A couple of years ago I mentioned some fascinating research about ancient meteorite impacts being possibly recorded in the oral folklore of indigenous Australians. The researcher who wrote that paper, Duane Hamacher, has a new paper out on the same topic in the journal Archaeoastronomy ("Recorded Accounts of Meteoritic Events in the Oral Traditions of Indigenous Australians" - PDF).
One interesting example covered in the paper is that of the Henbury crater field, located in Central Australia roughly 150km south of Alice Springs, which was the site of a meteor impact around 5000 years ago. There was a vague suggestion that the event may have been commemorated in the name of the place (chindu china waru chingi ya bu - “sun walk fire devil rock”), but it was not until recently that it was realised there was other supporting evidence - evidence which had been around for some 90 years:
When James M. Mitchell visited the site in 1921, he took an Aboriginal guide. His interest was piqued when his guide refused to go
near them, saying that it was a place where a fire “debil-debil” [devil] came out of the sky and killed everything in the vicinity. He visited the craters again in 1934 and took another Aboriginal guide with him. The guide said Aboriginal people would not camp within two miles of the craters or even venture within half a mile of them, describing them as a place where the fire-devil lived. He claimed they did not collect water that filled some of the craters, fearing the fire devil would fill them with a piece of iron. The guide said his grandfather saw the fire devil and it came from the sun. Aboriginal groups to the north of Henbury (including the Kaitish and Warramunga) hold traditions that meteors are fiery “debil-debils” that hurtle from the skies to feast upon the entrails of the recently deceased.
Over at National Geographic, there's a fascinating article detailing the recent discovery of one of South America's most pervasive mysteries: The fabled 'White City' or 'City of the Monkey God', which was said to have been kept intact during the Spanish conquest due to its remote and inhospitable location in the remote valley of La Mosquitia, deep in the Honduran rainforest. the 'monkey god' is a reference to the tale of a giant buried statue of a monkey god, as was told by natives to American explorer Theodore 'Ted' Morde in 1940; Morde's alleged discovery of the mythical city was never confirmed --he refused to reveal its location, and later committed suicide in 1954.
But now thanks to modern LIDAR technology, an international expedition has managed to pinpoint a highly advanced urban center that is over a thousand years old;
Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.” He speculated that the cache, found at the base of the pyramid, may have been an offering.
“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”
The tops of 52 artifacts were peeking from the earth. Many more evidently lie below ground, with possible burials. They include stone ceremonial seats (called metates) and finely carved vessels decorated with snakes, zoomorphic figures, and vultures.
The most striking of the objects found so far was a stone head of a 'were-jaguar', which would seem to indicate that the inhabitants practiced some form of shamanic religion --possibly involving the use of psychedelic substances, which would trigger in the shaman the illusion of shape-shifting into a jaguar.
But more than solving once and for all the legend of the 'White City', the archeologists are now convinced this urban center is in fact part of a previously unknown civilization which thrived in the Mosquitia valley around 1000-1400 AD. Therefore, many more 'lost cities' are bound to be found --that is, if they're not razed first by the illegal deforestation of the forest.
Here's hoping the Honduran government manages to secure this incredible discovery, so that archeologists can continue finding more remnants of this previously unknown civilization. Maybe one day they'll unearth the monkey god statue after all --or at least a couple of crystal skulls...
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If you’re not a nuclear physicist, nuclear physics is likely nothing more than a nebulous and abstract idea out of popular culture to you. It’s easy to forgive someone for not understanding the finer points of induced fission or which elements make better nuclear fuel than others. Frankly, the whole endeavour is better left to the experts…whenever possible.
I recently offered a post on spontaneous fission – that is, a naturally occurring nuclear reaction – and the astounding discovery made in 1972, wherein French physicist Francis Perrin found sixteen naturally occurring nuclear reactors in Central Africa that are 1.7 billion years old. Some of you might be thinking that’s impossible. To those people I simply point to the Sun and shake my head, though granted, that’s a slightly different kind of nuclear reaction.
The point is, it’s real. Spontaneous fission happened, and it went on for several hundred thousand years. There are those, however, who would have you believe that spontaneous, and even induced fission has happened many times on this little blue planet of ours over the millennia. Though that story take a little longer to explain.
Mohenjo-Daro. No, that’s not a mystical incantation, it’s the name of an ancient archaeological site in Sindh, Pakistan. You may have heard of it, it’s a particularly interesting part of our history, and is connected to one of the most enigmatic lost cultures that has ever existed – The Indus Valley Civilization.
There is a lot of folklore and legend surrounding Mohenjo-Daro. And while all of it is interesting, the most relevant bit to the current discussion is the fact that parts of the many ruins of this ancient village have undergone vitrification. In other words, they’ve turned to glass.
Vitrification is the process by which sand, or more accurately, silica is super-heated and then cooled, which results in a glass-transition. It’s the way all glass is made, in basic terms, though there’s a difference between deliberately fired glass for manufacturing (technically known as frit) and vitrified sand. The latter type of glass consists of three categories:
· Fulgurite, which is glass created via lightning strikes
· Tekkite, which is formed from the heat generated by meteor strikes
· And trinitite, which is the glass that results from nuclear detonations.
Now, from the opening of this post, you can probably already tell which one is popularly thought to be found at Mohenjo-Daro. The only real difference between those three categories of vitrified sand is the different heat sources that make them. Other than a tendency for trinitite to be radioactive (Duh!), samples of each are pretty much the same compositionally. Silicon dioxide, which is the most common element in sand around the world, melts at roughly 1,700 degrees Celsius, so any one of those methods can get the job done. But if there were a competition, the clear winner would be a nuclear detonation. The heat generated through a nuclear blast can be greater than 10 million Kelvins or 9,999,726.85 degrees Celsius. By comparison, the surface of the Sun is only 5,778 Kelvins.
Yeah, that’s pretty hot. In fact, it’s hot enough to flash-melt pure silica into glass instantly. So the Mohenjo-Daro vitrified ruins were made by one of three potential events, it seems. A series of major lightning strikes, a meteor strike (or perhaps more than one), or a nuclear detonation.
The Indus Valley isn’t the only place to boast vitrification mysteries though.
Scotland has over 70 examples of what are known as Vitrified Forts, such as Dun Mac Sniachan. These are crude encampments from both the Iron Age and Early Medieval period with stone-pile walls, usually situated in easily defended formations. The outer walls of these forts have been heat treated, so to speak, resulting in whole sections of wall where stone and brick have melted into a glass facade. They are wondrous, and in most cases they are quite beautiful, and they make up a collection of vitrified forts that dot the landscape throughout Great Brittan.
There are other places too, such as Çatalhöyük in the southern Anatoli region of Turkey, and Alalakh in Turkey’s Hatay Province, and even the Seven Cities of Cibola in Ecuador.
You might be getting the wrong impression though. As mentioned, it’s commonly believed that one of the three potential methods of vitrification was responsible for all of these sites, with a conspiratorial bent toward some form of nuclear energy, whether that be detonations or a fission reactor of some kind. But this isn’t necessarily the case, nor is it likely.
Remember above, when I told you that silicone dioxide melts at around 1,700 degree Celsius? A flame fed by natural gas can easily reach 1,600 degrees Celsius, and a bonfire with mixed fuels can approach 1,200 degrees, especially if extremely dry wood is used, perhaps pinion pine. Both of those examples are of open flame fires, but what if that flame was enclosed? Perhaps, within a stone structure where the heat would be trapped, reflected, and amplified by the stone? Internal structure fires, like we see in today’s buildings, can easily exceed 3,000 degrees Celsius, so it’s not unreasonable to think that temperatures sufficient to reduce stone to glass could have been achieved in Mohenjo-Daro and other locations without the use of nuclear power.
That isn’t to say that some catastrophic event didn’t take place in the Indus Valley of the time; a war, a religious or ethnic cleansing, or some really wild parties that got out of hand. But it isn’t likely that the vitrification was achieved through a nuclear reaction of some kind, whilst leaving no traces of radiation or fission products in the surrounding environment, and most conspicuously, without levelling the entire city.
In the case of the Vitrified Forts of Scotland and elsewhere, it is believed by the experts, that it was indeed wild parties that caused the destruction, sort of. Most archaeologists assert that these locations were deliberately destroyed by fire, either by successful invaders or by the inhabitants as a part of a ritual closing of the facility, as it were. (Ralston 2006, 143-63)
It seems, and this is purely speculative, that the parties who wish to further the argument that these examples of ancient vitrification are the result of a lost or perhaps natural nuclear process, are simply taking advantage of the popular familiarity, and simultaneous ignorance, that we all possess on the topic of nuclear physics. In reality there are simpler explanations to be considered, even though the alternatives may be more exciting.
 Glenn Elert. Temperature of a Nuclear Explosion - The Physics Factbook http://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/SimonFung.shtml
 J.T. Barett. How Hot Is a Bonfire? Demand Media http://classroom.synonym.com/hot-bonfire-8770.html
Where do you think we’d be if the telescope hadn’t been invented? That’s a tough question to answer, and really, it doesn’t have just a single answer. There are many things that we enjoy in our daily lives that owe their existence to the telescope, and some may not be terribly obvious.
Of course, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about our solar system, our galaxy, and well, the universe. By association though, we also wouldn’t have calendars, or Christmas, or TV and the internet. Let me explain…
The history of the telescope most typically stretches back to one Galileo Galilei, though, while obviously a critical player in this tale, Galileo did not invent the telescope. He merely adapted earlier designs and then used them to shatter the common beliefs of everyone on the planet. No, officially, credit for the invention of the telescope goes to Hans Lippershey in 1608.
What’s that? You’ve never hear of Hans Lippershey? Yeah, that’s not uncommon, and there’s a reason for that. The only reason Lippershey – who was a German spectacle maker (eye glasses) – gets that credit is because his design is the first for which we have a record of patent. There are many others though, who could have beaten him to the punch, we just have no way of verifying the timeline.
What is known, is that thanks to Lippershey and those early pioneers of technology, men like Keppler, Huygens, and Hubble were able to provide both the tools and the knowledge we needed to drastically advance our understanding of the universe.
OK so, remember above, when I said that we might not have developed TV and the Internet without the telescope? Here’s why: one of our favourite characters from the history of science, Sir Isaac Newton, is credited with, among many other things, discovering the spectrum of light. That is, he discovered that colour is an intrinsic property of light and then he proved it. In turn, through his long a study of optics, he invented the very first reflecting telescope – today called a Newtonian Telescope. But again, he did not invent the telescope, he simply adapted earlier designs.
You’re probably still wondering what that has to do with TV, and I’ll tell you. From Newton’s theory of chromatic aberration, which became his Theory of Light, many other things were eventually developed, such as glass electrostatic generators and tunable lasers. This also included the much later invention in which the projection of light inside a tube, coupled with the manipulation of electrical signals could create a moving picture, also called a television image.
OK, that might be a stretch, but here’s what isn’t.
If the telescope was truly a parent technology to much of the technology of convenience and entertainment we have today, there’s one other thing that deserves to be mentioned. None of this would be possible without the discovery and manufacture of lenses.
A lens is, simply, a piece of transparent material, often glass, which is used to focus light passing through from one side to the other. It’s no more complicated than that, but it can be made so, i.e. bifocal eye glasses.
And the history of lenses is equally fascinating, and perhaps even more important than you realise.
The archaeological record holds many examples of crude lenses (and even convex mirrors) dating back to a pre-historic era, often made of crystal, obsidian, glass, and sometimes even gemstones. The oldest known lens is the Nimrud Lens from ancient Assyria, approximately 2,700 years ago. It’s difficult to declare such an object a lens though, since it could very well have been used for several different tasks. Though scholars have suggested that it may have been used either as a magnifying glass or burning glass. This makes it seem possible, even, that the use of lenses could have contributed to the proliferation of fire as a tool.
By the height of the medieval period, lenses were beginning to find use in scientific pursuits, and their manufacture became far more refined, however there is evidence that such sophisticated use was quite a bit older.
The use of burning lenses is mentioned in several ancient Greek texts. The likes of Aristotle, Plutarch, Hippolytus, and the playwright Aristophanes would ponder the nature of light and colour and marvel at its manipulation through glass and stone.
"STREPSIADES: Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the druggists', with which you may kindle fire?
SOCRATES: You mean a crystal lens.
STREPSIADES: That's right. Well, now if I placed myself with this stone in the sun and a long way off from the clerk, while he was writing out the conviction, I could make all the wax, upon which the words were written, melt." -- Aristophanes, The Clouds, 419 B.C.
But the fact that crude lenses, and later, an evolving refinement of lenses, are found throughout the archaeological record in nearly every part of the world, suggests that the Greek scholars may have been a little late to the game.
It’s often said that we are children of light, and depending who says it, they may not know how right they are. We owe our entire existence to light, or more accurately, the electromagnetic spectrum. It nourishes us, it warms us, it powers us, and it offers a means to measure, and count, and observe our world. Without it we would perish, or better yet we wouldn’t exist in the first place. But it should also be said that we owe almost as much to those brilliant minds who, in a time of blind ignorance, were able to recognise the importance of lenses, and prisms, and mirrors, and eventually gave us the world we have today.
Well this has all sorts of relevance for discussion of 'mythical' stories about lost continents such as Atlantis: a team of Australian academics say that Aboriginal stories of lost islands match up with underwater finds in Australia that were dry land at the end of the last Ice Age:
To most of us, the rush of the oceans that followed the last ice age seems like a prehistoric epoch. But the historic occasion was dutifully recorded—coast to coast—by the original inhabitants of the land Down Under.
Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist—and provide their original names.
That’s the conclusion of linguists and a geographer, who have together identified 18 Aboriginal stories—many of which were transcribed by early settlers before the tribes that told them succumbed to murderous and disease-spreading immigrants from afar—that they say accurately described geographical features that predated the last post-ice age rising of the seas.
“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Nicholas Reid, a linguist at Australia’s University of New England specializing in Aboriginal Australian languages, said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”
For more about the flooding of the world after the last Ice Age, and how some civilisations may have disappeared on account of the rising sea levels, see Graham Hancock's book Underworld.
(hat tip: @djp1974)
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When Pharaoh Khufu stood before his Great Pyramid 4500 years ago, I wonder if he could have imagined that in the future a flying man would descend from the heavens like a god. In order to advertise an energy drink...
...heeeeey, maybe that's the solution to the mystery of the pyramids!
You know what’s coming up this weekend, right? I fear to type the word lest sports enthusiast descend upon us. Everyone says they only watch it for the commercials, and I admit, that’s a big part of why I tune in too. Of course, with the news lately, the NFL isn’t exactly drawing a loyal crowd anymore. The players are overpaid thugs and the league officials aren’t much better. None the less, there are always a lot of people planning to sit through the entire eight hours of coverage – not even including the game itself – beer in hand, chips, pizza and rowdy friends all within arm’s reach.
Everyone has their favourite team too, and I will refrain from taking sides here, since the fan base can be more rabid than Ancient Alien proponents. But in the end, what really decides the outcome of the game? Is it skill? Teamwork? Planning? Sponsorships? Performance enhancing drugs?
How much of a role does luck play in this contest?
I know, I know, your team doesn’t need luck. But what if you could enhance your team’s chances for foisting that giant silver cup into the air? What if you could do something more than not shaving until they win, or wearing the same socks and underwear every day of the playoffs?
In ancient Greece – the culture that gave birth to the very idea of competitive sports – they took things into their own hands…their own magic hands.
You see, some of the Greeks, superstitious as they were, took to carving elaborate magic spheres out of marble and burying them on the “playing field” so as to enhance the luck of whichever champion they were backing (and likely betting on).
A single surviving example of one of these magical spheres sits in the collection of the Acropolis Museum of Athens. It was discovered during a dig in 1866 by archaeologist, antiquities dealer, and apparently, scoundrel, Prof Athanasios Rhousopoulos, buried in the hill just outside the temple of Dionysus.
It’s a relatively obscure bit of Greek history, but like any other aspect of their culture, it related directly to their pantheon of gods.
This particular sphere, known only as The Magic Sphere of the Museum of Athens, is ... Read More »
The Smithsonian Magazine has a fascinating article on the Antikythera Mechanism by Jo Marchant, a wonderful writer on things historical. In the feature, Marchant describes the wonderful intricacy of the device, which allowed it to compute the 'celestial time'/location of a number of prominent heavenly bodies:
The Antikythera mechanism was similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time: one hand for the Sun, one for the Moon and one for each of the five planets visible to the naked eye—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. A rotating black and silver ball showed the phase of the Moon. Inscriptions explained which stars rose and set on any particular date. There were also two dial systems on the back of the case, each with a pin that followed its own spiral groove, like the needle on a record player. One of these dials was a calendar. The other showed the timing of lunar and solar eclipses.
Despite a number of the mechanism's pieces being missing, further secrets continue to be revealed. For instance, an inscription tells how coloured balls were used to represent the Sun and Mars on the front face. Other mysteries continue to be debated: perhaps most interestingly, how the device was able to represent the complex movement of the planets (which from our point of view, at different times move forward and backward through the sky when viewed on a nightly basis).
For me, another prominent mystery remains - how such a complex and useful device is so unique in the record of the ancient world. Where are the prototypes, the evolutionary forebears, of the Antikythera Mechanism? Where are its copies? After all, in modern times any piece of advanced technology quickly inspires 'knock-offs'.
Was the Antikythera Mechanism a one-off work of genius, unable to be replicated? Or does it indicate that the record of the ancient world remains woefully incomplete, and that our forebears were more technologically advanced than we have thought?
As we've mentioned previously, our good friend Graham Hancock is working on a new book, Magicians of the Gods, the sequel to Fingerprints of the Gods, to be published in late 2015 or early 2016. This video of a presentation Graham gave at Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly in 2014 reviews some of the key findings in 'Fingerprints' and shares some of the new evidence of the lost civilisation that will go into 'Magicians'. (Graham also gives a short introduction to the video lecture pointing out some of the extra research he's done since this talk was given)
Have you ever gotten directions from a friend, to a place you’ve never been? Of course you have; everyone has. Which means that we’ve all been given, at some point or another, a crudely drawn map, intended to guide us along the landscape to our desired destination.
Now imagine trying to make an accurate map of an entire coast line. Or of entire continents. Or the whole world! It’s a pretty massive undertaking. The map maker doesn’t even have the benefit of ever having travelled those coastlines and country boundaries. He or she is flying blind. So how do they do it?
As discussed previously, mapmaking – or cartography – is a millennium old art. People have been trying to create a visual representation of the areas in which they travel since before the 7th millennium BCE. The oldest surviving maps are the Babylonian World Maps of the 9th century BCE, and, while beautiful, they aren’t exactly known for their accuracy (according to these maps the world consists of only Babylon on the Euphrates and Assyria). But as time went on, mapmakers got better at creating consistently accurate drawings of their surroundings. They developed universal systems for measuring distances, plotting directions, and estimating the shape of coastlines and continents. Those systems are as complicated as they are useful.
But it’s not like every map ever made is truly an original work. Most maps, especially charts out of antiquity, are reproductions or expansions of earlier maps. Experience with a given chart would determine just how accurate it was, and once the most accurate among the available charts was found, it would then be used as the standard for the area it described. From there, cartographers could copy it and use it as a component in a larger chart that included the region it depicted.
There are some famous charts, namely the Piri Re’is and the Dulcert 1339 map. In both cases these are portolan charts, meaning they are nautical maps that use compass bearings as the foundation of their measurement system. The Piri Re’is chart is widely considered to be the most accurate portolan chart of the 16th century. It’s a military world map that was created by an Ottoman admiral and cartographer, after whom the chart was named. It is unique in that it is the earliest chart to show accurate depictions of the coastlines of Africa, as well as the positions of several Caribbean islands, such as the Canary Islands. It also shows an astonishingly accurate depiction of the east coast of South America, even going so far as to position the new world correctly with reference to the west coast of Africa.
It’s also thought unique for another rather compelling reason…it apparently shows an accurate depiction of the coast of Queen Maud Land. What is Queen Maud Land, you ask? Well, Queen Maud Land is the northern edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. Now, this wouldn’t be as wondrous as it is, were it not for the fact that the Antarctica Peninsula hadn’t been discovered or explored until 1820 at the earliest. And for the fact that the coastline depicted is currently under a few hundred feet of ice.
So, um…how did an Ottoman admiral know about it, much less accurately draw it on a map in 1513, just twenty-one years following Christopher Columbus’ bumbling discovery of the Americas?
According to scholars, the Dulcert 1339 portolan chart (mentioned above) – which is an early Medieval chart of the Mediterranean ocean and surrounding lands, and which is thought to have been created by a classical Italian cartographer named Angelino Dulcert (known alternately as Angelino de Dalorto and/or Angelino de Dulceto) – seems to show a reasonably accurate representation of Australia, of all things. To remind you, Australia wasn’t discovered, according to our history textbooks, until 1606, but yet, the landmass of Australia was included in this map, drawn by an Italian, and in other early European maps three hundred years before that.
How is that possible?
There are those, namely the famous Finnish-Swedish historian of cartography Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who believe that these early maps are not of the medieval period at all, but are copies of charts from much, much older cartographic traditions. He analysed the mathematics of these maps, and others, and came to the conclusion that their content, accuracy, and structure was notably superior to the charts of classical scholars such as Ptolemy and Eratosthenes, but that they employed the same elements in their construction.
Nordenskiöld isn’t alone though, as you might imagine. From his work has sprung strong argument, from people such as Arlington Mallery and Charles Hapgood, that these maps are evidence of an advanced culture having circumnavigated the globe long before Ferdinand Magellan. Of course, with such a fantastical claim comes the scorn of the academic community, and their criticisms are not without merit (especially when you include Erik von Daniken as an ally of Hapgood and Mallery), but none yet have fully refuted Hapgood’s nor Nordenskiöld’s analyses.
So is there a middle ground? Can we not accept that there is more to these maps than modern cartographers want to admit, while not yet asserting that they prove the case for a pre-historic civilization? As mentioned, maps from antiquity are almost always copies of earlier maps, enhanced and expanded, correcting the mistakes of previous generations. Piri Re’is and Dulcert 1339 are no exception…the question is from what older maps did the Ottoman and Italian cartographers copy their greatest works?
 Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, Facsimile-Atlas to the Early History of Cartography with Reproductions of the Most Important Maps Printed in the XV and XVI Centuries, trans. Johan Adolf Ekelöf (Stockholm, 1889; reprinted, New York: Dover, 1973).
 Charles H. Hapgood. Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings: Evidence of Advanced Civilization in the Ice Age. Illinois 1997, Adventures Unlimited Press (Originally 1966).