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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

The Mystery of the Flannan Isles

10 Apr

In the Outer Hebrides (a group of islands near Scotland), there is a small island chain known as the Flannan Isles. There are two main islands in this chain; Eilean Mòr and Eilean Taighe, and from 1895-1899, construction on a lighthouse took place on Eilean Mòr. No permanent residents have lived on the Isles since the lighthouse became automated in 1971. Overall, the island chain would be quite unremarkable if it hadn’t been for the mysterious and still-unexplained event that occurred only one year after construction on the lighthouse was finished.

Location of the Flannan Isles

Location of the Flannan Isles

After it was built, the lighthouse was operated by three men; Thomas Marshall, James Ducat and Donald Macarthur. Late in 1900, crew members of a passing ship noticed that something was amiss. The light was not on, which was especially strange given the poor weather conditions. They reported it to the authorities when they arrived at their destination, and a team was sent to the Flannan Isles to investigate. The team immediately realized that something was wrong when no one was there to greet them. All three of the lighthouse keepers had vanished.

The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. Credit: Marc Calhoun (geograph.org.uk)

The lighthouse on Eilean Mòr. Credit: Marc Calhoun (geograph.org.uk)

The only other seemingly out-of-place thing was a chair that had been overturned in the lighthouse kitchen. Further investigation of the lighthouse and the island showed extensive storm damage to the west landing on the island, so at first, investigators thought that the men may have been washed away in the storm. However, they had kept logs of their activity right up until the morning that they disappeared (15th December), and the storm damage had apparently occurred sometime before this date.

The men were never seen again, and no bodies ever turned up.

Naturally, this strange occurrence led to wild speculation about what may have happened to the three men. Some alleged that one of the men had murdered the others, and then drowned himself out of guilt. It was also claimed that an enormous sea monster had taken them, while others blamed their disappearance on abduction by foreign spies. Some people also claimed that it was the work of malevolent ghosts, and modern theories mention alien abduction.

Some think that a giant sea monster took the men

Some think that a giant sea monster took the men

After an official investigation, the Northern Lighthouse Board came to the conclusion that the men must have been swept away by a freak wave while they were attempting to secure a box of equipment on the west landing, which was damaged in the previous storm (as recorded in their logs).

A more recent theory claims that a kind of geological formation known as ‘geos’ may have been to blame for the disappearance. A geo is an inlet or cleft in the face of a cliff, caused by wave erosion, and sea caves can form at their heads.

Eilean Mòr has many geos along its coastline, and the west landing of the island is actually situated in a geo. This geo terminates in a sea cave. In stormy weather, water could rush into the cave and explode out again. The theory holds that two of the men may have been securing the box on the west landing, while the other kept watch from the lighthouse. Noticing approaching waves, the watcher raced down to warn his colleagues of the impending danger, knocking a chair over in his haste to get out. Upon getting down to the west landing to warn them, he could have been washed out to sea by the water that exploded out of the sea cave, along with his two colleagues.

An example of a sea cave

An example of a sea cave

A very similar theory claims that one man may have been washed out to sea, and the other ran back to the lighthouse to get help. Upon attempting to rescue the man, both remaining men were washed out to sea by a second freak wave.

So, was the disappearance simply a combination of poor weather and bad luck, or did something far more sinister occur? We do know that when the men disappeared, the weather conditions were very poor, so I think that either one of the freak wave/geo theories would make sense. However, we will probably never know exactly what happened, so the mystery remains open to speculation.

Gigantopithecus

6 Apr

From as long ago as 9 million years, all the way up to only 100,000 years ago, an enormous genus of ape roamed around the areas now known as China, India and Vietnam. It’s also possible that they co-existed with early humans. The first species of this genus to be discovered was Gigantopithecus blacki, and was actually found by chance. In 1935, archaeologist Ralph von Koenigswald found some fossilised teeth in a Chinese medicine shop, and realized that they were from an unknown species. The teeth were usually ground up and used as part of traditional medicines.

While a full skeleton for the giant ape hasn’t yet been found, archaeologists can infer their size from dental remains that have been found. So, exactly how big were these apes? Scientists believe that the males could grow up to 10 feet tall, and weighed as much as 1,200 lb. Females were quite a lot smaller, due to sexual dimorphism. Like many other apes, they were most likely quadrupeds (this means that they moved around on four legs).

Cast of G. blacki's lower mandible. Credit: Mark A. Wilson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Wilson44691)

Cast of G. blacki’s lower mandible. Credit: Mark A. Wilson (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Wilson44691)

This is what the gigantopithecus may have looked like. Source: http://img102.fansshare.com/pic131/w/non-celebrity/369/13006_gigantopithecus_std.jpg?rnd=2700

This is what the gigantopithecus may have looked like. Source: http://img102.fansshare.com/pic131/w/non-celebrity/369/13006_gigantopithecus_std.jpg?rnd=2700

G. blacki is thought to have lived in Southeast Asia, and dental analysis shows that it probably lived on bamboo and other plants. Furthermore, since the initial discovery of G. blacki, two more extinct gigantopithecus species have been found; Gigantopithecus giganteus and Gigantopithecus bilaspurensis. G. bilaspurensis lived in India, and G. giganteus appears to have lived in northern India and China. Despite its name, G. giganteus was actually about half the size of G. blacki.

Size comparison of gigantopithecus and human. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Discott

Size comparison of gigantopithecus and human. Credit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Discott

Some conspiracy theorists believe that the gigantopithecus apes may still exist today, and are the reason why legends of Bigfoot, yetis and the like exist throughout the world. Unfortunately for proponents of this theory, there is no evidence that this is true. In fact, humans may have actually led to the decline and later extinction of the species, by using valuable resources that the apes needed to survive.

To read more on the subject, visit: http://www.uiowa.edu/~bioanth/giganto.html

The Island of Snakes

5 Apr

This is one island that I won’t be visiting anytime soon; Ilha de Queimada Grande, otherwise known as Snake Island, is probably one of the scariest places in the world. The uninhabited island is just off the coast of Brazil, and is home to a species of snake known as the Golden Lancehead Viper.

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

Location of the island just off the coast of Brazil

The Golden Lancehead, or Borthrops insularis, is not found anywhere else in the world, but this island is teeming with them. Some say that there is one snake per square meter, and others claim an even higher figure. The island is 430,000 square meters, so that’s at least 430,000 snakes.

They aren’t small snakes, either. The average length of one of these snakes is nearly 30  inches  (75 cm), with some reaching a maximum of 46  inches (116 cm). To make matters worse, they are one of the most venomous snake species on Earth. It’s really no wonder that the island isn’t used for anything.

The species might actually be at risk for extinction, which is sad for them (and snake-lovers). They are considered to be a critically endangered species, and they face other problems due to interbreeding. Interbreeding has caused a high rate of intersex baby snakes to be born, and these intersex snakes are almost always sterile.

As I said earlier, I would definitely never want to set foot on this island. Unfortunately for crazy thrill-seekers who do want to visit it, the Brazilian Navy has expressly forbidden anyone, except the occasional scientist, from going to the island. This really isn’t surprising, considering that wherever you set foot on this island, there is always a snake (or several) close by.

To read more, visit http://webspinners.com/coloherp/cb-news/archive/nature/Paradise.php or

http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/snake-island-ilha-de-queimada-grande

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.

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