All posts by Heather Pringle

Caviar for the Dead

Even the dead kept watch. They sat upright in their graves, men and women, and faced the river, waiting, it seemed, for the waters to roil again with massive, steel-grey fish. The sturgeon, barbeled giants with rows of bony scutes down their backs, appeared each spring in Serbia’s Danube Gorge, after battling the current all the way from the Black Sea. The largest of these fish weighed more than a dozen men. The oldest of these Beluga sturgeon survived more than a century.

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Taming the Flame

For our early human ancestors in Africa,  nighttime was anything but the right time.  On moonless nights, lions and other large predators could readily stalk resting humans and attack virtually unseen.  But eventually early humans discovered a clever way to frighten off large carnivores and solve a host of other problems:  they tamed fire.  With a small blaze lighting the darkness, humans could ward off the cold,  cook hot dinners and gather together and socialize around hearths.

But when did humans first domesticate fire? New research at Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa suggests that our ancestors succeeded in kindling fires 1 million years ago –200,000 years earlier than previous evidence suggested.

To read my news story on this for ScienceNow,  please click here.

Photos courtesy of M. Chazan.

Keep Your Enemies Closer















This story of a golden crown with an exquisite golden plume caught my eye yesterday. Actually, it did far more than catch my eye. It brought to mind a relatively little-known chapter in the history of the Inca Empire—the fierce conquest of the proud and wealthy chiefs of highland Ecuador, nearly a thousand miles away from Cuzco.

But before I get to that, let me tell you first about the crown. It comes from a royal tomb in or near the small Ecuadorian town of Chordeleg, a place where the Cañari people once buried their greatest chiefs and nobles. In 1854, someone digging in the site—someone I haven’t been able to track down, so possibly a curio collector—discovered this Andean masterpiece. What happened next is unclear, but in 1862, the president of Ecuador sent the crown as a present to one of the greatest queens of the day, Victoria, soon after the death of her beloved Albert. Perhaps this Latin American statesman was a sentimentalist and meant to cheer her up. In any case, the queen’s officials duly logged it into the royal collection at Windsor Castle. And there it remained until another British queen, Elizabeth, prepared to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

To mark the grand occasion, curators planned a major exhibition of the queen’s royal treasures in Edinburgh. The gold crown from Ecuador fit the bill perfectly, but no one knew much about it, though some had described it as a symbol of the Inca Empire. Was it really? The queen’s curators called in the experts, who proceeded to conduct metallurgical studies and stylistic analyses. These revealed a surprise. The crown wasn’t Inca at all: it was likely the work of a Cañari goldsmith. And this raised two different scenarios. Quite possibly, the goldsmith fashioned it for a wealthy Cañari chief in the early 1400s.  Or perhaps he designed it later in the century for an Inca king.  Such rulers, after all, delighted in donning crowns adorned with the plumage of tropical birds. Read more…

The Lost Story of Madre de Dios











One of the hardest things about being a freelance writer is seeing a great story— the kind of story you’ve always dreamed about writing—slip through your fingers. Your editors fail to see the beauty or the tragedy. No one shares your obsession; no one wants to put you on a plane to Miami or Lima or Mobasa, say, and pay for expenses while you throw yourself into the reporting. The pitch falls flat, eyes look away in embarrassment, and a half beat later, a kindly question. What else have you got?

Thirty years of freelancing and I can pretty much remember each and every one of these failures, these lost stories. They continue to dog me, and I sometimes think that this will be the last thing on my mind when I die. It won’t be my life flashing in front of me; it will be stories, particularly these stories, the ones that never saw light of day.

To read more,  please visit Last Word on Nothing.

Photo of Madre di Dios courtesy Marcin Nowak

Two Paupers in Victorian Edinburgh













A few years ago, one of my Scottish cousins decided to delve into the murky waters of family history. For a time, I received regular emails from him, dispatches containing faded and torn photos of long-dead relatives; biographies pieced together from birth and death certificates, and short sad notes on the lives of the working poor in Edinburgh. Most of my Scottish forebearers—candlemakers, housepainters, laundresses—worked hard and struggled to make ends meet in Edinburgh’s tenements. I long suspected as much. But my through my cousin’s research, I learned something unexpected and disturbing: two of my relatives died as paupers in a Victorian workhouse.

I began thinking about this again this week, for the literary world is just now beginning to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, a novelist who knew all about the social injustices of Victorian England. As a boy, Dickens saw his insolvent father taken away to debtors’ prison: Dickens was then forced to leave school and work in a blacking factory. The experience opened the young novelist’s eyes to the plight of the poor, a world that later populated his novels.

In 1850, at the height of his fame, Dickens paid a visit to a London workhouse where as many as 2000 paupers resided. In a grim piece of non-fiction writing entitled “A Walk in a Workhouse,” he later described the experience.

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Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver











In 1930, the legendary bartender Harry Craddock prescribed a popular cure for revellers who stumbled into London’s Savoy Hotel for breakfast and complained of throbbing hangovers. Craddock had fled Prohibition in the States in 1920 and found work at the American Bar in the Savoy, and he knew a thing or two about the ailments of his customers. To ease their pain, he invented a classic cocktail with an unforgettable name—Corpse Reviver #2. Then he published the recipe in a book that bartenders still cherish today: The Savoy Cocktail Book.

This cocktail is a particular favorite of mine—with its pallid greenish hue, its ingenuous blending of slightly tart ingredients, and a name guaranteed to warm the heart of any archaeology writer. But how wise is it to down a drink whose ingredient list includes absinthe, a herbal concoction first blended by a French physician in 1789 as a tonic and later condemned and outlawed by legislators in Europe and the United States as a poisonous social evil? Absinthe, after all, contains oil of wormwood, Artemesia absinthium. Its active ingredient, thujone, is a known natural insecticide.

Please click here to read more.

Dirty Gold and Madre de Dios

















Seventeen years ago, Canadian biologist Adrian Forsyth slipped into lyricism as he described the great wilderness known as Tambopata-Candamo in Peru. The cloud forests there, he wrote in an official report, “are dense with every limb matted with fern, orchid and moss and the only trails are those of the secretive spectacled bear and elusive mountain lion…. Along the banks of the Tambopata brilliant flocks of macaws concentrate by the hundreds to feed on mineral-rich soil pockets. Giant otters hunt the rivers for enormous catfish. Vast expanses of forest extend in all directions.”

This untouched paradise lay near the headwaters of the Amazon, and Forsyth and 23 colleagues explored it, charting its biodiversity for Conservation International and recording 575 bird species and 1200 butterfly species, the second richest documented butterfly community in the world.  Their final report pleaded powerfully for the protection of this vast emerald wilderness.  But the key to Tambopata-Condamo’s fate lay in just four words in that 184-page-long report: “mineral-rich soil pockets.” Today, nearly two decades after Forsyth waxed eloquent, steepling gold prices and a government seemingly paralyzed by corruption are transforming part of this paradise—the Madre de Dios river and its surrounding forest—into an ecological disaster on a grand scale. “It looks like Mordor,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist at the French Institute of Andean Studies in Lima, in an interview I did with him in February.

To read more, please visit my post at Last Word on Nothing.

Photo.  Tambopata, courtesy Dirac 3000

The Portrait of a Young Cave Artist

There is something rare and elusive on the ceiling of Rouffignac Cave in southern France, something that at first looked like etchings of undulating snakes or bending waterways or even strangely shimmying humans, but that now turn out to be something far more ephemeral and wondrous to my eyes—works of art by very young apprentices: giggling, squirming, skittering Ice-Age children.

To read more,  please visit The Last Word on Nothing.

How to Train a Gladiator

For the past two weeks, I’ve been riveted by an annual spectacle played out in an arena seating 22,547 of the most rabid tennis fans in the universe. The U.S. Open in New York City is one of the world’s four great tennis tournaments, and each year as the glorious days of summer begin to fade, I spend my evenings perched in front of the television, marvelling as David Foster Wallace once did at “the liquid whip” of Roger Federer’s forehand and “the human beauty” of a sport played at an almost godlike level. But beneath all this wonder and awe is something a little baser — a grim fascination that has its roots in something much, much older.

Tennis at its highest level is a sport of barely controlled aggression.  It pits two rivals in a huge arena, all alone, without coach or spotter, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes nearly deafened by the roar of hostile fans, until one finally walks off the court as victor. Tennis at its best is not just about coolness under stress or selecting the right shot at the right time. At the very heart of these matches is the desire of one player to master another, to slowly strip away a strength to reveal a weakness, to grind down confidence and to break an opponent one punishing point at a time. It is a form of gladiatorial combat, nothing more, nothing less.

For the rest, read The Last Word on Nothing.

Photo:  Statue,  Schloss Charlottenburg,  Berlin,  courtesy Frank M. Rafik