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The Ice Mummies

17 Apr

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus. Within Incan culture, human sacrifices were sometimes carried out as offerings to the gods. Child sacrifices were often made in times of famine or before/after important events. The children were taken up to the tops of mountains and killed, or sometimes left to die of exposure (the mountain tops were freezing). This practice was known as ‘capacocha’, and early Spanish settlers mentioned it in their writings. In recent times, preserved remains of some of these children have actually been found by archaeologists. The remains of a child known as ‘Mummy Juanita’ is an example of one of these sacrificed children.

Mummy Juanita's frozen body

Mummy Juanita’s frozen body

Mummy Juanita was found wrapped in a tapestry by archaeologist Johan Reinhard and his climbing partner in 1995, on Mount Ampato; a dormant stratovolcano in southern Peru. She was around 11-15 years old at time of death, and is thought to have been killed between the years of 1450-1480. Her body was frozen, which led to mummification. Later, two other well-preserved ‘ice mummies’ were found in close proximity to where Mummy Juanita was found. All had been killed by a blow to the head.

Mt. Amparo

Mt. Ampato

Location of Mt. Amparo in Peru

Location of Mt. Ampato in Peru

Because Mummy Juanita’s body was mummified, her internal organs were so well-preserved that it was possible for scientists to figure out what her last meal had been, even though she died over 500 years ago. She had eaten a meal of vegetables. It was also found that she had suffered from a lung infection shortly before her death. Her skin, hair, clothing and nails were also well-preserved. The tapestry that she had been wrapped in also contained many other Incan offerings; bowls, pins and figurines.

mummyjuanita3

Mummy Juanita’s face

A similar case was found on Llullaillaco, a mountain on the border of Chile and Argentina. Three frozen bodies were found in 1999 by Reinhard and fellow archaeologist, Constanza Ceruti. One of these is known as ‘la doncella’ (the maiden), and her body is amazingly preserved. Here’s some pictures of her:

mummyjuanita

La doncella

mummyjuanita1

La doncella was around 15 when she died. She was taken to the top of the mountain and left to die of exposure after being drugged with coca leaves and a type of maize beer. The other two mummies found with her were a young boy and a young girl. The boy was tied up, and died from strangulation, and the young girl was hit by lightning after her death. From testing the hair of the mummies, scientists could determine the diet that the children had lived on, and it was found that the children were fed a rich diet to ‘fatten them up’ before being sacrificed.

While the circumstances of these deaths are sad, these finds have allowed scientists a rare glimpse into the past.

To learn more on this, watch this documentary:

The Suicide Forest

15 Apr

At the base of Mt. Fuji, Japan, there is a forest called ‘Aokigahara’, which is also known as Jukai (the sea of trees). It is a popular tourist attraction due to the presence of icy caverns; however, it is also a popular destination for something much more disturbing. Aokigahara is one of the most popular suicide destinations in the entire world, second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The forest as seen from a distance. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alpsdake)

The forest as seen from a distance. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Alpsdake)

On average, approximately 100 suicides occur every year in the forest. Many of the suicides happen right at the end of the financial year, and most are drug overdoses or hangings. Throughout the forest (and also at its entrances), there are signs written in Japanese and English urging suicidal people to get help and think of their families and other loved ones.

A sign urging visitors to think of their loves ones and seek help. (Source: http://studio360.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/your-life-is-a-precious-gift-from-your-parents/)

A sign urging visitors to think of their loves ones and seek help. (Source: http://studio360.wordpress.com/2008/11/14/your-life-is-a-precious-gift-from-your-parents/)

There is an annual body hunt to recover dead bodies, but it is not uncommon to wander through the forest and come across bones, old clothes, nooses hanging from trees, suicide notes nailed to trees, and sometimes even creepier things. There are dolls nailed upside-down to trees in certain parts of the forest, which is allegedly an expression of hatred for society in the form of a curse. To add to the weirdness of the forest, it is also eerily quiet. This is due to the lack of wildlife and the density of the trees, which blocks the wind.

A place in the forest where a noose was found, along with a bag and cut-up credit cards. (Source: http://lookingforalosea.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/aokigahara-forest-suicide-forest-japan.html)

A place in the forest where a noose was found, along with clothes, a bag, and cut-up credit cards. (Source: http://lookingforalosea.blogspot.com.au/2010/11/aokigahara-forest-suicide-forest-japan.html)

So, how did this awful suicide tradition begin? No one is entirely sure, but many think that a book called ‘Tower of Waves’ may have inspired people to think of Aokigahara as a place for suicides. However, its reputation as a suicide destination predates this novel, and Japanese people have associated the forest with death for a long time. The practice of ‘ubasute’ was allegedly carried out in the forest in the past; this was the practice of taking the elderly or sick into remote areas such as mountains or forests and leaving them to die of exposure or starvation. Thus, many believe that the forest is haunted by the spirits of the dead, and it also has an association with demons in Japanese folklore.

Would you visit this forest, or go camping in it? Any other thoughts? Let us know in a comment below.

To find out more about Aokigahara, watch this documentary:

Petra – The Rose-Red City

11 Apr

In the country of Jordan, one of the ancient world’s most beautiful cities is still visible today. The entire city, known as Petra, was carved into the side of a cliff-face, and it has been nicknamed the ‘rose-red city’. This is because most of the rock that it was carved into is a light red color. The city is also famous for its evidence of an ancient water management system.

Location of Petra in Jordan

Location of Petra in Jordan

Here’s some photos of Petra:

Al Khazneh - 'The Treasury'. Credit: Berthold Werner

Al Khazneh – ‘The Treasury’. Credit: Berthold Werner

Al Dier - 'The Monastery'. Credit: Dennis Jarvis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2217568198/)

Al Dier – ‘The Monastery’. Credit: Dennis Jarvis (http://www.flickr.com/photos/archer10/2217568198/)

Credit: Berthold Werner

Credit: Berthold Werner

Close-up of the detail on Al Khazneh. Credit: Bernard Gagnon

Close-up of the detail on Al Khazneh. Credit: Bernard Gagnon

So, who built it?

Petra was built around 2000 years ago to serve as a capital city for the Nabataeans. The Nabataeans were an ancient Arabic people, and they established trade ties with many other groups at the time. Later, during Roman times, Petra was considered to be the capital of the Roman-Arabian world. During this period, the Petra Roman Road was constructed. This was the main entrance to the city, and featured enormous gates.

The Roman gates leading up to Petra. Credit: David Bjorgen

The Roman gates leading up to Petra. Credit: David Bjorgen

Unfortunately, during the period of Roman rule, Petra rapidly declined. In 363 AD, an earthquake destroyed a large proportion of the city, and it eventually fell into ruins. ‘Rediscovered’ by the Western world in 1812, it has been a popular Jordanian tourist destination ever since. It has also been classified as a World Heritage site, and it is quite vulnerable due to erosion/weathering and tourist damage. I hope that it can be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

To learn more about this amazing site, visit: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/326

Leptis Magna

5 Apr

All throughout Europe, there are many beautiful ancient Roman ruins, but there are equally-magnificent and lesser-known ruins on other continents too. A good example of this is Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna is the remnants of a once-great Roman port city, and is considered to be one of the most impressive and unspoiled Roman ruins in the world.

The city ruins are near the coast in the African country of Libya, around 80 miles from its capital, Tripoli.

Location of Leptis Magna in Libya

Location of Leptis Magna in Libya

Here’s some pictures of the city:

Leptis Magna's arch of Septimius Severus. Credit: David Gunn

Leptis Magna’s arch of Septimius Severus. Credit: David Gunn

The basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

The basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Close-up of part of the basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Close-up of part of the basilica of Septimius Severus. Credit: Sasha Coachman

The city was founded by the Phoenicians around 3000 years ago, and was originally called Lpqy. During the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, it became a thriving trade city. Then, from the year 193 onwards, it became one of Roman Africa’s most prominent cities. This was because the Roman Emperor at that time, Septimius Severus, was actually born in Leptis Magna, so he naturally favoured his home-city over others. Severus enlarged the city, and as a result Leptis Magna contains many Roman-inspired buildings; forums, a theatre, public baths, marketplaces and monuments, to name a few.

The theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

The theatre at Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Another view of the theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Another view of the theatre. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

An entrance to the theatre. Credit: Sasha Coachman

An entrance to the theatre. Credit: Sasha Coachman

View of the marketplace in Leptis Magna. Credit: Sasha Coachman

View of the marketplace in Leptis Magna. Credit: Sasha Coachman

Public baths in Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Public baths in Leptis Magna. Credit:(http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Man)

Eventually, the city was ransacked by the Vandals, and later by the Berbers. Byzantine Empire general Flavius Belisarius tried to re-establish it as a provincial Byzantine capital, but the city didn’t recover from the destruction that previous raiders had caused. By the year 650 AD, the city was mostly abandoned.

Libya isn’t the easiest country to visit due to its political instability, but Leptis Magna would certainly be a wonderful place to see. Archaeologists have still not finished excavating the ruins, so it will also be interesting to see what else ends up being discovered in the future.

Mount Mihara – The Most Depressing Volcano in the World

3 Apr

The geographical region that contains Japan and its surrounding areas is infamous for its occurrences of tectonic and volcanic activity, and Mount Mihara is an example of this.

Mount Mihara's peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

Mount Mihara’s peak from a distance. Source: http://wikitravel.org/shared/Image:IMG_4759.JPG

An active, 2500-foot tall ‘stratovolcano’, it is located on the island of Izu Ōshima, around 100 kilometers south of Tokyo. Stratovolcanoes are tall, conical, and most commonly formed at subduction zones. Mt. Mihara erupts quite frequently, with major eruptions occurring every 100-150 years. During the last major eruption, in 1986, the entire island’s population had to be evacuated by the military, and the plume created by the eruption was 16 kilometers high in the air.

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

Diagram of a subduction zone and stratovolcano

So, what exactly is so depressing about Mt. Mihara? Well, the story starts in the 1920’s, when several people committed suicide at the volcano. From a certain point at the top of it, it was actually possible to jump straight into the lava. In 1933, a young student named Kiyoko Matsumoto also committed suicide by leaping into it, and this sparked a horrifying trend.

Within the year, almost 1000 people had committed suicide at Mt. Mihara, and when this trend continued for a few more years, Izu Ōshima became known as the ‘Suicide Island’. Eventually, Japanese authorities had to build a large wire fence around the jumping-off point, to prevent any more suicides.

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Satellite image of Izu Ōshima. Mt. Mihara is visible as the darker area

Lava is so dense, that if you jumped into it, you would not sink directly into it; instead, you would float. It is so hot, that a person would essentially be cooked to death in their own steam, which is created from the body’s water vaporizing as it comes into contact with the lava flow.

That sounds like an incredibly awful way to die, and I have no idea why it became such a trend! Let’s hope that it doesn’t start up again.

Doggerland

31 Mar

It’s quite hard to imagine that only a few thousand years ago, there were lands on which people lived that have now completely disappeared into the ocean. But, this is exactly what happened to the area known as ‘Doggerland’.

Up until around 8500-8200 years ago, Doggerland was a large stretch of dry land that linked the European mainland to where the British Isles are today. Here’s a picture to show where it was, compared with what the area looks like today:

This is where Doggerland used to be in Europe. Credit: Max Naylor

This is where Doggerland used to be in Europe. Credit: Max Naylor

The same area today, minus Doggerland

The same area today, minus Doggerland

So, what happened to Doggerland, and how do we know about it?

Archaeologists first started to think that the area may have originally been above sea level in the early 1900’s, when fishing boats in the area would occasionally dredge up the remains of animals that had lived in Europe in prehistoric times, including mammoths and lions (yes, Europe used to have lions!). Plant remains were also brought up and studied by paleobiologists, who found them to be peat from when the land was above sea level and mostly tundra.

To add further interest, prehistoric tools and weapons used by ancient peoples were also found. Archaeologists now believe that Doggerland was occupied by humans during the Mesolithic period (this period started around 10,000 years ago), up until it started to disappear underwater. In fact, some think that it may have been one of the richest hunting and fishing environments available to European humans at the time.

Whilst surveying the area for petroleum, oil-company geologists produced seismic surveys of the land beneath the waves, and in 2012, the Royal Academy of London presented the results of the surveys along with all the artefacts that have been found so far. The seismic surveys allow researchers to see what the land looked like while it was still above sea level, and even Doggerland’s ancient river systems have been mapped in 3D. The largest of these rivers is known as the ‘Shotton River’.

In regards to the disappearance of Doggerland, researchers believe that at the end of the last glacial period, sea levels began to rise dramatically as the climate warmed up. Due to this, Doggerland was eventually submerged under the North Sea, and the British Isles were separated from the European mainland. This probably all happened around 8500 years ago.

Another recent theory claims that after already losing some land to rising sea levels, Doggerland may have become completely submerged as the result of a tsunami that hit the area 8200 years ago. This tsunami was caused by an event known as the ‘Storegga Slide’. It is named this because the event was a massive underwater landslide, occurring off the coast of Norway. The resulting tsunami would have been devastating to Mesolithic people who still lived on Dogger Bank, and after this event, British Mesolithic populations would have been totally separated from the rest.

The yellow numbers represent the height (in meters) of the tsunami waves from the Storegga Slide. Credit: Lamiot

The yellow numbers represent the height (in meters) of the tsunami waves from the Storegga Slide. Credit: Lamiot

One part of Doggerland actually remained for quite a while longer. An island known as ‘Dogger Bank’ emerged when the rest went underwater. Dogger Bank was an upland hill area of the original Doggerland, so the sea levels didn’t rise high enough to cover it. Eventually, however, Dogger Bank also disappeared into the ocean, and this probably happened around 7000 years ago. Here is a map that shows us where Dogger Bank is now:

The red line marks where Dogger Bank used to be. Credit: NASA

The red line marks where Dogger Bank used to be. Credit: NASA

It is fascinating to think that once-populated lands are now totally underwater. Geologists and archaeologists really have the most interesting jobs sometimes!

Bog Bodies

28 Mar

Depending on certain variables, human decomposition is generally a very short process, and a dead body buried underground will normally be completely skeletonized in a maximum period of 50 years. If left out in the open, a body will decompose much faster than this. However, the mummified remains of bodies found in peat bogs, known as ‘bog bodies’, can be up to thousands of years old and almost perfectly preserved.

Tollund Man - Found in Denmark and found to be around 2600 years old. Credit: Sven Rosborn

Tollund Man – Found in Denmark and dated to around 2400 years ago. Credit: Sven Rosborn

Grauballe Man - Found in Denmark and dated to 2300 years ago. Credit: Malene Thyssen

Grauballe Man – Found in Denmark and dated to 2300 years ago. Credit: Malene Thyssen

Rendswühren Man - Found in Germany and dated to around 1900 years old

Rendswühren Man – Found in Germany and dated to around 1900 years old

Brammer Man - Found in Germany and dated to around 500 years ago. Note the still visible beard on his face.

Brammer Man – Found in Germany and dated to around 500 years ago. Note the still-visible beard on his face.

Peat bogs are most prevalent in cold, temperate areas of the Northern Hemisphere (it is possible for them to occur in the Southern Hemisphere, but they are much smaller and less common), and thus, all the bog bodies located so far have been in Northern Europe and North America. Not all are well-preserved, but many still have intact hair, skin and internal organs. So, how is this possible? And, how did the bodies get there in the first place?

Peat bog - Credit to Boréal

Peat bog. Credit: Boréal

The water in peat bogs is cold, acidic, and lacks oxygen, and combined, these factors lead to amazing tissue preservation. Also, tannin (a compound present in tea – this is the stuff that can stain your tea-cups) in the bogs leads to the darker appearance of the skin, and has anti-bacterial properties that aid in the preservation. Unfortunately, the acid in the bog water often destroys the bones, as it dissolves the calcium phosphate in them, leaving only the tissue and hair preserved.

Because of the good soft-tissue preservation, the stomach contents of the bodies can be analysed in some cases, which tells us something about the diets of people during whichever period they lived in. In cases where bones have been preserved, archaeologists can tell what kinds of activities the person engaged in, and even if they were right-handed or left-handed! Also, forensic techniques have been applied to some of the bodies in order to reconstruct their appearances. Here’s some examples:

Reconstruction of Lindow Man's face - Credit: www.culture24.org.uk

Reconstruction of Lindow Man’s face. Credit: http://www.culture24.org.uk

Reconstructed face of the Girl from Uchter Moor - Credit to AxelHH

Reconstructed face of the Girl from Uchter Moor. Credit: AxelHH

The bodies that have been recovered from peat bogs cover a very wide time span, with some dated from 10,000 years ago and others all the way up to World War II. It seems that some of the bodies belonged to unlucky individuals who simply fell in, but many others appear to have died violently, after which they were thrown into the bogs. This may have been as punishment for a crime, or, perhaps it was human sacrifice. The majority of the violently-killed bodies have been dated to the Iron Age (this began around 3000 years ago, and lasted about 500 years), so some archaeologists believe that Iron Age groups may have had this means of execution or ritual sacrifice as a cultural tradition.

Overall, the bog bodies are not only interesting, but very useful to historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, as they yield so much useful information in regards to past peoples who lived around the bogs. For more reading on the topic, check out

http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/bog/

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2007/09/bog-bodies/bog-bodies-text

Amazing Genetics – Are Some People Immune to HIV?

27 Mar

HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS, has led to the deaths of over 30 million people since its discovery. Something that many people may not be aware of is that scientists and doctors classify different species and subtypes of the virus. There are two ‘species’; HIV 1 and HIV 2, and these are further divided into subgroups, and then subtypes within the subgroups.

So, put very simply, there are many different ‘strains’ of the virus, with each having varying rates of transmission, transmission pathways, and resistance to treatment. Many of these forms of HIV bind to a certain protein on white blood cells in order to infect a person, and this protein is known as CCR5.

Amazingly, however, some people are naturally resistant to these forms of HIV, because they carry a mutation. So, what is this mutation, and how does it work?

Computer-generated image of CCR5 receptor in cell membrane. Credit to Thomas Splettstoesser

Computer-generated image of CCR5 receptor in cell membrane. Credit to Thomas Splettstoesser

Basically, these people carry a mutated version of the CCR5 gene, known as CCR5-delta-32. This mutation results in the ‘deletion’ of part of the CCR5 gene, which leads to the virus being unable to bind to the protein and enter the white blood cells like it normally would.

It is thought that this mutation arose in Europe, and around 10% of Europeans are thought to carry it, along with this resistance to certain forms of HIV. Furthermore, it has also been suggested that the mutation confers resistance to smallpox, and may have actually originated and spread via natural selection during the plague period in Europe’s history, which challenges the assumption that the plague period was caused by the spread of bubonic plague. Apparently, the normal frequency of the mutation’s occurrence is 1 in 20,000, but the plagues are thought to have increased the rate to 1 in 10 amongst Europeans. Of course, people from other regions can also carry the gene mutation, but it is a lot rarer for them.

Depiction of the horrors of the plague within medieval Europe - By Pieter Bruegel (1562)

Depiction of the horrors of the plague within medieval Europe – By Pieter Bruegel (1562)

Interestingly, a man suffering from leukaemia and AIDS was cured of both illnesses when given bone marrow transplants as part of his cancer treatment. It turns out that the donor of the bone marrow was a carrier of the ccr5-delta-32 mutation, and this has led scientists to believe that the mutation could be used as a potential cure for HIV infections.

For further reading on this matter, check out http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050325234239.htm and http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122602394113507555.html

The Bystander Effect

26 Mar

This post is not going to be on anything physical, but instead a psychological phenomenon called the ‘The Bystander Effect’.

It refers to situations in which an individual is unlikely (or less likely) to provide help or assistance to someone in need while there are other people around. Studies have shown that the probability of help someone will receive is inversely related to the number of bystanders.

Wikipedia provides a nice summary for the origin of research in to this effect (sourced below):

“The bystander effect was first demonstrated in the laboratory by John Darley and Bibb Latané in 1968 after they became interested in the topic following the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964. These researchers launched a series of experiments that resulted in one of the strongest and most replicable effects in social psychology. In a typical experiment, the participant is either alone or among a group of other participants or confederates. An emergency situation is then staged. The researchers then measure how long it takes the participants to act, and whether or not they intervene at all. These experiments have often found that the presence of others inhibits helping, often by a large margin. For example, Bibb Latané and Judith Rodin staged an experiment around a woman in distress in 1969. 70 percent of the people alone called out or went to help the woman after they believed she had fallen and gotten hurt, but when there were other people in the room only 40 percent offered help.

Source:  Meyers, David G. (2010). Social Psychology (10th Ed). New York: McGraw- Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-337066-8.

I first heard about this phenomenon a few years ago; it jogged my memory and I remembered when I had once experienced the bystander effect. I was driving a friend home at approximately 3pm, and on the way we passed a bus stop where there was a man waiting. He was wearing a hoodie and other baggy clothes that looked quite dirty, which was nothing unusual for the area it was in. About 45 minutes later during my trip home, I passed the same bus stop and the man was lying down on the bench. It seemed odd, because buses past that stop are frequent so he shouldn’t have had to wait long. There were also plenty of people walking past the stop. I went home and walked to a cafe near the bus stop to get a coffee. The man was still there. I decided that there were plenty of other people walking past, so if something was wrong someone would have done something about it. I went home and forgot about it. Later that evening I turned on the news to a camera-shot of the bus stop, with a news presenter saying that a man had overdosed and was rushed to hospital after he had been seen lying down at the stop for a couple of hours. He survived the incident, and was lucky that people living across the road from the bus stop noticed and called the emergency services.

I was of the mentality that there were plenty of people walking by and if the man really needed help, someone else would have helped out already.

In attempting to explain the bystander effect, scientists have come up with 3 steps that must occur to overcome it, and these are outlined below.

Noticing:

This step requires that the bystander notices the situation. With a limited number of people around, an individual is more likely to take note of what is occurring, whereas a large group of people in the area will draw an individual’s attention away from the situation.

Interpretation:

This step can only occur after a bystander notices the situation. They need to interpret what is happening and decide whether it is an emergency situation or not. We often look at the reactions of people around us to help form our own interpretation of an incident. The problem is that everyone is looking around trying to make an interpretation, the fact that no one is moving means everyone stands there and figures it must be OK.

Taking Action:

This is where things can really fall apart, even if the first two steps have been overcome. Even if someone notices the situation and interprets it as an emergency, they must take action.  The thing is, people fall victim to the diffusion of responsibility, they think that others will step in and help, or that other people standing by might be more qualified to provide assistance. Whatever the reason, as a group, we fail to act.

Looking back on my account, I noticed the incident, interpreted it as nothing unusual and failed to act. 

After learning about this phenomenon, I have been able to act accordingly in similar situations. I was out shopping one day when I noticed an old lady lying on the ground. There were a few other people standing around but not really doing anything. I walked over and as I did, a few other people joined me. It turns out that the lady had had a fall and was a little dazed. It was hot out so we got her some water while someone phoned an ambulance.

Hopefully, you now have an understanding of what is going through your mind when you see a situation and are trying to make a decision on whether or not to act. Even just walking towards the situation could trigger others to do the same, in which case someone who may need help will get it.

The Mysterious Hinterkaifeck Murders

26 Mar

In Germany, 1922, the murders of six people at the Hinterkaifeck farmstead shocked the nation. This wasn’t just because of the gruesome nature of the case, but also because the case was so incredibly weird, and it remains unsolved to this day.

Here is a photo of how the farm appeared back then (it has since been demolished):

hinterkaifeck

Photo credit to Andreas Biegleder

Now, for some background to the case; the Gruber family, consisting of Andreas and Cäzilia Gruber, their daughter Viktoria, and her two children Cäzilia (7) and Josef (2), and their maid, Maria Baumgartner, lived permanently at Hinterkaifeck, which was situated next to a forest. Maria was new to the farm, having only just arrived that day as a replacement for another maid. Interestingly, the previous maid had left claiming that she thought the farm was haunted.

Whilst no one is certain as to exactly what happened, it appears that on the night of March 31st, 1922, someone managed to lure all of the family members (except Josef and the maid, Maria) into the barn, one by one, and murdered them all with an axe. Horrifyingly, the autopsy showed that young Cäzilia had been alive for quite some time after being attacked, tearing her own hair out as she lay dying in the barn. The killer then went into the house and killed Josef and Maria in their beds.

The family was noticed as missing several days later when none of them had been seen for a few days, and young Cäzilia had not attended school.  Neighbors went to check on them and discovered the bodies. After extensive police investigations, a viable suspect was not found. And, as if the situation wasn’t already horrible enough, it actually gets worse.

Neighbors recalled that just a few days before the murders, Andreas Gruber had mentioned a strange occurrence to them. He claimed that he had found footprints in the snow, leading from the forest’s edge to the house, but there were no footprints leading back. He also thought he had heard strange sounds coming from the attic. A particularly terrifying theory that stems from this is that someone may have sneaked into the house, lived undiscovered up in the attic for a few days, and then come out to murder the house’s occupants. To further add to this theory, in the days that the bodies were certainly lying dead in the barn, neighbors reported that they had seen smoke rising from the chimneys. Also, someone had been feeding the farm’s cattle. So, if someone had done this, it also seemed as if they had stayed for several days after the murders to take care of the place.

This theory leads to many questions.  Was it just one person, or more? Why did this person (or people) want to kill the family? How did they sneak into the house? How did they lure the family into the barn, one by one? Why would they stay for several days later, and take care of the farm?

Overall, taking these questions into account, the case of the Hinterkaifeck murders is terrifying to comprehend, and it remains as one of Germany’s most mysterious unsolved cases. It is unlikely that we will ever really know what happened, which seems to make it even scarier.

For more reading on this case, check out http://armchairdetective.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/hinterkaifeck/

The Disappearance of Harold Holt

26 Mar

Harold Holt was the Prime Minister of Australia for nearly two years from January of 1966, up until his disappearance in December of 1967.

The strange thing about Holt’s disappearance is that his body was never recovered, and this has led to different theories surrounding what actually happened.

Harold Holt, the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Photo taken during the 1966 elections.

Harold Holt, the 17th Prime Minister of Australia. Photo taken during the 1966 elections.

First of all, what do we know?

On Sunday the 17th of December, 1967, Holt and a group of friends, along with two bodyguards, made a trip from Melbourne to Port Phillip Heads to watch part of a solo circumnavigation of the globe, by Alec Rose in his yacht the ‘Lively Lady’. Around midday, the party made their way to Cheviot Beach, which lies on the eastern arm of Port Phillip Bay. This was one of Holt’s favorite swimming and snorkeling locations despite its reputation for strong rips and currents. Holt was described by his biographer Tom Frame as having “incredible powers of endurance underwater”, most likely due to Holt’s experience as a scuba diver. Despite pleas from the rest of the party, Holt made his way into the water. Not long after entering the water, the party lost sight of Holt. His friends raised the alarm, and a search began with a large group of police, Royal Australian Navy divers, helicopters from the Royal Australian Airforce, army personnel and local volunteers.

Two days later, on the 19th of December, the Australian Government made an announcement that Harold Holt was presumed dead. From here on in is where the theories start.

For the most part, it is generally accepted that Holt fell victim to the strong currents and rips in the area and his body was dragged out to sea before anyone could notice. There are no real ‘loose ends’ with this theory. Holt had recently suffered a flare up of a recurring shoulder injury that caused him a lot of pain. It is quite likely that he was not up to his usual levels of fitness and grew tired fighting the currents or rips. The main issue people have with this idea is that with such a large scale search, it is surprising that his body was not recovered.

Other theories start to speculate on the idea that he committed suicide. This theory has been rejected by  Holt’s own son Sam, his biographer Tom Frame (mentioned before), and  Malcolm Fraser, Holt’s Cabinet Minister at the time. This theory arose after reports that Holt was suffering from depression prior to his disappearance.

Some theories started bordering on conspiracy. There is the idea that he faked his own death to run away with a mistress,  was abducted by a UFO, or kidnapped/rescued by a Chinese submarine, depending on whether or not you think he was a Chinese spy.

Although it seems most likely that the strong rips and currents were  to blame for Holt’s disappearance, the idea that this was an Australian Prime Minister who may have been involved with something more sinister has piqued the curiosity of imaginative minds for many years. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that we will ever know exactly what happened in this tragic case.

The Antikythera Mechanism

24 Mar

The Antikythera shipwreck, discovered off the Greek coast by divers in 1900, has yielded several artefacts that have been dated back to just over 2000 years ago, including coins and statues. The most important find, however, was something that is now known as the ‘Antikythera mechanism’.

antikythera1

The mechanism as it appears today

This mechanism has the honor of being known as the world’s most ancient analog computer. Archaeologists and other researchers examining the mechanism have been astounded, claiming that technology didn’t even begin to approach the same level of complexity until 14th century AD Europe. That’s an enormous gap in time! But, what was it actually used for?

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Computer-generated model of what the mechanism’s front side would look like today

Scientists have found that it was used for more than one purpose, and research is still being conducted today to find out any other uses. Basically, it was used as an astronomical clock; it could determine the relative positions of the sun, moon, stars and even some planets, and also predict things like eclipses. The mechanism showed the sun revolving around the Earth on a 24-hour dial, although as we know now, it is the other way around.

It was also apparently used as a calendar, but not just your typical one-year calendar; it showed four-year cycles, each divided into one year each. This is thought to have represented the Olympic Games of the time, which occurred in two and four year cycles. On top of this, it also tracked something known as the Metonic calendar, which is a period of 19 years used by ancient astronomers for astronomical and calendar studies.

Overall, the Antikythera mechanism is definitely high on my list of the most fascinating archaeological discoveries of the ancient Greek world. Many people seem to think that complex technologies couldn’t possibly have been used by ancient peoples, but this artefact would certainly prove them wrong.

For a more in-depth discussion of the mechanism, check out the articles in Nature science journal.

Angikuni Lake

23 Mar

The remote Angikuni Lake lies in Canada’s northernmost territory, Nunavut, and has been the subject of urban legends and UFO conspiracy theories for quite some time. This is because for many years, it was thought to be the site of an unexplained disappearance. Not just one person disappeared, though; apparently, an entire Inuit village vanished.

Location Of Angikuni Lake in Canada

Location Of Angikuni Lake in Canada

The mystery began in the early 1930’s, when a fur trapper named Joe Labelle alleged that he often visited the village, but had gone back to find that everyone was gone. He claimed that it didn’t seem as if they had all just packed up and left, and that there was evidence at the site that purportedly showed how something awful must have occurred, causing the villagers to leave as fast as they could. This ‘evidence’ included his claim that there was still food left in pots over fires, and unfinished garments left with the needle and thread still attached. Several sled-dogs were apparently dead, and a grave was said to have been dug up. Furthermore, around the same time, another trapper named Arnald Laurent claimed that he and his son had observed a strange light crossing the sky, heading towards Angikuni Lake (they may well have seen something, but I think it was probably just a shooting star).

Shooting star. Credit: Navicore

However, unfortunately for all the conspiracy theorists, this is yet another mystery that has been more or less solved. Records from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police showed that at the time (1931), they considered the case to be… well, not actually a case at all. Investigations showed that there were some semi-permanent dwellings in the area that a group of Inuit peoples used seasonally, abandoning them for other areas at certain times of the year. There was no evidence that anyone had left abruptly, as claimed, but it is easy to see why the fur trapper may have been alarmed by the whole occurrence, as in his culture, people generally didn’t pack up and leave when the seasons changed. The other seemingly strange aspects of the story (eg. the dug-up grave) were probably the result of embellished re-tellings of the story over the years. Doubts have even been raised as to whether Joe Labelle had even been to the area.

So, sorry to all the mystery buffs out there, but it seems as if Angikuni Lake is yet another case that can be safely considered as an exaggerated story with a decent explanation.

For more information, check out Robert Columbo’s book ‘Mysterious Canada: strange sights, extraordinary events, and peculiar places’.  

Viking Sunstone

23 Mar

 

Modern replica of a Viking ship. Source

The Viking sunstone has been mentioned in various Icelandic texts throughout the 13th-15th centuries. It is said to have assisted Vikings in navigation when the sun was below the horizon or covered during an overcast day. One of the texts is the “Rauðúlfs þáttr“, it specifically mentions an account where the sunstone was used to locate the sun in overcast skies. Here is a translation of part of the text (Source):

“The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurður had predicted. Then the king summoned Sigurður and Dagur (Rauðúlfur’s sons) to him. The king made people look out and they could nowhere see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurður to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them fetch the solar stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’ s prediction”

Recently, a crystal was discovered in an Elizabethan ship wreck, and is believed to be an original sunstone artifact. Chemical analysis has shown that the artifact is made from calcite; in the past, it has been suggested that this could possibly have been the mineral that the Viking sunstones were made from. The reason for this is that calcite has an optical property called ‘birefringence’. This means that the speed at which light travels through the mineral varies depending on the polarization and propagation direction of the incident light rays.

A calcite crystal showing the effect caused due to birefringence.

A calcite crystal showing the effect caused due to birefringence.

To explain this in more detail I will use an analogy. Imagine you are pushing a pram along a footpath (light travelling through air), to the right of the footpath there is a lot of sand (a material other than air, in this case calcite). If the right hand wheels of the pram were to go in to the sand, the pram would be pulled in the direction of the sand because the pram travels slower in sand. When this happens with light going from air to another material such as water or glass, it is called diffraction. The difference with calcite is that that change in speed depends on the angle that the light enters the crystal and also the polarization of the light waves.

This image shows how light rays polarized in different orientations diffract by different amounts. This is what causes the doubling effect seen in the picture above.

This image shows how light rays polarized in different orientations diffract by different amounts. This is what causes the doubling effect seen in the picture above.

So what does this have to do with calcite being the sunstone? If you were to hold a calcite crystal up to the horizon and rotate around, you would see the doubling effect occur at different angles from the sun due to the change in polarization of light entering the atmosphere. If you were facing the direction of the sun, the double image would begin to line up as the light would be all polarized in the same direction. This would allow you to know which direction you are travelling and therefore whether you were on the right path or not.

The sunstone had been thought of as just a legend for quite some time, but the recent discovery mentioned above adds much credibility to the mentions of this fascinating object in historical texts.

The Last Stone Age People?

22 Mar

In the Bay of Bengal, which stretches from the east coast of India to the west coasts of Burma and Thailand, a tiny island is home to some of the last uncontacted peoples in the world. This island is known as North Sentinel Island, but we have no idea what its inhabitants, the Sentinelese, refer to it as. Why? Because hardly anyone has been able to get close enough to speak to them. No one even knows the exact number of people currently living on the island. Researchers must rely on photos taken from aircrafts flying above and historical anecdotes for any information on the people living there.

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Early British explorer Maurice Portman landed on the island in the 18th century, and captured a few Sentinelese people, but they were eventually returned to the island after a couple of them sickened and died.  Throughout the 1990’s, several Indian expeditions attempted to make contact with the Sentinelese, and a peaceful meeting was made by anthropologist T.N Pandit in 1991. This visit was recounted by an eyewitness, who said:

 ‘Quite a few discarded their weapons and gestured to us to throw the fish. The women came out of the shade to watch our antics… A few men came and picked up the fish. They appeared to be gratified, but there did not seem to be much softening to their hostile attitude… They all began shouting some incomprehensible words. We shouted back and gestured to indicate that we wanted to be friends. The tension did not ease. At this moment, a strange thing happened — a woman paired off with a warrior and sat on the sand in a passionate embrace. This act was being repeated by other women, each claiming a warrior for herself, a sort of community mating, as it were. Thus did the militant group diminish. This continued for quite some time and when the tempo of this frenzied dance of desire abated, the couples retired into the shade of the jungle. However, some warriors were still on guard. We got close to the shore and threw some more fish which were immediately retrieved by a few youngsters. It was well past noon and we headed back to the ship.’

However, Indian visits ceased in 1997, and the Sentinelese have remained uncontactable ever since. They choose to reject any interactions with the outside world, and attack anyone who gets too close. Helicopters flying overhead have been met with hails of arrows, and in 2006, some unlucky fishermen were killed by the Sentinelese after their fishing boat drifted too close to their waters.

Sentinelese men aiming arrows at helicopter

Sentinelese men aiming arrows at helicopter

So, what do we know about them? Photographic evidence shows no sign of agriculture or use of fire, so it appears that the Sentinelese exist entirely as hunter-gatherers. The aforementioned Indian expeditions found that there were probably between 2-6 groups living on the island, with each group consisting of 20-40 people. It was hard for the expeditions to tell exactly how many groups were there, as many hid from them. Physically, they are quite small and closely resemble other indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, which are very close by. They have been known to salvage metal parts from ships that run aground on nearby reefs, and incorporate this metal into certain items, including weaponry.

Sentinelese people on the shores of their island home

Sentinelese people on the shores of their island home

Although North Sentinel Island is technically considered to be part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the Sentinelese have autonomy from the government, whose only involvement seems to be attempting to take census figures, monitoring the island, and discouraging people from going there. It is incredible to think that in these modern globalized times, ‘stone age’ tribal groups can still exist with almost no contact with the outside world, but the Sentinelese have proven that this is possible. They have made it clear that they wish to be left alone, and the rest of the world has obliged.

For more information on this topic, see http://www.andaman.org/BOOK/reprints/goodheart/rep-goodheart.htm

What really happened at Dyatlov Pass?

22 Mar

In terms of unexplained incidents throughout history, the ‘Dyatlov Pass Incident’ is probably one of the scariest. To this day, no one is entirely sure exactly what happened that fateful night, but there are a few theories. So, for those who haven’t heard of it, what exactly was the Dyatlov Pass Incident?

In February 1959, ten Russian ski hikers, most of them university students, decided to trek across the northern Ural Mountains together. They were led by Igor Dyatlov (the mountain pass in question is now named after him). One of the hikers had to return home due to illness, and it was lucky that he did, because he would be the only group member to make it home alive. The group was expected to make contact with their sports club once they had returned to Vizhai, a far-north Russian town. When nothing was heard from them for an extended period of time, friends and relatives began to worry, and a rescue operation consisting of students and teachers was dispatched. Not long after that, the police and military became involved. On February 26th, the hiker’s tent was discovered on the eastern shoulder of a mountain, now ominously known as Kholat Syakhl (Mountain of the Dead).

The hiker's tent as it appeared on the day it was found - 26th February, 1959

The hiker’s tent as it appeared on the day it was found – 26th February, 1959

The tent appeared to have been cut open from the inside, and all the hiker’s belongings were still in it, including their shoes. This probably meant that something had caused them to flee in the middle of the night, without even stopping to put their footwear on despite the intense cold. Footprints, made by sets of both barefoot and sock-clad feet were found, and these footprints headed down the mountain to the other side of the pass, where there was a forested area. Unfortunately, after a short distance the footprint trail was covered in too much snow to be of any more use.

On the edge of the forest, the rescue operation found evidence of a campfire, along with the bodies of two of the hikers. They were barefoot and clad in only their underwear. Not far from these bodies, three more bodies were found, and all looked as if they had been heading back towards the camp. The other four hiker’s bodies were not found for several more weeks, as they were buried under a few metres of snow in a nearby ravine. They were dressed in more clothes than the others, and it looked like they had taken clothes from the previous five after they had died, in an attempt to keep themselves warm.

Medical inquests found that six of the hikers had died of hypothermia, and the other three had sustained fatal injuries; one had a crushed skull and the other two had chest fractures. The chest fractures were said to have been caused by some kind of massive pressure, akin to the force generated by a car accident. Strangely, one of them was also missing a tongue. Whilst it was initially suspected that they may have been killed by local indigenous Mansi people, there was no evidence of any other people having been in the area at the time. Along with this, the medical report claimed that humans couldn’t possibly cause the kind of damage seen on the victims, stating instead that the hikers had died from a ‘compelling natural force’.

There were other more controversial claims about the case:

1.)    Apparently, forensic tests also showed high levels of radioactive contamination on the hiker’s clothing.

2.)    An attendee at the hiker’s funerals stated that their skin seemed to have a ‘deep tan’

3.)    Some people who had also been hiking in the area came forward to claim that on the night that the incident occurred, they saw orange glowing spheres in the sky (later found to be missile launches)

4.)    Others claimed that there was a big military accident cover-up going on, as evidenced by the large amount of scrap metal in the area.

5.)    The reports on the incident were allegedly hidden by the government and revealed only in the 1990’s, with parts still hidden.

These more controversial claims have generally been dismissed; however, the actual cause of the incident is still unknown. Many people have posited the theory that an avalanche was responsible. This makes a lot of sense; the hikers may have been awoken by the sound of an approaching avalanche, cut the tent open and ran as fast as they could, not even bothering to take shoes or clothes with them in their hurry to escape. Being hit by an avalanche could also explain the massive force exerted on the three hikers who sustained fatal physical injuries, and even the missing tongue. However, an avalanche would probably have covered the footprints leading away from the tent, but they were still highly visible. There was also no avalanche damage seen in the area.

avalanche

Avalanche – Courtesy of Scientif38

Thus, no one is entirely sure what happened to these poor hikers. I think that what may have occurred is this: they were all asleep, and awoken by the sound of the missile launches or perhaps a plane passing overhead. Sleepily mistaking the sound for the booming of an impending avalanche, they cut the tent open and raced away as quickly as they could. Once they realized that there was no avalanche, they started to make their way back to their camp, but by this stage six had perished from hypothermia due to the exposure to the freezing elements. This explains why three of the bodies were found in various stages of making their way back to the tent. The other four took their clothes to keep warm, and ended up falling into the ravine that they were later found in. The heavy fall could explain the bodily trauma. As for the missing tongue, it’s possible that an animal could have scavenged it, especially seeing as the bodies were lying in the open for quite some time before being discovered.

Of course, this is just my speculation. For all I know, some other terrifying ‘compelling force’ may have scared the hikers into running away in the middle of the night, and this ‘force’ may have been responsible for the massive trauma found on three of the bodies.

So, did something sinister cause this incident, or is there a logical explanation? Anyone with their own ideas or theories is welcome to comment below. For more information and some (quite gruesome) photos associated with the incident, check out http://www.ermaktravel.com/Europe/Russia/Cholat-%20Syachil/Kholat%20Syakhl.htm

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