Secret HistoryS


Why the Black Death was the Mother of All Plagues

Plague germs teased from mediaeval cadavers in a London cemetery have shed light on why the bacterium that unleashed the Black Death was so lethal and spawned later waves of epidemics.

The DNA of Yersinia pestis shows, in evolutionary terms, a highly successful germ to which the population of 14th-century Europe had no immune defences, according to a study published Wednesday in the British journal Nature.

Comment: Even if it's true that these cadavers from a London cemetery tested positive for Yersina pestis, keep in mind that the field of DNA analysis has been plagued by problems of contamination from the DNA that is ever present on human hands, bacteria and other sources. Alan Cooper, head of the Ancient Biomolecules Centre at Oxford University has said that Yersinia DNA found in bodies buried in France have been a case of mistaken identification because of accidental contamination of samples. In addition to that, it is not the first time that bodies buried in "medieval" graves actually belonged to an earlier or later period other than that of the Black Death. In Italy, health authorities in the northern states called outbreaks of bubonic plague "minor pests", to distinguish them from the "major pests", which they took much more seriously.

There is compelling evidence that the Black Death was not an outbreak of bubonic plague, but was in fact caused by a hemorrhagic virus. This case is synthesized in the book Return of the Black Death, in which Susan Scott and Christopher Duncan from Liverpool University carefully put all the available clues together, tracking the plague from its first appearance out of nowhere and chronicling its unprecedented catastrophic effects on European civilization.

Studying the parish records and the historical data registered in English provinces, using information about the critical events in the lives of real people and computer modeling, Duncan and Scott were able to not only surmise the amount of time from the appearance of symptoms to death, but also to establish the following about the pandemic:
"It seems that the plague's latent period was 10-12 days", says Chris Duncan, "while the infectious period prior to the appearance of symptoms lasted 20-22 days, giving a total incubation period of about 32 days. This is exceptionally long and it explains why the plague could jump very long distances even in the days of primitive transport: for three weeks, people didn't realise they had been infected. People generally died five days after the first symptoms appeared, so the average time from infection to death was about 37 days. This is an interesting finding, because European health authorities had quickly determined on 40 days as a safe quarantine period for the plague." [From legend to legacy]

It also lays bare a pathogen that has undergone no major genetic change over six centuries.

© AP Photo/Museum of London ArchaeologyThis undated handout photo provided by Museum of London Archaeology shows skeletons in the East Smithfield Cemetery in London, where Black Death victims were buried in the 13th Century. Scientists used skeletons from this graveyard to decode the genome of the plague.
"The Black Death was the first plague pandemic in human history," said Johannes Krause, lead researcher and a professor at the University of Tuebingen, Germany.

"Humans were (immunologically) naive and not adapted to this disease," he said in an email exchange.

No bug or virus has wiped out a greater proportion of humankind in a single epidemic than the Black Death.

Brought to Europe from China, it scythed through the continent from 1347 to 1351, killing about 30 million people - about one in three of Europe's and nearly one in 12 of the world's population at the time.

Comment: The reader is encouraged to review this in-depth article which sheds more light on this subject: New Light on the Black Death: The Cosmic Connection by Laura Knight-Jadczyk.


'Oldest rakiya relic' found in Bulgaria

© Nadezhda ChipevaBozhidar Dimitrov
An inscription on a cup depicting rakiya - a traditional form of brandy - said to date from the 14th century CE is proof that Bulgarians invented the drink, National History Museum director Bozhidar Dimitrov said on October 10 2011.

The cup with the inscription was found during excavation work at the Trapezitsa peak near Veliko Turnovo, Dimitrov said, quoted by local news agency Focus.

He said that the find was "sensational" because it was proof that rakiya was invented in Bulgaria.

A photo of the archaeological finding is to be sent to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, which has been trying to register rakiya as a national product at the European Commission.


Ancient Greek ships carried more than wine

Greeks more than wine
If you ask me, the Greeks are by far the most remarkable ancient people, laying the base for science, philosophy and even art as we know it today. They also loved to trade, in order to achieve the means for the life they desired. However, we are only learning how and what they used to trade.

Ancient historians believed Greek sailors were using amphorae (ancient storage units) to transport and trade wine - but as it turns out, the Greeks once again are surprising.

Led by archaeologist Brendan Foley from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and geneticist Maria Hansson from Lund University in Sweden led the study, which retrieved DNA from amphorae found on the bottom of sunken transport ships. As expected, some of them contained grape DNA, consistent with the wine theory; however, others contained traces of olives, presumably from olive oil, but the analysis also revealed DNA hits from honey, ginger, walnut, fish, juniper, legumes, mint, oregano and thyme - a surprising collection of products.

Scientists hope to take this study one step further and figure out what the Greeks trasported during dfferent periods. Here is the abstract of the paper, as present on Nature.


Breathing Life Into an Extinct Ethnicity

The Taínos
© Peter Newark American Pictures / The Bridgeman Art LibraryThe Taínos were the first Native Americans to encounter European explorers, but this ethnic group is now extinct.

The Taínos were the first Native Americans to meet European explorers in the Caribbean. They soon fell victim to the diseases and violence brought by the outsiders, and today no Taínos remain.

But the footprints of this extinct ethnicity are scattered throughout the genomes of modern Puerto Ricans, according to geneticist Carlos Bustamante at the Stanford University School of Medicine in Stanford, California. On average, the genomes of Puerto Ricans contain 10 to 15% Native American DNA, which is largely Taíno, says Bustamante.

At a presentation at the 12th International Congress of Human Genetics in Montreal, Canada, Bustamante described preliminary results from a study that aims to reconstruct the genetic features of the Taíno people. The cryptic information was found in the genomes of 70 modern Puerto Ricans, some of the latest additions to the ongoing 1000 Genomes project, an international consortium whose goal is to find the variations in DNA sequence among the genomes of all human populations.


Is This the First Self-Portrait of Michelangelo?

© Rossella LorenziThe marble relief. A self portrait by Michelangelo?

A unique marble relief might be the first known self-portrait of Michelangelo, Italian art historians have announced this week.

Belonging to a private collection, the sculpture is a white marble tondo, or circle, about 14 inches in diameter. It depicts a bearded head in three-quarter profile.

"It's a very high-quality sculpture, carved with precision and delicacy. It certainly deserves much attention," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, told Discovery News.

The carving was identified as a possible work by Michelangelo back in 1999 by the late James Beck, professor of art history at Columbia University.

In his monograph The Three Worlds of Michelangelo, Beck called the artwork a "possible Michelangelo self portrait" and dated it to about 1545.

At that time, 70-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) had already completed masterpieces such as the David, the Pieta in the Basilica of St. Peter, the Medici chapels in Florence and the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

According to Beck, there was no doubt that the carved face of the old bearded man belonged to Michelangelo.


100,000 year old "Art Studio" Found; Evidence of Early Chemistry

© Science/AAASThe abalone shell was found with an ochre-covered grindstone on its lip.
Abalone shells used to mix paint found in South African cave, new study says.

A coating of bright red powder on the insides of a pair of 100,000-year-old abalone shells is evidence of the oldest known art workshop, a new study says.

The powder was found inside two shells in Blombos Cave near Still Bay, South Africa (map). The substance is the dried remains of a primitive form of paint made by combining colorful clay called ochre, crushed seal bones, charcoal, quartzite chips, and a liquid, such as water.

"A round [stone] covered the opening of one of the shells, and underneath it was absolutely bright red," said study leader Christopher Henshilwood, an archaeologist at the University of Bergen in Norway and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.

In addition to the shells, the team also found grindstones, hammerstones, the remains of a small fire pit, and animal bones that were used to transfer small amounts of the paint.


Ancient artifacts yield their secrets under neutron imaging

For the first time, neutron images in 3 dimensions have been taken of rare archaeological artifacts here at ORNL. Bronze and brass artifacts excavated at the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan were recently imaged in 3 dimensions using neutrons at HFIR's CG-1D Neutron Imaging instrument. The data that is now being analyzed will for the first time give eager archeologists and ancient historians significant, otherwise wholly inaccessible insight into the manufacturing and lives of cultures that once occupied settlements within the Roman Empire, Middle East, and Colonial-period New England.

© Brown UniversityNeutron image in 3 dimensions
The samples that were imaged in 3-D in August came from the collections of the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University. They include an elaborate hanging bronze oil lamp, a large Roman coin, and - most charmingly - a standing dog figure, which might have been either a religious dedication or perhaps a toy. Although their original provenance is unknown, they are all excellent examples of common metal finds from antiquity.

Principal Investigator Krysta Ryzewski, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Wayne State University and her co-PI Brian W. Sheldon, Professor of Engineering at Brown University loaned the artifacts for study from Prof. Susan E. Alcock, Director of Brown's Joukowsky Institute.


UK: Rare 18th century iron foundry unearthed in archaeological dig on Church Street in Ormskirk

© Unknown
An archaeological dig has unearthed an 18th century iron foundry in the heart of Ormskirk.

A site at the back of Church Street was stripped and excavated over three weeks by archaeologist Stephen Baldwin and his team in March 2009.

The final report has now been released and the foundry is thought to have dated back to as early as 1796.

The discovery was made after the land belonging to Aughton developer Alan Stockton was surveyed as part of the requirements of planning permission to develop the site.

Stockton Properties plans to develop the land into a wine bar and student accommodation.

Alan told the Advertiser: "I wasn't happy when they told me I'd have to dig up the site first. But when I realised what Steve had found, I got quite interested.

"It's an historic find and it's nice to part of that."


Rarest of Ancient Oil Lamps Proven to be Authentic

Ancient oil lamps are not terribly rare in the archaeology of Israel. They are one of the more frequent types of Biblical artifacts found during archaeological excavations in the Holy Land. About ten years ago, however, a very special lamp surfaced in the archaeological world.

The lamp is made of stone, not clay, and has seven nozzles rather than the single nozzle typically found on ancient oil lamps made of stone. This lamp is unique - there are no other lamps of this type known among the thousands of Biblical artifacts found in the land of Israel.

© UnknownThis stone oil lamp, once believed to be a forgery, has been proven to be one of the rarest types of ancient oil lamps.
Ten years ago, Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) editor Hershel Shanks was approached by the lamp's owner, who wanted to have the rare artifact published in BAR. At the time, Shanks declined the offer, since the authenticity of the object - one of the rarest ancient oil lamps from the Biblical world - could not be confirmed.


Inca takeovers not usually hostile

© V. Andrushko and E. Torres/American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2011A missing piece of bone above the left eye socket and adjacent fracture lines likely represent war wounds suffered by this man when the Inca conquered his settlement sometime between 1400 and 1532. Skeletal evidence of imperialistic Inca warfare is rare, a new study finds.
South America's ancient Inca rulers didn't establish the largest empire in the New World by being sweethearts. But their reputation as warmongers, at least according to some influential 16th- and 17th-century Spanish accounts of Inca history, appears to be undeserved, a new study of skeletal remains suggests.

It's more likely that Inca bigwigs adopted a range of largely nonviolent takeover tactics starting around 1000, say anthropologists Valerie Andrushko of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and Elva Torres of the National Institute of Culture in Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca empire. Head injuries suggestive of warfare appear on only a small proportion of skeletons previously excavated at Inca-controlled sites located near Cuzco, the researchers report in a paper published online September 30 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

"It appears that the Inca relied less on warfare to conquer other groups and more on political alliances, bloodless takeovers and ideological control tactics," Andrushko says.

An Inca conquest gambit mentioned in some Spanish accounts involved sending a diplomatic team to offer local groups gifts and military protection. Accepting this proposal required groups to submit to Inca rule. The Inca army waited nearby to make clear what happened to those who declined the offer.