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Archive for the ‘Archaeology’ Category

The Tablet known as Plimpton 322

Plimpton 322

Maev Kennedy, a special writer for the Guardian, puts forward that “[m]athematicians have been arguing for most of a century about the interpretation of the tablet known as Plimpton 322, ever since the New York publisher George Plimpton bequeathed it to Columbia University in the 1930s as part of a major collection. He bought it from Edgar Banks, a diplomat, antiquities dealer and flamboyant amateur archaeologist said to have inspired the character of Indiana Jones – his feats included climbing Mount Ararat in an unsuccessful attempt to find Noah’s Ark – who had excavated it in southern Iraq in the early 20th century”.1


The Professor of Ancient Near Eastern History Eleanor Robson explains that “Plimpton 322 is the modern label given to a cuneiform tablet written in the ancient Iraqi city of Larsa in the mid-18th century BCE. Old Babylonian (OB) mathematics, the oldest known body of ‘pure’ mathematics in the world, derived from two separate traditions in early Mesopotamia: an orally-based ‘surveyors’ algebra’ and a bureaucratic accountancy culture. The ‘surveyors’ algebra’ is heavily based on riddles concerning cut-and-paste geometry and has its origins outside the literate scribal tradition in the late third millennium . . . Scribes, on the other hand, had been directly concerned with the quantitative control of goods, time, and labour since the advent of writing at the end of the fourth millennium . . . Their complex system of metrology,work norms,andother technical constants also reached its apex at the end of the third millennium, under the so-called Third Dynasty of Ur III . . . The two traditions coalesced into the mathematics of the OB humanist scribal schools of the early second millennium, where education appears to have comprised far more than the acquisition of professionally useful skills”.2 Professor Robson goes on to say that “[a]lthough the archaeology of Old Babylonian schools is not clear-cut and the large majority of OB mathematical tablets known are completely unprovenanced, [she is] convinced that virtually all of the OB mathematical corpus as we have it should be interpreted as the products of scribal training, or, at the very least, as the products of a scholastic milieu”.3 And, going down to the nitty-gritty, she postulates that “Plimpton 322 is, physically at least, a typical product of OB mathematical culture . . . It is a clay tablet, measuring some 12.7×8.8 cm as it is preserved, ruled into four columns. It was excavated illegally sometime during the 1920s, along with many thousands of other cuneiform tablets, not from Babylon but from the ancient city of Larsa (modern Tell Senkereh, 31◦140 N, 45◦510 E)”.4


The mathematician Daniel Mansfield relates that the “huge mystery [of Plimpton 322], until now, was its purpose – why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet. Our research reveals that Plimpton 322 describes the shapes of right-angle triangles using a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios, not angles and circles. It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius. The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry. This means it has great relevance for our modern world. Babylonian mathematics may have been out of fashion for more than 3,000 years, but it has possible practical applications in surveying, computer graphics and education. This is a rare example of the ancient world teaching us something new”.5 The mathemtician Norman Wildberger, for his part, adds that “Plimpton 322 predates [the Greek astronomer] Hipparchus by more than 1,000 years. It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own”, also explaining that a veritable “treasure trove of Babylonian tablets exists, but only a fraction of them have been studied yet. The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us”.6 Mansfield and Wildberger have published their fiindings on the Babylonian tablet in an article published in the journal Historia Mathematica.

Historia Mathematica

1Maev Kennedy, “Mathematical secrets of ancient tablet unlocked after nearly a century of study” The Guardian (24 August 2017). https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/24/mathematical-secrets-of-ancient-tablet-unlocked-after-nearly-a-century-of-study#img-2.

2Eleanor Robson, “Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon: A Reassessment of Plimpton 322” Historia Mathematica 28 (2001), 167–206.

3Eleanor Robson, “Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon: A Reassessment of Plimpton 322”.

4Eleanor Robson, “Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Babylon: A Reassessment of Plimpton 322”.

5Maev Kennedy, “Mathematical secrets of ancient tablet unlocked after nearly a century of study”.

6Maev Kennedy, “Mathematical secrets of ancient tablet unlocked after nearly a century of study”.


Cancer: A Man-Made Disease


It’s been a while now, more than five years actually, that the journal Nature published the findings of a study done by two scientists affiliated with the University of Manchester, Rosalie David and Michael Zimmerman: “[i]n industrialized societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. [Studying t]he history of this disorder has the potential to improve our understanding of disease prevention, aetiology, pathogenesis and treatment. A striking rarity of malignancies in ancient physical remains might indicate that cancer was rare in antiquity, and so poses questions about the role of carcinogenic environmental factors in modern societies. Although the rarity of cancer in antiquity remains undisputed, the first published histological diagnosis of cancer in an Egyptian mummy demonstrates that new evidence is still forthcoming”.[1]


A members of Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences, Professor Rosalie David said that in “industrialised societies, cancer is second only to cardiovascular disease as a cause of death. But in ancient times, it was extremely rare. There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease, down to pollution and changes to our diet and lifestyle . . . The important thing about our study is that it gives a historical perspective to this disease. We can make very clear statements on the cancer rates in societies because we have a full overview. We have looked at millennia, not one hundred years, and have masses of data”.[2] For his part, the other author and researcher Professor Zimmerman, after having carried out the first ever histological diagnosis of cancer in an ancient Egyptian mummy, added that in “an ancient society lacking surgical intervention, evidence of cancer should remain in all cases. The virtual absence of malignancies in mummies must be interpreted as indicating their rarity in antiquity, indicating that cancer causing factors are limited to societies affected by modern industrialization”.[3] David and Zimmerman ‘studied both mummified remains and literary evidence for ancient Egypt but only literary evidence for ancient Greece as there are no remains for this period, as well as medical studies of human and animal remains from earlier periods, going back to the age of the dinosaurs. Evidence of cancer in animal fossils, non-human primates and early humans is scarce – a few dozen, mostly disputed, examples in animal fossils, although a metastatic cancer of unknown primary origin has been reported in an Edmontosaurus fossil while another study lists a number of possible neoplasms in fossil remains. Various malignancies have been reported in non-human primates but do not include many of the cancers most commonly identified in modern adult humans. It has been suggested that the short life span of individuals in antiquity precluded the development of cancer. Although this statistical construct is true, individuals in ancient Egypt and Greece did live long enough to develop such diseases as atherosclerosis, Paget’s disease of bone, and osteoporosis, and, in modern populations, bone tumours primarily affect the young. Another explanation for the lack of tumours in ancient remains is that tumours might not be well preserved. Dr. Zimmerman has performed experimental studies indicating that mummification preserves the features of malignancy and that tumours should actually be better preserved than normal tissues. In spite of this finding, hundreds of mummies from all areas of the world have been examined and there are still only two publications showing microscopic confirmation of cancer. Radiological surveys of mummies from the Cairo Museum and museums in Europe have also failed to reveal evidence of cancer. As [Professors David and Zimmerman] moved through the ages, it was not until the 17th century that they found descriptions of operations for breast and other cancers and the first reports in scientific literature of distinctive tumours have only occurred in the past 200 years, such as scrotal cancer in chimney sweeps in 1775, nasal cancer in snuff users in 1761 and Hodgkin’s disease in 1832’.[4] In conclusion, Professor David declared that “[w]here there are cases of cancer in ancient Egyptian remains, we are not sure what caused them. They did heat their homes with fires, which gave off smoke, and temples burned incense, but sometimes illnesses are just thrown up. The ancient Egyptian data offers both physical and literary evidence, giving a unique opportunity to look at the diseases they had and the treatments they tried. They were the fathers of pharmacology so some treatments did work. They were very inventive and some treatments thought of as magical were genuine therapeutic remedies. For example, celery was used to treat rheumatism back then and is being investigated today. Their surgery and the binding of fractures were excellent because they knew their anatomy: there was no taboo on working with human bodies because of mummification. They were very hands on and it gave them a different mindset to working with bodies than the Greeks, who had to come to Alexandria to study medicine. Yet again extensive ancient Egyptian data, along with other data from across the millennia, has given modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address”.[5]


[1] A. Rosalie David & Michael R. Zimmerman, “Cancer: an old disease, a new disease or something in between?” Nature (October 2010). http://www.nature.com/nrc/journal/v10/n10/full/nrc2914.html.

[2] “Scientists suggest that cancer is man-made” The University of Manchester (10 Oct 2010). http://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/scientists-suggest-that-cancer-is-man-made.

[3] “Scientists suggest that cancer is man-made”.

[4] “Scientists suggest that cancer is man-made”.

[5] “Scientists suggest that cancer is man-made”.

SciShow: Where Did Humans Come From?

The vlogbrother Hank Green tells us about new and confusing discoveries in the field of Human Evolution (26 Oct 2013).

The “study, mentioned by Hank Green, and “published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on a collection of 1,200 premolars and molars from prehistoric humans. Researchers identified landmarks on the teeth and then reconstructed the tooth shape to model what they thought would be the tooth shape of humans’ common ancestor with Neanderthals. They concluded with high statistical confidence that the common ancestor does not belong to the species previously suggested, including Homo heidelbergensis, H. erectus and H. antecessora”.[1]

But leaving the question of the common ancestor with the Neanderthals aside, ad as written by the Guardian’s science correspondent Ian Sample, the “spectacular fossilised skull of an ancient human ancestor that died nearly two million years ago has forced scientists to rethink the story of early human evolution. Anthropologists unearthed the skull at a site in Dmanisi, a small town in southern Georgia, where other remains of human ancestors, simple stone tools and long-extinct animals have been dated to 1.8m years old. Experts believe the skull is one of the most important fossil finds to date, but it has proved as controversial as it is stunning. Analysis of the skull and other remains at Dmanisi suggests that scientists have been too ready to name separate species of human ancestors in Africa. Many of those species may now have to be wiped from the textbooks. The latest fossil is the only intact skull ever found of a human ancestor that lived in the early Pleistocene, when our predecessors first walked out of Africa. The skull adds to a haul of bones recovered from Dmanisi that belong to five individuals, most likely an elderly male, two other adult males, a young female and a juvenile of unknown sex”.[2]  Tim White, an expert on human evolution at the University of California, Berkeley, stated convincingly that “Some palaeontologists see minor differences in fossils and give them labels, and that has resulted in the family tree accumulating a lot of branches. The Dmanisi fossils [now] give us a new yardstick, and when you apply that yardstick to the African fossils, a lot of that extra wood in the tree is dead wood. It’s arm-waving”.[3]

[1] Zoe Mintz, “Fossil Teeth Study Says Common Ancestor Of Neanderthals And Humans Belongs To ‘Some African Species’” International Business Times (17 October 2013). http://www.ibtimes.com/fossil-teeth-study-says-common-ancestor-neanderthals-humans-belongs-some-african-species-photo.

[2] Ian Sample, “Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray” The Guardian (17 October 2013). http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/17/skull-homo-erectus-human-evolution.

[3] Ian Sample, “Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray”.

Ciudad Blanca found in the Honduran Rainforest

Last year, NewsFixHouston reported that ‘University of Houston researchers may have discovered the lost city of Ciudad Blanca using advanced laser technology (15 June 2012)’.

Now, this year Stephanie Pappas reports that ‘[n]ew images of a possible lost city hidden by Honduran rain forests show what might be the building foundations and mounds of Ciudad Blanca, a never-confirmed legendary metropolis. Archaeologists and filmmakers Steven Elkins and Bill Benenson announced last year that they had discovered possible ruins in Honduras’ Mosquitia region using lidar, or light detection and ranging. Essentially, slow-flying planes send constant laser pulses groundward as they pass over the rain forest, imaging the topography below the thick forest canopy. What the archaeologists found — and what the new images reveal — are features that could be ancient ruins, including canals, roads, building foundations and terraced agricultural land. The University of Houston archaeologists who led the expedition will reveal their new images and discuss them [on 15 May 2013] at the American Geophysical Union Meeting of the Americas in Cancun’.[1]

[1] Stephanie Pappas, “Ciudad Blanca, Legendary Lost City, Possibly Found In Honduran Rain Forest” Huffington Post (15 May 2013). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/15/ciudad-blanca-lost-city-found-honduras_n_3280344.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003.

Ancients Behaving Badly: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is hailed as a great leader and military genius. But behind his brilliant reputation lurks a more sinister side. He is responsible for murder, mutilation and the destruction of an entire nation. When Caesar arrives in Gaul, the population is six million. When he leaves less than five million remain alive and 1.5 million of those survivors are now slaves.

Collecting Ancient Central America: Museums, Explorers, & Archaeologists in Pursuit of the Past

Starting in the late 19th century, travelers, amateur scientists, businessmen, politicians, and later, professional archaeologists returned from Central America with never-before-seen artifacts. Many of these ceramic, stone, gold, and jade objects ended up in museums and many entered private collections. Regardless of their final destination, these early collections have helped, and continue to help, define a unique and unparalleled ancient history of Central America. This symposium delves into this history by looking at both early antiquarians and more recent scholarly approaches to collecting and understanding the past. It focuses on individuals, institutions, and the social and political factors that have impacted the collecting of objects from Belize and Guatemala in the north, down to Panama in the south. By extension, this conversation is also about understanding the history of archaeology, the history of museum building, and how we construct the past. Featured scholars include Dr. John Hoopes (University of Kansas), Dr. Francisco Corrales (National Museum of Costa Rica), Dr. Rosemary Joyce (University of California, Berkeley), Luis Sánchez (Department of Environmental Management, Costa Rican Institute of Electricity), Dr. James Snead (California State University Northridge), Dr. Elin Danien (University of Pennsylvania), and Dr. Alexander Benitez (George Mason University).


The Missing Link??? Australopithecus sediba

A skeleton discovered by a nine-year-old boy near Johannesburg in South Africa is being hailed as one of the most important finds in human archaeology. It is argued the skeleton provides the possible missing link between ape men and the human family and is said by experts to be the most complete skeleton of a human being ever discovered. It has not ended the debate however on how the species evolved. Some scientists argue, “Homo erectus” may have evolved before the skeleton from South Africa’ (29 September 2011).


In TIME, Michael Lemonick says that “[e]volution skeptics [also known as Creationists] like to trot out the argument that if  Darwin had been right, scientists would have discovered transitional fossils by now — creatures with a mix of features from earlier and later species. Since they haven’t, the deniers say, evolution must not be true. The truth is that paleontologists have found transitional species by the score, from many different time periods. But none have materialized from as crucial a point in our evolutionary past as a pair of skeletons whose discovery was announced [on 10 April 2010] by the journal Science. The fossils, which have been determined to be of a new species, Australopithecus sediba, were found by Matthew Berger, the 9-year-old son of paleontologist Lee Berger, of South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. (The elder Berger tried in vain to get the editors of Science to list Matthew as a co-author of the paper.) The bones belong to a preteenage boy and a woman estimated to have been in her late 20s or early 30s; the individuals died at about the same time, and before their remains had fully decomposed, they were entombed in an avalanche of sediment and were nearly perfectly preserved deep in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg”.[1]

In Science, however, we can read that ‘[n]ewly exposed cave sediments at the Malapa site include a flowstone layer capping the sedimentary unit containing the Australopithecus sediba fossils. Uranium-lead dating of the flowstone, combined with paleomagnetic and stratigraphic analysis of the flowstone and underlying sediments, provides a tightly constrained date of  1.977 ± 0.002 million years ago (Ma) for these fossils. This refined dating suggests that Au. sediba from Malapa predates the earliest uncontested evidence for Homo in Africa’.[2]  And just to make sure nobody missed the point of the quote, here is the salient final sentence once again: the Australopithecus sediba remains “predate the earliest uncontested evidence for Homo in Africa”.

A team led by Professor Lee Berger, a renowned palaeoanthropologist, have described and named a new species of hominid, Australopithecus sediba, almost two million years old, which was discovered in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, 40 kilometres out of Johannesburg, South Africa. This video features introduction by the Vice Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Prof. Loyiso Nongxa.





[1] Michael D. Lemonick, “Found in South Africa: Key Link in Human Evolution?” TIME (08 April 2010). http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1978726,00.html.

[2] Robyn Pickering, Paul H. G. M. Dirks, Zubair Jinnah, Darryl J. de Ruiter, Steven E. Churchill, Andy I. R. Herries, Jon D. Woodhead, John C. Hellstrom, Lee R. Berger, “Australopithecus sediba at 1.977 Ma and Implications for the Origins of the Genus Homo” Science (08 September 2011). http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6048/1421.