A Beautiful Ceremonial Blouse

From the Toraja people of Indonesia, specifically the To Bada Toraja. Circa early 1900s. Meant to be worn by a woman at important ceremonies, such as funerals, it is decorated with beads at the bottom, and lined with bark cloth!     Courtesy of the LACMA.

What Is an Isotope Analysis and Why Is It Useful?

You've probably heard the term "isotope analysis." In theory, its a simple idea: people are what they eat and drink. Ratios of carbon and nitrogen in our bones and our teeth allows scientists to tell the relative amounts of animal protein that we eat and drink.  It can also be used to distinguish between broad groups of plants, because different paths use different photosynthetic pathways and that determines the amounts of carbon and nitrogen we get from eating different groups of plants. Using carbon and nitrogen ratios, modern scientists can -- to a degree -- reconstruct the diets of people who died long ago.

Isotope analysis can also tell if a person was born where they were buried. There are differences in strontium isotope ratios, depending on the age of the underlying geology of an area. Are you living on 20 million year old bedrock, or 200 million year old bedrock? Apparently, it makes a difference. By drinking local water and eating local food, people incorporate the local strontium isotope ratios into their tooth enamel while their teeth form during childhood. When a skeleton is found, the teeth's strontium isotope ratio can be compared to the local burial area's ratio. If it is not the same, then the person was not raised there. Of course this only tells us whether they are local or not. It does not help identify where the person migrated from.

What Is An Ice Age?

When you read that, an image probably came to mind: giant glaciers, people huddling for warmth, maybe a giant woolly mammoth or two. The problem with that definition of "Ice Age" is it defines what life is like now on Earth as "normal" and giant glaciers over the north and south pole as "abnormal." But is that true? Are we, in fact, living in a period of relative coolness? Is right now an "abnormal" Earth?

A better description of an ice age would be that it’s a long stretch of time in which both the atmosphere and the planet’s surface have a low temperature, resulting in the presence of polar ice sheets and mountainous glaciers. An Ice Age can last for several million years. Within the Ice Age period, the Earth isn't uniformly covered in snow. There are periods of glaciation, characterized by ice sheet and glacier expansion over the face of the planet, and interglacial periods, where we would have an interval of several thousand years of warmer temperatures and receding ice. Turns out just the presence of ice caps on the north and south pole is abnormal! What we currently live in is an "interglacial period" in the middle of an Ice Age!

How Many Oceans Are There?

Historically, people spoke of seven oceans. This is a throwback to the ancient notion of the "seven seas." Truthfully, any division of the oceans is arbitrary since there is only a single global sea.

Maybe Bigger Isn't Better

New research suggests that humans might have favored evolving brains that were rounder, not larger. Well, after they got larger. By about 300,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had about the same size brains as they do today. But did our brains just stop evolving? Using micro-CT scans of the inner surfaces of the skulls, researchers created digital approximations of the size and shape of the a large sample of brains. They studied a range of ancient Homo sapien skulls, the oldest of which date to 315,000 years ago, four skulls dating to between 120,000 and 115,000 years ago, and the remainder dating to between 36,000 and 8,000 years ago. The 20 ancient Homo sapiens brains were compared with 89 present-day modern-human brains, and the brains of 10 members of other ancient Homo species, ranging in age from 1.78 million years to 200,000 years old.

The results? Over a period of about 250,000 years, the human brain remained the same size, but transitioned from a flatter, elongated shape to a rounder one, due to changes in the parietal and cerebellar areas. Those parts of the brain are involved in orientation, attention, imagery, self-awareness, memory, numerical processing, language, balance, spatial processing, and tool use.

When Part of Australia Was Part of Canada

Researchers have found part of Canada's continental shield in Australia. The 1.7 billion-year-old bedrock, found near Georgetown in Australia’s Queensland state, doesn’t look like Australian rock. Instead, the sandstone – rippled by an ancient, shallow sea – looks a lot like sedimentary rock from the Yukon or Alaska. The conclusion: at some point, northeastern Australia was connected to North America. At some point it broke off and eventually, about 100 million years later, collided with what would become Australia.

The discovery backs a long-standing theory about a supercontinent called Nuna, which is likely predated the best-known and most recent supercontinent, Pangea, by more than a billion years. In fact, Nuna is just one of several suspected supercontinents to have formed and dissolved over the Earth’s four-billion-year history.

The United Nations passed the "Convention on the Law of the Sea" in 1994 and is now the recognized governing body in all legal matters concerning the world's oceans.

The Mysterious Desert Rat-Kangaroo

The desert rat-kangaroo used to live in southern Australia. Small, shaped like a kangaroo but the size of a rabbit, it was first discovered and described by Europeans in the 1840s. However, after a number of early sightings, there were no sightings for 90 years. The desert rat-kangaroo was considered extinct. Then, in 1931, a thriving colony was found! Unfortunately, they disappeared again after 1935. The species is once again considered extinct. That makes the desert rat-kangaroo the only mammal recorded as going extinct, being re-discovered, then going extinct again.

Miniature Cave Paintings Discovered on a Miniature Indonesian Island

In 2017, archaeologists explored a tiny Indonesian island called Kisar for the first time. They found they were not the first humans to set foot on the 81-square-kilometer (31 square mile) patch. Kisar was covered with cave paintings in at least 28 locations. The art was thousands of years old and, intriguingly, quite small.The expressive images measured 10 centimeters (3.9 in) and included boats, horses, dogs, and human figures holding different items. Their size and style link them to ancient art found on the neighboring island of Timor. The two locations probably shared a closer bond than previously believed, if both are home to similar artwork.

It is unclear when, exactly, Kisar’s miniatures were created. Based on the presence of dogs, the oldest could be 3,500 years old, when new settlers first brought domesticated animals such as dogs to the area. Some of the younger images could have been made about 2,500 years ago, when trade brought metal drums from Vietnam and China to the area, because some of the tiny paintings appear to be people playing similar drums.

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    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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