What Does Giraffe Really Mean?

Sure, we all know "giraffe" means "that really tall mammal with spots and a long neck." But does the word itself mean anything? Linguists aren't sure. The English word "giraffe" may come from the Arabic word zarāfa, which means "to jump" or "to hurry." Other linguists think it may mean "assemblage," since early explorers thought the giraffe looked like a compilation of a horse, an ox, and a camel.

The Founder Effect in Afrikaaners

The "founder effect" is when a larger, older population sends a few founders to establish a new population elsewhere. Only whatever genes the new founders happen to have will be passed on to their children - the new population. Thus there is usually less genetic diversity in the new population than in the old population. The Afrikaner population of South Africa is a good example of the founder effect. They are descended primarily from one shipload of immigrants that landed in 1652, and thanks to some good geneaology and records-keeping, scientists have been able to track some genetic diseases, which are more common in Afrikaaners than larger Dutch population, back to that original shipload. One of these colonists carried the gene for Huntington’s disease, an autosomal dominant disease that causes a fatal breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Most cases of the disease in the modern Afrikaner population can be traced to that individual.

Another condition, lipoid proteinosis, has been traced to Jacob Cloete, a German immigrant to the Cape in 1652. His great-grandson, Gerrit Cloete, migrated to Namaqualand in 1742. The area is somewhat isolated, so intermarriages were relatively common, compounding the founder effect.

What Can Temples Tell Us About Hawaii's Unification Into A Kingdom?

A study of indigenous temples, or heiau, on the island of Maui was conducted to identify when the island’s native population first went from living under many small chiefdoms to living under a single ruler. The island’s sacred sites range from small shrines dedicated to deities of fishing and agriculture, to “monumental” temples whose foundations are still identifiable today. Maui is a rare archaeological site in Hawaii. It is untouched by agriculture, or tourism, or housing development. That means the archaeological remains of the entire district are intact, making Maui an excellent place to study the development of pre-contact Hawaiian society.

Heiau vary tremendously in size and form; there were different kinds of heiau for different gods. The structures themselves were made of perishable wood and thatch but their stone bases remain. These are generally platforms or terraces, and sometimes even walled enclosures. The study went over the heiau's remains looking for pieces of a small, stony coral known as Pocillopora meandrina, which were offerings and sometimes incorporated into the buildings themselves. Because coral are animals they can be dated -- telling us when the heiau were constructed and used. Which in turn can tell us something about the political landscape on Maui at the time.

If there was a a temple-building boom, that often means a period of political consolidation, as ancient Hawaiian rulers utilized increasing religious authority in order to also wield economic and political authority. To enhance their religious authority Hawaiian rulers would build more temples and shrines, often near farmlands and other areas of food production. This strengthened the symbolic association between rulers and the gods who controlled nature’s bounty. And it was probably not a coincidence that the temples also made it easier for leaders to collect tribute from the local food producers.

The new study found that most of the heiau were built recently and rapidly, over a span of no more than 150 years, beginning around 1550 and ending around the year 1700. Because coral carbon dating has an error range of 2 to 10 years, we can be relatively certain of these findings. Well, as certain as you can ever be with relatively new methods and fieldwork. Luckily, the study has outside support: its time range is the same time during which the Hawaiian oral traditions indicate that Maui island was consolidated into a single kingdom, under the reigns of King Pi’ilani and his successors Kiha-a-Pi’ilani and Kamalalawalu.

DNA Analysis Deepens Mystery around India's Skeleton Lake

Roopkund Lake is a shallow body of water filled with human bones, high in the Himalayas of India. Its not-very-creative nickname is "Skeleton Lake." As you might imagine, finding a mysterious lake filled with human bodies has generated much archaeological interest.

A recent genome-wide DNA analysis of 38 of the remains indicates that they came from multiple groups. The largest group (23 individuals) were similar to that of people from present-day India. The second-largest group (14 individuals) were most similar to people from present-day Crete and Greece! Very surprising. The last individual, if you are curious, had DNA suggesting a Southeast Asian origin.

Another recent finding was that these individuals did not all die at the same time, in a disaster of some kind. Radiocarbon dating placed the Indian-related bones between the 600s and 900s CE. The analysis does not tell us if within that span, multiple groupings were put in Roopkund Lake together, or if each individual's remains were placed individually into the lake. The other groups, the Mediterranean individuals and the Southeast Asian individual, were placed in the lake between 1600 and 1900 CE. That's pretty recent.

These DNA analyses were conducted only on a handful of the individuals buried at Roopkund Lake, the ones whose whole-genome DNA could be generated. There may be more surprises in store as more of the remains are tested.

Imperial Examinations Cheat Vest from the Qing Dynasty

For most of Chinese dynastic history, the Imperial Service Exams were the only exams that mattered -- those that passed got a government post, and their families were set for life. Those that failed had wasted up to decades of their lives studying for a test with no practical skills to show for it. This particular cheat vest is covered in 62 model essays, which contain nearly forty thousand Chinese characters.

Can You Guess What This Is?

It is a knife! Specifically, a Tantric Buddhist ritual curved knife dating to the 1600s or 1700s. Such knives are both a common attribute for wrathful deities and a ritual object used symbolically to destroy negative forces. The form is modelled after Indian butcher's knives, with a crescent-shaped blade designed for flaying an animal’s skin and a sharp hook to make the initial incision. As a tool of enlightenment, it severs and strips away the layers of false knowledge inherent to ordinary existence, revealing a greater truth. On the copper relief, a horned animal is depicted to make the knife even more powerful, and aid in wardng off dangerous forces. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Literal Translations of Country Names: Oceania

Here's the history behind my favorites: New Zealand is a mash-up of English (New) and Dutch (Zeeland), but it should also be called “Aotearoa,” its Māori name, which means "Land of the Long White Cloud". And Nauru may derive from the Nauruan word "anáoero", which means "I go to the beach."

An interesting summary of the linguistic history of the Iberian Peninsula! Although this is not entirely accurate -- Mozarabic speakers would say they spoke “Ladino,” for instance, and there were no linguistic census in 1000 CE to check exactly where the borders between languages and dialects were.

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    HISTORICAL NON-FICTION

    By Lillian Audette

    This blog is a collection of the interesting, the weird, and sometimes the need-to-know about history, culled from around the internet. It has pictures, it has quotes, it occasionally has my own opinions on things. If you want to know more about anything posted, follow the link at the "source" on the bottom of each post. And if you really like my work, buy me a coffee or become a patron!

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