Dec 24, 2015

Happy Holidays

I Wanted to take the time to wish everybody that reads this blog a merry Christmas and happy holidays.

I've been running this blog for almost six (6) years and it's been a journey. Without you, the readers, I wouldn't post this much as I do, so keep on reading.

Yours truly
Danny Boston

Dec 23, 2015

Crows Caught on Camera Building, Storing Tools

New Caledonian crows have been captured on video not only fashioning and using tools but also storing them for later use, the first time corvids have been recorded doing so in the wild, new research suggests.

Science has known for some time now that crows are highly intelligent, and previous videos have shown them at their tool-making work. But researchers from the University of St. Andrews and the University of Exeter say theirs is the first footage of the animals using their skills unaided, in their element.

"While fieldworkers had previously obtained brief glimpses of hooked stick tool manufacture, the only video footage to date came from baited feeding sites, where tool raw materials and probing tasks had been provided to crows by scientists," said study co-author Jolyon Troscianko in a statement. "We were keen to get close-up video of birds making these tools under completely natural conditions."

In research published today in the journal Biology Letters, Troscianko and fellow researcher Christian Rutz detail their use of tiny “spy” cameras attached to the tail feathers of 19 crows.

Poring over the footage captured on the cameras' micro-SD cards (the cameras safely detach from the birds within a few days), the scientists witnessed two instances of the birds fashioning hook tools they would use to probe tree crevices for food:

It was clear to the researchers that these tools seemed precious to the birds.

“In one scene,” said Troscianko, ”a crow drops its tool, and then recovers it from the ground shortly afterwards, suggesting they value their tools and don’t simply discard them after a single use.”

The crows (Corvus moneduloides) observed in the study live in the South Pacific, on the island of New Caledonia, and it’s thought that corvids such as these may even rival primates in the area of brain power.

They’ve honed the art of using their bills to whiddle twigs and even leaves into hooked bug-grabbers. One crow seen on the recordings only needed one minute to create its tool, before using it to probe leaves on the ground and tree hollows in search of bugs.

Read more at Discovery News

Winter Heat Messes Up Animal Sleepers

This winter’s massive El Nino hasn’t just created havoc for California surfers or East coast ski bums, Nature too is being thrown out of whack and many winter animal sleepers are rubbing their eyes and waking up to the summer-like temperatures.

Raccoons, and possums and skunks – usually dormant during cold weather – are stirring and looking for food, according to Ken Elowe, assistant regional director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Hadley, Mass. “For them, it’s how much energy do they have to go around hunting for food. In this kind of weather when it’s warmer, it’s not hard for them to find something to eat.”

Hibernating bears will likely wake up, sniff around a bit and probably go back to sleep, Elowe said. That’s because their food supply isn’t available.

“Bears are triggered to go into their dens when food gets scarce and they expend more energy looking for food than the energy it gives them,” he said

Bears actually change their physiological processes during their winter sleep so they are breaking down the fat in their body, not the muscle. That gives them sugar and water to sustain themselves.

“They don’t have to drink anything,” Elowe said. Nor do they urinate.

The biologist noted that bears in northern and southern climes both hibernate, although bears in Florida and the Carolinas don’t sleep as long.

Woodhcucks and chipmunks bury themselves below the frost level in burrows. They slow down their metabolism to just barely keep them alive. They don’t change their physiology. They have to get up and drink water and urinate during the normal winter.

“This kind of winter makes it easier for them to do that,” Elowe said.

Bats need to remain undisturbed in caves, dead trees or old buildings or else they can use up winter food and energy stores they have built up over the summer and fall months. Even though many insects may be hatching in the warm temperatures, it’s not a good idea for bats to roust themselves and start hunting.

One positive is that the warm spell might cut down on the tick population, which needs protection of snow on top of leaf letter and soil to molt into their next stage, or instar.

“They are similar to seeds that need a frozen period to become germination ready,” Elowe said.

As to why we’re having this warm weather and how long it will last? First, blame El Nino. Second, a pressure system that has forced the jet stream south over the West (bringing in cold Arctic air), and a ridge in the East (bringing tropical air from Bermuda and the Gulf of Mexico), according to Rich Otto, meteorologist at the National Weather Service.

Read more at Discovery News

Evil-Thwarting 'Rattles' Found in Prehistoric Infant's Grave

Tiny figurines that may have been used as rattling toys or charms to ward off evil spirits were discovered in the grave of an infant dating back 4,500 years, archaeologists say.

The burial was discovered on the northwest shore of Lake Itkul in the Minusinsk basinin Russia. The infant’s remains, which were found in what appears to be a birchbark cradle, suggest he or she was less than a year old at death. On the infant’s chest, archaeologists found “eight miniature horn figurines representing humanlike characters and heads of birds, elk, boar and a carnivore,”wrote archaeologists Andrey Polyakov and Yury Esin, in an article published recently in the journal Archaeology, Ethnology & Anthropology of Eurasia.

The intricately carved figurines were likely made from deer antlers and have traces of red paint on them. “Some of [the figurines] have internal cavities and, upon coming in contact with each other, could produce noisy sounds like modern rattles,” wrote Polyakov, of the Institute for the History of Material Culture in Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Esin, of the Khakassian Research Institute of Language, Literature and History.

The figurines would have been attached in some way to the cradle, the researchers say. They could have functioned as toys and may also have protected the infant from evil powers. “Various apotropaic charms are a necessary element of cradle decoration in the traditional cultures,” Polyakov and Esin wrote.

Archaeologists cannot rule out the possibility that the figurines have “no relation to the cradle, and placed into the burial to ensure successful transition of the deceased child to the next world,” they wrote.

The infant also had some interesting headgear. The infant’s head was turned toward the southwest, and, on the skull, archaeologists found 11 small copper plaques, 10 of which were made from a thin oval copper plate no more than a half inch (1.5 centimeters) across, the archaeologists said.

Each of the plaques had two fastening holes, where thin leather laces would’ve been threaded through to attach them to one another. The cap could then be placed on the infant’s head. Remains of those laces were also found in the burial.

One of the plaques, located at the top of the infant’s headgear, was made of two metallic cones that would have been sewn together. “Probably these were adornments of the child’s cap,” Polyakov and Esin wrote. They note that an earring was also found to the left of the infant’s skull.

The infant was buried along with several other people in a burial mound called a kurgan. The people buried in the mound were part of what modern-day archaeologists call the Okunev culture.

Although writing had not yet spread to this part of the world, “the Okunev people had mastered processing of copper and bronze manufacture from which they cast blades, daggers, axes and spear-heads, fishing hooks and other tools and ornaments,” Esin told Live Science in an email. In addition to metal, these people continued to use tools made of stone and bone, Esin added.

Read more at Discovery News

Space Junk Reenters Atmosphere, Dazzles Las Vegas

A mysterious ball of light soared over the Las Vegas skyline Tuesday evening, and before you ask — no, it wasn’t the same object the NORAD will be tracking later this week.

In a Facebook post, the United States Strategic Command explains that the flash of light was actually a Russian SL-4 rocket body burning up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

The flaming junk, which first appeared around 6:00 p.m. local time, was visible across parts of Nevada and California. Dazzled stargazers throughout the region took to social media to share their accounts of the unexpected show.

There are more than 21,000 pieces of space debris larger than 4 inches across currently orbiting Earth. As part of its initiative, the USSC maintains a comprehensive database of 16,000 of these “on-orbit cataloged objects,” tracking their movement until they burn up.

“That service is a key element of our commitment to provide space situational awareness for spaceflight safety,” the agency explains.

Little can be done about the debris currently in orbit; space agencies around the planet are actively investigating ways to minimize the amount of orbital debris that future missions leave behind.

From Discovery News

The Littlest, Most Adorable-est Seahorse Fits on Your Fingernail

Because they were a bit gullible, the Ancient Greeks believed a tiny race of humans known as the pygmies did eternal battle with cranes—which, in fairness, can be pretty jerky. Today, “pygmy” lives on in zoology to describe any number of species smaller than their peers, things like pygmy hippos, pygmy goats, and even pygmy killer whales. The most magical among the pygmies, though, is a miniscule creature that’ll punch you right in the face with cuteness, given you can even find it: It’s the charming, fantastically camouflaged pygmy seahorse.

For my money, this is the most confounding camo in the sea. While plenty of ocean critters blend in with their surroundings—the aptly named stonefish, for instance, looks much like a fish, and even more like a stone—and the cuttlefish famously changes its skin color and texture on the fly to match its surroundings, the pygmy seahorse goes about things differently. As a young ‘un, it’ll settle on coral, then adopt one of a number of colors to match and live the rest of its life in that outfit. That’s really, really weird for an animal.

Swimming the reefs of Australia and Southeast Asia are seven species of pygmy seahorse measuring between a half inch and an inch long, small enough to fit on your fingernail. But from here on out when I say “pygmy seahorse” I’m referring to just two, Bargibant’s and Denise’s pygmy seahorses, which stick to coral sea fans known as gorgonians. The other species are great and all, but these two are the most spectacular.

Gorgonians come in a range of colors, and this presents a problem for the seahorses. If, say, they were pink and could only find orange gorgonians instead of pink gorgonians, their camo would be worthless. So when a pygmy seahorse lands on a gorgonian as a black-hued juvenile, it begins an incredible transformation. “It lives on some gorgonians that are kind of warty and branched, and some that are smooth and a little bit darker red, or more pale,” says Steinhart Aquarium biologist Matt Wandell, who was the first to breed pygmy seahorses. “And so it’ll adapt to that color and that texture,” warts and all, over the course of a few days.

Wandell’s seahorses were orange because that’s what color they wanted to be and if you can’t handle that I don’t know what to tell you.
That transformation appears to be permanent, as opposed to the cuttlefish’s on-demand camouflage. To test this, Wandell dropped already-transformed seahorses into tanks with gorgonians of a different color to see if they’d re-adapt, but nothing doing. “It seems like, as far as we know, it’s a one-time switch,” Wandell says. “You can think of it maybe like language in that sense for a child, where it’s a one-time period where it can adapt to a certain type of gorgonian.”

The cuttlefish’s camouflage trick is easy to figure—it’s covered with cells called chromatophores (as are other cephalopods like octopuses and squids), which rapidly expand or contract to flash certain colors. But how the pygmy seahorse is pulling off its color change, scientists haven’t a clue. It does appear, though, that the seahorse is using visual cues as opposed to something like nomming on the gorgonian to assume its color (since the pygmy perfectly imitates the coral’s warts as well).

It’s baffling. From an evolutionary perspective, the development of camouflage is simple: Individuals that look more like their surroundings have a better chance of avoiding predators and surviving to pass down their genes for this effective camo. Over time, a species accumulates these changes into something epic like the satanic leaf-tailed gecko looking exactly like a leaf … and only mildly like Satan. But why would the pygmy seahorse opt to “choose” the appropriate camo for its surroundings when other animals are born with theirs? Mysteries abound.

What is clear, though, is that the camouflage is legit. Divers have reported just a few instances of predation on pygmies, and humans didn’t even find the things until 1969, and it was an accident at that. It was only when a scientist carted a gorgonian back to his dissection table did he notice a pair of pygmies. A no doubt confused pair of pygmies.

“Hey Hon, You Up for Some Role-Playing?”

By this point in your life you’ve probably learned that seahorse sex is backwards, with the male role-playing as a female to give birth to their young. And that’s true to a certain degree. “In pygmy seahorses, the males are the ones that get ‘pregnant,’ and I put pregnant in quotes because it’s not quite like the way we think of pregnancy,” Wandell says.

When a pair comes together, the female transfers her eggs to a pouch on the male’s belly, perhaps whispering now let’s see how YOU like it. He fertilizes them, and the eggs develop inside him and hatch into tiny seahorses, which he pops out one by one, as many as 70 of them (at least in Wandell’s experience with captive seahorses—in the wild it could be different). The kiddos, which sport spikes that will eventually turn into those warty bumps, seem to be attracted to light, and will make their way to the surface to feed on plankton—stuff like fish eggs and creatures so tiny they’re at the mercy of the current—for two or three weeks, dispersing far and wide. Then they’ll head down to a reef, snuggle up with a gorgonian, and begin their transformation.

Here the pygmy waits for food to come to it, or, more specifically, to the gorgonian, which is made up of individual tentacled polyps that snag plankton. “The plankton has hundreds of thousands of different animals in it,” Wandell says. “So we assume there’s this sort of amalgamation of gunk sticking to the polyps, and the seahorses are eating that.”

And indeed, this exploitation may have been what drove to pygmy seahorse to evolve to be so tiny. “One thing we know about evolution in general is that any time there’s a niche where energy can be derived and exploited, something will fill that niche,” Wandell says. “And that coral surface was something that wasn’t exploited by any other animals.”

Read more at Wired Science

Dec 22, 2015

Neutrons offer guide to getting more out of solid-state lithium-ion batteries

Although they don't currently have as much conductivity, solid-state electrolytes designed for lithium-ion batteries (LIBs) are emerging as a safer alternative to their more prevalent--sometimes flammable--liquid-electrolyte counterparts.

However, a new study conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), a Department of Energy Office of Science user facility, has revealed promising results that could drastically boost the performance of solid-state electrolytes, and could potentially lead to a safer, even more efficient battery.

Using neutron diffraction techniques via the VULCAN instrument, SNS beam line 7, lead instrument scientist Ke An and his team recently concluded an in-depth study probing the entire structure evolution of doped garnet-type electrolytes during the synthesis process to unravel the mechanism that boosts the lithium-ionic conductivity. Their findings were recently published in the journals Chemistry of Materials and the Journal of Materials Chemistry A.

"The question we want to answer is how can we correlate the material's structure with its performance," An said. "Finding an answer to this will be very useful to the materials community, particularly in the field of electrochemical devices like batteries."

The problem with liquid electrolytes, says An, is that while they can produce high levels of conductivity--which is good--in some cases, they become flammable under high voltages or high temperatures, causing the battery to "explode"--which is obviously very bad.

In general, solid electrolyte-based LIBs consist of two electrodes, a positive and a negative, and an electrolyte in the middle, forming the battery's core, which facilitates the movement of ions traveling back and forth between the electrodes. In order to achieve a desired level of conductivity in the electrolyte, ions require vacancies in the crystal structure, or tunnels for the ions to "hop" to and from--kind of like connecting the dots.

Lithium lanthanum zirconates, or materials based on Li7La3Zr2O12 with a garnet structure, are favorable for application as electrolytes because they promote fast lithium transport. However, explained An, synthesized garnets often develop unwanted low-conductivity secondary phases, which in some cases can be detrimental to electrolytic performance. Essentially what that means is that useful vacancies for ions to "hop" don't always develop where designers want them to.

During synthesis, myriad chemical reactions take place as the material goes through several different phases, beginning with the mixing of chemicals or materials, then annealing, or heating the structure for desired performance and consistency, followed by a cool down period in which the structure is hardened. Analyzing what's going on during each phase would be next to impossible without the use of special instruments and techniques.

"Getting better performance out of the electrolyte can't be done without first understanding what's going on inside the structure. We need to understand what the mechanisms are that drive the synthesis process," said materials scientist and lead author Yan Chen, a postdoctoral research associate at SNS. "VULCAN enables us to perform in situ experiments, visualizing the structure's evolution in real time without disturbing the garnet synthesis process."

With VULCAN's help they monitored the low-conductivity phases' formation during the thermal process, and found that it could be mitigated by doping the material--adding trace amounts of various elements that have high valences, or an affinity to create bonds, to reduce the effect. Being able to both suppress the formation of those unwanted phases and increase the number of useful vacancies for ion transport proved to be the key to unlocking garnets with high electrolytic performance.

"By tracking the lithium vacancies as functions of temperature and dopants, we found a common rule that the different dopants obey, and how they redistribute the vacancies in the framework of the garnets," Chen said. "Furthermore, a comprehensive analysis of neutron diffraction results revealed how the dopants tune vacancy quantity, control vacancy distribution, and alter the charge carrier pathways in solid electrolytes."

Read more at Science Daily

Twisted magnetic fields give new insights on star formation

Using new images that show unprecedented detail, scientists have found that material rotating around a very young protostar probably has dragged in and twisted magnetic fields from the larger area surrounding the star. The discovery, made with the National Science Foundation's Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope, has important implications for how dusty disks -- the raw material for planet formation -- grow around young stars.

The scientists studied a young protostar about 750 light-years from Earth in the constellation Perseus. Their observations, made in 2013 and 2014, measured the alignment, or polarization, of radio waves emitted by material, mostly dust, falling into a burgeoning disk orbiting the young star. The polarization information revealed the configuration of magnetic fields in this region near the star.

"The alignment of magnetic fields in this region near young stars is very important to the development of the disks that orbit them. Depending on its alignment, the magnetic field can either hinder the growth of the disk or help funnel material onto the disk, allowing it to grow," said Leslie Looney, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

As material from the envelope of dust and gas surrounding the young star falls inward toward the rotating disk, it is likely to drag magnetic field lines with it. Because of this, the structure of the magnetic field near the star will become different from the field's structure farther away.

"Our VLA observations are showing us this region, where the change in shape of the magnetic field is taking place," said Erin Cox, also of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The observations, she added, produced the first images at wavelengths of 8 and 10 millimeters to show the polarization near a protostar.

The observations also indicated that millimeter- to centimeter-sized particles are numerous in the disk surrounding the young star. Since the protostar is only about 10,000 years old -- very short in astronomical timescales -- this may mean that such grains form and grow quickly in the environment of a still-forming star.

Read more at Science Daily

Oetzi the Iceman Has World's Oldest Tattoos

Oetzi, the Tyrolean Iceman entombed beneath an alpine glacier some 5,300 years ago, is the oldest tattooed human, according to a new study.

The mummy boasts tattoos grouped across 19 body parts. Earlier this year, Marco Samadelli and colleagues from the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Italy, spotted a new tattoo on the mummified body, bringing the total count of the Iceman’s skin markings up to 61.

Published in the February 2016 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the research reveals how an error in reading radiocarbon data wrongly attributed the record to an unidentified South American mummy.

The mummy, sporting dotted mustache-like markings across the upper lip, was one of 96 bodies recovered in 1983 from El Morro, Chile. Researchers identified the naturally mummified remains as belonging to a Chinchorro male who died between 35–40 years of age.

They named the mummy “Mo-1 T28 C22.”

The mustache-like tattoo simply consisted of eight black dots across the upper lip to the left side of the nose and four dots to the right side.

The South American mummy belonged to the Chinchorro, a preceramic fishing society that lived in the coastal regions of southern Peru and Chile between 9,000 and 3,100 years ago. Their burials feature both natural and artificial mummification, making them the oldest known human mummies.

The reported age of the mummy was around 4000 B.C., making his dotted tattoos the oldest known.

But while radiocarbon dates for Oetzi have been extensively carried out, confirming the Iceman died between 3370 and 3100 B.C., the age of the Chinchorro mummy comes from a series of errors reading the radiocarbon data.

“It is the result of confusing the date of 3830 ± 100 radiocarbon years BP,” prehistoric archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf, who teaches the anthropology of tattooing at Middle Tennessee State University, and colleagues, wrote.

Before Present, or BP, is a time scale used in radiocarbon dating, where “Present” is AD 1950. The date reported in the 1980s radiocarbon dating was 3830 ± 100 BP, the equivalent of 1880 ± 100 BC.

But this correct date was misread as being 3830 ± 100 BC, thus generating errors that were repeated in subsequent studies.

According to the researchers, the original radiocarbon dates clearly identify Oetzi as “the oldest tattooed human remains discovered to date, predating the Chinchorro mummy Mo-1 T28 C22 by at least 500 years.”

The research team, which included Benoît Robitaille, Lars Krutak, at the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution, and Sébastien Galliot, at the Centre de Recherche et de Documentation sur l’Océanie at Aix-Marseille Université, double checked their data by cataloging of all known tattooed human mummies.

The result was a list which included sites spanning the world and a period between around 3370 B.C. and 1600 A.D. To date, the tattoos on the Iceman’s body are the oldest.

Markings were noticed on Oetzi ever since his discovery in 1991 in a melting glacier in the Oetztal Alps (hence the name). Recent non-invasive multispectral photographic imaging techniques at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, investigated the tattoos.

Produced by fine incisions into which charcoal was rubbed, they consisted mainly of lines running parallel to each other, between 2 mm (0.07 inches) and 8 mm (0.3 inches) apart.

Ranging from 1 mm (0.03 inches) to 3 mm (0.1 inches) in thickness and between 7 mm (0.2 inches) and 40 mm (1.5 inches) in length, the markings concentrated in the lower section of the legs.

Read more at Discovery News

World's Oldest Gorilla Turns 59

Colo, a western gorilla in residence at the Columbus Zoo, has added yet another candle to her birthday cake. Now 59 years old, she continues to be the oldest living gorilla in human care.

On Tuesday morning, Colo’s habitat was filled with colorful construction paper chains and enrichment toys to mark the occasion. She will celebrate the day with a clementine, tomato and cupcake feast with her family.

Age isn’t slowing down the feisty matriarch; zoo officials report that, apart from arthritis, her health is “fantastic.”

“We embrace every single birthday we have with her,” Columbus Zoo assistant curator Audra Meinelt said in a statement.

“It’s not yet the big 6-0, but it’s the big 5-9! Because she is so old, every single day with her, not just her birthday, is a gift. We are lucky for every moment we get to spend with her.”

Colo has exceeded the life expectancy for gorillas both in the wild and in human care; a gorilla in a zoo will live less than four decades on average. Wild gorillas continue to be threatened by poaching and the spread of infectious diseases, such as Ebola, which often prevent them from reaching old age.

Her 1956 birth marked the first instance of a gorilla being born into human care. She earned the distinction of being the world’s oldest known gorilla in 2012, when 55-year-old western lowland gorilla Jenny passed away.

From Discovery News

Dec 21, 2015

Some Birds Tune Color, Never Fade With Age

Many birds have the ability to instantaneously adjust their color so their coloration never loses its vividness with age, new research finds.

The natural tech could someday be applied to more eco-friendly paints and to clothing so they would never fade.

“Current technology cannot make color with this level of control and precision — we still use dyes and pigments,” co-author Andrew Parnell of the University of Sheffield said in a press release.

“Now we’ve learned how nature accomplishes it, we can start to develop new materials, such as clothes or paints, using these nanostructuring approaches. It would potentially mean that if we created a red jumper (sweater) using this method, it would retain its color and never fade in the wash.”

Bird feathers are made of a nanostructured spongy keratin material, which is exactly the same kind of material human hair and fingernails are made from. As a result, researchers for many years thought that bird feathers were just colored with chemical pigments known as melanins. These are what color human hair.

Prior research on feathers has since showed that many have structural color in addition to coloration from natural pigments. Similar to how a clear prism can appear multi-hued due to refraction of light, so too can feathers appear colorful just due to their structure.

For the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, Parnell and his team used X-ray scattering at the ESRF facility in France to examine the feathers of a blue jay. They determined that the birds could fine-tune their hues all along the length of a single feather. They do this by manipulating the size of holes in the sponge-like keratin material.

The scientists explained that when light hits a feather, the size of the holes determines how the light is scattered and therefore the color that is reflected. Larger holes mean a broader wavelength reflectance of light, creating the color white. A more compact structure results in the color blue.

Unless a bird with structural color was grey to begin with, this means that such birds never go grey with age. The process also prevents color changes due to diet.

Birds without much structural coloration, such as seagulls, have less adjustable colors as a result. Seagulls that eat a lot of farm-raised salmon, for example, actually start to turn light pink over time. The salmon are fed artificial carotenoid sources, which transfer over to the birds. These chemicals, called carotenoids, can lead to brightly hued feathers.

The jay, macaws, peacocks and other birds with structural coloration are not as vulnerable to color changes, which is exactly the property most of us want when buying products like house paint and clothing.

Co-author Daragh McLoughlin of the AkzoNobel Decorative Paints Material Science Research Team said, “This exciting new insight may help us to find new ways of making paints that stay brighter and fresher-looking for longer, while also having a lower carbon footprint.”

Read more at Discovery News

Anti-Demonic Burial Found in Poland

Evidence of “anti-demonic” funerary practices, with sickles placed around the throats of the deceased possibly to ward off demons, has been found in a 400-year-old cemetery in Poland.

Researchers examined more than 250 human skeletons which were excavated since 2008 from a post Medieval cemetery in Drawsko, a rural settlement site in northwestern Poland.

Dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains represented individuals of all ages and both sexes and included five unique interments with sickles.

“In four of these burials the sickles were placed on the bodies of the dead with the cutting edge tightly against the throat, while the fifth was located on the pelvis,” Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, and Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, wrote in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.

The skeletons with the sickles around the throat were those of an adult male who died between 35–44 years of age, two adult females who died around 30–39 years of age, and an adolescent female who at around 14–19 years old.

There was also an adult female aged 50–60 years interred with a large, arch-curved sickle placed across her hips. A stone was placed directly on top of the throat, while a coin was found in her toothless mouth.

Previously, it was suggested these people were buried as “vampires.” In this view, the sickle placed across the throat was intended to remove the head, should the vampire attempt to rise from the grave.

But Polcyn and Gajda argue these burials should be rather interpreted as “anti-demonic.” They noted the sickle burials have none of the characteristics of so-called anti-vampiric practices.

They were interred in sacred ground following conventional Christian burial patterns, with the head placed towards the west, and their graves did not appear to have been desecrated.

“Confining the deceased in the grave by means of a sickle may have been a measure to prevent the demonized soul threatening the living, or could have been a reference to biblical symbolism in an attempt to prevent the soul from becoming demonized,” Polcyn and Gajda wrote.

Vampires were not the only mythical creatures feared in Poland in the 17th century. As wars, hunger, pestilence, and poverty devastated the country, Slavic pagan faiths resurrected.

“The development of the Counter-Reformation was a significant turning point as it brought cultural and intellectual regression, religious fanaticism and a growing climate of terror, deliberately stoked by Catholic clergy spreading fear of the devil and witchcraft,” the researchers wrote.

Evidence of “anti-demonic” funerary practices, with sickles placed around the throats of the deceased possibly to ward off demons, has been found in a 400-year-old cemetery in Poland.

Researchers examined more than 250 human skeletons which were excavated since 2008 from a post Medieval cemetery in Drawsko, a rural settlement site in northwestern Poland.

Dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, the remains represented individuals of all ages and both sexes and included five unique interments with sickles.

“In four of these burials the sickles were placed on the bodies of the dead with the cutting edge tightly against the throat, while the fifth was located on the pelvis,” Marek Polcyn, a visiting scholar at Lakehead University in Canada, and Elzbieta Gajda, of the Muzeum Ziemi Czarnkowskiej, wrote in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.

The skeletons with the sickles around the throat were those of an adult male who died between 35–44 years of age, two adult females who died around 30–39 years of age, and an adolescent female who at around 14–19 years old.

There was also an adult female aged 50–60 years interred with a large, arch-curved sickle placed across her hips. A stone was placed directly on top of the throat, while a coin was found in her toothless mouth.

Previously, it was suggested these people were buried as “vampires.” In this view, the sickle placed across the throat was intended to remove the head, should the vampire attempt to rise from the grave.

But Polcyn and Gajda argue these burials should be rather interpreted as “anti-demonic.” They noted the sickle burials have none of the characteristics of so-called anti-vampiric practices.

They were interred in sacred ground following conventional Christian burial patterns, with the head placed towards the west, and their graves did not appear to have been desecrated.

Read more at Discovery News

King Tut's Wet Nurse May Have Been His Sister

An archaeologist said Sunday that Maia, Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun's wet nurse, may have actually been his sister Meritaten, reviving speculation about the identity of the mother of the boy king.

DNA tests have proved that the pharaoh Akhenaten was the father of Tutankhamun, but the identity of his mother has long been a mystery.

On Sunday, Egyptian officials and French archaeologist Alain Zivie unveiled Maia's tomb to journalists ahead of its opening to the public next month.

The tomb was discovered by Egyptologist Zivie in 1996 in Saqqara, a necropolis about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Cairo.

Maia was the wet nurse of Tutankhamun, whose mummy was found in 1922 by renowned British Egyptologist Howard Carter in the Valley of Kings in Luxor along with a treasure trove of thousands of objects.

"Maia is none other than princess Meritaten, the sister or half-sister of Tutankhamun and the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti," Zivie told AFP.

He said his conclusion was based on the carvings of Tutankhamun and Maia on the walls of Maia's tomb.

"The extraordinary thing is that they are very similar. They have the same chin, the eyes, the family traits," he said.

"The carvings show Maia sitting on the royal throne and he is sitting on her" lap, said Zivie, director of the French Archaeological Mission of Bubasteion.

Similar carvings were in Akhenaten's tomb at the Tel el-Amarna archaeological site in modern-day Minya province where the pharaoh had his capital city, he said.

A DNA analysis in 2010 revealed that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten, who temporarily converted ancient Egypt to monotheism by imposing the cult of sun god Aton.

The tomb of Akhenaten has carvings showing the death of princess Maketaten -- the second daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, Zivie said.

"In these scenes there is a woman who is breast-feeding a baby, and this woman shown as a wet nurse is princess Meritaten, the eldest daughter of Akhenaten," he said.

The mummy of Meritaten has not been found, but Antiquities Minister Mamduh al-Damati said on Sunday it could be in a secret chamber in Tutankhamun's tomb.

Archaeologists are currently scanning Tutankhamun's tomb in the Valley of Kings after British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that it has a secret chamber.

Read more at Discovery News

Earth's Extreme Tilt Marks the Winter Solstice

A Bolivian indigenous man raises his hands to receive the first beam of the rising sun during the winter solstice ceremony in Tiahunaco.
The winter solstice is a vampire's delight. No other night is longer and no day shorter. But it also means the subsequent days get longer.

This year's winter solstice will occur at 11:48 p.m. ET Monday (04:49 GMT Tuesday). At that moment, the sun will be directly overhead at 23.5 degrees south latitude, and the Earth's axial tilt will be as far from the sun as possible.

When the celestial fireball finally makes its appearance in the northern hemisphere it keeps a low profile. On the winter solstice the sun follows the lowest path of the year in the sky of the northern hemisphere.

The Earth is illuminated by the sun on the day of winter solstice in the northern hemisphere.
For modern city-dwellers, the solstice is little more than a curiosity, but in ancient times it was of vital importance.

In the northern hemisphere, knowing when the dark days of winter would start to lengthen could give hope to people trying to make the harvest of the previous year stave off starvation for a few more months.

The day was so important, that some of humanity's earliest monumental structures were aligned with the rising or setting of the sun on the winter solstice. Stonehenge in England, for example, is lined up with the winter solstice.

Festivals both ancient and modern marked the winter solstice.

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia around the time of the solstice with revelry and a social switcheroo in which masters served the slaves.

Further north, Germanic and Norse tribes celebrated Yule by burning a massive log in honor of Thor, a tradition some still observe.

The modern Christian holiday of Christmas occurs near the winter solstice, and some have suggested that assigning Dec. 25 as the birth of Jesus of Nazareth related to ancient celebrations of that day, such as the Roman Sol Invictus, or Invincible Sun, festival.

From Discovery News