The same 32 symbols show up in prehistoric European cave art.

  • Many of these symbols are found in caves in Africa, Asia, Australia and America as well.
  • At least 40,000 years old, the set of symbols may have been a universal communications tool.
  • Among these symbols is the iconic hashtag.

A flash of prehistoric magic transports a cave painter 40,000 years into the future. Landing in the here and now, he’s left frightened and bewildered by the bombardment of modernity. But there’s one ubiquitous symbol the ancient artist instantly recognises: the hashtag. He’s painted it on many a cave wall.

In fact, as this map shows, the # was almost as universal back then as it is now. The symbol crops up on cave walls in Europe and North America, across Africa and India, in Southeast Asia and as far away as Australia. And this is many millennia before the advent of broadband. Why? How? #DeepHistoryMystery.

Let’s start with that hashtag. ‘Deep history’ is a term that wants to examine the past of modern humans as a single unit, negating the usual, strict division of humanity’s past into prehistory and history. The difference between both is the written record, the oldest known examples of which date back to around 3400 BC in ancient Sumeria, present-day Iraq.

True, being able to write is a huge step forward: it gives humans the ability to record information and thus transmit it independent of space and time. But the prehistory/history dichotomy implies that the invention of writing was a light-switch moment: suddenly it was there, and then it changed everything.

New research into the geometric symbols that show up alongside ancient (‘prehistoric’) cave art offer the tantalizing possibility that humans have been experimenting with writing for many, many millennia more than we usually give them credit for.

Perhaps the world’s foremost expert in these symbols is the Canadian paleoanthropologist Geneviève von Petzinger, who as a PhD student at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) focused on Ice-Age rock art in Europe and elsewhere.

In 2013 and 2014, she visited 52 caves in France and southern Europe, taking note of the squares and triangles, straight and zigzag lines and other symbols usually ignored by earlier researchers, who were entranced by the painted wildlife also found on those cave walls. The signs are repeated and combined into what surely must constitute some kind of message.

Amazingly, the range of symbols was pretty narrow: no more than 32 in all of Europe. Von Petzinger also discovered that some of these symbols were subject to trends: hand stencils were all the range from 40,000 BC and are originally often found in combination with dots.

Later, hand stencils plus thumb stencils and parallel lines are all the range. Around 20,000 BC, hand stencils finally fall out of fashion. Penniforms (feather-shaped symbols) start in northern France around 26,000 BC and eventually spread south through Spain all the way to Portugal.

Although European caves have produced the widest range of ancient rock symbols, new research reveals that humans were already using about two-thirds of the symbols when they trekked from Africa to Europe. The symbols traveled with the spread of humanity itself, and not just in one direction.

As the map shows, at least some of Europe’s set of 32 symbols also crop up on rock walls in other parts of the world. This suggests that the symbols are part of a very stable, extremely ancient and fairly easy system for fixing and transmitting knowledge.

Will we ever know what those symbols mean? In all probability, no. But as some earlier theories suggest, it’s fun to guess.

  • In the early 20th century, French prehistorian Henri Breuil suggested the symbols represented traps and weapons associated with the hunt for the larger animals also depicted on the cave walls.
  • In the 1960s, French archaeologist André Leroi-Gourhan posited that hooks and lines were male symbols, whereas ovals and circles were female ones. “It’s interesting that it was predominantly male archaeologists doing this work early on, and there were a whole lot of vulvas being identified everywhere”, says Von Petzinger in New Scientist.
  • More recently, South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams said that hallucinogenic trips by shamen might have been the inspiration for some cave art.

Even though we’ll probably never be able to ‘read’ these cave symbols in the way the original artists intended, perhaps their greatest legacy will be that we abandon the powerful narrative of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch. These rock symbols show humans slowly but surely undimming the light many millennia earlier.

This map illustrates an article on Geneviève von Petzinger’s work featured in Becoming Human, a special issue of New Scientist bringing together updated versions of articles on human evolution that have appeared in the magazine throughout the past few years.

Von Petzinger also wrote a book, and here’s a TED talk she gave on her work.

(For the source of this article, plus a video, please visit:



Methamphetamine was the secret to Hitler’s blitzkrieg successes

A new book finds that Hitler relied on a number of drugs to rule Germany, including “crystal meth.”

Hitler’s charisma, demagoguery, and ability to mobilize Germany behind him have been much written about and discussed. His failed attempt to fight a war on two fronts, and making the same mistake as Napoleon—invading Russia, have also been topics exhausted by scholars and armchair historians alike. But new revelations, such as the fact that the Fuhrer had a micropenis, are changing completely how we view the Second World War.

A 47-page dossier reveals that the rise of Nazi Germany was fueled by drug use. Hitler himself was taking 74 separate drugs, including a powerful opioid, and what we would consider today methamphetamine (crystal meth). The US military report, developed over the course of the war, outlines a number of different substances ingested by the Fuhrer including morphine, barbiturates, tranquilizers, and even bull’s semen.

The bull’s semen was supposed to restore the Fuhrer’s libido to keep up with his much younger girlfriend, and to make him appear energetic and masculine before the populace. The other drugs were to help alleviate a range of issues from stomach cramps to perhaps, what some historians believe were the symptoms of bipolar disorder.

German writer Norman Ohler covers drug use in Nazi Germany in his new book, The Total Rush (Der Totale Rausch). In America, its entitled Blitzed. The book was a huge success in Germany and has since been translated into 18 languages. According to Ohler, though drugs played a pivotal role, historians overlooked it due to little interest in Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell.

Ohler’s friend Alexander Kramer, who owns a vast collection of books and memorabilia from the war period and earlier, was the first to tell Ohler about the role narcotics played. Ohler said he knew immediately it would be the subject of his next book. Though he is not an historian, Third Reich expert Hans Mommsen, now deceased, aided the author in his quest. Ohler spent years in archives to piece the story together.

It all begins during the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hitler. His inner circle lionized him, portraying him as a superior man in mind and body, who never ate meat, never touched drugs or alcohol, or even women. In 1933 when he rose to power, all intoxicating drugs were banned. Addicts were soon executed by the state or sent off to the camps.

Dr. Fritz Hauschild in Berlin developed what was first known in Germany as methyl-amphetamine. In 1937 the company he worked for expressed the hopes of using it to become a rival of Coca Cola. By 1938, the drug became pervasive and available without a prescription. Soon, almost everyone in Germany was using the drug, known as Pervitin, to boost confidence, energy, and attitude.

As ubiquitously as coffee today, it was regarded in much the same way. Housewives ate Pervitin-laced chocolates which allow them to get housework done in a jiffy and even helped them lose weight. Though health and fitness were upheld as a supreme cultural value, the populace and their leader were all, in actuality, smashed on drugs.

It was Dr. Otto Ranke, the director of the Institute for General and Defense Physiology, who decided Pervitin was a good way to help soldiers avoid exhaustion. It allowed them to remain awake for long periods, march for miles, and fight in terrifying conditions fearlessly. Before invading France in 1940, Nazi soldiers were instructed to take tablets of Pervitin throughout the day and night. The invasion of Poland was also fueled by meth.

Although Ohler said his mentor told him never to rely on just one cause, the author says the blitzkrieg was utterly dependent on Pervitin. Otherwise, Hitler’s forces could have never swept through Europe as quickly as they did. Records indicate that 35 million tablets were distributed in 1940 over a span of four months, to fuel the western offensive. The idea was to turn ordinary men into superhuman machines.

There is still argument today over whether or not certain drugs improve or impede a soldier’s performance. The side effects of Pervitin were irrational behavior, hallucinations, and enraged outbursts. The Nazis weren’t alone. Many other armies used amphetamines to fight off fatigue. Dexedrine was used by the British and Americans, while the Japanese had their own form of speed.

As the war raged on, Hitler began relying on his doctor more and more, whom was distrusted and loathed by the rest of his inner circle. Dr. Morell meanwhile relied on the Fuhrer for his position. In 1941 Hitler came down with a terrible illness. Though Morell had been famous for vitamin injections, it was clear that these were not going to cut it.

Animal hormones and a series of medications were attempted. Finally, the physician settled on Eukodal, a wonder drug which we would call Oxycodone today. Soon, one of the world’s most famous villains was receiving several injections of Eukodal per day, and combining them with a host of other drugs, including cocaine, which had been prescribed to help with an ear condition endured on the eastern front. The drug cocktail, particularly Eukodal, made Hitler feel invincible, even when it became clear, by 1944, that Germany was losing. His generals frantically appealed to him to change tactics. But Eukodal made him feel powerful, euphoric, and in control, and so he decided to plod along, undeterred.

Late in the war, the factories that made Germany’s drugs were bombed out by the Allies. By early 1945, the Fuhrer was in a state of fevered withdrawal. According to Ohler, the world’s most infamous fascist spent his final days in his bunker, drowning in a hellish state of withdrawal.

Ohler doesn’t think Hitler’s personal physician purposely turned him into an addict, though it is possible. But it’s just as likely that the Fuhrer himself was the driving force, imbued with an addictive personality. Either way, in the fall of 1944, Hitler removed Morell. But by then, it was too late. The Fuhrer took his own life. Morell meanwhile died not too long after the war a sad and broken figure, discarded by history. Ohler portrays him as a tragic figure, a mere opportunist caught up in the forces of his time, while others see him as an out-and-out scoundrel. Regardless of his intentions, his methods seem to have contributed to the downfall of the Third Reich.

(For the source of this article, and to watch a BBC video on this subject, please visit:



Christmas has many pagan and secular traditions that early Christians incorporated into this new holiday.

  • Christmas was heavily influenced by the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
  • The historical Jesus was not born on December 25th as many contemporary Christians believe.
  • Many staple Christmas traditions predated the festival and were tied into ancient pagan worship of the sun and related directly to the winter solstice.

In the depths of darkness covering the entire Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice has marked the shortest day of the year. It has always held significance in many culture’s religious festivities and holidays. A great deal of religions have made the celestial moment a holy day. It is the darkest day of the whole year and for the ancients that meant a lot more to them then it does to us today. Sun worshippers and pagans have venerated this natural cycle for millenia.

Christmas as we know it today is a relatively new holiday. Many traditional elements we associate with Christmas pre-date Christianity by many centuries. There is also a lot of debate as to how much corporate and commercial interests have influenced this holiday as well.

Nowadays there’s a lot of hand waving when it comes to the Christian origins of Christmas. Inarguably, however, is the fact that the holiday’s modern iteration has been influenced by many pagan and secular festivities.

Early human celebrations and customs during the Winter Solstice

Photo credit: Ivana Djudic on Unsplash

You’ll find plenty of pagan customs in Christmas that were adopted during the early Christian spread around the Roman Empire. We can look back to both the Romans and the Celts for a whole lot of our modern day Christmas traditions.

Celts began celebrating once the winter solstice arrived and rejoiced that the days were slowly getting longer, which meant that spring and the harvest was around the corner. This was most pronounced in their holiday of Yule. Early Christians, who, at that time, were seen by many as being members of an urban cult, worked hard to try to convert and ban old Pagan customs. But the rural pagan inhabitants of those lands were not convinced. Eventually the church realized they needed to co-opt some of these traditions.

Around this time, the Church came up with the idea that Jesus Christ, their savior, was born on December 25th. In the 4th century CE, Christianity had begun to draw heavily upon the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Christian leaders succeeded in transposing these festivities on to their new made-up holiday.

The first mention of the Nativity feast and other early Christmas traditions appears in a Philocalian calendar dated around 354 CE. It was because of this pagan origin that celebrating Christmas was banned by the Puritans and made illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.

Saturnalia as the ultimate midwinter festival

Romans during the Decadence – Thomas Couture

Saturnalia was an ancient pagan holiday that honored the Roman God Saturn. It took place sometime between December 17th and 24th. It was a week of revelry, decadence and the inversion of social and moral roles.

The festivities consisted of drinking, eating lavishly and giving presents. The first-century poet Gaius Valerius Catullus said that Saturnalia was “the best of times.”

Wealthy Romans paid for the destitute and masters would swap clothes with their slaves. Lucian of Samosata speaking as the god Cronos, boasts about this exuberant time in his poem titled Saturnalia:

During my week the serious is barred: no business allowed. Drinking and being drunk, noise and games of dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping… an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water – such are the functions over which I preside.

Saturnalia began as a rural farmer’s festival to mark the end of the planting season and midwinter.

Both psychologically and cosmically, this was a unique time of the year for the ancients. The darkness must have affected them tremendously as without the modern advent of artificial lighting, lessened sunlight would have taken a toll on their mental health. During this time sun and stargazers would have also seen the change in the sun’s position.

All of this led to many religious spectacles and spiritual festivals. After all, they were now only relying on their summer food stores of grains and other crops to get them through the winter until they could, again, plant in the new season.

This led to a number of traditions we still take part in today.

Christmas traditions with other pagan origins

Even before historical record, Pagans would worship the trees in the forest and even bring them into their house and start to decorate them. Mistletoe for example was also a plant revered by the Celts and the Norse.

Celtic Druids believed that mistletoe would protect them against the elements of thunder and lightning. These druids would cut off a piece of mistletoe from the trees and then distribute that amongst their people for protection. It was also considered a symbol of peace and joy. Meeting under the mistletoe would call for enemies to put down their weapons and have a truce.

Ivy on the other hand was the great symbol of Bacchus, the Roman equivalent of Dionysus – God of wine, fertility and ritualistic madness. Ivy is a symbol of eternal life.

Traditional Christmas colors like green and red represent fertility. Burning Yule logs was representative of the returning sun as the days began to get longer again.

Christmas revelers, commercial shoppers and devout religious types can all thank the rich traditions and pagan history stretching back thousands of years this holiday season.

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Scientists trace the evolution of cocoa to breed better chocolate

Researchers have traced back the evolutionary history of the cocoa tree to a single domestication event 3,600 years ago (Credit: studioM/Depositphotos).

It’s kind of hard to imagine life today without chocolate, and now we have a better idea of who we can thank for that. A team of researchers has traced back the origins of the cocoa tree to a single domestication event thousands of years ago, and uncovered other clues hiding in its genome that could help make future chocolate even better.

After the full genome of the Theobroma cacao plant was sequenced in 2010, researchers were able to use that as a starting point to study its evolution. The team on the new study sequenced 200 individual plants, and compared those to the archetype genome to paint a more complete picture of the history of cocoa.

Specifically, the team looked at Criollo, the first variation of cocoa to be domesticated. The analysis traced it back to a single domestication event in Central America around 3,600 years ago. That said, the bracket of possibility is quite wide – it could have been as recent as 2,480 years, or even earlier than 10,900 years.

The team says the Criollo cocoa originated in the Amazon Basin but was likely traded north to Central America, where the domestication process began. The original population was probably about 738 trees – although, again, a wide margin means it could have been as few as 437 and as many as 2,674.

The plant was selected and bred with a focus on improving its flavor, disease resistance and the amount of theobromine, which is a stimulant. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all positive traits though, and genes that reduced crop yields also slipped through into modern Criollo cocoa.

That might partly explain why Criollo isn’t commonly consumed nowadays – the variant accounts for only five percent of the world’s cocoa production. It is, however, considered to be tastier than Forastero, the variant most common in commercial chocolate. A better understanding of the genetics of these plants can help growers create better breeds that ideally combine the best traits from different variations.

“What we would like to have is a way to combine plants from populations with high productivity – like Iquitos – with plants of Criollo origin, while retaining all these desirable traits that make Criollo cacao the best in the world,” says Omar Cornejo, lead author of the study.

An audio version of this article is available to New Atlas Plus subscribers.

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Hand bones

In 2012, a video depicting a golden eagle snatching a toddler in Montreal went mega-viral. It proved to be a doctored hoax, but it was a flashback to a time when birds of prey really did hunt humans. According to new, unpublished research, big birds hungry for the taste of human flesh have been a problem for thousands of years. The evidence: the recently discovered hand bones of a Neanderthal child, which were clearly digested by a large bird.

The public information service Science in Poland described the small bone fragments — each no longer than a centimeter — that were found in Cave Cinema, in southwestern Poland. At 115,000 years old, the bones are the oldest human remains ever found in the country.

Study co-author and Jagiellonian University professor Pawel Valde-Nowak, Ph.D., told Science in Poland that “analyses show that this is a result of passing through the digestive system of a large bird.” This theory is supported by the fact that the bones are covered in dozens of holes. The child is believed to have been between five to seven years old at the time of the attack.

A full analysis of the bones will be published later this year in the Journal of Paleolithic Archeology, helping identify what Homo species the child belonged to, but for now the team is pretty sure it was a Neanderthal.

Neanderthal cave, Poland
Cave Cinema is the site where these hand bones were found.

Unfortunately, they can’t run DNA analysis on the bones because they’re in such poor quality. Nevertheless, the scientists are confident that the bones belonged to a Neanderthal because they were found in a particularly deep layer of dirt. Homo neanderthalensis is thought to have lived throughout Europe and Asia from about 400,000 to 40,000 years ago, and archeologists had previously found tools believed to have been used by Neanderthals in this same layer as the child’s bones.

What the scientists don’t know is how this Neanderthal child ended up in the belly of a giant bird. They hypothesize that the bird could have attacked and partially consumed the child or fed upon the child’s corpse. Either is plausible — and not unprecedented.

One of the most famous hominin specimens, the Taung Child, was a three-and-a-half year old Australopithecus africanus whose death remained a mystery for a long time. Its skull, with both human-like and ape-like features, was found in Africa in 1924, but scientists in 2006 discovered puncture marks at the bottom of the skull’s eye sockets clearly made by eagle talons. Further examination of the bones surrounding African crown eagle nests by scientists at Ohio State University revealed that these eagles still kill large monkeys that weigh the same as a human toddler.

And while there are the rare real-life cases of eagles that still pluck up babies and dogs, whether or not a bird could even fly away with a Neanderthal child is a bit of a moot point. In the same Ohio State University study, study lead W. Scott McGraw, Ph.D. pointed out eagles don’t need the strength to lift a primate or a child. Instead, they dismember their prey and take pieces of the carcass back to the nest. That’s bad news for a kid or a monkey, but good news for the scientists digging up their bones later on.

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Archaeologists uncover first Dead Sea Scrolls cave in 60 years

Archaeologists have discovered a 12th cave that once contained unknown Dead Sea Scrolls
Archaeologists have discovered a 12th cave that once contained unknown Dead Sea Scrolls (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld).

The Dead Sea Scrolls are among the most important historical texts ever discovered, dating as far back as the third century BCE. These texts were spread across 11 caves, and for decades archeologists have been searching for more. Now, for the first time in 60 years, a new cave has been excavated that “beyond any doubt” once contained more Dead Sea Scrolls. Sadly, looters got there first.

Between 1946 and 1956, hundreds of parchment and papyrus scrolls and scraps were found in the Qumran Caves in the Judaean Desert, Israel, and these ancient texts became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. As some of the oldest surviving documents on Earth, the scrolls contain writings from the Hebrew Scriptures, as well as other texts that weren’t canonized or belong to smaller sects of the time.

The excavation was the result of “Operation Scroll,” an initiative launched by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) that aims to systematically survey the caves in the area, which archaeologists believe are hiding many more significant artifacts.

The cave was discovered as part of Operation Scroll, an initiative launched by the Israel Antiquities...
“This exciting excavation is the closest we’ve come to discovering new Dead Sea Scrolls in 60 years,” says Oren Gutfeld, director of the excavation. “Until now, it was accepted that Dead Sea Scrolls were found only in 11 caves at Qumran, but now there is no doubt that this is the 12th cave. Finding this additional scroll cave means we can no longer be certain that the original locations (Caves 1 through 11) attributed to the Dead Sea Scrolls that reached the market via the Bedouins (nomadic people of the area) are accurate.”

Although no scrolls were found, the cave was littered with other treasures. Shattered storage jars and lids were found in hollows in the cave walls, and other fragments of wrappings, leather bindings, and string from the same period all indicated that it once held these sacred texts. But the most recent items found in the cave tell a clear story of the fate of the scrolls: two iron pickaxe heads, dated to the 1950s, presumably belonged to looters, who cracked open the jars and fled with their valuable contents.

These fragments of jars, which once contained scrolls, were found smashed, indicating that looters had stolen...
These fragments of jars, which once contained scrolls, were found smashed, indicating that looters had stolen the valuable artifacts (Credit: Casey L. Olson and Oren Gutfeld).

“Although at the end of the day no scroll was found, and instead we ‘only’ found a piece of parchment rolled up in a jug that was being processed for writing, the findings indicate beyond any doubt that the cave contained scrolls that were stolen,” explains Gutfeld. “The findings include the jars in which the scrolls and their covering were hidden, a leather strap for binding the scroll, a cloth that wrapped the scrolls, tendons and pieces of skin connecting fragments, and more.”

Older artifacts, like pottery, flint blades, arrowheads, and a stamp seal decorated with the semi-precious stone carnelian, indicated that the cave was used by early humans as far back as the Copper Age and the Neolithic era.

Arrowheads and flint blades were also discovered in the cave, dating back to the Neolithic period...

Following the naming convention for the Qumran Caves, this new cave will be designated Q12. The Q usually comes after the cave’s number, but in this case, it comes before the 12 to indicate that no scrolls were found inside.

Important as this discovery is, it might just be the beginning of bigger things. This excavation was the first to be conducted in the northern section of the Judaean Desert, and with Operation Scroll still underway, new Dead Sea Scrolls may turn up in the near future, providing more insights into the cultural and religious history of the area.

“The important discovery of another scroll cave attests to the fact that a lot of work remains to be done in the Judaean Desert and finds of huge importance are still waiting to be discovered,” says Israel Hasson, Director-General of the IAA. “We are in a race against time as antiquities thieves steal heritage assets worldwide for financial gain. The State of Israel needs to mobilize and allocate the necessary resources in order to launch a historic operation, together with the public, to carry out a systematic excavation of all the caves of the Judean Desert.”

Source: Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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The Legend of Benin’s Fearless Female Warriors

This fierce all-female army was so ruthless that European colonists called them the Amazons after the merciless warriors of Greek mythology.

by Fleur Macdonald –

Actors Chadwick Boseman and Michael B Jordan earned high praise for their roles in the 2018 Marvel film Black Panther. But for me, the real stars were the Dora Milaje, the special forces unit of the fictional Kingdom of Wakanda. Fearsome yet principled, these female bodyguards provided the film’s moral compass.

I was thrilled to find out that the inspiration for these powerful women is rooted in reality, and that the descendants of these women still keep their traditions alive.

The inspiration for the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces unit in the Marvel film Black Panther, is rooted in reality (Credit: Credit: Marvel/Disney)

The inspiration for the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces unit in the Marvel film Black Panther, is rooted in reality (Credit: Marvel/Disney).

“She is our King. She is our God. We would die for her,” said Rubinelle, choosing her words carefully. The 24-year-old secretary was talking about her grandmother, who was sitting on a bed in one of the front rooms of a house in Abomey, the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey and now a thriving city in southern Benin. The elderly woman’s head was adorned with a crown.

I had been granted an audience with Dahomian royalty: a descendant of Queen Hangbe, who according to local legend is the founder of the Amazons, an elite group of female warriors. As her living embodiment, the elderly woman has inherited her name and her authority. Four Amazons were attending to her, sitting on a woven mat on the floor. The room was relatively grand: there was a table and chairs for visitors and, in the corner, sat an old-fashioned television next to a makeshift drinks cabinet.

After indicating that I should prostrate myself before the queen and take a ceremonial sip of water, Rubinelle and her grandmother told me the story of their ancestors.

Queen Hangbe’s attendants are descendants of the Amazons of the Kingdom of Dahomey (Credit: Credit: Fleur Macdonald)

Queen Hangbe’s attendants are descendants of the Amazons, a unit of elite female warriors (Credit: Fleur Macdonald).



The Dahomey Amazons were frontline soldiers in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1894. Its remnants lie in modern-day Benin, which occupies a sliver of the coast between Nigeria and Togo. Whether conquering neighbouring tribes or resisting European forces, the Amazons were known for their fearlessness. In one of the final battles against the French in 1892 before the kingdom became a French colony, it is said only 17 out of 434 Amazons came back alive.

According to legend, Hangbe assumed the throne in the early 18th Century after the sudden death of her twin brother, Akaba. After a short rule, she was forcibly deposed by her power-hungry younger brother, Agaja. The current Queen Hangbe told me that all traces of her ancestor’s reign were erased by Agaja, who believed that only men should hold the throne. In a dusty museum that lies within the walls of the Royal Palaces in Abomey, the monarchs’ elaborate bronze sceptres are displayed in order of their reign. There is no sign of one belonging to Hangbe, and some historians question whether she existed at all.

Yet her legacy lived on through her mighty female soldiers. Oral and written accounts differ over the origins of the women-only corps. Some sources describe the Amazons as elephant hunters who graduated to human prey. The more widely accepted theory is that they served as royal bodyguards to Hangbe and the kings who came after.

The Amazons were known for their fearlessness and strength (Credit: Credit: Chris Hellier/Getty Images)

The Amazons were known for their fearlessness and strength (Credit: Chris Hellier/Getty Images).

It was King Ghezo, who ruled over Dahomey from 1818 to 1858, who officially integrated the Amazons into the army. This in part was a practical decision, as manpower was increasingly scarce due to the European slave trade.

The recognition of the Amazons as official soldiers of Dahomey strengthened a duality that was already embedded in the society through the kingdom’s religion, which has since developed into Vodun, now one of Benin’s official religions and the basis of voodoo. An integral legend told of Mawu-Lisa, a male and female god who came together to create the universe. In all institutions, political, religious and military, men would have a female equivalent. The king, however, reigned supreme.

Her legacy lived on through her mighty female soldiers

Historical accounts of the Amazons are notoriously unreliable, though several European slave traders, missionaries and colonialists recorded their encounters with the fearless women. In 1861, Italian priest Francesco Borghero described an army exercise where thousands of women scaled 120m-high thorny acacia bushes barefoot without a whimper. In 1889, French colonial administrator Jean Bayol described witnessing one young Amazon approach a captive as part of her training. “[She] walked jauntily up, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.”

Europeans who visited the kingdom in the 19th Century called Dahomey’s female fighters Amazons after the ruthless warriors of Greek mythology. Today, historians refer to them as mino, which can be translated as ‘our mothers’ in the local Fon language. However, Leonard Wantchekon, who was born in Benin and is now professor of politics at Princeton University and founder of the African School of Economics in Cotonou, Benin, claims the contemporary term does not accurately reflect the role the warriors played in Dahomey society. “Mino means witch,” he said.

Europeans named the soldiers Amazons after the ruthless warriors of Greek mythology (Credit: Credit: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy)

Europeans named the soldiers Amazons after the ruthless warriors of Greek mythology (Credit: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy).

Today, the role of Queen Hangbe and her Amazons is primarily ceremonial, presiding over religious rituals that take place at the temple near her home. When I asked to take photographs of Queen Hangbe, Pierrette, another Amazon, jumped up to unfurl a ceremonial parasol over her mistress in the dark room. Fabric spelling out ‘Reine Hangbe’ (Queen Hangbe) had been sewn into the fabric using the appliqué technique of Dahomey tradition. A dressmaker, Pierrette designs a new umbrella for her queen every year. Loaded with symbolism, these elaborately decorated parasols once showed status in the Dahomey court.

Queen Hangbe’s umbrella was relatively simple, though in the 18th and 19th Centuries, they were often adorned with the bones of vanquished enemies. Parasols also featured images of birds and animals, as well as the round-headed clubs that Amazons used in battle.

These lethal weapons also feature in carvings on the mud walls of the squat palace buildings. Each king would build a new palace next to his predecessor’s, leaving the former as a mausoleum. Though Behanzin, the last king of the Dahomey Empire, burnt the palaces before the French arrived, a section still stands in Abomey, a rusty Unesco sign hanging limply at the entrance. The bas reliefs show how the Amazons used the clubs, as well as muskets and machetes, to inflict death on enemies. In one dusty cabinet, a horse’s tail springs from a human skull – a trophy brought back by an Amazon for her monarch to use as a fancy fly swatter.

The history of the Kingdom of Dahomey is preserved in the Royal Palaces of Abomey in modern-day Benin (Credit: Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images)

The history of the Kingdom of Dahomey is preserved in the Royal Palaces of Abomey in modern-day Benin (Credit: ullstein bild/Getty Images).

There has always been a fascination with the Amazons, but its nature seems to be changing. The Black Panther film is responsible, certainly, but Dr Arthur Vido at the University of Abomey-Calavi, who has introduced a new course on the history of women in West Africa, has another theory. “As the status of women is changing in Africa, people want to know more about their role in the past.”

Much of the interest in the Amazons centres on their mercilessness, though Wantchekon dismisses the glorification of their battle exploits. “That’s just what soldiers did,” he said. Instead, Wantchekon is more interested in what the Amazons achieved as veterans.

Where a profession that’s critical for society is dominated by men, well, why don’t we insert a unit of elite women to work side by side with men? To be equal to men

The village where Wantchekon grew up, to the west of Abomey, used to be the site of the Amazons’ training camp. For many years, his aunt looked after an elderly Amazon who had moved to the village after retiring from the army. Villagers still remember the former soldier as “strong, independent and powerful,” Wantchekon said. She challenged village hierarchies and “could do that without any repercussion from the local chief because she was an Amazon”. Her example, Wantchekon thinks, inspired other women, including his mother, to be ambitious and independent.

For this reason, Wantchekon believes the Amazons are still relevant today. “Where a profession that’s critical for society is dominated by men, well, why don’t we insert a unit of elite women to work side by side with men? To be equal to men.” For Wantchekon, it is not their strength or military prowess that made the Amazons extraordinary, but rather their capacity as role models. Marvel Studios can see the appeal: a spin-off devoted to the Dora Milaje is in the works.

Today, the role of Queen Hangbe and her Amazons is primarily ceremonial (Credit: Credit: Fleur Macdonald)

Today, the role of Queen Hangbe and her Amazons is primarily ceremonial (Credit: Fleur Macdonald).

As I took my leave of Queen Hangbe, Rubinelle rose to shake my hand, towering over me and looking me firmly in the eye. Driving away, I saw newly erected statues of Amazons along the road. They stood tall and broad-shouldered, and looked a lot like Rubinelle.

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Article Image
A hunger stone made visible by a low water level. (Photo: Norbert Kaiser / Creative Commons).





It’s been a long, hot summer. Blazing new heat records were set across the globe; Scandinavia was particularly scorched, the United States endured a sultry July, and most of Europe is suffering from a severe drought. No matter how, or where, you slice it, the weather is terrible.

Indeed, in some parts of central Europe, it’s so dry that grim specters of droughts past are slowly emerging from the rivers, giving warnings to all those who can see them.

Hunger stones

Boulders inscribed with messages like “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep) are becoming visible as the Elbe’s water line drops; it has reached stunning lows as a result of the current drought. The stones warn of bad harvests, starvation, and high food prices alongside lists of previous droughts going back to 1417.

Another stone in Germany says “If you will again see this stone, so you will weep, so shallow the water was in the year 1417.” A dozen of these rocks are becoming visible all over central Europe, warning those who see them of woe.

What are these?

Hunger stones are rocks marked to show when the water level in a river has gotten low enough to signify disaster is at hand. They are found in historically German-speaking areas of central Europe. The rocks would normally be covered by the river, but during droughts, the water line goes down far enough to reveal the message. A typical rock “expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people. Before 1900, the following droughts are commemorated on the stone: 1417, 1616, 1707, 1746, 1790, 1800, 1811, 1830, 1842, 1868, 1892, and 1893.”

So explains Rudolf Brázdil in a 2013 study of droughts in Czech-speaking areas of Europe over the last millennium. The oldest-known rock has markings going back to 1417, though the city of Pirna claims one from 1115 exists somewhere in the Elbe.

How dire are these warnings?

In the centuries since the stones were carved the water level has been considerably lowered by a dam, making the warnings visible under conditions which are not quite as cataclysmic as those which must have occurred when they were created.

The current drought, while not as horrible as others within the last 200 years, is severe enough to affect the soil; the high temperatures are drying it out in ways not seen before. This, according to a study published in Nature, “raises concerns about the consequences of extreme meteorological droughts in combination with soil moisture deficits enhanced by a warmer climate.”

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Juan Pujol García: The WWII double-agent who invented a fake army

by Matt Davis –

Big Think illustration.

Juan (Joan) Pujol García was instrumental in ensuring the success of the Allied invasion of Europe on D Day and, by extension, the Allied victory in the Second World War. But his actions during the war aren’t widely known. Despite being a little-known figure in history, García is one of the few, if not the only, individuals in the war to receive both an Iron Cross from Hitler and an MBE (a Member of the Order of the British Empire) from King George VI. His lack of fame might seem unjust, but a famous spy is kind of an oxymoron.

Arguably, García would become one of the most important figures in World War II, but prior to the war, he hadn’t amounted to much in his life. Mostly, he was a chicken farmer in Spain. He tried and failed to run a variety of businesses, including managing a cinema. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, he deserted the Republican army to join the Nationalists, only to be imprisoned when he expressed sympathy for the monarchy.

When World War II broke out, he was running a dumpy, one-star hotel in Madrid. He had been a mediocre soldier and had admitted he was ill-suited to warfare; so his motives for approaching the British to offer his services are unclear. The British seemed to think that a military deserter, ex-chicken farmer, and failed businessman would not be of much use in the war and turned him away. However, García was determined to participate in the war, and he would repeat his request to the British on three separate instances, only to be refused each time.

Juan Pujol García in the 7th Light Artillery uniform prior to the Spanish Civil War. Photo from Wikimedia Commons. 

A self-made spy

In what might be one of history’s greatest examples of unearned confidence, García decided that in order to build a resume as a spy, he should gain the trust of the Nazis and feed them misinformation from within. At that time, the Spanish government was sympathetic to but unallied with the Nazi government, and it was easy to make contact with the German army.

He tricked a printer in Portugal into thinking he was a Spanish government official working at the local embassy and obtained a diplomatic visa, which he used to bolster a false identity as a Nazi supporter who regularly traveled to London on diplomatic business. Considering that García spoke no English, this was a particularly bold lie.

The Nazis, however, bought García’s fabrication. They provided him with a crash course in spycraft, gave him £600 (equivalent to around $42,000 US today), and sent him on his way to London to recruit a network of spies. Without any English skills and with a fake passport, García went to Lisbon, Portugal, instead.

García had gotten what he wanted. He had gained the trust of the Nazis and was in contact with them. But now he had to supply them with misinformation. By combining publicly available information from newsreels, magazines, and tourists guides, García fabricated seemingly realistic reports of life in London and British activities, ostensibly fabricated by an entirely fictional spy network he had accumulated in London. These reports weren’t perfect, of course: at one point, he described how Glaswegians would do “anything for a litre of wine,” which is very much not the Scottish beverage of choice.

Despite all of this, his mocked-up reports were widely believed. They were so thoroughly believed that the British, upon intercepting the reports, launched a nationwide manhunt for the spy who had infiltrated their country. At the time, there were supposed to be no Axis spies in Britain, so this was very disconcerting news for the Allies.

Gaining the trust of the Allies

The trick that made the British believe in García’s value as a spy occurred when he invented an entirely fictional British armada in Malta that the Axis responded to in full force. Despite the nonexistence of an armada, the Nazis continued to trust García’s information. With his bona fides established, García was finally able to convince the British of his value in 1942.

Working with British intelligence, García invented 27 fictional sub-agents from whom he attributed the various pieces of intel that he cobbled together into coded, handwritten reports he sent to the Germans and later over the radio.

García’s reports consisted of a mixture of misinformation; true but useless information; and true, high-value information that always arrived too late. For instance, he provided accurate information on Allied forces landing in North Africa in a letter postmarked before the landings but delivered afterwards. The Nazis apologized to García for failing to act on his wonderful intelligence in time.

To account for why he failed to provide key information he would ostensibly have access to, García needed to fabricate a variety of different excuses. When he failed to report on a major movement of the British fleet, García informed his Nazi counterparts that his relevant sub-agent had fallen ill and later died. Bolstered by a fictional obituary in British papers, the Nazis were obliged to provide the fictional man’s fictional widow a very factual pension. To support García’s spy network, the Nazis were paying him $340,000 US (close to $6 million today).

The troops, tanks, and equipment used to overthrow the Nazis in Europe arriving at Normandy after D Day. Without Juan Pujol García’s spycraft, the success of the invasion would have been much less certain. Photo c/o Wikimedia Commons.

Exploiting the Nazis

García’s greatest moment came during Operation Overlord, which began during the invasion at Normandy on D Day. Having built up trust with the Nazis over the course of the war, Operation Overlord represented the opportunity to exploit that trust.

Through a flurry of reports, García convinced the German High Command that an invasion would take place at the Strait of Dover (which Hitler believed to be the case anyhow). In order to maintain his credibility, García told the Nazis to wait for a high-priority message at 3 AM: this was designed to provide the Germans with information on the actual target, Normandy, but just a little too late to prevent the invasion.

In a stroke of luck, the Nazis missed the 3 AM appointment and didn’t respond until later that morning. García chastised his handlers for missing the critical first message, saying “I cannot accept excuses or negligence. Were it not for my ideals, I would abandon the work.”

With this extra layer of credibility, García invented a fictional army—the First U.S. Army Group—led by General Patton himself and consisting of 150,000 men. With a combination of fake radio chatter and—no joke—inflatable tanks, German High Command was convinced of the presence of an army stationed in south Britain. García convinced the Nazis that this was the true invasion and that Normandy was a diversion. Two Nazi armored divisions and 19 infantry divisions were withheld at the Strait of Dover in anticipation of another attack, allowing the invading force from Normandy to establish a stronger position in France. Without these extra troops, the Axis failed to beat back the Allied invasion.

By inventing a fake army and controlling the flow of information to the Nazis, García ranks among one of the most influential figures of the war. His identity as a double agent was not revealed until decades after, which might explain why so little is heard of him. To be safe, he faked his death from malaria in 1949 and moved to Venezuela to run a bookshop.

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2,000-year-old Roman library discovered in Germany

Article Image
What remains of the Cologne library. (Hi-flyFoto/Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne)


Workers in Cologne, Germany have stumbled upon a 2000-year-old library while preparing a car park site for construction. The find, one of many archeological discoveries in the ancient city, has greatly excited archeologists, bibliophiles, and history buffs alike as it is the oldest known library in Germany.

Archeologists initially thought they had found a public meeting space until they noticed the walls had small niches carved into them that were too small to fit statues inside. “They are very particular to libraries—you can see the same ones in the library at Ephesus,” explained Dr. Dirk Schmitz, an archeologist involved in the excavation.

The library dates back to the second century AD, a golden age for the Roman Empire, and would have been built around the same time as many others, such as the Library of Celsus in Turkey. The construction of libraries was vogue at this time, and massive new buildings were put up to both store documents and glorify the builders. The Library of Celsus, for example, was built to commemorate Senator Tiberius Celsus, who was buried inside.

The Library of Celsus

Tourists pose in front of the restored facade of the Library of Celsus in Izmir, Turkey. Its statues, facade, and size made it much larger than many other libraries of the day. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

The Cologne library is estimated to have held up to 20,000 parchment scrolls, all of which have long turned to dust. This makes it more extensive than many other libraries of the time, but much smaller than the Bibliotheca Ulpia, which needed separate buildings to hold its Greek and Latin collections, or the famous Library of Alexandria, which was built to house all of the knowledge of the ancient world.

What kind of scrolls could you get there?

The content of the scrolls the library held is the subject of pure speculation, but other libraries are known to have held records, histories, poetry, scientific manuscripts, philosophy, and works of Greek and Roman literature.

Since the Romans held Greek culture and thought in high regard, most major libraries would have had separate sections for both languages. Many upper-class Romans had private libraries and enjoyed reading what we now think of as classics, so it is probable that this library had works by Virgil and Homer.

So, could anybody have gone in and checked out a scroll?

Such a library would have been the domain of well-connected elites, so claims T. Keith Dix of the University of Georgia in his article “Public Libraries” in Ancient Rome: Ideology and Reality. While some Roman libraries were open to the general public, many were not, and the books and scrolls would be available only to those the local authorities liked. Records show that being able to take the books out of the library was rare and most people had to read the scrolls in the room where they got them.

In any case, William V. Harris claims in the book Ancient Literacy that no more than 5-10% of the population of the classical world would have been literate, with some scholarly areas seeing rates near 20%. He also tells us that members of the army tended to be more literate than most.

This is taking a strong definition of the word “literacy” though. The presence of graffiti on many Roman buildings shows that members of the lower classes could write, if poorly.

Since what is now Cologne was the heavily fortified capital of the frontier province of Germania Inferior, it is probable that the city had a decent number of literate citizens between its garrisons, administrators, educators, professionals, and priests who could have been patrons of the library.

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Was There a Civilization On Earth Before Humans?

A look at the available evidence


And, if we’re going back this far, we’re not talking about human civilizations anymore. Homo sapiens didn’t make their appearance on the planet until just 300,000 years or so ago. That means the question shifts to other species, which is why Gavin called the idea the Silurian hypothesis, after an old Dr. Who episode with intelligent reptiles.

So, could researchers find clear evidence that an ancient species built a relatively short-lived industrial civilization long before our own? Perhaps, for example, some early mammal rose briefly to civilization building during the Paleocene epoch about 60 million years ago. There are fossils, of course. But the fraction of life that gets fossilized is always minuscule and varies a lot depending on time and habitat. It would be easy, therefore, to miss an industrial civilization that only lasted 100,000 years—which would be 500 times longer than our industrial civilization has made it so far.

Given that all direct evidence would be long gone after many millions of years, what kinds of evidence might then still exist? The best way to answer this question is to figure out what evidence we’d leave behind if human civilization collapsed at its current stage of development.

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The seven ancient wonders of the world

by Mike Colagrossi –

The Colossus of Rhodes, Wikimedia Commons. 

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were marvels of architecture, human ingenuity, and engineering on a scale that even the greatest artists of contemporary times would have a hard time replicating today. These man-made structures were all built sometime during the classical era and stretched across the current known western-world at that time. In books and writings that reference the historian Herodotus (484 – 425 BCE) and Callimachus of Cyrene (305 – 240 BCE) from the Museum of Alexandria, scholars over the years discovered the lists of the seven wonders of classical antiquity.

The list we currently reference today was compiled in the Middle Ages and only includes places that the ancient Greeks had visited or conquered. Only one of the seven ancient wonders still stands – and arguably one of the most famous ones at that, the Great Pyramid of Giza.

From a time spanning roughly between 2650 – 3rd Century BCE, these masterpieces dotted the landscapes for a variety of purposes. Some were great tombs housing the remains of powerful kings, monolithic statues praising great deities and others were frankly just about testing the limits of what was possible in the early technological and civilized prowess of mankind.

While the majority of these constructions were destroyed, in 2007 over 100 million people voted to declare a New Seven Wonders of the World. Many of these places are UNESCO Heritage Sites. UNESCO was not responsible for this new list, but nonetheless, people felt that these newly championed wonders represented a shared global heritage throughout the entire world.

This new list is equally as monumental and powerful as the one that preceded it, boasting such man-made creations like the Roman Colosseum or the Incan city of Machu Picchu. There have been many differing lists put out through the years with some criteria even including natural wonders of the world.  The only official list – due to Herodotus’ efforts which has stood the test of time – is the original ancient wonders of the world.

So without further ado, this is the full ancient list in its entirety.

Flickr, Creative Commons, Jorge Lascar.

Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt

The Great Pyramid, commissioned and built by the Pharaoh Khufu, is one of the oldest buildings in existence. It is 456 ft. high and thought to be nearly 4500 years old. It is the largest and oldest of all of the ancient pyramids. Its magnificence and construction has puzzled scholars for years. It’s made of some 2 million stone blocks that weigh around 2 to 30 tons each.

Recently in 2013, archaeologists discovered the first primary historical document during the construction of the pyramid. Logbooks over 4500 years old titled the Diary of Merer recorded the daily activities of workers who helped build the pyramid. These papyri described the transportation of limestone from a harbor nearby. The Great Pyramid is the only ancient wonder still in existence.

Flickr, Creative Commons. 

Hanging Gardens of Babylon

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were supposedly built around 600 BC. Herodotus claimed that the walls stretched for 56 miles, 80 feet thick and reached 320 feet high. Records state that it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1st century BCE. Their existence is debated as the history was not chronicled in Babylonian records but through exterior sources. According to ancient sources, the gardens were built by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife Amytis in 600 BCE.

The Hanging Gardens were most likely built as huge rooftop gardens with foundations of multi-level terraces. With a column structure, they would have been filled in with dirt to allow large areas of plants and trees to grow. Over the years as this lush vegetation began to grow over the sides, it would give the effect that the plants hanging down were floating in a mountain landscape. This would have been a sight to behold in Babylon.

Wikimedia Commons

Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Greece

The Statue of Zeus was sculpted and built in 435 BCE. It was 40 feet tall and stood for hundreds of years before being destroyed by Christian leaders in the 5th and 6th centuries. The statue was a chryselephantine statue – made of ivory and gold. There are no remains of the statue nor were there many picture representations of it either. Doubts remain about the full scope of this wonder, but there is much to be known about Zeus’s builder, Phidias an Athenian sculptor.

The Statue of Zeus resided in a temple in the City of Olympia, which was an important cultural center for the ancient Greeks. It was home to the original Olympic games and its patron deity was the God of Gods – Zeus. Descriptions of the statue are sparse but it’s believed that the parts of the body were made of ivory, while Zeus’ beard and clothes were made of gold. A coin from that time shows his likeness and archeologists posit that he would have been holding a Victory in his right hand and scepter in his other hand. The cloak was ornamented with many bright colors.

Wikimedia Commons

Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

The Temple of Artemis took over 120 years to be built before being completed in 550 BCE. It was dedicated to the Greek goddess Artemis. Ephesus was a Greek Colony in Asia minor and the construction project was sponsored by King Croesus of Lydia. Many ancient accounts were awestruck by the beauty of power that this structure elicited.

It was supported by 127 60 foot columns, with the max height of the temple standing 425 feet high and stretching back some 225 feet. In 356 BCE, a man named Herostratus sought out to set fire to the temple. His reasoning was to achieve everlasting fame and be associated with destroying something so wonderful. The Ephesians wanted to make sure his name would not stand the test of time, but historians wrote it down anyways. Years later, Alexander the Great would propose to rebuild the temple but the Ephesians refused.

Wikimedia Commons

Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

The Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus was built in 351 BCE and rose to around 135 feet high. Its status as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world doesn’t derive from its size or strength, but because of the intricacies of the sculpture reliefs it had to adorn its four walls.

The building was designed by Greek architects and four leading sculptors who were responsible for each side. There were 36 columns and 10-foot statues of Greeks battling Amazons, marble chariots and step pyramids leading to the pinnacle of the structure. Some of these pieces of art have survived today. It was damaged over time by a number of earthquakes before being totally destroyed and ransacked in 1494 by European Crusaders.

Wikimedia Commons

Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes was a statue dedicated to the god Helios. It was constructed between 292 and 280 BCE. At 110 feet tall it overlooked the harbor of Rhodes and stood on a base similar to the Statue of Liberty – which was modeled on the Colossus. The statue was commissioned after the Rhodians defeated an invading army in 304 BCE. Notably, the statue only stood for 56 years before being knocked out by an earthquake.

The statue was made purely out of bronze. Its ruins had become an attraction for over 800 years following its fall. Some ancient sources claimed that some of the fingers of the Colossus were larger than many statues at that time. Eventually, the ruins were sold to a Jewish merchant in 654.

Wikimedia Commons

Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt

In an age far before skyscrapers, the Lighthouse of Alexandria was one of the tallest buildings in the world for many centuries. Between the 3rd century BCE and 1300 AD, the Lighthouse of Alexandria stood nearly 440 feet tall in Egypt. The lighthouse was built on the island of Pharos, commissioned by Ptolemy I Soter.

Its construction was completed in 280 BCE. It was the third tallest building following the pyramids. A mirror built inside the lighthouse allowed it to be seen as far out as 35 miles into the sea. It was built with a square base and topped off in a circular fashion to build it out to its final height. Many depictions can be found throughout the historical record.


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Meet Hypatia, the ancient mathematician who helped preserve seminal texts

Her dramatic death often overshadows her epic life, but it shouldn’t

 By Brianna Bibel, Biochemistry, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory –
Hypatia the Mathematician.

Illustration by Matteo Farinella

The mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher Hypatia is considered the first known female mathematician and one of the “last great thinkers” of Alexandria, the sophisticated Ancient Egyptian city.

Why the last? Tension between religious and secular factions seeking control over the city boiled over in the early 400s, leading to her violent murder and turning her into a martyr for scientists, pagans, and atheists.

Hypatia’s death is much better recorded than her life – historians aren’t even sure when she was born (sometime around 350 CE). But there is plenty of evidence that Hypatia was a tremendous scholar.

If you wanted to learn math and astronomy in Alexandria, it helped if your dad was Theon, the last known member of Alexandria’s museum (not a museum in the sense we use the word now but more of a “university”). Theon taught Hypatia and sought her help with some of his commentaries – republications of someone else’s work with notes interpreting and explaining various parts.

Commentaries such as these played an important role in preserving and advancing ancient Greek works at a time when such works were seen by many as “pagan” and opposed to Christian ideals. Many historians believe that at least one of the commentaries attributed to her father, the third book of Theon’s version of Ptolemy’s Almagest, an astronomical text used widely until the 16th century, was actually written by Hypatia.

This authorship debate sometimes overshadows works that are conclusively hers, including commentaries written under her own name on topics including geometry, number theory, and astronomy. If it weren’t for Hypatia, works like On the Conics of Apllonius, which introduces hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses, would likely have been forgotten, because their concepts were written in dense jargon – Hypatia was skilled at translating complex mathematical topics in terms the general public could understand.

Unfortunately, these commentaries have been lost – most of what we know about Hypatia’s work is from letters to her and passing references in historical accounts. Some people have credited her with developing a device called an astrolabe (an astronomical calculator of sorts). While she did teach her students about them, and likely helped design more elaborate versions, it was probably invented by someone else.

Hypatia also became a renowned Neoplatonic philosopher, rising to lead the Platonic School at Alexandria and giving public lectures in addition to private lessons. Hypatia’s association with “science” and “learning” led her to be labeled a “pagan,” a dangerous thing at a time when paganism was seen by many as a kind of “religious rival” threatening to pull people away from Christianity. But Hypatia taught students of all backgrounds. People came from all over the world to hear her speak, and she held great respect from the male-dominated society.

Historian Socrates Scholasticus wrote of her:

She not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

Hypatia was a master networker – she had an “in” with many powerful figures in the ancient world, including the governor of Alexandria, Orestes. This popularity likely spawned jealousy in archbishop Cyril, already in a foul mood due to a feud with Orestes over control of the city. Orestes was a Christian, but he didn’t think the Christian Church should encroach on “civil government.” Cyril, on the other hand, wanted the church to have more control in secular affairs. The argument led to Cyril’s monks trying to assassinate Orestes, but they only succeeded at putting Orestes on high alert. But they didn’t have to look far for an easier target – Hypatia regularly traveled around, giving public lectures proudly espousing “pagan” views.

She was also a target for other reasons: as a close acquaintance to Orestes, Hypatia likely advised him regarding the feud, and some of Cyril’s followers saw her as getting in the way of conflict resolution, even accusing her of using witchcraft to sow divide. In 415 or 416, a mob of Christian zealots attacked Hypatia’s carriage on the streets of Alexandria, dragged her into a church, and violently killed her and burned her body.

Hypatia’s brutal death turned her life into a “martyr story” that has been used by scientists, pagans, and atheists throughout the ages as evidence of long-standing discrimination and the “evils” of the Christian Church. But another version of her story to remember is that of a powerful woman considered a world leader in philosophy and mathematics at a time when most women were confined to domestic duties.

This piece was produced in partnership with Sloan Science & Film, an initiative of the Museum of the Moving Image that publishes science-based film guides, including for Alejandro Amenábar’s feature Agora (2009). The film stars Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, and Oscar Isaac as her student. It was awarded the Sloan Feature Film Prize at the Hamptons International Film Festival for its realistic and compelling portrayal of science.

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How Irish Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley Defied Elizabeth I And Conquered A Man’s World



A 2,000-Year-Old Mystery Papyrus Reveals Its Secrets

For centuries, no one could read it.




Ancient human DNA found in dirt, not fossils



Oldest human fossil found outside Africa rewrites migration timeline

A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever...
A section of jawbone discovered in Israel appears to be the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa, pushing back the date of human migration into the Middle East by at least 50,000 years (Credit: Gerhard Weber, University of Vienna)

The origin story for modern humans is constantly being revised, but the general gist is that Homo Sapiens first arose several hundred thousand years ago in the area we now call Ethiopia, before migrating out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. Now, a jawbone discovered in a cave in Israel pushes back the date of our African exodus by at least 50,000 years.

The deep history of our species is murky, but a combination of genetic studies and fossil discoveries has let us piece together the basics. It was long thought that Homo Sapiens were about 200,000 years old, and had remained on the African continent until between 90,000 and 120,000 years ago, when we began spreading across the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

But that story has been upset by more recent discoveries. Back in June 2017, archaeologists found fossils and stone tools in Morocco dating back more than 300,000 years, indicating that modern humans were widespread across Africa earlier than previously thought. A more outlandish study even went so far as to claim that humans and chimps split from their last common ancestor in Europe, not Africa, millions of years ago. That study, however, has been widely contested.

The newest revelation is a little more believable, and actually fits in nicely with the Morocco fossils. A team led by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Binghamton University has found bones and tools in Misliya Cave, Israel, and used several different methods to date it to between 177,000 and 194,000 years ago – making it the earliest modern human fossil ever found outside of Africa by at least 50,000 years.

“Misliya is an exciting discovery,” says Rolf Quam, co-author of the study. “It provides the clearest evidence yet that our ancestors first migrated out of Africa much earlier than we previously believed. It also means that modern humans were potentially meeting and interacting during a longer period of time with other archaic human groups, providing more opportunity for cultural and biological exchanges.”

The fossil is an upper left section of jawbone, including most of the teeth. It was found alongside a range of stone tools, and when these were independently dated, they returned a similar age range.

Extrapolating the exact species from a small section of bone can be tough, so the researchers ran micro-CT scans of the fossil and made 3D models of it to study the internal structures of the teeth. Certain characteristics that are commonly seen in Neanderthals were missing, while other features that are only known to occur in modern humans were present and accounted for.

Misliya Cave in Israel, where the earliest human fossil outside of Africa was found

Although the Misliya fossil is clearly human, it does have some Neanderthal characteristics, but this is to be expected. After all, the Middle East at that time acted as a corridor for migration out of Africa, so several human groups would have met and mingled in the area, cross-breeding in the process.

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Article Image Chocolate being prepared the Mayan way at Ixcacao farm in Belize. (Credit: Shutterstock). 


Money is one of the most important concepts in human history. Love it or hate it, we’ve devoted a lot of time to it. While we use paper currencies today, some of the items used as cash throughout history have been a little less recognizable, and some choices are hilarious in hindsight.

On the islands of Palau and Yap, four-ton stone rings called Rai stones are still used for measuring wealth and traditional purposes. In New France during the 18th century, playing cards became legal currency as gold and silver supplies dwindled. Colonial Virginia used tobacco, and British Canada used beaver pelts instead of metal coins.

But perhaps the strangest currency belonged to the Mayan people, who used cacao beans, the basis of chocolate, to pay their taxes and trade with one another.

Wait, cacao beans?

In a paper published in Economic Anthropologyby Joanne Baron of the Bard Early College Network, the argument is made that depictions of cacao beans in Mayan artwork gradually shift from treating it as food with some value in bartering to treating it as money used both to shop and pay taxes.

The Maya, like every other culture, depicted everyday lives in their art. While the earliest artwork didn’t show very many cacao beans, by the 8th century it was depicted on everything. While many of the early images show it being used as food, later images show it being offered as a tribute to the nobility or used in trade.

Nearly 200 pieces of artwork depict cacao beans being used to pay tribute and taxes, which Baron argues made them a functioning currency, as there was little chance the nobility could use that many beans as anything other than money. One cited study suggests that of the 11 million beans paid as taxes per year only two million were consumed. There isn’t much else to do with nine million beans you won’t eat unless you’re using them as cash.

It is possible that the Maya just started to depict cacao beans more often in their art without having made them officially money. However, the later recorded use of cacao beans as currency by the Aztecs supports the idea that the Maya did the same.

Why did they find these beans so valuable?

Mesoamericans have been cultivating cacao since nearly 2000 BCE and the bean originally had value as the basis for a mildly alcoholic drink. Later, a frothy, nonalcoholic drink similar to hot chocolate was developed. This refreshing drink rapidly became more popular than its predecessor and was used in offerings to the Gods. Chocolate was so adored that the cacao plant had its own deity who was regularly worshiped.

Maya pouring chocolateAn indigenous Mexican pouring chocolate from a standing position, as depicted in the Codex Tudela.

It seems that the value of a cacao bean was always related to its intrinsic value as food, with the beans that were largest, roundest, and best colored having the highest value. However, the 16th-century naturalist Francisco Hernández informs us that while there were four kinds of beans, only the smallest type was used to make hot chocolate. The larger beans were still appraised by their ability to be made into beverages but were only used for exchange.

The Spanish conquerors of México also observed that since the qualities of a good bean were determined by looks the appearance of a bad bean could be altered to fool an absent-minded customer.

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10 Times Great Philosophers Revealed Their Personalities

Pythagoras was a cult leader, Socrates loved to dance + 8 other revelations

Article Image

Think of how many celebrities you know with personal lives for the world to see. How many of them do you share hobbies with? How many of them have made a humanizing slip-up?

People have been gossiping about celebrity lifestyles since the dawn of fame, but we often focus our attention on the lives of actors, athletes, and attention seekers. Famous academics and philosophers usually get a little more privacy.

This doesn’t mean their lives are any less interesting, however. An entire book, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, was written on the subject in the third century. A new edition reminds us that even eggheads can be just as amusing as rock stars.

Here are some of the most demystifying life stories of 10 famous philosophers. Take some of the details here with a grain of salt though, the book is rather uncritically written, and many details lack sources. Other details are supposedly confirmed by sources long since lost.

This hasn’t stopped other philosophers, Nietzsche and Montaigne among them, from admiring the text and it shouldn’t stop you.



Socrates is held in extremely high esteem as both a great philosopher and academia’s great martyr. In Diogenes’ biography, we are reminded of Socrates the man. He tells us of how Socrates served in the army, was often found socializing downtown, and edited his friends’ plays—including Euripides, one of the big three ancient Greek tragedians.

Perhaps most amusingly, Diogenes tells us that Socrates loved to dance and thought that “such exercise helped to keep the body in good condition.” He also learned how to play the lyre as an old man, just like your crazy uncle during his mid-life crisis, and “he saw no absurdity in learning a new accomplishment.”

In a showing of tremendous wit, when his wife told him he suffered unjustly, he asked her, “Would you have me suffer justly?” He also supposedly told a man that he would regret both getting married and being single, perhaps explaining that last remark.


Alexander and Aristotle

Aristotle teaching Alexander the Great. Engraving by Charles Laplante (Public domain, via Wikimedia Common)

Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle would go on to touch every branch of human thought that existed at the time. He tutored Alexander the great, wrote an ethical theory that still has a punch, and founded his own academy in Athens.

The most interesting detail that Diogenes tells us about Aristotle is that he had a lisp or stutter. Given that many of Aristotle’s works were given as lectures and recorded later, we must imagine that he either embraced it or worked around it. Diogenes gives us sources for this claim, but his book has long since become the authority on the matter. Accurate or not, Aristotle makes it on to many lists of celebrities with speech impediments.



Original Artwork: Engraving by Ambrose Tardieu (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Thales is the first philosopher in the western intellectual tradition and is most famous for his argument that water is the fundamental substance of the universe. He was also a noted mathematician, businessman, and sage.

Diogenes reminds us of his sharp wit. He records that when asked if there was a difference between life and death Thales responded that there was not. When he was then asked, “Why then, do you not die?” Thales retorted “Because it makes no difference.” On another occasion, he was asked which was older, nighttime or daytime. He replied, “Night is older, by one day.”


Plato and Aristotle

Plato (left) and his student Aristotle (Right) as imagined by Raphael.

Plato’s contribution to western thought is impossible to overstate. Philosopher Alfred Whitehead went so far as to suggest that all of European philosophy was “a series of footnotes to Plato.

Diogenes tells us a great many things about him. His name, allegedly, was given to him by his wrestling coach on account of his “robust figure”—the name is derived from the Greek word platys, meaning ‘broad’. Plato was skilled enough to participate in the Isthmian Games, which attracted athletes from all over Greece.

Platon was a common name, however, it would be strange for a family so wealthy and noble as Plato’s not to name him for an immediate male relative. Diogenes tells us that Plato’s real name was Aristocles, but this is impossible to confirm. Plato also called himself “Plato” later in his life, making the issue more difficult. In any case, we might know one of the greatest thinkers of all time by his stage name!

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The Voynich manuscript: Will this medieval mystery ever be solved?

Frayed, browned and in fragile condition, the Voynich manuscript currently resides deep in a basement at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library but digitized copies of it are available for free online.

Examining images from the manuscript.
Examining images from the manuscript.

Since it came to light over 100 years ago, many have tried and failed to decode the text — from US Army cryptographers to ordinary citizens postulating theories in the deepest corners of Reddit.

Its author and original title are unknown, and it is named for the collector and bookseller Wilfrid Voynich, who purchased it in 1912.

Ever since Voynich showed it off to the world, the incomprehensible text and cryptic illustrations have spurred countless theories about its meaning, origin, and the identity of its author. Some thought it might have been written by Leonardo Da Vinci or maybe even an autistic monk, others felt it might simply be an elaborate prank.

So what do we really know about the Voynich manuscript? Why has it captivated the imagination of so many through the decades? And will its mysteries ever be solved?

Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and a longtime Voynich scholar, says the first recorded appearance of the manuscript was when it was bought in the late 16th century by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II, who believed it had been written by 13th century British philosopher and alchemist Roger Bacon.

Some of illustrations in the book resemble known plants, others less so.
Some of illustrations in the book resemble known plants, others less so.

It then apparently traveled around Europe, disappearing for 250 years, before eventually being acquired by Voynich. Although Voynich never revealed where he got the manuscript, Davis says that his wife disclosed after his death that he had bought it from Jesuits outside of Rome.

In 2011, carbon-dating revealed the parchment dates back to the early 15th century, somewhere between 1404 to 1438. Analysis of the ink confirmed it was consistent with what was used during that period.

That dating rules out some of the names postulated as being the author, like Bacon, Da Vinci and Voynich himself. But beyond those facts, the manuscript offers more questions than answers.

It’s that sense of mystery that has captured the public imagination, and compelled so many to attempt to decipher its meaning.

Davis concludes “It’s magical. It really is. There’s nothing like it.”



Debate stirs over mysterious “void” found inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid

6 pictures

A new imaging technique is suggesting there is a large, previously undiscovered void inside the Great...
A new imaging technique is suggesting there is a large, previously undiscovered void inside the Great Pyramid of Giza(Credit: HIP Institute)

A team of scientists has discovered a mysterious “big void” inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest pyramid in the Giza complex. The void was discovered using a novel scanning technology called cosmic-ray muon radiography, and while the scanning team is suggesting this could be an undiscovered inner structure, some Egyptologists are not convinced.

The ScanPyramids project was launched in 2015The project is scanning several major Egyptian sites using a variety of new imaging technologyThe team explored the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2016The muon particle imaging process involves three separate detection techniques

The scanning project, called ScanPyramids, was launched in late 2015 and set out to scan four specific Egyptian pyramids using a variety of new and innovative scanning technologies. In the case of the Great Pyramid, the team deployed a scanning technique that detects the path of muon particles, an elementary particle that is created when cosmic rays collide with atoms in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

The team developed three separate muon-detection techniques and investigated the path of these particles through the Great Pyramid. The path of muons is straight unless they hit a dense or solid object, and then they can be slightly deflected. By measuring these particle tracks scientists can identify whether they are moving through solid rock or if there are empty spaces.

Writing in the journal Nature, the scientists recently revealed the discovery of a large void above the Grand Gallery in the Great Pyramid. The discovery was confirmed using all three muon detection processes and it is suspected to be about 30 meters (100 ft) long.

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The Chinese may have beaten the famous voyage of Columbus by 70 years

By April Holloway,
November 17, 2017 8:14 pm Last Updated: November 17, 2017 8:14 pm

There are a few controversial claims floating around that the Americas were reached by oversea cultures before Columbus made his well-known visit to the “New World” in 1492. For example, Italian physicist and philologist Lucio Russo has presented the argument that the ancient Greeks reached America long before Columbus.

Another intriguing argument suggests the Chinese “discovered” the Americas 70 years prior to the famous voyage.

The suggestion that the Chinese arrival predated Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas is a major argument of the amateur historian Gavin Menzies. In fact, it seems that Menzies has made his career by going against the mainstream view of the past.


Three of his more debated books are “1421: The Year China Discovered the World,”a book claiming a Chinese fleet led by Admiral Zheng He reached the Americas in 1421; its sequel “1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”; and a text that mainstream thinkers regularly mock, “The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed.”

A Chinese map from 1418 seems to show parts of North and South America, according to Menzies.

The supposed map from 1418 showing some of the Americas. (Public domain)
The supposed map from 1418 showing some of the Americas. (Public domain)

You may wonder about Menzies’s claims. In the text “Who Discovered America: The Untold History of the Peopling of the Americas,” Menzies argues a Chinese map from 1418 provides evidence for his argument that the Chinese explored the Americas in 1421.

Specifically, Menzies makes mention to a map charted by Admiral Zheng He which appears to show North American rivers and coasts and something of South America. DNA studies are also used as his evidence for indigenous Americans being related to the waves of Asian settlers he asserts reached the Americas.

Menzies says the map helps explain the Chinese names of some places in Peru.

A Christie’s Auctions’ appraiser has allegedly confirmed the authenticity of the map. Historians are also said to have stated the map was written in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Menzies says that the map’s validity can also be used to explain the Chinese names of several towns and regions in Peru.

Menzies has been repeatedly criticized and mocked by the mainstream academic community.

Woodblock print representing Zheng He's ships. (Public domain)
Woodblock print representing Zheng He’s ships. (Public domain)

For example, University of London history professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has suggested that Menzies’s books are “the historical equivalent of stories about Elvis Presley in (the supermarket) and close encounters with alien hamsters.”

While it’s true Menzies may not be correct in his claims, it is extremely unfortunate that a person courageous enough to make his assertions has been so widely mocked for presenting an idea that dares to go against the mainstream.

Republished with permission. Read the original at

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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In Beyond Science, The Epoch Times explores research and accounts related to phenomena and theories that challenge our current knowledge. We delve into ideas that stimulate the imagination and open up new possibilities.



How Spanish, not English, was nearly the world’s language
Professor of History, Yale University

Want to know the reason much of North America speaks English and not Spanish? It all boils down to a single day in the English Channel in August of 1588, says Yale University history professor John Lewis Gaddis. The Spanish Armada was cleverly chased out of British waters by a rag-tag British fleet that set old ships on fire and pointed them right at the anchored Spanish fleet, causing the Spaniards to cut anchor and flee. Because of the way the wind was blowing, the Spanish ships had to sail all the way around the British Isles (about 2,000 nautical miles) to get home and were soundly defeated. That led, John posits, to the rise of the British empire. John’s latest book is the fascinating On Grand Strategy.

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The Tacoma Bridge collapse of 1940 in Washington, USA was a calamity of the world’s third longest suspension bridge back then and had a crucial impact on engineering. It caused the governing of the modeling of all the long-span bridges in the future.

Worst structural collapses: The iconic Tacoma bridge collapses to the winds.

Image credits: University of Washington Libraries Digital Collection’s photostream/Flickr , Botaurus-stellaris/Wikimedia

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was an iconic, long-span bridge built in the state of Washington in the USA in the 1930s. It was opened to traffic on t July 1940. Leon Moisseiff planned the building’s design to be far more flexible than the acceptable standard ratios.

On 7 November 1940, strong winds of 40 mph battered the area and the bridge oscillated significantly. The bridge towers were made of strong, structural carbon steel, yet they proved no match for the violent movements which eventually caused the bridge to collapse. Fortunately, there were no fatalities except for a dog. The estimated loss from the mishap was $6.4 million.

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Boy unearths lost treasure of 10th century Danish king

Published  2018 Apr 17

Danish king coin found 2

Written by Isabella Gómez and Christina Zdanowicz, CNN —
A 13-year-old boy and an amateur archaeologist have helped to uncover a unique stash of lost treasure thought to be associated with the legendary Danish King “Harry Bluetooth,” who brought Christianity to Denmark in the 10th century.
René Schön and his student Luca Malaschnitschenko are reported to have been scouring a field with metal detectors in January, on the German island of Rügen close to Denmark in the Baltic sea, when they chanced upon what they believed to be a piece of aluminum.

Only on closer inspection did they realize it was silver, German national news agency DPA reported.

Thanks to their find, archaeologists from the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, embarked on an excavation of the 400 square meter site last weekend.

The excavation uncovered more than 600 coins and pieces of silver, including, jewelry, neck rings, brooches, pearls and a Thor’s hammer dating back to the late 10th century.

According to a statement released by the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern State Office for Culture and Historic Preservation, approximately 100 coins from the salvaged treasure trove are thought to have belonged to Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson who reigned from around AD958 to 986 and whose name is today linked to bluetooth technology.

“This is the largest single find of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic Sea region and is therefore of outstanding importance,” excavation director Michael Schirren told DPA.
Among the discoveries were several silver coins bearing images of a Christian cross, believed by historians to be among Denmark’s first independent coins.

The Viking-born king is regarded by historians as the founder of the Danish empire and is credited with unifying the country under one flag.

He is believed to have converted to Christianity some time around 960, a decision that historians link to a decline in pagan traditions throughout the kingdom.



Abandoned Train – – Abandoned Steam Engine Train – Skeleton Coast – Namibia – 622ccc3f121cfb3e345284d4ca685a13 – “Dead End” by Keith Alexander, South African visual artist.















The Tewa Village in Hopiland

Heady feelings of triumph for the people of the central New Mexico pueblos didn’t last long after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  Governor Otermín’s attempted return reminded the Puebloans that the Spanish would eventually return, and remembering how they seemed to stand in the path of any conquering army, they decided to relocate.  When the Spanish did return, many more relocated, and after the failed revolt in 1696,many pueblos were abandoned entirely, out of fear of retribution.  Some of these refuges found a home on the Hopi First Mesa [in what is, today, Arizona].

For the full story, see the chapter entitled The Tewa Village in Hopi in the book Forgotten Tales of New Mexico by Ellen Dornan published by The History Press. ISBN: 978-1609494858. $13.00. 176 pages. 5″x7″.