Monthly Archives: February 2010

World’s Oldest Surviving Junk Food

Quick,  who invented the hot dog?  Was it the sausage-makers of Frankfurt?  The butchers of Vienna ( a city that German-speakers call Wien)?  Or was it Charles Feltman,  an enterprising German immigrant who ran a pie-wagon in Coney Island in 1867? We’ll never know,  but get this.  Construction workers have now excavated the world’s oldest known hot dog frozen in ice below one of Feltman’s buildings on Coney Island.  Mummified and rather revolting looking,  this 140-year old frankfurter is attracting a lot of attention. You can see it for yourself in the CNN video here.   The discoverers  say they want to preserve it,  but they are sure going about it in a weird way–pouring hot water on the ice!

Hot dogs made Feltman a fortune.  In his first year of business,  the young enterpreneur hawked more than 3864 of them to Coney Island visitors,  and he transformed junk food into a small empire of beer gardens,  hotels and the like.

Clearly junk food pays.  Never underestimate the appetite of the public!

The Civil War’s First Scorched Earth

Archaeology magazine has just published a story I wrote on an almost completely forgotten tragedy of the Civil War.  In 1863,  the Union Army razed and laid waste to nearly four counties in Missouri–a year before the better known scorched-earth destruction of Atlanta, Georgia,  by General William Tecumseh Sherman and his forces.  Archaeologist Ann Raab,  a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence,  and her colleagues are now excavating sites in what is still known as “The Burnt District.”   They are bringing to light a virtually unknown chapter of the Civil War–incredible work. Archaeology has posted an abstract of the article here.  I will have more to say about this story in a future post.

Sailing to Crete More than 130,000 Years Ago?

A few weeks ago,  I posted on intriguing new research from Crete that raises the possibility of ancient human seafarers rafting across  Mediterranean straits more than 130,000 years ago–well before modern humans even left Africa.  I have just written an article on this for National Geographic news,  interviewing several of the team members and obtaining comments from other scientists.  You can find my online article here.

The Ancestral Journey of the Navajo

For years,  anthropologists and archaeologists  have puzzled over the origins of two famous aboriginal groups in the American Southwest:  the Navajo and Apache people. The traditional  languages spoken by the Navajo and the Apache differ strikingly from those of their neighbors,  so much so that if you look at a linguistic map their homelands stand out like islands in a great sea.

But their languages  are very closely related to the mother tongues of aboriginal people living in the subarctic in northwestern Canada and Alaska:  indeed they belong to the same Athapaskan family.  Moreover,   linguists have long suggested that the ancestors of the Navajo and Apache people splintered off from their subarctic cousins roughly 1200 years ago.  This begs a fascinating question.   What might have prompted the ancestral Navajo and Apache to abandon their homeland in the northern forests and  journey thousands of miles south to a very unfamiliar desert?

Some years ago,  University of Alaska archaeologist William Workman proposed a possible answer.   He suggested that the eruption of the  White River volcano in southern Alaska around 1200 years ago could well have driven out both game and human hunters.    Ash from the volcano blanketed a region of some 250,000 square kilometers:  in some parts it reached 1.5 meters in thickness.  All this, observed Workman, could well have forced the region’s Athapaskan speakers  to search for a new homeland in the south.

Yesterday,  a team led by Simon Fraser University researcher Tyler Kuhn shed new light on the dire nature of this eruption.  In a new online paper in Molecular Ecology,  Kuhn and his colleagues compared ancient DNA from caribou bones from the Yukon that dated before and after A. D. 1000.  As the team discovered, the caribou living there before the White River eruption were genetically different from the caribou that resided there after.

In other words,  a big change occurred in the local caribou population around the time of the White River eruption.   The old herds vanished,  and later new caribou herds moved in–quite likely as the land greened and grasses,   sedges, willows and the like took hold once again.

All this strongly suggests that Athapaskan hunters  in the area would have struggled to  survive after the eruption.  And indeed,  archaeological evidence from the Yukon points to a major human transition as well.  Before the eruption, the local hunters  relied on throwing darts as their main weapon.  After the ash fell, however,  the inhabitants favored bow and arrows.

We are still a long way from definitive answers,  but I’d say that it is looking more and more as if immense volcanic ash clouds, sunless days and a terrible  famine   changed the course of North American prehistory,  pushing ancestors of the Navajo and the Apache peoples far to the south.


Herman Wirth and the Origins of Writing

Did our early human ancestors develop a  written “code” some 30,000 years ago or more, inscribing and painting cave walls with its enigmatic symbols?  This is the question posed by new research from Genevieve von Petzinger,  a recently graduated master’s student at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, and the subject of a fascinating new article in New Scientist.  What no one has mentioned so far, however,  is that the  idea of such an ancient script dates back to the nineteenth century and has a dark link to Nazi Germany.

First,  however,  let me summarize my understanding of von Petzinger’s very cool new research.  Struck by the profusion of little circles,  triangles,  lines and other marks on rock-art-covered cave walls dating to Paleolithic times,  von Petzinger created a massive database of all such recorded marks at 146 sites in France.  (No one else had apparently been willing to undertake this seemingly thankless task, so full marks to von Petzinger.)  The sites  ranged in age from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

In analyzing this new database with her thesis advisor April Nowell,  von Petzinger noticed that cave artists had repeated 26 different signs–including circles and triangles–over and over again. The artists had also used a kind of visual shorthand–inscribing just mammoth tusks instead of a whole mammoth, for example–which is common in pictographic languages.   Moreover,  in some caves,  von Petzinger discovered pairs of signs,  a type of grouping that characterizes early pictorial language.

This all sounds exceedingly interesting,  though I am waiting to see the paper that the pair has just submitted to Antiquity. But I feel obliged to point out that the idea of a very early system of written symbols was strongly championed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s by Herman Wirth,  one of the most controversial prehistorians in Europe and the first president of the Nazi research institute founded by SS head Heinrich Himmler.   (This institute was the subject of my last book,  The Master Plan:  Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust.  In it,  I wrote two full chapters on Wirth and his research. )

Wirth,  who had a Ph.D in philology,  was a man of great personal charm and many bizarre ideas.  He became convinced that a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race had evolved in the Arctic,  where it developed a sophisticated civilization complete with the world’s first writing system.  Furthermore, he proposed that Plato’s description of Atlantis and its demise was in fact an accurate account of the catastrophe that befell the Nordic civilization on an Arctic  island.

According to Wirth,  the Nordic refugees from this  disaster escaped to northern Europe,  bringing with them their ancient writing system,  an invention that later diffused to cultures around the world.   So Wirth spent years poring over ancient European rock art, searching for evidence of this system and recording examples of circles,  disks and wheels that he believed were ancient Nordic ideograms symbolizing the sun,  the annual cycle of life,  and so on.

I found Wirth’s ideas about an ancient master race and an Arctic Atlantis preposterous.  Indeed,  they would have been laughable  had it not been for the fact that Himmler,  the architect of the Final Solution,  used Wirth’s published works  to lend credence to the official Nazi line on the Aryan master race,  and that Wirth, who died in 1981,  still has many avid followers in Germany and Austria today. Indeed,  I  interviewed one of his ardent supporters.

I think that von Petzinger’s new research on Paleolithic symbols sounds immensely intriguing.  It certainly fits with our growing awareness of the abilities of our human ancestors.  Moreover,  I  want to state clearly that the Canadian researcher did not for a moment come under the influence of Herman Wirth and his ideas.  Indeed, she proposes that the ancient sign language may have originated in Africa and arrived in Europe with modern humans–a proposal that would have horrified Wirth.

Nevertheless,  I think it’s  important to point out the troubled history of the idea of an ancient European script recorded in rock art.    We cannot afford to forget in any way the Nazi past.

Today’s photo shows a plaster cast that Wirth made in the late 1930s of Bronze-Age rock art in Sweden.  I photographed this cast in 2002 as it hung in a museum in a small Austrian town, Spital am Pyhrn.  At the time,  Wirth’s casts were clandestine Nazi memorials.

A Week in the Life of an Archaeological Journalist

It’s been a long week full of very late nights.  I’ve been burning the midnight oil for several days now to finish two very cool archaeological stories for the news department at Science magazine.   I can’t tell you what they are about at the moment,  but I can say that I have been on the phone much of this week to two very different worlds.

One story came from West Africa,  where the cell phone connection crackled terribly during my phone calls and where one beleaguered researcher was having a lot of trouble picking up his emails.   I really admire African archaeologists:  they often work under incredibly adverse circumstances–barebone funding,  miniscule technology,   rapacious looting, and a whole lot of archaeologically unknown territory.  One researcher I interviewed last year for a story  was trying to excavate in a very politically troubled part of Central African Republic.   He daily feared for the security of his crew.

My other archaeological story this week could hardly have been more different.  It was centered in Silicon Valley,  and I spent long hours on phone with several NASA men who spoke effortlessly in aerospace acronym-ese.   Planetary scientists and payload experts,  they had the opposite problem from the Africans– so much cutting-edge technology,  so many satellites, orbiters,  probes and the like,   that they hardly knew what to do with them.

One of the reasons that I became a science journalist is because I love to learn new things and savor new experiences.  It was clearly the right career choice.   I had a lot of fun this week,  journeying back and forth between Silicon Valley and the remote bushlands of Western Africa.

Today’s photo shows Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Buzz Aldrin’s bootprint. It was taken on July 20, 1969.

Exhuming Ancient Celebrities

I wasn’t planning to post today on Tutankhamun.  Over the past twenty-four hours,  journalists have spilled a cargo tanker’s worth of ink on news that the famous young king suffered from a host of serious ailments.  I thought I would leave the story to the newspapers until I began browsing the coverage.   Some reporters derided the Egyptian king as “malarial and inbred,”  while others took lower aim.  One online rag, for example,   informed readers  that “King Tut was a wreck, but his penis was ‘well-developed’.”

If you ask me,  these exhumations and studies of ancient kings and other celebrities are  becoming media circuses.   All the high-tech poking and prodding quickly strips away the dignity and grandeur of great men and women,  baring their physical  frailties and secrets for all to see.  In recent years,  we’ve been subjected to several of these tawdry sideshows and I suspect there are more to come.  I posted recently on the proposal to exhume Leonardo da Vinci.  And two weeks ago, I spotted an article on a Danish team who will soon exhume a famous 17th century astronomer, Tycho Brahe.

None of the subjects,  I might add,  has given consent for such scientific study.  And I sometimes wonder about the motives of the researchers.  The scientists who propose to exhume Tycho Brahe, for example,  want to determine whether the famous astonomer was murdered or whether he died of natural cause.   This hardly seems reason enough to rifle through a tomb and disturb the sleep of the astonomer.

In future,  I’d like to see researchers and reporters alike treat the ancient dead in the same way we treat the recently deceased–with respect and decorum.   Few of us would consider prying open a recent grave and poring over newly buried remains  just to satisfy a point of  idle curiosity.  So why is it ok to do that to a 17th century astronomer?

When I was writing my book,  The Mummy Congress,  I was really struck by the highly professional way that serious mummy researchers treated the ancient dead. They never made  jokes at the expense of the dead or  talked lightly or unfeelingly about their ailments.  Indeed, during the examinations of the bodies,  they often spoke as if the mummies themselves could hear exactly what was said.

Poor Tutankhamun.  I’m glad he couldn’t hear what people were saying today.

Pirouetting in the Street over Bronze-Age Wreck

Every once in a while,  an archaeological discovery comes along that makes me feel as if I should leap out of my chair, cartwheel across the room,  and turn pirouettes in the street.  I had one of those days yesterday, when I read the British newspaper accounts of an absolutely stunning underwater discovery off the coast of South Devon.  The  South West Maritime Archaeological Group has discovered the debris field of a Bronze-Age trading vessel,  dating back to 1300 B.C.

This is one of the oldest known shipwrecks in the world.  And what makes me so very, very happy about it is that this immensely important find  is in the hands of serious archaeologists whose sole objective is to advance scientific knowledge –not corporate treasure hunters driven by the bottom line.  Hallelujah!

I have long worried about ancient underwater sites such as this in British waters. The British government,  I am sorry to report,  has failed miserably to step up to the plate when it comes to protecting shipwreckl sites.   Although the Britannia long ruled the waves as a great maritime power,   the British government has so far refused to sign the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, a vital piece of  international law protecting prehistoric and historic wrecks from the clutches of treasure hunters.   Thirty-one other nations, however,  have taken the much-needed plunge.

So the discovery of the South Devon site and its astonishing cargo of gold bracelets, rapiers,  sling shots,  tin ingots and the like by devoted avocational underwater archaeologists  is cause for real rejoicing.   Ben Roberts,  an archaeometallurgist and curator at the British Museum, couldn’t be happier.  “The Salcombe site,” he notes,  “is now one of the most important Bronze Age sites currently being investigated in Britain.”

Those interested in learning more about this  amazing discovery can read about the work up until 2006 here,  and can then follow the story to the present here.