01 Feb 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter

No Comments Ancient civilizations, Explorers, Maya, Tombs, Uncategorized


Diseases’ Impacts of World History

Disease has plagued humans from the beginning of our existence.  Cancer, including breast and prostate cancer, tuberculosis, sinusitis and dental disease affected the ancients world-wide.  A third of all mummies studied show evidence of clogged arteries. It has recently been discovered that 5300-year old Ȍtzi, the Iceman, had H pylori, a bacterial infection that can cause stomach ulcers and must have made him very uncomfortable (A. Kraft, CBS News, Jan. 7, 2016).  It can be found also in pre-Columbian Mexico so it was widespread.  Diseases that thrive in large populations such as plague, influenza, measles and cholera did not become big killers until the rise of cities where they often determined the political and social outcome of history.

Smallpox has been a major threat and was present at least 5,000 years ago in northern Africa.  It is estimated that at least one third of those infected died of the disease which was not controlled until 1798 when Edward Jenner introduced the vaccine.  Before that, countless millions including many important leaders succumbed to it:  Ramses V of the 18th dynasty in Egypt in 1156 b.c.e., Queen Mary II of Scotland in 1694, the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph I in 1711, Russian Tsar Peter II in 1730 and French King Louis XV in 1774. Documents from India and China show massive infections there also, and it was smallpox that almost completely wiped out the Aztecs, Incas and other Amerindian populations in the Americas after the arrival of Spanish explorers (H. Whipps, Live Science, June, 2008). This event had global significance as the precipitous drop in the indigenous population allowed Europeans to freely occupy the devastated land.

A plague (perhaps Typhoid Fever) caused Athens to lose the Peloponnesian War in 430 b.c.e. It killed nearly a third of the population as well as the brilliant Athenian leader, Pericles.  No other leader was up to the job and the city eventually fell to the Spartans.  Another disease that probably lost a war was cholera in 218 b.c.e. when Hannibal set out to attack Rome with 50,000 troops and animals (Polybius and Livy say 80 elephants).  Nearly half of Hannibal’s troops were lost crossing the Italian Alps (Polybius), probably because the first line would have had the use of pristine mountain streams but those streams would have been polluted by the time the last troops got to them. The war would likely have had a different outcome if Hannibal had not lost so many soldiers (and nearly all of the elephants).

A particularly bad type of malaria probably helped to cause the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century c.e. British scientists David Soren and Robert Sallares have found DNA evidence that reveals malaria as the cause of many children’s deaths (children are especially vulnerable to malaria) around Lugnano, Italy, and Roman writers tell of a pestilence there and that many people died of fevers. The labor shortage left swamps undrained allowing mosquitos to spread so that Rome, a city of millions, was reduced to a town of only a few thousand (A. Thompson, BBC, Feb. 17, 2011) and unable to defend itself from attack.

A very devastating disease, the Bubonic Plague, has been found as early as 5th century b.c.e. in Egyptian mummies (E. Panagiotakopulu, Journal of Biogeography, 2004, 31) and sounds similar to the devastating wave that moved along trade routes from Asia through Europe in the 14th century c.e.  That medieval plague killed at least seventy-five million people signaling the beginning of the end of Mongol power in Asia and ending the feudal system in Europe.  That changed European society and economy and helped to foster an intellectual movement that led to the European Renaissance, the Reformation, and stimulated the scientific thinking that eventually spawned the Industrial Revolution (Whipps, April 2008).

Modern technology makes world-changing diseases less likely to alter history but the HIV epidemic and the recent ebola scare serve to remind us of the power of nature.

10 Jan 2016

Notes from a Time Sifter

Comments Off on Notes from a Time Sifter Ancient civilizations, Explorers, Heritage, Uncategorized, Vikings
L'Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

L’Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

The Vikings

In August of 2016, Time Sifters is offering a “Viking Trail” Tour to the western coast and northern tip of Newfoundland.  This tour gives you a chance to see the ruins of the Vikings in North America.  The Vikings settled in northeastern Canada more than 400 years before Columbus.  The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the word “Vikings” as “Germanic Norse seafarers, speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries.”  They actually went as far east as Baghdad, and as far west as North America. They were farmers who began to spread from their native territory about 700 c.e. probably because good farmland is not plentiful in Scandinavia.  They did not call themselves “Vikings” (National Geographic, Oct. 2010). The word probably comes from the Old Norse vik meaning “fjord” (bay) and Víkingar, which means traveler from the fjords. It was not used to describe the Norsemen until the 18th century. Before that, the Germans called them Ascomanni “ashmen” because they built their boats of ash wood. The Gaelic word for them was Lochlannach meaning men of the lake, and the Anglo-Saxons called them the Dene (beach?). Farther east, the Greeks called them Variagoi (sailors) and the Slavs, Byzantines and Arabs referred to them as the Rus (rowers). All of those visited by the Vikings wrote about them, but the Vikings themselves were not literate. They did use an Old Norse system of symbols called runes that represented things and ideas but they do not mention voyages.

Vikings were physically similar to other Europeans but they liked being blond and used strong lye soap to make their hair lighter. Viking women had more rights than most women at that time although the eldest son inherited the family farm.  Both men and women fought in battle. They used simple weapons, wore no armor and, contrary to popular belief, their helmets had no horns. The Vikings were excellent sailors and the honored were buried in their boats along with their weapons.  They had their own pantheon led by Odin, the father of many of the lesser gods, but adopted Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries (History.com).

The Viking tribes never unified (they often fought each other) yet their raids were a major threat to the local populations (that is why the word “Viking” came to mean “pirate raid”). The earliest reference to them comes from the English monk, Alcuin, who, in 793, wrote that there had never been such a terror in England before the Vikings arrived. They killed and enslaved the locals and took home their farm goods as well as the treasures from the monasteries. But many also settled in their new lands as farmers, merchants and craftsmen. Some eventually became leaders: Danish kings ruled England from 1016 to 1042, King Henry I of France (d. 1135) was the last royal of Viking descent, and Russian royals have carried Nordic DNA since the 9th century.  Today, many Europeans (and Americans of European origin) also carry Viking DNA; at least one of every thirty-three British men are Viking descendants (Daily Mail, March 9, 2014).  They made a huge impact on Europe where hundreds of Old Norse words have become part of the language; they founded the cities of Oslo, Kiev and Novogrod, made Dublin the capital of Ireland and took over Normandy.  They discovered Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and North America.

Vikings had already settled in Iceland and Greenland in the 10th century c.e.  when Leif Erikson explored the coast of North America naming his discovery “Vinland” because of the wild grapes there.  Three years later, Thorfinn Karlsefni sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland (L’Anse Aux Meadows) with his family, friends and livestock.  They found timber, fish and good pasture, but also some unfriendly Native Americans who were able to chase Thorfinn and family back to Iceland after only three years (Linden, Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2004).  Still, others came and spread, founding real colonies with permanent houses.  Archaeologists have found the remains of at least 400 farmsteads in Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia.  But the settlements did not thrive, perhaps because of hostile Indians or weather changes and by 1500 they had all been deserted, leaving only ruins for future archaeologists.


02 Dec 2015

Notes from a Time Sifter

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Undated handout graphic issued by the University of Birmingham of how lunar calendar’s ‘pits’ at Warren Field discovered in Crathes, Aberdeenshire, are believed to have aligned to celestial bodies over the course of the year, as archaeologists believe they have discovered the world's oldest "calendar" in the field in Scotland. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date date: Monday July 15, 2013. New analysis of a group of 12 pits excavated in Aberdeenshire shows they appear to mimic the phases of the moon to track lunar months over the course of a year. Until now the first formal time-measuring devices were thought to have been created in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago.But the pit alignment near Crathes Castle predates those discoveries by thousands of years, experts say. The Mesolithic monument at Warren Field is said to have been created by hunter-gatherer societies nearly 10,000 years ago. It was excavated between 2004-06 and recently analysed by a team led by the University of Birmingham. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday July 15, 2013. See PA story HISTORY Calendar. Photo credit should read: University of Birmingham/PA Wire  NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.

University of Birmingham: how lunar calendar’s ‘pits’ at Warren Field discovered in Crathes, Aberdeenshire, are believed to have aligned to celestial bodies over the course of the year, as archaeologists believe they have discovered the world’s oldest “calendar” in the field in Scotland. 

Winter Solstice

It is December and the Christian world is preparing to celebrate the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth, even though most scholars believe that he was not born on December 25.  So why is Christmas celebrated on that day? Because it is the first day after the winter solstice when any perceptible extra daylight can be seen.  It is a day of hope, a new year, and people have been celebrating it long before Jesus was born, as far back as Neolithic times.

The winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, happens in the Northern Hemisphere on the 21st or 22nd of December and in the southern hemisphere on the same days in June. In anticipation of the return of longer sunshine, the ancient farmers, although they faced several more months of winter, viewed the solstice as a promise that spring was on the way. They built calendars to alert them of the sun’s movement in the sky. The stone circle now called the Adams Calendar, built in Mpumalanga, South Africa ca. 11,000 b.c.e., the 12 pits dug near Aberdeenshire, Scotland ca. 8000 b.c.e., Stonehenge in England, the corridor at Newgrange in Ireland (both built ca. 3000 b.c.e.), the Neolithic Gosec Circle in Germany, the Adena Sun Serpent (800 b.c.e.) in southern Ohio, the Intiwatana stone (15th century, c.e.) at Machu Picchu, and many more all mark the rising or setting sun on the day of the solstice..

It is not surprising that every culture celebrated the winter solstice. It was the perfect time for a holiday because all of the ingredients for a good party were available. By that time, the last of the perishable fruit and vegetables had to be consumed before they spoiled, there would have been fresh meat because most of the cattle had to be slaughtered to keep them from starving during the winter, and by late December, the beer and wine made from the fall harvest would have fermented enough to be drinkable. So we find in the archaeological record evidence of winter festivities all the way back to when we first became farmers.

Solstice celebrations were elaborate all over the world.  The Zagmuk festival in ancient Babylonia was celebrated for twelve days with feasting, gift exchanges and regatta races down the Euphrates River, the Scandinavian societies celebrated the rebirth of the Sun Goddess with drinking the Jȯl (Yule) ale for three days and nights, the ancient Greeks extended the merriment to two weeks during their winter Poseidea, but the Romans took celebrating to an extreme. Their Brumalia festival honored Bacchus, the god of grapes and wine, and added Saturnalia, devoted to the god of agriculture, Saturn, that evolved into a rowdy several days of eating, drinking, gambling, gift-giving, and role reversal that imitated the sun’s reversal in the sky. Also, Emperor Aurelian, in the 3rd century c.e., moved the feast day for the Roman sun god, Sol, which was in August when the sun was at its most intense, to December 25, the traditional birthday of Mithra, the Zoroastrian sun god who become Sol Invictus Mythras and surpassed Jupiter as the supreme Roman deity. In the 4th century c.e. most Romans had adopted Christianity and the Chronography of AD 354 codex, for the first time, lists December 25 as the beginning of the liturgical year and refers to this day in AD 1 as dominus Iesus Christus natus est VIII kal. Ian, the first reference to December 25 as the birthday of Jesus, linking him to all of the previous celebrations of hope. This is how Christmas ended up on December 25, still a good day for a party.

02 Nov 2015

Notes from a Time Sifter

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Flags, symbolism, and identity

During the summer of 2015, flags became a topic in the news when it was decided to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina.  Flags are strong symbols representing many things and so provoke intense feelings among people.  They have been used for that reason for a very long time. The word “flag” comes from “fflaken”, an Old Saxon word meaning “to fly” and have been used as a way to identify a group or an idea since prehistoric times. Cloth flags “fly” in the breeze but not all flags were made of cloth.

The earliest flags appear to have been made of wooden poles with carvings at the top.  Egyptian Nome leaders carried standards as early as the Early Dynastic Period (31st century b.c.e.). Others were made of metal attached to a pole. The oldest metal “flag” is made of bronze and dates to the 4th millennium b.c.e.  It was found in Kerman, Iran. Other images of “flags” have been found on ancient Greek and Phoenician coins indicating the common use of flags.

As far as we know, the Romans were the first to fly a cloth flag.  More than two-thousand years ago, Romans fastened a piece of colored and decorated fabric to the end of a spear.  It was called a “vexillum” which means “guide” and was used to keep the unit together because the soldiers could see it above the battle.  Later Romans tied cloth flags to a pole creating the flag we know today.  Flags were also carried onto the battlefields so that one could tell the difference between friend and foe. The flag’s symbols were painted on shields for the same reason, and by the Middle Ages, painted on suits of armor to demonstrate the ancestry of the knight who wore it. This was the origin of the “Coat of Arms “originally intended to protect and identify the wearer, and later used to brag about one’s heritage (medievalclassroom.com).

Flags also identified the owners of ships as they sailed the seas.  During the “Age of Exploration” (15th – 17th centuries), rival ships attacked each other and pirates roamed the seas to steal cargo.  Pirate flags warned of the consequences of resistance by raising their flags which were red, signifying blood, or black, signifying death.  Sometimes the pirate flags carried the picture of a skull with crossed bones or swords beneath the skull to show that there was no mistake in their intentions.  The pirate flag that we see in the movies with a white skull on a black background called the “Jolly Roger” is accurate except that the white skull usually had a red background.  Its name comes from the French jolie rouge that translates as “pretty red,” but meant “don’t even think about resistance.”  Colors were important and still are. Red still means danger and a black flag can mean death or determination.  White flags meant peace and are still the universal symbol of surrender.  Blue generally stands for truth and justice, and green signifies hope and love (vexillologymatters.org ).  Maritime international code flags spell out messages to alert sailors to distress.

Important leaders and regions have used flags as symbols also.  The oldest state flag in the world that is still in use by an independent nation is the national flag of Denmark, the “Dannebrog.”  It has flown since 1219 (funtrivia.com).  By the 18th century, flags that were used to identify the nations of the world became more common.  Today, all nations have their own flags, now called vexilloids after the Roman flags, and they symbolize the same intense patriotic feelings they provoked so many thousands of years ago.

22 Oct 2015

Ancient Human Teeth Found in a Chinese Cave Predate Homo Sapiens in Europe

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As reported in the science journal Nature, modern humans must have left their African homeland and migrated eastward to southern China at least 80,000 years ago. This contrasts with the date that our ancestors are known to have arrived in Europe, which was 45,ooo years ago. The article goes on to suggest that Homo sapiens was prevented, for some reason, from moving into Europe for tens of thousands of years. Anthropologist María Martinón-Torres, from University College London – a member of the team that made the discovery – is confident of the reason. She blames the Neanderthals.

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa and emerged from the continent about 100,000 years ago and swept eastward with little apparent resistance from other hominid species they encountered. But when they headed north, they reached the Levant and met the Neanderthals at the southern edge of their European domain. And there they stopped our spread. Essentially Europe was too small for the both of us.”

Check out the full story, and some contrary interpretation at this link:

Read the full story by Robin McKie as reported in The Guardian.


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