Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Biblical plagues really happened

The Biblical plagues that devastated Ancient Egypt in the Old Testament were the result of global warming and a volcanic eruption, scientists have claimed.

Researchers believe they have found evidence of real natural disasters on which the ten plagues of Egypt, which led to Moses freeing the Israelites from slavery in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, were based.

But rather than explaining them as the wrathful act of a vengeful God, the scientists claim the plagues can be attributed to a chain of natural phenomena triggered by changes in the climate and environmental disasters that happened hundreds of miles away.

They have compiled compelling evidence that offers new explanations for the Biblical plagues, which will be outlined in a new series to be broadcast on the National Geographical Channel on Easter Sunday.

Archaeologists now widely believe the plagues occurred at an ancient city of Pi-Rameses on the Nile Delta, which was the capital of Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Rameses the Second, who ruled between 1279BC and 1213BC.

The city appears to have been abandoned around 3,000 years ago and scientists claim the plagues could offer an explanation.

Climatologists studying the ancient climate at the time have discovered a dramatic shift in the climate in the area occurred towards the end of Rameses the Second's reign.

By studying stalagmites in Egyptian caves they have been able to rebuild a record of the weather patterns using traces of radioactive elements contained within the rock.

They found that Rameses reign coincided with a warm, wet climate, but then the climate switched to a dry period.

Professor Augusto Magini, a paleoclimatologist at Heidelberg University's institute for environmental physics, said: "Pharaoh Rameses II reigned during a very favourable climatic period.

"There was plenty of rain and his country flourished. However, this wet period only lasted a few decades. After Rameses' reign, the climate curve goes sharply downwards.

"There is a dry period which would certainly have had serious consequences."

The scientists believe this switch in the climate was the trigger for the first of the plagues.

The rising temperatures could have caused the river Nile to dry up, turning the fast flowing river that was Egypt's lifeline into a slow moving and muddy watercourse.

These conditions would have been perfect for the arrival of the first plague, which in the Bible is described as the Nile turning to blood.

Dr Stephan Pflugmacher, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Water Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, believes this description could have been the result of a toxic fresh water algae.

He said the bacterium, known as Burgundy Blood algae or Oscillatoria rubescens, is known to have existed 3,000 years ago and still causes similar effects today.

He said: "It multiplies massively in slow-moving warm waters with high levels of nutrition. And as it dies, it stains the water red."

The scientists also claim the arrival of this algae set in motion the events that led to the second, third and forth plagues – frogs, lice and flies.

Frogs development from tadpoles into fully formed adults is governed by hormones that can speed up their development in times of stress.

The arrival of the toxic algae would have triggered such a transformation and forced the frogs to leave the water where they lived.

But as the frogs died, it would have meant that mosquitoes, flies and other insects would have flourished without the predators to keep their numbers under control.

This, according to the scientists, could have led in turn to the fifth and sixth plagues – diseased livestock and boils

Professor Werner Kloas, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute, said: "We know insects often carry diseases like malaria, so the next step in the chain reaction is the outbreak of epidemics, causing the human population to fall ill."

Another major natural disaster more than 400 miles away is now also thought to be responsible for triggering the seventh, eighth and ninth plagues that bring hail, locusts and darkness to Egypt.

One of the biggest volcanic eruptions in human history occurred when Thera, a volcano that was part of the Mediterranean islands of Santorini, just north of Crete, exploded around 3,500 year ago, spewing billions of tons of volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

Nadine von Blohm, from the Institute for Atmospheric Physics in Germany, has been conducting experiments on how hailstorms form and believes that the volcanic ash could have clashed with thunderstorms above Egypt to produce dramatic hail storms.

Dr Siro Trevisanato, a Canadian biologist who has written a book about the plagues, said the locusts could also be explained by the volcanic fall out from the ash.

He said: "The ash fall out caused weather anomalies, which translates into higher precipitations, higher humidity. And that's exactly what fosters the presence of the locusts."

The volcanic ash could also have blocked out the sunlight causing the stories of a plague of darkness.

Scientists have found pumice, stone made from cooled volcanic lava, during excavations of Egyptian ruins despite there not being any volcanoes in Egypt.

Analysis of the rock shows that it came from the Santorini volcano, providing physical evidence that the ash fallout from the eruption at Santorini reached Egyptian shores.

The cause of the final plague, the death of the first borns of Egypt, has been suggested as being caused by a fungus that may have poisoned the grain supplies, of which male first born would have had first pickings and so been first to fall victim.

But Dr Robert Miller, associate professor of the Old Testament, from the Catholic University of America, said: "I'm reluctant to come up with natural causes for all of the plagues.

The problem with the naturalistic explanations, is that they lose the whole point.

"And the whole point was that you didn't come out of Egypt by natural causes, you came out by the hand of God."

Road runner - meet your dinosaur predecessor!

Road runner, meet your dinosaur predecessor, an "extreme" runner unearthed by an international paleontology team in central China.

In the journal Zootaxa, a team led by Xing Xu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences reports, Xixianykus zhangi ('SHEE-shya-nye-kus jong-eye') describes a pint-sized, two-legged sprinter from about 85 million years ago. The fossil's legs, hips and backbone adds to growing evidence that the dinosaur's "parvicursorine" kindred, "represent extreme cursors (runners) among non-avian dinosaurs," says the study.

""The limb proportions of Xixianykus are among the most extreme ever recorded for a theropod dinosaur," says study researcher Corwin Sullivan, also of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a statement. "This doesn't provide a basis for estimating its top speed, but it does show that Xixianykus was a highly efficient runner."

The dinosaur's name derives from Xixia, its region of origin, onyx (Greek for claw) and specific name in honor of paleontologist Zhang Wentang, "who has contributed greatly to the study of paleontology in Henan Province," according to the statement.

The relatively short thigh-bone of the dinosaur, which stood perhaps 20 inches tall, hints that it was a digger, as well as a runner, says the study. Termites dug from the ground with its claws likely made for meals for Xixianykus. "It may sound odd, but digging and running actually work quite well together. Some modern termite eating species travel long distances between colonies of their prey, so as an efficient runner Xixianykus would have been able to follow this pattern," said co-author David Hone of the Chinese academy.

"Wood-nesting termites may have essentially represented a patchy resource for these dinosaurs, forcing them to travel considerable distances between colonies and(or) spend long periods searching for food, as is apparently true of aardvarks and giant anteaters today," concludes the study.

Running would definitely have been a good skill too, Hone adds. Xixianykus lived in the era of Tyrannosaurus Rex and kin, a bad time to be small and slow.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The "Starchild"

We finally have a recovery of nuclear DNA from the Starchild!

This past weekend I met with the geneticist working on the Starchild's DNA. He explained how he can now prove the Starchild is not entirely human, which has been our position for years. Now it is no longer a question of "if," but of "when" and "how" we spread this astounding new reality beyond the mailing list. First, though, let me bring the list's newcomers up to speed.

In 2003 we had a DNA analysis that used human-only primers to recover the Starchild's mitochondrial DNA, the DNA outside the nucleus, which comes from the mother and her genetic line. That meant its mother was human. But we could not recover its nuclear DNA, which comes from both mother and father, which meant its father was not a human. Unfortunately, with the recovery technology of 2003 we couldn't prove what he was, which left us in scientific limbo. The "no result" from the search for the nuclear DNA clearly meant Dad wasn't human, but we could not prove that fact beyond all possible doubt.

Now, in 2010, there have been many improvements in the recovery process, and those improvements have been applied to the Starchild skull with the stunning result you see below. This is a gel sheet that shows a clear recovery of its nuclear DNA, which could not be done in 2003.

The next two screen shots are taken from the national genetic database at the National Institute of Health, NIH. That public-access database is a centralized repository of all genetic information generated by geneticists all over the world, and now covers essentially all living organisms on Earth, from various kinds of viruses and bacteria, to various kinds of crustaceans and fish, to all kinds of animals and plants, including great apes and humans.

For many species, humans included, there are already nucleotide sequences covering entire genomes. Therefore, sequences from the Starchild's DNA can be directly compared against this vast database to look for any matches. In one such comparison below, you see the text below the blue line at the bottom (if you can read it, sorry it's so fuzzy) that 265 base pairs (a good length) of recovered Starchild nuclear DNA matches perfectly with a gene on human chromosome 1. This verifies beyond any degree of doubt that some of the nuclear DNA seen in the gel sheet is from a human being.

In the one below, and again at the bottom, you see the stunning report that in a string of 342 base pairs (another good length), "No significant similarity (is) found." To recover a stretch of base pairs as long as that with NO reference in the NIH database is astounding because it means there is no known earthly corollary for what has been analyzed! This incredible anomaly will put the Starchild in history books!!!

Please understand that this result has now been verified several times, and a few more different fragments have been identified that cannot be matched in this database to anything known. Despite that fact, mainstream skeptics will be obligated by their positions to try to say it's some kind of gibberish or some kind of mistake because in their world view it simply can't be true.

Luckily, their bleating protests can be easily overcome with continued repetition of the result, finding more and more similar fragments in the library that will be created from the Starchild's DNA, which is what the geneticist is confident will happen over the next weeks and months---nothing but verification that a significant part of the Starchild's genome is not found on Earth.

I should add that I still can't reveal the name of the geneticist or where he works until we are ready to formally present his results to the world. However, trust me, he is a well-established professional and his facility is large and very credible. They don't want to be bombarded by media until they are prepared for it, and neither do I for that matter. Just know that you are a part of the "inner circle" of those who have put your faith in a dream that is now coming true.

Two more issues of importance:

(1) I still don't know where the recent "MonsterQuest" episode "Lizard Monster" can be viewed on the internet by people outside the U.S. If anyone knows how that can be found, please let me know and I'll share with the list. Thanks!

(2) The expenses for materials doing our research has now outstripped the amount donated by the list. It is now coming out of my pocket and I could use some help to bridge that gap. However, look on the bright side. This should be the last time I ever have to ask for your help in this way.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Tyrannosaurs spread worldwide early in Age of Dinosaurs

Paleontologists Thursday unveiled the first fossil evidence -- a foot-long pelvic bone found in Australia -- showing that T. Rex's predecessors roamed the entire globe.

Reported in the journal, Science, the 110 million-years-old fossil pubis is "almost identical to those of tyrannosaurids", says the study led by Roger Benson of the United Kingdom's University of Cambridge.

The finding of the bone -- crucial for the balance of the distinctive carnivore's shape -- suggests that "advanced tyrannosaurids" flourished tens of millions of years before T. Rex evolved to colossal size around 85 million years ago to become the top predator of the dinosaur world, say the report authors. These dinosaurs would have been long-legged with little arms and thick skulls. The fossil also shows a relation to smaller, fleeter Raptorex dinosaur carnivores from even earlier dinosaur eras.

"The find is intriguing and certainly suggests tyrannosaurids flourished worldwide," says paleontologist Thomas Holtz of the University of Maryland in College Park, who was not part of the study. But Holtz cautions that more than just one bone is needed to confirm the worldwide extent of T. Rex's predecessor.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Arctodus simus - America's Ice Age super-predator

When the first humans crossed the Bering Strait into North America they encountered a hunter's paradise, with mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, and a variety of large ungulates for the taking. However, they also came face-to-face with some of the most fearsome predators of all time.

The dire wolf was larger and more heavily built than the present-day gray wolf. The large saber-toothed and scimitar cats had huge canines that could inflict horrendous wounds. The American "lion," which was larger than today's African lion, was related to the present-day puma.

However, the most terrifying predator of them all was Arctodus simus, known as the short-faced bear, which, at an estimated weight of 700 to 800 kilograms (1,543 to 1,763 pounds), was the largest carnivorous mammal that ever lived in North America.

Or was it?

In the 1960s, the late Finnish paleontologist Björn (Swedish for "bear") Kurtén, a leading expert on Ice Age mammals, especially bears, reconstructed Arctodus simus as an active predator. He emphasized the short, broad snout, powerful jaws, well-developed carnassials, and long limbs. A giant bear that could run down its prey would have been the ultimate nightmare for the first human settlers!

Later, a number of paleontologists cast doubts on Kurtén's interpretation. Some noted close similarities between Arctodus simus and its closest living relative, the primarily vegetarian South American spectacled bear, and argued that it also consumed a lot of plant matter.

Others suggested that Arctodus simus was an omnivore that frequently scavenged animal carcasses.

A new study by a team of researchers from the Universidad de Málaga in Spain has reassessed the rival claims concerning the way this extinct giant gots its dinner.

The first step taken by the Spanish team was to determine the body mass of Arctodus simus.

The weight of most mammals can be estimated from measurements of their limb bones. The researchers found a considerable range of weights, from about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) to almost one ton (2,200 pounds).

They also noted geographic variation, with the largest individuals coming from more northern locations. This pattern is still seen in populations of present-day brown bear, with particularly large animals (especially males) occurring in Alaska.

Second, the Spanish team looked at skull and limb proportions of Arctodus simus. The giant bear did not, in fact, have a particularly short snout and its skull proportions were appropriate for a bear of its size.

The researchers also noted that the most carnivorous living bear, the polar bear, has a relatively long snout. The tooth evidence provided no clear indication for either meat-eating or omnivorous habits.

Finally, while the forelegs may have been enlarged the hind legs in the extinct bear were not proportionately longer than in present-day bears. Arctodus simus was not a runner.

No longer short of snout and long of limb, Arctodus simus has been dethroned as America's Ice Age super-predator. However, studies of the carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios of its bones, commonly used to determine the dietary preferences of animals, still indicate the bear consumed some meat.

Presumably a one-ton bear could behave like the proverbial 800-pound gorilla--it could eat anything it wanted to!

Grizzlies consume a lot of vegetable matter yet, from time to time, will augment this diet by taking down an elk or the odd tourist. They will also chase wolves off their kills. The much larger extinct bear could easily have engaged in similar behaviors.

A mature adult Arctodus simus must have been a magnificent sight. Fortunately for Stephen Colbert and his fellow bear-haters, this giant vanished, along with the rest of America's remarkable Ice Age megafauna, some 11,000 years ago.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deinosuchus - an Ancient Reptile Dined on Dinosaurs

An ancient crocodile-like animal, about twice the length of an SUV, probably dined on sea turtles and dinosaurs, suggests bite-mark evidence and dung droppings.

The giant reptile called Deinosuchus was up to 29 feet long (nearly 9 meters), and likely adorned Georgia's shores, in the United States, about 79 million years ago, much as modern crocodiles dot the shores of the West Nile, the researchers say.

While the animals weren't true crocodiles, they were members of the crocodilian group and more closely related to alligators than crocs (alligators and crocodiles are closely related but distinct species). Either way, the new findings show the beast was tough, taking down dinosaurs its own size.

"We're sure (Deinosuchus) ate a lot of sea turtles, but it's evident it liked to prey on dinosaurs too," said David Schwimmer, a Columbus State paleontologist, who recently completed two studies on the giant crocodile with one of his students, Samantha Harrell.

The team analyzed various specimens of dinosaurs and sea turtles, along with the crocodilian's teeth, which were typically broken at the tips. Schwimmer said the breakage suggests a diet that included hard foods, like bone material.

"These things had very thick blunt teeth, built like little hub caps, especially the back teeth," Schwimmer said.

Several dinosaur bones showing the distinctive bite marks, including the tailbones of duck-billed dinosaurs found in the western United States, and the leg bone of a small carnivorous dinosaur, whose remains are stored at a New Jersey museum.

"The [leg] bone was so chewed that it was distorted, and it looked like a chew toy, like a dog had been working on it," Schwimmer told LiveScience. "It was covered with crocodilian bites."

Similar marks were found on turtle shells.

Fossilized feces were also collected along the banks of the Hannahatchee Creek in Stewart County, a major tributary of the Chattahoochee River, in Georgia. Poop analyses provided some support for their predator-prey conclusions. The so-called coprolites were each about a half-foot long (15 centimeters) and 2 to 3 inches (5 to 7.6 cm) in diameter, or "about the size we'd expect to come out of one of these animals," Schwimmer said, referring to the crocodilians.

The feces showed no sign of bones, which is what would be expected even if the animals were chowing on dinosaur bones. "Crocodilians have very strong digestive acids and bones get dissolved," he said.

Within the coprolites, Harrell found sand and lots of shell fragments. The results indicated the ancient crocs lived in a shallow, warm-water environment, perhaps near the mouth of a river where there may have been an abundance of sea turtles.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets

In the middle of a terrifying desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.

The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The long-vanished people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown. But many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and even the language they spoke.

Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.

In modern times the region has been occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. A large number of ancient mummies, really desiccated corpses, have emerged from the sands, only to become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. The team was led by Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun, with Dr. Jin as a co-author.

All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr. Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

The Small River Cemetery was rediscovered in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman and then forgotten for 66 years until relocated through GPS navigation by a Chinese expedition. Archaeologists began excavating it from 2003 to 2005. Their reports have been translated and summarized by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin.

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.

Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.

The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.

Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist at Stanford University and an expert on fertility in East Asia, said that the poles perhaps mark social status, a common theme of tombs and grave goods. “It seems that what most people want to take with them is their status, if it is anything to brag about,” he said.

Dr. Mair said the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was “a believable analysis.” The buried people’s evident veneration of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility, given that it is difficult to separate the two. But they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, Dr. Mair said, because several women were buried in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.

Living in harsh surroundings, “infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great,” Dr. Mair said. Another possible risk to fertility could have arisen if the population had become in-bred. “Those women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood would have been particularly revered,” Dr. Mair said.

Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.

There are no known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat. No woodworking tools have been found at the site, supporting the idea that the poles were carved off site.

The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago. They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around A.D. 400. Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were common in the region until some 2,000 years ago.

The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).

The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is “a clear continuity of culture,” Dr. Mair said, in the form of people being buried with felt hats, a tradition that continued until the first few centuries A.D.

An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opens March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. — the first time that the mummies will be seen outside Asia.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Hobbits, a Million-Year History on Island

Newfound stone tools suggest the evolutionary history of the "hobbits" on the Indonesian island of Flores stretches back a million years, a new study says—200,000 years longer than previously thought.

The hobbit mystery was sparked by the 2004 discovery of bones on Flores that belonged to a three-foot-tall (one-meter-tall), 55-pound (25-kilogram) female with a grapefruit-size brain.

The tiny, hobbit-like creature—controversially dubbed a new human species, Homo floresiensis—persisted on the remote island until about 18,000 years ago, even as "modern" humans spread around the world, experts say.

Found in million-year-old volcanic sediments, the newly discovered tools are "simple sharp-edged flakes" like those found at nearby sites on Flores—sites dated to later time periods but also associated with hobbits and their ancestors—said study co-leader Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, via e-mail.

The finding implies that a culture of stone tool wielding ancient humans, with origins in Africa, survived on the island for much longer than previously believed, according to the new research, published online today by the journal Nature.

"That's exciting," because it suggests that by a million years ago, early humans had covered more ground on their exodus from Africa than previously thought, said paleontologist Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum of London, who wasn't involved in the new study.

Hobbit Ancestors off the Hook?

The stone-and-bone record had suggested that the hobbits' ancestors—perhaps upright-walking-but-small-brained Homo erectus—left Africa about 1.5 million years ago and reached Flores by 880,000 years ago.

Once there, it's been thought, the hobbit ancestors quickly hunted a pygmy elephant species and a giant tortoise species to extinction.

The date of the newly discovered stone tools, though, suggests elephant and tortoise died off a hundred thousand years after Flores's colonization —indicating that the early Flores colonizers' role in the extinction "must have been minimal," study co-leader Brumm said.

What's more, these early colonizers could have been more primitive than H. erectus—"that is our working hypothesis," he added.

When the bones of the hobbit were first reported in 2004, the discovery team suggested they belonged to a unique species, Homo floresiensis, that had descended from Homo erectus.

Since then, scientists studying the hobbit bones have found features in the wrist, feet, skull, jaw, brain, and shoulders that suggest the little creature descended from something more primitive.

"I think that's looking increasingly likely from its anatomy," said the Natural History Museum's Stringer.

Hobbit Findings Questioned

Not everyone is ready to accept the new date.

"I have no problem with hominins"—human ancestors—"being on Flores at 1.2 million years ago," anthropologist James Phillips said. "After all, they were on Java by around 750,000 [years ago]."

But the fact that the implements were found in million-year-old volcanic sediments doesn't guarantee the artifacts are a million years old, said Phillips, an emeritus professor with the University of Illinois at Chicago, said via email.

"There are many ways"—such as water-driven processes—"in which artifacts can move through sediments," Phillips said.

He's also dismayed that the new study assumes that stone-tool technology changed little on Flores for more than a million years.

"Everywhere else on Earth, change was slow but always—and I emphasize always—occurred."

Controversy is nothing new in hobbit science, with many experts still at odds over whether Homo floresiensis is a separate species at all.

Several scientists have argued, for example, that the hobbits were modern humans with a genetic condition that causes dwarfing and other defects.

Hobbit Ancestors Rafted to Flores?

Regardless of what they were and when they arrived, the question remains: How did primitive humans get to Flores in the first place?

The Natural History Museum's Stringer buys into a theory that they may have migrated from Africa, perhaps on foot, to the island of Sulawesi (map). There, the ancient humans may have been washed to sea by a tsunami—currents off Sulawesi flow southward, toward Flores.

"These creatures most likely got moved on rafts of vegetation," he said.

To help shore up this theory, the team behind the original hobbit discovery is currently looking for evidence on Sulawesi that would prove humans occupied the island even earlier than they did Flores.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Fossil amphibian roamed Pennsylvania 300 million years ago

A meat-eating amphibian roamed the badlands of Pennsylvania some 300 million years, paleontologists reported this week.

A team led by David Berman of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh describes Fedexia striegeli in the current Annals of Carnegie Museum journal. The creature's name is a thank-you to Federal Express, which owns the road-cut land on which the fossil skull of the creature was found, and its amateur finder, Adam Striegel.

Based on its five-inch-long skull, Fedexia, "record(s) the earliest occurrences of vertebrates adapted to a terrestrial existence," says the study, "primarily living and feeding on land." The creature, which lived about 70 million years before the first dinosaurs, likely only returned to the water to lay eggs.

Dating of the fossil comes from chemical comparison of the skull to the rock layers of the western Pennsylvania road-cut from which it tumbled in 2004. It was then discovered by Striegel, then a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. "What is particularly amazing about this discovery is that it was made by an amateur who had no prior experience in recognizing vertebrate fossils in the rock, a talent that usually takes years to develop," said Berman, in a statement.

Then near the equator, the geology of western Pennsylvania indicates that North America enjoyed a dry climate at the time when Fedexis roamed, following a wetter period that saw the emergence of some of the first land animals tens of millions of years earlier. "Yet, aquatic amphibians continued to dominate the Pennsylvanian vertebrate assemblages during this episode," says the study, which follows earlier suggestions that the drying-out of swampy terrain spurred the evolution of land-dwelling creatures whose ancestors mostly lived in the water.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Mystic girl of Gwrych Castle

A company boss Kevin Horkin was taken pictures at Gwrych Castle in Abergele, North Wales and may have captured a picture of a spirit.

Kevin didn’t notice anything unusual until he downloaded the pictures to his PC. In one of the photos was the image of a pale young woman looking out a window.

Amazingly, it’s impossible for anyone to stand at that particular window because the floor in the room is completely destroyed.

North Wales Paranormal group have confirmed that many sightings have been recorded at the castle.

Local history claims that the first castle at Gwrych was built by the Normans in the 12th century. It was seized by the Welsh prince Rhys ap Gruffydd (the Lord Rhys) of Deheubarth in about 1170 who then rebuilt the timber castle in stone. This castle was later destroyed by Cromwell’s army following the English Civil War of the mid-17th century.

The later castle at Gwrych was begun in 1819. The castle is a Grade 1 listed building set in a wooded hillside overlooking the Irish Sea.

It was the first Gothic folly to be built in Europe by a wealthy industrialist Lloyd Hesketh. Bamford Hesketh, his son, inherited the title of Gwrych in his early 20s and used his vast fortune to build the 4,000-acre Gwrych Castle Estate.

The castle once had a total of 128 rooms including the outbuildings, including twenty-eight bedrooms, an outer hall, an inner hall, two smoke rooms, a dining room, a drawing room, a billiards room, an oak study, and a range of accommodations for servants.

There are nineteen embattled towers and the whole facade is over 2000 yards. Many feel the castle’s outstanding feature was the castle’s 52-step marble staircase.


Local history claims that the first castle at Gwrych was built by the Normans in the 12th century. It was seized by the Welsh prince Rhys ap Gruffydd (the Lord Rhys) of Deheubarth in about 1170 who then rebuilt the timber castle in stone. This castle was later destroyed by Cromwell's army following the English Civil War of the mid-17th century.

The later castle at Gwrych was begun in 1819. The castle is a Grade 1 listed building set in a wooded hillside over looking the Irish Sea. It was the first Gothic folly to be built in Europe by a wealthy industrialist Lloyd Hesketh. Bamford Hesketh, his son, inherited the title of Gwrych in his early 20s and used his vast fortune to build the 4,000-acre Gwrych Castle Estate.

The castle once had a total of 128 rooms including the outbuildings, including twenty-eight bedrooms, an outer hall, an inner hall, two smoke rooms, a dining room, a drawing room, a billiards room, an oak study, and a range of accommodations for servants. There are nineteen embattled towers and the whole facade is over 2000 yards. Many feel the castle's outstanding feature was the castle's 52-step marble staircase.

Queen Victoria stayed at Gwrych in 1932 in what is now known as the Victoria bedroom. These rooms are situated in the front of the castle in the round tower on the first floor, with two windows overlooking the Irish Sea.

In 1946 The castle was sold and then it passed through subsequent owners and is now derelict. All of the windows are cast iron and the fantastic stained glass has vanished. It's been years since the castle's been occupied. Years ago they used to hold medieval fairs and the like on the grounds of the castle.

The castle was bought several years ago by an American businessman who planned to spend 10 million pounds to convert the castle into a top-class opera house with adjoining luxury hotel. But those plans never materialized and the building was frequently vandalized. Unfortunately, in early 1998 Gwrych was extensively damaged following the collapse of ceilings and floors, and was later damaged by fire.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Leedsichthys was a giant pachycormid (an extinct group of Mesozoic bony fish) that lived in the oceans of the Middle Jurassic period. The closest living relative of the pachycormids is the bowfin, Amia calva, but this is only very distantly related. The name Leedsichthys means "Leeds' fish", after the fossil collector Alfred Nicholson Leeds, who discovered it before 1886 near Peterborough, England. The fossils found by Leeds gave the fish the species epithet problematicus, because the remains were so fragmented that they were extremely hard to recognize and interpret.

Unfortunately, although the remains of over seventy individuals have been found, these are usually partial and fragmentary. This has made it difficult to estimate its length. Arthur Smith Woodward, who described the specimen in 1889, estimated it to be 30 feet (around 9 metres) long, by comparing the tail of Leedsichthys with another pachycormid, Hypsocormus. In 1986, Martill compared the bones of Leedsichthys to a pachycormid that he had recently discovered, but the unusual proportions of that specimen gave a wide range of possible sizes. More recent estimates, from documentation of historical finds and the excavation of the most complete specimen ever from the Star Pit near Whittlesey, Peterborough, support Smith Woodward's figures of between 30 and 33 feet (9 and 10 meters). Recent work on growth ring structures within the remains of Leedsichthys have also indicated that it would have taken 21-25 years to reach these lengths, and isolated elements from other specimens indicate that a maximum size of just over 53 feet (16 metres) is not unreasonable.

Like the largest fish today, the whale sharks and basking sharks, Leedsichthys problematicus derived its nutrition using an array of specialised gill rakers lining its gill basket to extract zooplankton from the water passing through its mouth and across its gills. There is little direct evidence for predation as opposed to scavenging on Leedsichthys remains, but specimen P.6924 in the Natural History Museum of London shows signs of bites from a Liopleurodon-sized pliosaur. These bites have then healed, indicating that Leedsichthys could even escape the top predator of the Oxford Clay seas, probably as a result of its powerful tail.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Wicker Man

The Wicker Man is set on fire to pay tribute to the gods. The sacrifice of the humans inside is part of a religious ritual to increase fertility, crops, commerce, or merely to re-ignite the chances that bad times will disappear.

According to Julius Caesar in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentary on the Gallic Wars), the Wicker Man was a large wicker statue of a human used by the ancient Druids (priests of Celtic paganism) for human sacrifice by burning it in effigy. Other records talk of people being placed inside.

Despite any debunking of Caesar's accounts by modern skeptics, the imagery of the burning of the Wicker Man lives on and its use cannot be denied in modern neo-pagan rituals. Whether the Wicker Man exists in historic Pagan accounts, in modern neo-Pagan events (such as at Nevada's Burning Man), or in movies and contemporary events, the symbolism is very real and powerful.

And quite obvious.

For those interested in deciphering the unfolding of the sacrifices (including murder-suicides and costumed violence of late) during these difficult times, please pay attention to these signs, noticed already by those to whom the twilight language is being directed.

As I already have mentioned in these pages, it goes beyond coincidence to find the moniker of the Wicker turning up during incidents from the Son of Sam killings to last year's Chicago area "Phantom Clown" sightings and near-abductions of children. Keep your eyes open.

From an article published this morning, comes news of this celebration:

A 12-foot tall Wicker Man will be set on fire tonight [Friday, January 30, 2009] in a pagan winter ritual close to the Fermanagh border [Northern Ireland].

[The name Fermanagh is an Anglicization of Fhear Manach which means "Men of the Manacháin tribe," so named after their chief O'Manacháin (Anglicized as O'Monaghan), the famous warrior monk. Contae Fhear Manach or Fear Manach = "Men of Monach" in Irish.]

The folk ceremony at Aughakillymaude Mummers Centre near Derrylin will celebrate the loosening of winter’s grip and the impending return of spring as it marks February 1, known as a Quarter Day in the Celtic agricultural calendar.

At 10 pm [local time] the straw mummers hats worn all winter by the troupe performing their traditional drama will be set on fire to mark the close of the mumming season and the Wicker Man will then be lit.

The huge figure has been created by model maker Gordon Johnston from flexible sally rods — willow rods used for wicker furniture and fencing. According to Jim Ledwith of the Mummers Foundation, little is known about the origins of the Wicker Man, apart from Julius Caesar’s second hand accounts of druidic winter rituals of human sacrifice during the Gallic wars.

These alleged that female slaves and criminals were burned alive inside effigies 100 times the size of the Fermanagh one.

“While the details of the wicker man ritual may have become coloured with the telling, it represents a tradition of sacrifice by burning practiced by the continental Celts.

“Indeed, the practice of human sacrifice was still prevalent in fifth and sixth century Ireland,” Jim said.

“Throughout Celtic Europe the wicker man legend lives on and the effigy is still burned ceremoniously as a mock sacrifice in themed ceremonies, especially at Beltaine (May) to mark the rite of spring — notably without the human sacrifice element.”

Mummers will light a gas beacon at Aughakillymaude to symbolise the sun’s return.

The 1973 movie The Wicker Man, starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee, is regarded as one of the finest horror films of all time, and it ends with Woodward, playing a police detective, being burned alive inside the chest of the effigy.

Don't Look Now an Anglo-Italian thriller, directed by Nicolas Roeg, was released in 1973. In the double-billing that took place back then, 1973's The Wicker Man was the "A" feature on their original UK theatrical dual release.

The figure of the "little person" in the red rain gear in Don't Look Now serves as a trigger or key. As Wikipedia notes, the "spiraling vortex of coincidences, recurring themes and motifs (light on water, breaking glass, the colour red)...reaches a dramatic conclusion in an old bell tower. John [Baxter, the lead character, played by Donald Sutherland] confronts the mysterious figure in red, realizing too late that his visions were premonitions of a grisly end."

A less well-remembered American remake of The Wicker Man, with Nicolas Cage in the lead, was released in 2006 with the film's tale being set on a private island in Puget Sound, Washington. In this 2006 version, a little girl is seen running around in a red coat. As well, there is a pair of twins, old women, both of whom are blind.

In the feature film Flatliners, Kiefer Sutherland is tormented by a small childlike figure in a red hooded coat in an homage to his father's film.

The theme of the little red-clad Venetian figure is used in a dream sequence in the "Book Clubbin'" episode of television series "Absolutely Fabulous," Series 5.

The Irish feature film Intermission (starring Colm Meaney and Colin Farrell) references Don't Look Now's chase of a small figure in a red coat several times.

Don't Look Now's drowning scene is referenced by the 2005 film The Dark starring Sean Bean and Maria Bello in which their daughter drowns wearing a bright red sweater.

In the 2005 film Hostel, a figure fleetingly glimpsed wearing a red raincoat is pursued through narrow alleyways.

The end chase scene of Don't Look Now is referenced in the 2006 release of Casino Royale where James Bond is pursuing Vesper through Venice while she is wearing a red coat.

The Wicker Man burns red.