Sunday, October 22, 2017

Root Of Man Found in Canal

You may have noticed, but I love prehistory. We know so little about where man actually came from, and because there's so little archaeological evidence surrounding early man every time something new is discovered it's very exciting. So, as you might guess, I was super stoked when earlier this week archaeologists announced that nearly a year ago they dug up two 9.7 million year old teeth in Germany that changes all previous theories about the origins of man.

Before I start, I have to say that these teeth weren't actually found in a canal, they were found in the Rhine Riverbed. Which makes it even more amazing that despite being buried in dirt for millions of years, the teeth were in good condition. According to the scientists on the project, they look like they could have been pulled yesterday.

9.7 million year old human tooth germany
One of the teeth. Kinda gross, but really cool.

According to Herbert Lutz, the lead author for the study, these teeth show similar characteristics to teeth previously found in hominids, the generally supposed precursors to man. What makes these teeth so interesting is their location. All previous bones and fossils of this age have been found in Africa or the Mediterranean areas. There aren't a lot of fossils found in Central Europe, and certainly not near the Rhine. It had been previously supposed that hominids were centralized in Africa and the Mediterranean area, but the finding of these teeth suggest hominids may have lived farther north as well.

Though two teeth might not seem like a big find, they're a big deal when it comes to learning about early man. The wear marks on the teeth will be able to help historians guess at the diet of these early people, and analysis of the enamel can help guess the age of the owner.

The reason that archaeologists waited so long to release their find is because these teeth completely overthrow everything previously known about the evolution of man, and they wanted to be 120% sure before telling McGraw-Hill to start rewriting their textbooks. However, a year later they are confident enough in their dating to release the find.

This article leaves me with many questions, and, I'll admit, I've been having fun speculating about the answers. My biggest question though-- why have this primate's teeth have lasted for 9 million years, when I have 357 new cavities every time I go to the dentist?¹


¹I'm just kidding, of course. Obviously those teeth are fossilized, and the differences between the prehistoric diet and the diet of a modern day chocolate addict are vastly different.

Sources
Prehistoric Teeth Dating Back 9.7 Million Years 'Could Rewrite Human History'
9.7 Million Year Old Fossilized Hominin Teeth From Germany Set To Take a Big Bite Out of the African Human Origin Theory
9.7 Million Year Old Teeth Fossils Raise Questions About Human Origins

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Damn, Girl-Sammuramat and Semiramis-The Woman and the Legend

Ancient Assyria was brutal. Warmongering and conquest was an enormous part of the culture, and women had no place in war or political leadership¹. Queen Sammuramat, however, had a place in both.

Image result for Semiramis
Semiramis Hears of the Insurrection of Babylon
by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri
Unfortunately, there's not a lot of definitive, reliable information about Sammuramat. She lived before 1000 BCE, and it's difficult to retrieve written, official records from that era. However, it's a pretty good bet that Sammuramat was something special, because she's the basis for the legendary Semiramis, and legends don't usually spring out of nowhere.

But first the facts. We know that Sammuramat was the wife of king Shamshi-Adad V, and that after he died in battle she took the throne as regent for her son, Adad-Nirari III. She was involved in invasions of Armenia² and India, and she was a great builder. We also know that she held her throne for between 30-40 years--pretty impressive for a ruler of that time period.

And that would be about the end of the stone cold fact for Sammuramat, the rest is guesswork based off the myths of Queen Semiramis. There are enough similarities between Semiramis and Sammuramat to presume that Semiramis is based off of Sammuramat, Hellenization of her name aside.

According to the myths, Semiramis was the the daughter of Derceto, a Syrian fish goddess, and a handsome youth who served Derceto. Ashamed at having done the deed with a mortal, Derceto killed the youth, and abandoned Semiramis on the banks of a river to die. Luckily for Semiramis, the local avian community decided to keep her alive. Doves brought her food and milk, and covered her for warm. They nourished her until the keeper of the king's herds--Semmis-- found her and adopted her. All of this demi-goddess and dove nonsense later led to Semiramis being associated with Ishtar/Inanna/Astarte after her death.

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Map of the Assyrian Empire
Semiramis possessed, or course, an unearthly beauty, and so when Onnes, the governor of Syria, saw her, he immediately asked for her hand in marriage. Semmis agreed, and the pair married. According to legend, they were quite in love, and had two sons together. Legend also claims that not only was Semiramis really attractive, she was also really smart. Smart enough that Onnes consulted her before doing pretty much anything. So when the king asked Onnes to go to war, it wasn't long before Onnes asked Semiramis to join him.
The Assyrian army had been unsuccessfully attacking the city of Bactra in modern day Afghanistan when Semiramis turned up. She had been wearing long robes that covered her skin and made it impossible to tell if she was male or female³. When she arrived on the battlefield, she saw Assyrian soldiers besieging the city from every angle except at the raised acropolis, which was  undefended. Choosing a group of soldiers skilled at climbing, Semiramis led the men, and captured the acropolis, bringing down the city.

Shamshi-Adad was, understandably, intrigued to see who had captured the city he'd been going after for forever. When Onnes introduced him to his lovely wife, Shamshi-Adad fell instantly in love. He ordered Onnes to let him have Semiramis. Though the king said that Onnes could marry his daughter as recompense, Onnes wasn't too keen on that, and he went and hanged himself. Semiramis' feelings are unknown.

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Cuneiform on a rock near Van, Armenia. This writing
is sometimes attributed to Semiramis in myths
Sources disagree upon how exactly Semiramis came to the throne, but the most common story is that she convinced Shamshi-Adad to let her have power for five days. He agreed to do so, and in the biggest power move of the BCEs, Semiramis had him executed, and declared herself regent.

Next Semiramis started engaging in the traditional hobbies of kings--conquest, building, and sex. According to the legends, she was a master of all three. She lead a successful invasion of Armenia, kept stability in the restless Assyrian empire, and led an invasion of India that may or may not have gone well depending on who you ask. Semiramis for sure built the embankments at Babylon, but she's also credited with building the city of Babylon and the famous hanging gardens. (Spoiler alert, she didn't do either of those things) According to Armenian legends, she carved wisdom on the unbreakable stones near modern day Van.

And, of course, the most lurid myths about Semiramis are the myths about her insatiable sexual appetites. Wherever famous and powerful women go, myths about their voracious lust follow them. In Semiramis' case, the myths are that she never remarried in order to preserve her power, but instead took lovers from an elite regiment of guards in her army. After one night of passion, she had her lover executed to prevent endangering the political stability she worked so hard for.
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Semiramis Inspecting the City of Babylon
by Degas
Sammuramat, while definitely a colorful character, could not possibly have done all the things that the mythical Semiramis did. Historical dating of the ruins of Babylon prove that it existed long before she did, and the writing in the caves above Van, while written in Cuneiform, is not written in the Assyrian language. What is true, however, is that myths and legends grow up around powerful and exceptional people. A woman holding power, and for that long, in ancient Assyria was completely unprecedented, it only follows that myths would spring up around her, if not only to justify the status quo. By making Sammuramat a demigoddess with superhuman skills the Assyrians guaranteed that she would be the exception, not the rule. By making Sammuramat the exception, it was ensured that it would be incredibly difficult for another woman to hold the throne.

¹Enheduanna, remember, was Sumerian. The Sumerians and Assyrians, though they share a homeland and are often lumped together under the term 'Mesopotamian', are different civilizations.
²The Armenians aren't too fond of her
³Some myths attribute Semiramis with the invention of the chador.

Sources
Semiramis
Sammu-ramat
Sammu-Ramat and Semiramis: The Inspiration and the Myth
The True Story of Semiramis, Legendary Queen of Babylon
Sammuramat


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tory Island

Tory Island is a remote island off the coast of Ireland. Separated from County Donegal by a little more than seven miles of ocean, it is the last remaining part of Ireland to have a King. Tory is known for it's art, culture, scenery, and mythic past. According to the stories, Tory used to be home to the Fomorians-- massive one-eyed giants with a thirst for human blood.

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Dún Bhaloir
According to legend, Balor, the king of the Fomorians, lived in a gigantic fortress on Tory Island. He had locked his daughter Eithne in a tower, because of a prophecy that said he would be killed by his own grandson. Balor did end up being killed by his grandson Lugh, the son god, but the ruins of the fortress where Eithne was supposedly imprisoned stands on Tory Island today as the Dún Bhaloir, a narrow, rocky natural stone wall that juts out dramatically into the sea.

Ancient legend aside, Tory Island's history is defined by the arrival of Colm Cille, or St. Colombcile. Colm arrived on Tory sometime in the 6th century, prepared to spread Christianity. He encountered only pagans, but in a surprising turn of events, there was no hostility from either side, in fact, an Islander named Duggan asked for Colm's help. Tory was being raided by pirates all the damn time, and Duggan was, understandably worried about trifling things like his home, family,  life. Colm was so impressed by this man who took the initiative to share his problems, he declared Duggan king of Tory Island. He told Duggan to challenge the pirates. Duggan did so, and the pirates never bothered the island again. Impressed, the entire island converted to Christianity, and Colm built a monastery. Colm also gave Duggan a pot made of magical clay that drove all the rats out of Tory. While many people may be skeptical of 'magical clay', there are no rats on Tory, and the pot rests in the possession of the Duggan family to this day.

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Tau Cross, erected by Colm Cille, is one of
the few T shaped crosses in Ireland
St. Colombcile's declaration of kingship became one of the island's most cherished traditions, a tradition that carries on to this day. In modern times the king is elected, and his kingly duties include things like greeting tourists at the docks, seeing tourists off, maintaining the cultural integrity of the island, and politely refusing the Irish government's offers to resettle the people on Tory on the mainland. The current king of Tory is one Patsy Dan Rogers. Rogers, like many of the inhabitants, is an artist.

Art is another thing that Tory is famous for. The Islanders have a style of 'primitive painting' unique to the island. It was started in the 1950s when artist Derek Hill stopped by, and was saucily told by local James Dixon that he, Dixon, could paint much better than Hill. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and the beginning of a new school of painting devoted to capturing the beauty of island life. You can see the contents of the local art gallery here.

Today, Tory is a summer home for artists, and a short stop for tourists. The permanent population is rapidly shrinking in growth, with only four children being born on the island in the last eight years. The Donegal government has, more than once, offered to resettle the islanders on the mainland, but the few islanders that live on Tory can't be bought, and remain faithfully on the island.

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Patsy Dan Rogers, King of Tory


Sources
History of the Irish Race by Seamus MacManus
Round Ireland With a Fridge by Tony Hawks
History of Tory
A Visit to Tory Island
Tory Island, the Secret Kingdom
The Last King of Ireland
Balor

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Milk War

The Russian-Belarusian 'Milk War' of 2009 lasted a little over two weeks, and during those two weeks no shots were fired. One of the pettiest wars of all time, the only victims were Belarusian wallets and Russian dairy consumers.

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Belarus and Russia are neighbors, and have traditionally
had good diplomatic relations.
This war started when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, supposedly because Belarusian dairy didn't meet Russian health standards, but more likely because Belarus wasn't doing what Russia told it to. Russia has a history of banning imports from countries that make it made, and they were pretty upset with Belarus for a few reasons.

  1. Belarus refused to recognize the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia had assisted South Ossetia and Abkhazia in declaring independence from the country of Georgia. The only other country than Russia to have recognized those countries was the Central American country of Nicaragua. Russia wanted some support, but Belarus just wasn't there for them.
  2. Russia depends on a Belarus pipeline to pipe its oil to the rest of Europe. Russia tried to buy this pipeline from Belarus, but Belarus refused to sell.
  3. Belarus had become decided more pro European, releasing political prisoners, and trying to make good with the rest of Europe. This angered Russia, who isn't very friendly with Europe.
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Russian and Belarusian military marching together
on parade in 2011, two years after the end of the milk war
Belarus responded in a spectacularly mature fashion by imposing stricter border checkpoints on the Russia-Belarus border, and by refusing to attend the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a confederation of former Soviet states. The meeting had been to solidify a confederation wide military union. Belarus, formerly one of Russia's biggest supporters, not being present really infuriated the Russian government.

You can essentially envisage the Milk War as an argument between two particularly passive-aggressive teenage girls. Belarus won't give Russia what it wants, so Russia won't let Belarus bring its stuff over to Russia's house. This upsets Belarus, who decides that Russia can't come over to their house either. There had been a party planned for Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and a whole bunch of other people, but Belarus was still pissed off at Russia, so Belarus decided not to show up, which made Russia mad. A couple weeks later, they realize they need each other, and talk it out.
Today, dairy products pass freely through Belarus and Russia. Belarus still doesn't recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and continue to make pro-European overtures. Russia isn't very happy about this, but for the sake of regional security, they bite their tongues.

Sources