Apr 22, 2014

Piece of Africa Found Under Alabama

Geoscientists have identified a chunk of Africa stuck onto the southeastern United States.

A long mysterious zone of unusual magnetism that stretches from Alabama through Georgia and offshore to the North Carolina coast appears to be the suture between ancient rocks that formed when parts of Africa and North America were pressed together 250 million years ago. If so, Africa could have left a lot more behind in the American southeast when the conjoined continents rifted apart and formed the Atlantic Ocean.

"There are some large faults in the magnetic data," said geologist Robert Hatcher of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, regarding what is called the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly and other magnetic features in the region. "They have not been active for a very long time. They are strike-slip faults like the San Andreas today. But there's also younger fall with opposite direction."

The faults appear to be the remains of the collision and then messy divorce of Africa and North America.

"There was an attempt to rip away Florida and southern Georgia," said Hatcher. "So you have a failed rift there. We know there's a suture there between African crust and newer crust from the Appalachians. There are pieces of crust that started in Africa."

A rift is what happens when the crust is pulled apart. When that happened 200 million years ago, 50 million years after African and North America collided, it appears to have started near the old collision zone, but then shifted to weaker crust to the east.

That rift zone split open and caused volcanic eruptions which created new oceanic crust -- what is today the crust of the Earth under the Atlantic Ocean. The rifting continues today at what's called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

"The age of the suture zone is believed to be about 250 million years old, but that's not very well constrained," said geologist Elias Parker, Jr., of the University of Georgia in Athens. He published a paper reviewing what's known about the Brunswick Magnetic Anomaly in the latest issue of GSA Today.

The big challenge in sorting out the history of the southeast U.S. is that there are intriguing magnetic signals, as well as gravimetric measurements, but there is not enough deep borehole studies or seismic data to confirm the faults and the proposed scenarios.

Read more at Discovery News

Loch Ness Monster on Apple Maps? Why Satellite Images Fool Us

A satellite photograph has many people wondering whether the elusive Loch Ness monster might have been photographed from space.

The image seems to show a strange, ghostly oval shape with trailing white tendrils either on the surface, or just below the surface, of Scotland's famous Loch Ness. The images were taken years ago but re-surfaced last week when the story was picked up by British newspapers.

Monster-hunters debated the new evidence, but soon several websites debunked the "Nessie" photo, including www.southernfriedscience.com, DoubtfulNews.com and www.metabunk.org, which offered clear explanations for how the image was created. The conclusion: The image of the Loch Ness Monster is simply a boat wake.

In fact, the distinctive wake pattern exactly matches that created by other boats, both on Ness and in other lakes. The satellite image is not a single image, as many assume, but instead a composite of several different images, each with a different contrast; this helped create the illusion of a creature.

So if the latest Loch Ness monster photo turned out to simply be a boat, why did it look so mysterious?

Why satellite images mislead

While early proclamations of Nessie having been found by a satellite have likely caused some red faces, we shouldn't be too quick to judge those who saw a monster where none existed. The idea that a satellite could capture an image of a giant monster is not far-fetched. Many lake monsters and sea serpents are reported to be 50 feet (15 meters) or longer, and surface regularly where they are seen.

If armchair investigators are up to the task, they could monitor monster-inhabited lakes such as Scotland's Loch Ness, Canada's Lake Okanagan and America's Lake Champlain using satellite technology. Monster buffs don't need to dip their toes into cold lakes or brave the wilderness to search for their quarry; they can scan a dozen square miles over a cup of hot coffee at their leisure.

In their book "Remote Sensing and Image Interpretation" (Wiley, 2007), authors Thomas Lillesand, Ralph Kiefer and Jonathan Chipman explain why satellite images can easily mislead the public: "Although most individuals have had substantial experience in interpreting 'conventional' photographs in their daily lives, the interpretation of aerial and space images often departs from everyday image interpretation in three important aspects: 1) the portrayal of features from an overhead, often unfamiliar, perspective; 2) the frequent use of wavelengths outside of the visible portion of the spectrum; and 3) the depiction of the Earth's surface at unfamiliar scales and resolutions."

Indeed, biologist Andrew David Thaler noted several of these issues in his Southern Fried Science blog about the latest Nessie photo: "Satellite images aren't taken in real time. The photographs in question were taken in January 2005 ... Satellites travel along an orbital path, taking pictures that are then stitched together stitched photos aren't perfect. For example, if one picture has a boat that's totally washed out (like almost every boat is when photographed from space) and another picture is just blue water, then you'll be left with the ghostly blue outline of a boat, which is clearly visible on the 'Nessie' picture." Case closed.

This is, of course, not the first time that a strange satellite image has caused controversy.

In 2011, people reviewing images on Google Maps spotted a tangle of mysterious, connected white lines in the Chinese desert. The strange images spurred a furor on the Web, where amateur sleuths offered learned (and not-so-learned) opinions about their function, ranging from UFO landing strips to top-secret military bunkers. The lines were eventually identified as a grid used to calibrate Chinese spy satellites.

As satellite images become more common, these sorts of "mysterious" photographs will also likely become more common unless the public becomes more educated about satellite imagery. After all, only photographs that are ambiguous and mysterious enough will come to the public's attention. If a photograph is crystal clear and unambiguous, no one will pay attention to it, because its identity is obvious.

On the other hand if a photograph is too ambiguous, it is likely to be ignored or deleted as an obvious mistake of such poor quality that it's worthless — it's the same reason we don't see the worst photos that people take with their cellphones, because they're soon deleted. For an image to be "mysterious" it needs to fall into that Goldilocks zone of being just clear enough to give an idea of what it might be, but not clear enough to actually tell what it is.

Read more at Discovery News

Humans May Have Left Africa Earlier Than Thought

Modern humans may have dispersed in more than one wave of migration out of Africa, and they may have done so earlier than scientists had long thought, researchers now say.

Modern humans first arose between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago in Africa. But when and how the modern human lineage then dispersed out of Africa has long been controversial.

Scientists have suggested the exodus from Africa started between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago. However, stone artifacts dating to at least 100,000 years ago that were recently uncovered in the Arabian Desert suggested that modern humans might have begun their march across the globe earlier than once suspected.

To help solve this mystery, Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany, and her colleagues tested four competing out-of-Africa models. Two models involved a single dispersal — one involved a route northward, up the Nile River valley and then eastward across the northern end of the Arabian Peninsula into Asia; the other involved a "beachcomber" route along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula into Asia. Two other models involved multiple dispersals, with both models involving routes along the northern and southern ends of the Arabian Peninsula — one involved connections and gene flow between these routes, and the other did not.

The investigators used these models to predict how much the genes and skull measurements of different groups in Africa, Asia and Australia might have diverged from one another given how separated they were by space and time. Then, the researchers compared these predictions with actual gene and skull data from 10 African, Asian and Australian human populations.

The researchers found that both the genetic and skull data supported a multiple-dispersal model involving several migrations.

"It is really exciting that our results point to the possibility of a multiple-dispersals model of modern humans out of Africa," Harvati said. "A multiple-dispersals scenario, with earlier modern humans leaving Africa as early as 130,000 before present, can perhaps account for part of the morphological and genetic patterns that we see among modern human populations."

The first wave of migrations probably followed the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula as early as 130,000 years ago to Australia and the west Pacific region, while the second wave traveled along the northern route about 50,000 years ago, the researchers said. These waves of migration appear relatively isolated from each other.

"Australian Aborigines, Papuans and Melanesians were relatively isolated after the early dispersal along the southern route," study lead author Hugo Reyes-Centeno, of the University of Tübingen, said in a statement. Other Asian populations apparently descended from members of the later northern wave of migration, the researchers said.

The delay between these waves of migration could be due to ancient environmental factors, "specifically climatic conditions that might have impeded the crossing of the Arabian Peninsula, such as desert conditions," Harvati said.

Ancient environmental factors might not only have prevented migrations, but also spurred them, Havarti said.

"For example, the documentation of severe droughts throughout eastern Africa between about 75,000 to 135,000 years ago could have encouraged a dispersal into other parts of Africa as well as outside of the continent," Harvati said. "More favorable conditions within Africa could have limited migrations out of the continent between 75,000 to 50,000 years ago."

The researchers cautioned that interbreeding between modern humans and other lineages of humans might influence the results of this new study. For example, instances of interbreeding with the now-extinct Denisovan lineage might have introduced ancient genes into certain modern human groups, perhaps making them look as if they left Africa earlier than they actually did.

"Our study did not specifically test for hybridization with archaic humans, and, of course, it is possible that such admixture could contribute to our results," Harvati said. "We feel, however, that the very low levels of admixture that have been proposed are not sufficient to drive our findings."

The researchers said continued fieldwork and genetic advancements might help confirm this model of multiple, relatively isolated waves of migration.

"The story of human evolution tends to be simplified," Harvati said. "However, more complex models, such as multiple dispersals versus a single dispersal out of Africa, gain strength as more data and new methods become available."

Read more at Discovery News

Neanderthals Had Shallow Gene Pool, Study Says

Neanderthals were remarkably less genetically diverse than modern humans, with Neanderthal populations typically smaller and more isolated, researchers say.

Although Neanderthals underwent more genetic changes involving their skeletons, they had fewer such changes in behavior and pigmentation, scientists added.

Modern humans are the only humans alive today, but Earth was once home to a variety of other human lineages. The Neanderthals were once the closest relatives of modern humans, with the common ancestors of modern humans and Neanderthals divergingbetween 550,000 and 765,000 years ago.

Neanderthals and modern humans later interbred -- nowadays, about 1.5 to 2.1 percent of DNA of people outside Africa is Neanderthal in origin.

Researchers first sequenced the Neanderthal genome in 2010. "One of the next goals was obviously to begin to explore the variation among Neanderthals," said study author Svante Pääbo, an evolutionary geneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Pääbo and his colleagues analyzed three Neanderthal genomes. One came from a 49,000-year-old specimen from Spain; another from a 44,000-year-old specimen from Croatia; and one from a Siberian specimen at least 50,000 years old.

"For the first time we begin to get a detailed picture of genetic variation among Neanderthals," Pääbo told Live Science.

The scientists found that Neanderthals "had even less variation than present-day humans, who are already known to have less than chimpanzees and most other apes," Pääbo said. "The amount of genetic diversity in the Neanderthals was about a quarter of that in Africans today, and about a third of that in Europeans or Asians."

To pinpoint why Neanderthals might have been less genetically diverse, the researchers focused on 17,367 genes that encoded instructions for generating proteins. They concentrated on mutations that changed what amino acids went into those proteins. Such mutations have a good chance of altering the structure or function of those proteins.

Although mutations that change the amino acid makeup of proteins can have benefits, more often than not, they have detrimental effects. One should expectnatural selection to weed out these mutations over time, as anyone bearing them is probably less fit and thus not as likely to survive to reproduce.

However, such mutations can accumulate in small, isolated populations, since those groups have fewer normal versions of those genes in their gene pools to replace any mutant genes.

The investigators found Neanderthals carried more copies of mutations that would alter the amino acid makeup of proteins than modern humans possess. This suggests that Neanderthal populations across Eurasia were likely small and isolated.

"Neanderthals seem to have been few in numbers either over a long time or for some periods," Pääbo said. "There is also an indication that they have been subdivided in populations that had little contact with each other."

The fact that Neanderthals carried more copies of potentially detrimental mutations did not necessarily contribute to their extinction, said lead study author Sergi Castellano, at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. "No claim should be made that this is related to their extinction," Castellano told Live Science.

The researchers also found skeleton genes changed more than expected within the Neanderthal lineage.

"For example, genes that affect the curvature of the spine have changed in Neanderthals," Pääbo said. "This fits with how their skeletons have changed quite drastically during their evolution."

On the other hand, genes involved with pigmentation and behavior changed more in the modern human lineage.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 21, 2014

Impact glass from asteroids and comets stores biodata for millions of years

Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists exploring large fields of impact glass in Argentina suggest that what happened on Earth might well have happened on Mars millions of years ago. Martian impact glass could hold traces of organic compounds.

Asteroid and comet impacts can cause widespread ecological havoc, killing off plants and animals on regional or even global scales. But new research from Brown University shows that impacts can also preserve the signatures of ancient life at the time of an impact.

A research team led by Brown geologist Pete Schultz has found fragments of leaves and preserved organic compounds lodged inside glass created by a several ancient impacts in Argentina. The material could provide a snapshot of environmental conditions at the time of those impacts. The find also suggests that impact glasses could be a good place to look for signs of ancient life on Mars.

The work is published in the latest issue of Geology Magazine.

The scorching heat produced by asteroid or comet impacts can melt tons of soil and rock, some of which forms glass as it cools. The soil of eastern Argentina, south of Buenos Aires, is rife with impact glass created by at least seven different impacts that occurred between 6,000 and 9 million years ago, according to Schultz. One of those impacts, dated to around 3 million years ago, coincides with the disappearance of 35 animal genera, as reported in the journal Science a few years back.

"We know these were major impacts because of how far the glass is distributed and how big the chunks are," Schultz said. "These glasses are present in different layers of sediment throughout an area about the size of Texas."

Within glass associated with two of those impacts -- one from 3 million years ago and one from 9 million years ago -- Schultz and his colleagues found exquisitely preserved plant matter. "These glasses preserve plant morphology from macro features all the way down to the micron scale," Schultz said. "It's really remarkable."

The glass samples contain centimeter-size leaf fragments, including intact structures like papillae, tiny bumps that line leaf surfaces. Bundles of vein-like structures found in several samples are very similar to modern pampas grass, a species common to that region of Argentina.

Chemical analysis of the samples also revealed the presence of organic hydrocarbons, the chemical signatures of living matter.

To understand how these structures and compounds could have been preserved, Schultz and his colleagues tried to replicate that preservation in the lab. They mixed pulverized impact glass with fragments of pampas grass leaves and heated the mixture at various temperatures for various amounts of time. The experiments showed that plant material was preserved when the samples were quickly heated to above 1,500 degrees Celsius.

It appears, Schultz says, that water in the exterior layers of the leaves insulates the inside layers, allowing them to stay intact. "The outside of the leaves takes it for the interior," he said. "It's a little like deep frying. The outside fries up quickly but the inside takes much longer to cook."

Implications for Mars

If impact glass can preserve the signatures of life on Earth, it stands to reason that it could do the same on Mars, Schultz says. And the soil conditions in Argentina that contributed to the preservation of samples in this study are not unlike soils found on Mars.

The Pampas region of Argentina is covered with thick layers of windblown sediment called loess. Schultz believes that when an object impacts this sediment, globs of melted material roll out from the edge of the impact area like molten snowballs. As they roll, they collect material from the ground and cool quickly -- the dynamics that the lab experiments showed were important for preservation. After the impact, those glasses are slowly covered over as dust continues to accumulate. That helps to preserve both the glasses and the stowaways within them for long periods -- in the Argentine case, for millions of years.

Read more at Science Daily

Finding turns neuroanatomy on its head: Researchers present new view of myelin

Harvard neuroscientists have made a discovery that turns 160 years of neuroanatomy on its head.

Myelin, the electrical insulating material long known to be essential for the fast transmission of impulses along the axons of nerve cells, is not as ubiquitous as thought, according to a new work lead by Professor Paola Arlotta of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) and the University's Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, in collaboration with Professor Jeff Lichtman, of Harvard's Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

"Myelin is a relatively recent invention during evolution," says Arlotta. "It's thought that myelin allowed the brain to communicate really fast to the far reaches of the body, and that it has endowed the brain with the capacity to compute higher level functions." In fact, loss of myelin is a feature of a number of devastating diseases, including multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia.

But the new research shows that despite myelin essential roles in the brain, "some of the most evolved, most complex neurons of the nervous system have less myelin than older, more ancestral ones" Arlotta, co-director of the HSCI neuroscience program, says.

What this means, Arlotta says, is that the higher in the cerebral cortex one looks -- the closer to the top of the brain, which is its most evolved region -- the less myelin one finds. Not only that, but "neurons in this part of the brain display a brand new way of positioning myelin along their axons that has not been previously seen. They have 'intermittent myelin' with long axon tracts that lack myelin interspersed among myelin-rich segments.

Arlotta continues: "contrary to the common assumptions that neurons use a universal profile of myelin distribution on their axons, the work indicate that different neurons choose to myelinate their axons differently. In classic neurobiology textbooks myelin is represented on axons as a sequence of myelinated segments separated by very short nodes that lack myelin. This distribution of myelin was tacitly assumed to be always the same, on every neuron, from the beginning to the end of the axon. This new work finds this not to be the case."

The results of the research by Arlotta and post doctoral fellow Giulio Srubek Tomassy, the first author on the report, are published in the latest edition of Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The paper is accompanied by a "Perspective" by R. Douglas Fields, of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, at the National Institutes of Health, who says that Arlotta and Tomassy's findings raise important questions about the purpose of myelin, "are likely to spark new concepts about how information is transmitted and integrated in the brain."

Arlotta and Tomassy collaborated closely on the new work with postdoctoral fellow Daniel Berger of the Lichtman group, which generated one of the two massive electron microscopy data bases that made the work possible.

"The fact that it is the most evolved neurons, the ones that have expanded dramatically in humans, suggests that what we're seeing might be the "future." As neuronal diversity increases and the brain needs to process more and more complex information, neurons change the way they use myelin to "achieve" more," says Arlotta.

Read more at Science Daily

Apr 20, 2014

What Does the Easter Bunny Have To Do With Easter?

There's no story in the Bible about a long-eared, cotton-tailed creature known as the Easter Bunny. Neither is there a passage about young children painting eggs or hunting for baskets overflowing with scrumptious Easter goodies.

And real rabbits certainly don't lay eggs.

Why are these traditions so ingrained in Easter Sunday? And what do they have to do with the resurrection of Jesus?

Well, to be frank, nothing.

Bunnies, eggs, Easter gifts and fluffy, yellow chicks in gardening hats all stem from pagan roots. These tropes were incorporated into the celebration of Easter separately from the Christian tradition of honoring the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

According to the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture, the origin of the celebration — and the origin of the Easter Bunny — can be traced back to 13th-century, pre-Christian Germany, when people worshiped several gods and goddesses. The Teutonic deity Eostra was the goddess of spring and fertility, and feasts were held in her honor on the Vernal Equinox. Her symbol was the rabbit because of the animal’s high reproduction rate.

Spring also symbolized new life and rebirth; eggs were an ancient symbol of fertility. According to History.com, Easter eggs represent Jesus' resurrection. However, this association came much later when Roman Catholicism became the dominant religion in Germany in the 15th century and merged with already ingrained pagan beliefs.

The first Easter Bunny legend was documented in the 1500s. By 1680, the first story about a rabbit laying eggs and hiding them in a garden was published. These legends were brought to the United States in the 1700s, when German immigrants settled in Pennsylvania Dutch country, according to the Center for Children's Literature and Culture.

The tradition of making nests for the rabbit to lay its eggs in soon followed. Eventually, nests became decorated baskets and colorful eggs were swapped for candy, treats and other small gifts.

Read more at Discovery News

Fact-Checking the Bible

The Bible

Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library.
Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? The question has been debated for centuries by archaeologists, religious scholars and historians. So far, no definitive answer has been given. Science and archaeological discoveries have supported the Bible in some instances while refuting many of its most popular tales.

Read on to discover some of the more contentious issues in the Bible that may or may not stand up to historic and scientific scrutiny.

Camels in the Bible
Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, József Molnár, 1850.
Camels play a central role in Genesis and are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph and Jacob. But according to newly published research by Tel Aviv University based on radiocarbon dating and evidence unearthed in excavations, camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until the 10th century BC -- several centuries after the time they appear in the Bible.

"In addition to challenging the Bible's historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes," the university said in a statement.

However, several scholars believe the study, by archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, adds little to our knowledge.

"We have known about this camel anachronism for over a century now from site analysis. The Hebrews were donkey people hugging the coastlines and water routes, not camel people," Robert Eisenman, professor of Middle East religions, archaeology, and Islamic law and director of the Institute for the Study of Judaeo-Christian Origins at California State University Long Beach, told Discovery News.

Eisenman contends that many of these materials are based on oral tradition.

"So, though they might have been put into writing later, that doesn't mean they were not originally created much earlier,” he said.

Adam and Eve
A number of studies have questioned the historicity of the Bible's first couple.

The fossil record indicates that humans did not appear suddenly, but evolved gradually over the course of six million years.

However, “Y-chromosome Adam” and “mitochondrial Eve,” the two individuals who passed down a portion of their genomes to the vast expanse of humanity, may have lived around the same time.

According to a recent, extensive genetic study by Stanford University School of Medicine, the man lived between 120,000 and 156,000 years ago, and the woman lived between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago.

Genetic Adam and Eve
However, attempts to reconcile genetics with Genesis are unlikely to succeed.

“Despite the Adam and Eve monikers, which evoke a single couple whose children peopled the world, it is extremely unlikely that the male and female most recent common ancestors were exact contemporaries,” Stanford University stated.

Indeed, they weren’t the only man and woman alive at the time, or the only people to have present-day offspring.

“These two individuals simply had the good fortune of successfully passing on specific portions of their DNA -- from the man, the Y chromosome; from the woman, the mitochondrial genome -- through the millennia to most of us, while the corresponding sequences of others have largely died out,” the university said.

The Great Flood
Hundreds of archaeological excavations have attempted to find evidence of an apocalyptic flood such as is described in both the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but none succeeded. There is no trace anywhere on the archaeological record of a devastating global flood.

Likewise, expeditions to find the ark Noah built to save himself, his family and pairs of animals from the great deluge left archaeologists at a dead end.

According to Genesis, after the flood killed nearly everything on Earth, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in Eastern Turkey.

The Ark
The cuneiform script on this 3,700-year-old clay tablet reveals that the ark was round.
Biblical creationists imagined Noah's Ark like a large, box-like vessel similar to the version shown in Aronofksy's epic movie. Other designs added a sloping roof and matched the ships of the day, from square-rigged caravels to long vessels with pointy bows.

Further representation set the standard for children's story books, depicting the vessel as a large house on a boat, with a pair of giraffes sticking out of the roof.

But according to a recently decoded cuneiform script on a 3,700-year-old clay tablet, the original ark was a giant round vessel.

"The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers," Irving Finkel, a British Museum curator who translated the script and the author of "The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood," told Discovery News.

Indeed, a huge waterproof coracle would never sink. According to Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York's Stony Brook University, such a boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia, where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

The Exodus
There is no proof that the Exodus and the related miracles -- the devastating plagues, the burning bush, the parted sea, the manna in the wilderness -- really occurred.

While turning up artifacts from as far back as the late Stone Age, excavations in the Sinai did not produce a single piece of evidence for the Israelites' 40-year wandering in the desert.

Biblical scholars today widely agree that there was never any mass migration of the proportions described in the Bible. It is estimated the diaspora would have numbered some 2 million people out of an entire Egyptian population in 1250 BC of around 3 to 3.5 million.

Revered by the world's three main monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- Moses dominates as much as 15 percent of the entire Christian Bible, is a towering figure in the Hebrew Torah, and appears, by name, 136 times in the Koran -- more than any other prophet.

He is the baby who escaped death in a purge of newborns by floating in a little basket of reeds on the Nile, the young man who, raised in the midst of Egypt's royalty, took side with the Hebrew slaves. The leader who brought 2 million Hebrews out of bondage on the road to redemption and emancipation. The lawgiver who brought down, to a world filled with idols, the Ten Commandments and declared that God is one. The witness of extraordinary events: the devastating plagues, the burning bush, the parted sea, manna and dry rocks flowing with water. The intercessor between God and man, who died at the age of 120 never having entered the Promised Land.

Although Moses remains a universal symbol of liberation, leadership and law, immortalized by Michelangelo, archaeologists and biblical critics argue that there is no direct evidence for his existence.

Some details of his life, such as him as a baby floating on a basket in the Nile, appear to originate from earlier legends.

The ruler of the kingdom of Judea, consisting mostly of Jerusalem and present-day southern Israel from 37 BC to 4 BC, King Herod is the Bible's bloodiest tyrant.

Known for extensive building throughout the Holy Land -- he rebuilt and expanded the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the desert fortress of Masada, as well as the port city of Caesarea and the Herodium, where he is believed to have been buried -- Herod is described as a bloodthirsty megalomaniac who killed three of his sons, executed one of his 10 wives and ordered the killing of every single male child under two in his kingdom in the attempt to destroy the infant Jesus.

Indeed, the Jewish first-century historian Josephus Flavius gave a glimpse of Herod’s methods as he described how the sick king ordered several members of the local Jewish aristocracy to be executed on his death, so that his passing would be widely and genuinely mourned.

However, there is no record, apart from Matthew's Gospel, that his most brutal act, the Massacre of the Innocents, really occurred.

“The notion persists that he was a ‘Jewish King’, persecuting ‘Jesus’ -- even Jews themselves have come to believe it so powerful is the literature and, just as Christians, so thin their real historical knowledge,” Robert Eisenman, Professor of Middle East Religions, Archaeology, and Islamic Law and Director of the Institute for the Study of Judaeo-Christian Origins at California State University Long Beach, told Discovery News.

Indeed, Herod wasn’t a "Jewish" King as is commonly thought. He came from an Idumaean (Edomite) family on his father's side and his mother was an Arab woman from Petra.

“Being ‘King of the Jews’ did not mean being ‘a Jewish King.’ It was a Roman Title and Herod himself was a poly-religionist, building different shrines for different religious groups he wish to endear himself to all over the Roman Mediterranean. The Jews paid dearly for his ambitions, as they are still paying for his reputation today,” Eisenman said.

Birth of Jesus
 The story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, starting from Mary's virginal conception to the arrival of the wise men visiting the infant in the Bethlehem stable, continues to be the subject of scholarly debate over its historical accuracy.

The Bible itself is filled with contradictions.

According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea. But history records Herod's death in 4 BC -- full four years before Jesus was actually born. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But historical accounts state that he didn't become governor until 6 or 7 BC -- again raising anachronistic objections.

While Luke reports that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and moved to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a stable, Matthew accounts they lived in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth.

Read more at Discovery News

Apr 18, 2014

Ancient Puppy Paw Prints Found on Roman Tiles

The paw prints and hoof prints of a few meddlesome animals have been preserved for posterity on ancient Roman tiles recently discovered by archaeologists in England.

"They are beautiful finds, as they represent a snapshot, a single moment in history," said Nick Daffern, a senior project manager with Wardell Armstrong Archaeology. "It is lovely to imagine some irate person chasing a dog or some other animal away from their freshly made tiles."

The artifacts, which could be nearly 2,000 years old, were found in the Blackfriars area of Leicester, the English city where the long-lost bones of King Richard III were discovered under a parking lot in 2012. Wardell Armstrong Archaeology was brought in to dig at a site where a construction company plans to build student housing.

At least one of the tiles is tainted with dog paw prints, and one is marked with the hoof prints of a sheep or a goat that trampled on the clay before it was dry.

"My initial thought was that it must have been very difficult being a Roman tile manufacturer with these animal incursions going on all the time," Philip Briggs, another Wardell Armstrong archaeologist, told Live Science in an email.

The tiles were found in layers of rubble that had been laid down as a hard base for subsequent floors, but the artifacts' original context is unclear, Daffern said.

"We don't know if the tiles were originally part of an earlier building or were bought in from elsewhere specifically to raise and stabilize ground," Daffern told Live Science in an email.

Leicester was the stronghold of an Iron Age group known as the Corieltauvi tribe, and it remained an important city after the Roman conquest of Britain in the first century A.D., as it was located along the Fosse Way, a Roman road that connected southwestern England with the East Midlands.

The excavators say that, in addition to the animal-printed tiles, they've uncovered Roman tweezers, brooches, coins and painted wall plaster. They've also unearthed traces of a large Roman building — perhaps a basilica, with a peristyle, or columned porch — that was largely robbed of its masonry during the medieval era for other construction projects.

The archaeologists even discovered late Iron Age artifacts, such as several fragments of clay molds that the Corieltauvi tribe likely used to make coins before the Roman rule. Daffern said it's rare to find sites with coin molds, given how closely managed coin production would have been during the Iron Age.

Read more at Discovery News

$1.5 Mln World Record Gold Crystal Verified

An intricately folded gold nugget turned out to be the largest individual crystal of gold ever found. Earlier this month, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory verified that the 7.68-ounce (217.78-gram) lump -- about the weight of a large onion -- is a single, intact gold crystal. With that crystalline pedigree, the value of the nugget rocketed in value from $10,000 to $1.5 million.

Gold normally forms smaller cubic, 8-sided or 12-sided crystals, according to Mineralogy Database. But larger, irregular structures also can form.

Nuggets of gold generally consist of a collection of these crystals pressed together. Geologists and miners rarely find a nugget made up of only one crystal. Decades, ago miners excavated the recently confirmed champion gold crystal in Venezuela. However, controversy surrounded the nugget. In 2006 the nugget was rejected by an auction because of questions over authenticity.

To prove the crystal's integrity, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory's Lujan Neutron Scattering Center used two devices. One used sub-atomic particles, called neutrons, to peer inside the nugget and determine its atomic arrangement. The other instrument measured the crystal structure of the gold piece.

However, at only 217 grams, the gold crystal doesn't come close to topping the largest nugget ever found. In 1890, miners uncovered a 173- pound (78-kilogram) nugget in Australia, according to the University of California, Santa Barbara's ScienceLine. The Banco Central Museum in Brazil displays possibly the largest nugget still in existence. That gold behemoth weighs 60.82 kg and contains 52.33 kg of gold.

From Discovery News