Secret HistoryS


Santa's 'flying' reindeer story traced back to magic mushrooms

© David Carillet/Shutterstock
Shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions used to give dried Amanita muscaria mushroom as gifts on the winter solstice.

This Christmas, like many before it and many yet to come, the story of Santa and his flying reindeer will be told, including how the "jolly old elf" flies on his sleigh throughout the entire world in one night, giving gifts to all the good children. But according to one theory, the story of Santa and his flying reindeer can be traced to an unlikely source: hallucinogenic or "magic" mushrooms.

"Santa is a modern counterpart of a shaman, who consumed mind-altering plants and fungi to commune with the spirit world," said John Rush, an anthropologist and instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif.

According to the theory, the legend of Santa derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped into locals' teepeelike homes with a bag full of hallucinatory mushrooms as presents in late December, Rush said. "As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them, and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice," Rush told LiveScience. "Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story."

But that's just the beginning of the symbolic connections between the Amanita muscaria mushroom (at right) and the iconography of Christmas, according to several historians and ethnomycologists, or people who study the influence fungi has had on human societies. Of course, not all scientists agree that the Santa story is tied to a hallucinogen.


Medieval bras uncover the fascinating history of women's daily support needs

Lengberg bras
© Associated Press'The Lengberg bras come to us like a secret whispered directly from the past.'
Discovery of Austrian bras shows that how to dress one's breasts has always been a prominent concern for women

This morning, millions of women have got up and put on a bra - push-up, plunge, balconette, in myriad colours and shapes (the number of sports bras in London is increasing daily). What you do with your breasts when dressing is a question women have dealt with for a good 100,000 years, as long as we've worn clothes. Do you show them, hide them, lift them up, squeeze them together, go au naturel, or turn them into a different shape? They're flexible, functional, and desirable: a prominent feature of femaleness.

The way people dress tells you about their relationship with themselves and their world. It's the reason I'm a clothing historian. How women wrangle their breasts is one of the most intimate and fascinating ways to understand the social concerns of an age. So the discovery of early 15th-century linen bras in Lengberg Castle, Austria, is a five-line jackpot for dress historians. In her article on the finds in BBC History Magazine, researcher Beatrix Nutz from the University of Innsbruck elaborates on medieval documentary evidence for "breastbags". She brings to life that people had similar daily concerns to now: enhancing or reducing the bust "so there is no gossip in the city".


Silchester Iron Age finds reveal secrets of pre-Roman Britain

Silchester dig
The tiny skeleton of a sacrificial dog is unearthed at the Silchester dig.
By the gap in a hedge bordering the entrance off a muddy lane in Hampshire, the young diggers on one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in Britain have made a herb garden: four small square plots. The sudden blast of sunshine after months of heavy rain has brought everything into bloom, and there's a heady scent of curry plant and dill, marigold and mint.

Many of the plant seeds are familiar from Roman sites across Britain, as the invaders brought the flavours and the medical remedies of the Mediterranean to their wind-blasted and sodden new territory, but there is something extraordinary about the seeds from the abandoned Iron Age and Roman town of Silchester.


Dead Sea scrolls go online

Dead Sea scrolls online
© AFPThousands of images from the Dead Sea scrolls, which date back more than two millennia, were made available to the world.
Thousands of images from the Dead Sea scrolls, which date back more than two millennia, were on Tuesday made available to the world on a joint Israel Antiquities Authority and Google website.

The new website ims to make "the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century accessible to both scholars and the general public," an IAA statement said.

Using technology developed for NASA, the website offers high-resolution images of the ancient scrolls along with an advanced search engine.

The IAA is in the process of uploading images of the 900 biblical and other manuscripts, comprising some 30,000 fragments, which were discovered between 1947 and 1956 in the Qumran caves above the Dead Sea and photographed in their entirety with infra-red technology in the 1950s.

The parchment and papyrus scrolls contain Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic script, and include several of the earliest-known texts from the Bible, including the oldest surviving copy of the Ten Commandments.

The oldest of the documents dates to the third century BC and the most recent to about 70 AD, when Roman troops destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

The artefacts are housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the larger pieces are shown at the dimly lit Shrine of the Book on a rotational basis in order to minimise damage from exposure.

When not on show, they are kept in a dark, climate-controlled storeroom in conditions similar to those in the Qumran caves, where the humidity, temperature and darkness preserved the scrolls for two millennia.


Who killed Ramesses III?

CT Scan
For more than a century, Egyptologists have puzzled over the mysterious demise of Ramses III in 1155 B.C.E. According to trial records preserved on the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, an assassin murdered the pharaoh during a bloody palace coup. But was this truly the case, and if so, who led the plot?

A new study published today in BMJ shows that Ramesses III died violently after conspirators slashed his throat and reveals that one of the alleged ringleaders, Ramesses's son Pentawere, may have later been strangled. The research team arrived at these findings after analyzing both DNA samples and CT scans from two mummies: Ramesses III (with linen bandage, above right) and a previously unidentified young man found with him in a cache in Deir el Bahari.

The unidentified 20-year-old (shown with arrows pointing to unusual compressed skin folds) proved to be one of Ramesses's sons: He appeared to have been strangled (also evidenced in the scan by overinflated thorax) and buried with a goat skin, a pelt that ancient Egyptians deemed ritually impure and therefore a mark of dishonor befitting an assassin. Sitting on a throne has long been a perilous business, it seems.


Cranial deformation discovered in 1000 year old Mexican cemetery

Close to the small Mexican village of Onavas, south Sonora, archaeologists have uncovered the first pre-Hispanic cemetery of that area, dating to around 1,000 years ago.
© INAHJuvenile burial with shell bracelet and earrings.
A unique burial ground
© INAHIndividual buried with a turtle shell placed over the abdomen.
The burial ground consists of 25 individuals; 13 have intentional cranial deformation and five also have dental mutilation, cultural practices which are similar to those of pre-Hispanic groups in southern Sinaloa and northern Nayarit, but until now, have not been seen in Sonora.

Some of the individuals were wearing ornaments such as as bangles, nose rings, earrings, pendants made from shells found in the Gulf of California, and one burial contained a turtle shell, carefully placed over the abdomen.

However, the archaeologists noted that the burials were not accompanied by the expected offerings and containers.

For archaeologists, the discovery is exciting new evidence of cranial deformation, something which has not been recorded before in the Sonora cultural groups.

"This unique find shows a mix of traditions from different groups of northern Mexico. The use of ornaments made from sea shells from the Gulf of California had never been found before in Sonoran territory and this discovery extends the limit of influence of Mesoamerican peoples farther north than has been previously recorded," said archaeologist Cristina Garcia Moreno, director of the research project.

Garcia Moreno has been conducting work on behalf of Arizona State University with approval of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).


So, 21.12.2012 is the end of the world?

No, stop panicking. The Maya were not New Age gurus - but they could still teach our leaders a thing or two

Nasa's visualisation of the world's end was meant to launch on 22 December, but was posted on YouTube 10 days early.

There is clearly something about the combination of pyramids and ancient calendars which appeals to our inner kookiness. In the 19th century, even a scientist as brilliant as Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, was convinced that the future of the human race had been encrypted within the Great Pyramid of Giza. Nowadays, enthusiasts for predictive code-matrices look not to ancient Egypt but to the Yucatan. There, back in the first Christian millennium, calculations are widely believed to have been made that foretell the end of the world. The date? A mere six days' time: 21 December.

Time to stock up on the baked beans, then? Not quite. To worry that the world will end next Friday would be to misunderstand the ancient people whose calendar supposedly pinpoints the date as terminal. The Maya, unlike their contemporaries in Christian Europe, did not live under the shadow of apocalypse. Their conception of the immensity of time was so precocious as to be almost chilling. An inscription on a temple in the great city of Palenque discusses events that are scheduled to take place in the year AD 4772. The cycles of the Maya calendar, far from ending in 2012, are destined instead to revolve for eons and eons.


Scientists accused of distorting theory of human evolution by misdating bones

© Paul Hanna/ReutersA skull from one of the bodies found in a pit in Spain.
Briton says Spanish researchers are out by 200,000 years and have even got the wrong species

It is the world's biggest haul of human fossils and the most important palaeontology site in Europe: a subterranean chamber at the bottom of a 50ft shaft in the deepest recesses of the Atapuerca cavern in northern Spain. Dozens of ancient skeletons have been unearthed.

La Sima de los Huesos - the Pit of Bones - has been designated a Unesco world heritage site because of its importance to understanding evolution, and millions of euros, donated by the EU, have been spent constructing a museum of human antiquity in nearby Burgos.

But Britain's leading expert on human evolution, Professor Chris Stringer, of the Natural History Museum, has warned in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology that the team in charge of La Sima has got the ages of its fossils wrong by 200,000 years and has incorrectly identified the species of ancient humans found there.

Far from being a 600,000-year-old lair of a species called Homo heidelbergensis, he believes the pit is filled with Neanderthal remains that are no more than 400,000 years old. The difference in interpretation has crucial implications for understanding human evolution.

"The Atapuerca finds are hugely important," said Stringer. "There is no other site like it in terms of numbers of bones and skulls of our ancient predecessors. It is the world's biggest collection of ancient human fossils and the team there has done a magnificent job in excavating the site. However, if we cannot correctly fix the age and identity of the remains then we are in trouble. Getting that wrong even affects how we construct our own evolution."

Comment: For more information of the difficulties faced by scientists in understanding our evolution see:
The Hidden History of Human Evolution


What the Romans didn't do for us

Briton road
© Caroline Malim/James Reed PRA reconstruction of the different levels of the road discovered at Bayston Hill quarry in Shropshire.
The discovery that a Roman road may in fact have been made by Iron Age Britons offers a glimpse of a far more sophisticated society than previously thought

It's not a question often asked, but perhaps it should be. What did the Druids do for us? The discovery of a road in Shropshire that was built by pre-Roman engineers suggests that indigenous Britons may have been much more accomplished than we - or the Romans - liked to imagine. The road itself tells the story well.

The route had long been known as a lost Roman road, named Margary No 64 after the man who first mapped what everyone assumed to be the country's earliest network. It was visible as a low earthwork and as marks in ploughed fields, and in 1995 archaeologists dug up a bit. Sure enough, it looked Roman.

But in 2009, quarrying by Tarmac was due to destroy 400m of it, giving archaeologists a rare opportunity to expose a long section of road, some of it, crucially, very well preserved. At first, it still looked Roman, from its cambered, cobbled surface on a metre of hardcore and a clay base, to the ditches at the sides with a thin scatter of Roman rubbish. However, dig director Tim Malim noticed that the road had twice been rebuilt, and knew its history could be dated using a technique that tells you when buried mineral grains were last exposed to sunlight.


UK experts say Stonehenge was place of healing

© Kirsty Wigglesworth, Associated PressIn this Monday March 31, 2008 file photo, archaeology students Steve Bush, right, and Sam Ferguson, left, sieve through earth amongst the stones at Stonehenge, England. Two British archeologists say the first excavation at the site of Stonehenge in more than 40 years has shed new light on the purpose of the landmark. Professors Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill told journalists Monday, Sept. 22, 2008, that Stonehenge was a kind of primeval Lourdes. They say the stone circle was a center of healing which attracted the sick and infirm from all over prehistoric Europe. They also say they have dated the first stone monuments at the site to about 2,300 B.C.
The first excavation of Stonehenge in more than 40 years has uncovered evidence that the stone circle drew ailing pilgrims from around Europe for what they believed to be its healing properties, archeologists said Monday.

Archaeologists Geoffrey Wainwright and Timothy Darvill said the content of graves scattered around the monument and the ancient chipping of its rocks to produce amulets indicated that Stonehenge was the primeval equivalent of Lourdes, the French shrine venerated for its supposed ability to cure the sick.

An unusual number of skeletons recovered from the area showed signs of serious disease or injury. Analysis of their dental records showed that about half were from outside the Stonehenge area.

"People were in a state of distress, if I can put it as politely as that, when they came to the Stonehenge monument," Darvill told journalists assembled at London's Society of Antiquaries.

He pointed out that experts near Stonehenge have found two skulls that showed evidence of primitive surgery, some of just a few known cases of operations in prehistoric Britain.

"Even today, that's the pretty serious end of medicine," he said. Also found near Stonehenge was the body of a man known as the Amesbury Archer, who had a damaged skull and badly hurt knee and died around the time the stones were being installed. Analysis of the Archer's bones showed he was from the Alps.

Darvill cautioned, however, that the new evidence did not rule out other uses for Stonehenge.