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World Roundup

May/June 2014

  • China-Oldest-Multiplication-TablesCHINA: Experts have revealed a multiplication table that might have been used to calculate land area, crop yields, and taxes during the Warring States Period, around 305 B.C. The table was among 2,500 bamboo strips that contain many significant historical texts donated to a university in Beijing. Twenty-one of them contain numbers and, when properly arranged, allow for the multiplication of whole and half integers from 0.5 to 99.5. It is among the oldest and most sophisticated tabular calculators known.

  • Georgian-Martyr-GoaINDIA: Queen Ketevan ruled a small Christian kingdom in eastern Georgia. After her death in Iran in 1624—she was tortured after refusing to convert to Islam—her remains were unearthed and her right arm was taken to a convent in Goa. The convent had fallen into ruins by the 19th century, but excavations turned up bone fragments. Scientists found a genetic signature in the bones that is found in Georgia but not India, suggesting they have identified some portion of the lost martyr’s relic. —Samir S. Patel 

  • Alexander-Great-Hellbore-PoisonIRAQ: The Royal Diary of Alexander the Great describes his death in Babylon in 323 B.C. as an agonizing 12 days of fever, weakness, pain, and vomiting. The latest theory on the cause of his demise is poisoning with a plant called white hellebore. Toxicologists found that hellebore poisoning matches many of Alexander’s symptoms. Others disagree, stating that the symptoms would have been recognized by his doctor—unless, of course, his doctor had been part of a murder conspiracy (as legend has it). —Samir S. Patel

  • Moroco-Tooth-DecayMOROCCO: Tooth decay occurs when bacteria consume trapped food and produce acid that breaks down hard dental tissue. These bacteria thrived when humans took up farming; ancient hunter-gatherers appear to have had few cavities. Not so the people of Grotte Des Pigeons 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. New analysis of dentition shows that they had as many cavities as modern populations do. This could have been due to a diet heavy in acorns and other carbs that are appealing to the agents of tooth decay. —Samir S. Patel

  • Finnish-Crusader-SwordFINLAND: Metal detectorists found a fascinating grave in a field in Janakkala and turned the find over to archaeological authorities. The well-preserved body dates to the Northern Crusades, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when Christian Swedes and Danes invaded pagan areas of Northern Europe. The individual, perhaps a well-off soldier, was buried with two swords: a broken Viking-era piece and an intact one from his own time. At nearly four feet from pommel to point, it one of the longest ever found in Finland. —Samir S. Patel

  • Denmark-Mesolithic-ClambakeDENMARK: Fresh oysters are worth the elbow grease and tricky leverage needed to pry them open, but that’s not the only option. The thick Mesolithic middens near the village of Ertebølle are full of oyster shells, but bear no evidence of tools to open them or damage from the process. Rather, some show signs of light scorching. Experiments show that after brief heating on hot stone or embers, oysters ease open with a puff of steam. But the researchers involved disagree on whether the process affects the taste. —Samir S. Patel

  • New-York-City-City-Hall-DoucheNEW YORK: In 2010, in a heap under City Hall Park in lower Manhattan, archaeologists found alcohol bottles, pipes, and bones, including those of turtles, which would have been a delicacy. The soiree deposit dates to the early 19th century, right around when City Hall was built. Researchers have only just determined the identity of an odd cylindrical device carved from bone, with a perforated cap. Comparisons with museum objects reveal it to be a syringe for feminine hygiene—a douche. —Samir S. Patel

  • California-Bitumen-TarCALIFORNIA: Bitumen, or natural petroleum tar, has been a useful material around the world for thousands of years. In the Channel Islands, the Chumash used it as long as 8,000 years ago as an adhesive or to waterproof baskets or boats, but the islands have no terrestrial source. They could have traded for some, but scientists applied geochemical analysis and traced samples used by the Chumash back to a petroleum seep 25 miles offshore. The bitumen washed ashore in the form of “tar balls” or “tar whips.” —Samir S. Patel

  • Guadeloupe-Slave-CemeteryGUADELOUPE: Coastal erosion on the island of Grand-Terre has put a colonial-era graveyard at risk. The beachside cemetery has been known since the 1990s, when a skull with a slave collar surfaced. Archaeologists have now revealed almost 50 graves, including an individual with cut incisors, suggesting African origins. It is estimated that hundreds more graves remain, as the cemetery was used for around a century. The French territory had a large population of slaves working on sugar plantations until the mid-19th century. —Samir S. Patel

  • Peru-Trepanation-SkullPERU: A new study of dozens of skulls from the south-central Andes examined the practice of trepanation, or the surgical removal of a portion of the skull. Researchers theorize that the practice arose following the collapse of the Wari Empire around A.D. 1000, which may have brought increased violence and health problems that required new, and sometimes radical, treatments. The study shows that primarily adult men were eligible, that scraping offered better outcomes than drilling, and that some skulls were used for practice after death. —Samir S. Patel 



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