy's summer home in Hyannisport and his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla., and told authorities after he was caught that security was "lousy."

The plane crash, along with a sparsely attended meeting about the fledgling Cape Cod National Seashore, dominated the top of the Times page.

"The plane crash was a huge, huge story and that really swept, I think, a major part of this story underneath the table," said David Royle, executive producer of a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the assassination attempt called "Kennedy's Suicide Bomber" scheduled to air Nov. 17. "It was just one of those quirks of history and we all know from the news business how easy that can happen. You have a major story, a really significant one, and the next thing you know it's vanished. It's just pure luck the way that happened."

Pavlick's threat was real. The anti-Catholic zealot followed Kennedy across the country and had the means - 10 sticks of dynamite purchased from a New Hampshire hardware store - to carry out his plan, Royle said.

"I was pretty aggravated," Robert Rust, a retired assistant U.S. attorney in Miami reached by phone at his Coral Gables, Fla., home, said of the lack of attention Pavlick's attempt garnered. "When (the Smithsonian) came to do an interview, I said, 'Where have you been for the last 50 years?'"


King Tut death by chariot? Not so fast

© Jean-Pierre Dalbéra /Wikimedia Commons
A head statue of Tutankhamun made of wood covered with plaster and then painted. The statue was found by Howard Carter in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's death is a mystery which may never be solved, says a new study on the best-known pharaoh of ancient Egypt.

The study indirectly dismisses a recent theory which ascribed King Tut's demise to a horrific chariot accident. According to the claim, which was detailed on Sunday in a new British documentary, the high-speed chariot crash would have smashed the boy king's rib cage and many of his internal organs, including his heart.

"It is not the first time that this mode of death has been mentioned," Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, told Discovery News.

"I wonder how could they say his internal organs were crushed. We won't know until the canopic jars housing his organs are examined," she said.

Frank Rühli, Head of the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, agreed.

"Moreover, the mechanism of explanation for the accident is not fully provable," Rühli told Discovery News.

According to the researchers, the diagnosis of trauma caused by a chariot accident is one of the many hypothesis about King Tut's death for which not enough evidence can be found.


Archaeologists uncover secrets of Portus, once gateway to Rome

© The Guardian, UK
An artist's impression of the 60-room imperial palace at Portus that once covered nine acres of land to the south-west of present-day Rome.
British archeologists digging near Rome have built up an accurate picture of Portus, the once-mighty port that could host 350 ships at a time and kept the ravenous capital of the Roman empire supplied with grain, wine, oil, slaves and luxuries from around the world.

The team says it has also unravelled the mystery of how the site's luxurious palace and huge warehouse vanished almost overnight, leaving no trace of the port's scale and wealth.

Rather than being burned down by invading hordes as the empire declined, or left to disintegrate, a team lead by the University of Southampton has revealed that Portus was systematically demolished in the 6th century by the Byzantines - the eastern emperors who fought the invading Ostrogoths to regain control of Rome.


Truth and speculations about the 'magnificent' T. rex

© Andrew Howe/Getty Images
Even one of the best known dinosaurs has kept some secrets. Here is what palaeontologists most want to know about the famous tyrant.

In late 1905, newspaper reporters gushed over the bones of a prehistoric monster that palaeontologists had unearthed in the badlands of Montana. When The New York Times described the new 'Tyrant saurian', the paper declared it "the most formidable fighting animal of which there is any record whatever". In the century since, Tyrannosaurus rex has not loosened its grip on the imaginations of the public or palaeontologists.

Stretching more than 12 metres from snout to tail and sporting dozens of serrated teeth the size of rail spikes, the 66-million-year-old T. rex remains the ultimate example of a prehistoric predator - so much so that a media frenzy erupted this year over a paper debating whether T. rex predominantly hunted or scavenged its meals1. This infuriated many palaeontologists, who say the matter was resolved long ago by ample evidence showing that T. rex could take down prey and dismantle carrion. What particularly vexed researchers was that this non-issue overshadowed other, more important questions about T. rex.

The dinosaur's evolutionary origins, for example, are still a mystery. Researchers are eagerly trying to determine how these kings of the Cretaceous period (which spanned from 145 million to 66 million years ago) arose from a line of tiny dinosaurs during the Jurassic period (201 million to 145 million years ago). There is also considerable debate about what T. rex was like as a juvenile, and whether palaeontologists have spent decades mistaking its young for a separate species. Even the basic appearance of T. rex is in dispute: many researchers argue that the giant was covered in fluff or fuzz rather than scales. And then there is the vexing question of why T. rex had such a massive head and legs but relatively puny arms.


Tyrannosaurus rex grew heftier than museum fossils suggest

© Mark Garlick/SPL/Corbis

Even as adults, Tyrannosaurus rex and other dinosaurs may have never stopped growing, adding mass to their bones if not inches to their length.
Structure of bones' superficial layers suggests most dinosaurs were still growing when they died.

Even as adults, T rex and other dinosaurs may have never stopped growing, adding mass to their bones if not inches to their length.

Big bones belong to adults that have finished growing, smaller bones to juveniles that are still sprouting up. It seems like the safest of assumptions, but it is one that is fraught with peril when applied to dinosaurs.

Presenting this week at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's meeting in Los Angeles, California, palaeontologist Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana, revealed that when he cut open the fossilized bones of dinosaurs in the museum's collection and studied the layers of bone within, he found signs in most specimens that the animals were still growing at the time of their death.

In fossils labelled as juveniles, the outer bone layers contained canals that would once have held blood vessels, as well as large groups of osteocytes - cells that are important for bone formation. But Horner was surprised to find similar signs of growth in adult fossils, because in most animals that are alive today, the skeleton tends to stop growing once adulthood is reached.


McCarthyism continued: FBI suspected sci-fi author Isaac Asimov to be a Soviet spy

© Rowena
Isaac Asimov was one of America's most prolific and best-loved science fiction authors, publishing more than 500 volumes in a career that spanned five decades. But newly released papers show that, in the 1960s, the FBI investigated him on suspicion of being a Soviet spy.

Never-before-seen documents reveal that the agency acted to investigate Asimov in 1965 receiving a leaked US Communist Party list which included the I, Robot author's name. The list was of individuals who had either been contacted by the party or were considered "possibly amenable to such as supporters".


Pig-like beast leads the way to ancient cave drawings

© Alexine Keuroghlian/WCS
Researchers surveying pig-like animals called peccaries in Brazil inadvertently discovered ancient drawings of animals, like the reptile shown here.
White-lipped peccaries may not be glamorous-looking, but like their truffle-sniffing cousins, they sometimes turn up treasure.

On the trail of the pig-like creatures in Brazil, researchers made an unexpected and rare discovery: cave drawings showing armadillos, birds and reptiles, etched into stone thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists who examined the rock art say hunter-gatherers likely created the drawings 4,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Researchers with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) made the find while surveying white-lipped peccaries in Brazil's Cerrado plateau, a vast savanna region, in 2009. The animals, which travel long distances, are considered environmental indicators of healthy forests.

"Since we often work in remote locations, we sometimes make surprising discoveries, in this case, one that appears to be important for our understanding of human cultural history in the region," Alexine Keuroghlian, a researcher with WCS's Brazil program, said in a statement.


French archaeologists discover beautifully preserved deformed skull

© io9
Normally, intentionally elongated or flattened skulls are associated with ancient Mesoamerican cultures. But this exquisite specimen, which dates back some 1,500 years, was recently found at a dig in Alsace, France.

There's an industrial park in Pays de Sainte Odile, France, that's about to be developed, prompting archaeologists to perform a major search over 7.5 acres. It resulted in the discovery of a whopping number of artifacts and human and animal remains from Neolithic, Gallic, Gallo-Roman, and Merovingian societies. That's over 6,000 years worth of stuff.

The History Blog does a good round-up of the various items found, including a Bronze Age grave containing both children and dogs, Gallic glass ornaments, coins, pottery, and a Gallo-Roman bathing complex.


The amazing Antikythera mechanism

© TodayIFoundOut
A replica of the Antikythera mechanism, showing the front panel.
Just over a century ago in the Mediterranean Sea in between Greece's Peloponnese and the Isle of Crete, a sponge diver came across an amazing discovery: an ancient shipwreck from classical times, filled with pottery, jewels, wine and so many marble and bronze statutes that, upon surfacing, he "gabbled that he had found a heap of dead, naked women".

The most significant piece from the find, however, was only about the size of a shoebox, and at first seemed to be merely a few unremarkable lumps of corroded bronze. Overshadowed by its flashier fellow castaways, the Antikythera Mechanism drew no serious attention from scholars until many years later.

In fact, it wasn't until 1971 that scientists began to realize the intricate workings, precise measurements and astronomical expertise that the device displayed. So complex, and shrouded in centuries of deterioration, even today, researchers are still uncovering the secrets of this unique artifact.