Every one knew how laborious the usual Method is of attaining to Arts and Sciences; whereas by his Contrivance, the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write Books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.

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Gulliver's Travels:
Voyage to Laputa





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Fanciful. Preposterous. Absurd.
Archive for February 2005


Yep, looks like he's gone off walkabout again.

No posts for 30 days.
Jiroft script


Lot's of interesting stuff on Jiroft lately. It turns out that the first image in my original post on this very ancient lost civilization which shows some illegally excavated artifacts contains two examples of ancient board games that were played in Jiroft.

I've heard about the discovery of inscriptions at Jiroft which we can only hope will someday give a voice to this mysterious culture. Below is the first image of an inscription that I have seen so far. As this article mentions, it appears to be a variant of early Elamite. Elam was another great civilization based around Susa in Western Iran which was a close and often hostile neighbour of ancient Sumer.

A brick inscription was recently discovered in Jiroft that initial studies show dates back to the first half of the third millennium B.C. Experts attempting to decipher the text have concluded that it is written in a type of Elamite and believe that the inscription may link proto and old Elamite scripts. [link]

Roma, Romolo, Remo


The twin founders of Rome : Romulus and Remus

The Roman sources are quite insistent on the point that Rome was founded in the middle of the eighth century BC. Most of them settling on the specific date of the 23rd of April, 753 BC when the first settlement was built on the Palatine Hill. According to the myth Romulus chose the Palatine while his twin brother Remus preferred the Aventine.

Things had gotten a bit testy between the brothers after they both decided to found a city on the same spot and couldn't agree on who should be its king. When Romulus built a simple earthen wall around his settlement, Remus contemptuously jumped over it jeering:

"See? That was a piece of cake, Dork Face."

Infuriated, Romulus took out his sword and killed him on the spot.

"See? Yes I see! And that goes for anyone else hanging shit on my walls - or calling me Dork Face!"

What can you say? Brothers. Those are direct quotes btw.

A model of the Regia which is part of Robert Garbisch's astonishingly detailed model of the Roman Forum. For a guided tour of the whole model, go here.

Despite this adamence from traditional sources, archaeology hasn't been too forthcoming on this early age of Rome, only occasionally turning up the odd rustic village or burial ground and finding very little in the way of stone dwellings or city streets.

It has been long assumed that Rome's origins had been very humble indeed and the greatness attributed to its heroic age was mostly a fabrication of later times when people were seeking to find a fitting foundation myth for a city that later became the inheritor of the known world.

The first kings must have lived in huts rather than palaces goes this notion and, by way of example, one only has to look at the humble little dwelling on the Forum which was known as the Regia that was located opposite the great convent of the Vestal Virgins and was dwarfed by the much later Temple of the Divine Julius. The Regia has often been associated with the original residence of the first Roman kings and in Republican times it served as the official residence of the pontifex maximus, the high priest of the Roman state religion. The divine Julius Caesar himself had once lived there because, apart from being one of the most ambitious and talented generals that Rome had ever seen, he was also, at the same time, serving as their pope.

Anyway, it's the simplicity of this ancient regal dwelling which is my point but recently a structure of palatial proportions and dating from the eighth century BC, in other words at the time of Rome's traditional founding date, has come to light only tens of meters away from the Regia. The building, which had been buried under seven metres of soil, had an imposing entrance which opened up into a 240 square metre courtyard and a further 100 square metres under tiled roof. It was about ten times larger than the average dwelling of the time and was decorated with elaborate furnishings and ceramics.

Surprisingly, this palace may have actually stood in the Forum up until as late as 64 AD (that is, for eight hundred years) before being finally consumed by the famous Great Fire during the reign of the emperor Nero. Until that time it served as the official residence of the rex sacrorum (sacred king), another priestly office which was appointed for life by the Pontifex Maximus to perform the sacred ceremonial duties that before Republican times could have only been performed by the king.

Today the remains of the palace actually lie below the evocatively named Temple of the Divine Romulus. Actually, this was dedicated to a completely different and much later Romulus but, still, one can't help wondering whether the memory of this site's association with Rome's first king had completely perished by this time.

Furthernore, this temple now serves as the vestibule of that extraordinarily versatile chapel of Santi Cosma e Damiano.

The Temple of Romulus from the excellent Illustrated History of the Roman Empire website

Romulus and Remus

OH, LITTLE did the Wolf-Child care--
When first he planned his home,
What city should arise and bear
The weight and state of Rome.

A shiftless, westward-wandering tramp,
Checked by the Tiber flood,
He reared a wall around his camp
Of uninspired mud.

But when his brother leaped the Wall
And mocked its height and make,
He guessed the future of it all
And slew him for its sake.

Swift was the blow--swift as the thought
Which showed him in that hour
How unbelief may bring to naught
The early steps of Power.

Forseeing Time’s imperilled hopes
Of Glory, Grace, and Love--
All singers, Cæsars, artists, Popes--
Would fail if Remus throve,

He sent his brother to the Gods,
And, when the fit was o’er,
Went on collecting turves and clods
To build the Wall once more!

--- Rudyard Kipling
A request: Sean Meade


Sean Meade, please read The Loom.

Without question the best blog on the biology of evolution.
Quite possibly also the best blog out there.

Hop to it.
(Don't make me have to come over there and type in the url myself.)
Ebu Gogo really just a pinhead


Last December, I noted that the bones of the now famous Homo floresiensis skeleton, which were recently unearthed in Flores by Indonesian and Australian scientists, had been taken out of Jakarta's Centre for Archaeology for examination by Professor Teuku Jacob of Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta. This action was done without the permission of the Centre's director, Tony Djubiantono or the Australians but apparently with the co-operation of the head of the Indonesian team, Professor Radien Soejono who had requested Professor Jacob's expert opinion. What followed was a wrangle between the different parties, with the Australian co-discoverers accusing Jacob of "stealing" the bones especially as he continued to miss deadlines - which he had agreed to - for returning the bones.

The latest is that the bones will be returned today, the 21st Feb 2005.

Jacob has publicly expressed great scepticism about whether these bones truly do represent a new species and has argued that they are in fact the bones of a modern, though pygmy, human being with a congenital growth abnormality known as microcephaly which explains its abnormally small skull. He argues that this is not such a rare occurrence, especially in heavily interbred populations, such as on islands, and that in that in every other respect, the skeleton is not particularly remarkable. Pygmy humans are known to have colonised the Indonesian islands and a diminutive people known as negritos continues to live today in isolated pockets across the archipelago.

This saga now appears to be the lining up of forces on both sides of the acrimonious "Out of Africa" vs. "Multi-regionalism" debate. Jacob is a skeptic of the former theory (i.e. that modern humans replaced all other human species in a wave of migration out of Africa some fifty to a hundred thousand years ago) and is a supporter of the multi-regional theory. Jacob has allowed other well-known multi-regionalists, Professor Maciej Henneberg of Adelaide University and Doctor Alan Thorne of the Australian National University, to examine the bones over the protests of the Australian scientists who co-discovered them (whom seem to have a strongly "Out of Africa" bent). Professor Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London another well-known "Out of Africa"-ist who is convinced that Homo floresiensis represents a separate species. This debate continues to represent a running sore in paleoanthropology and there certainly seems to be no love lost on either sides.

I thought it would be interesting to hear Teuku Jacob's opinion in his own words from an article that he wrote last December for Indonesia's national newspaper Kompas . It was translated and placed on the Internet by Andya Primanda and I have reproduced it here. More on this controversy from the perspective of an actual paleoanthropologist can be got at JohnHawks.net.
Conflict from Flores: Storm in a Teacup

In the last two months, the international media had been clamouring over Flores man, acclaimed as a new species and considered as the most important human fossil discovery in the last 50 years.

The news had been so spectacular, for it was announced in Nature, a prominent scientific journal based in London. Newspaper, radio, and television journalists pounced at the announcement and added sensational bits to the story. For the sake of publicity the Australian scientists disregard their government's travel warning.

The discovery comes from archaeological excavations in the limestone cave of Liang Bua ('Cold Cave') in west Flores by a joint Indonesian--Australian team from the Indonesian Centre of Archaeological Research and the University of New England, under the coordination of Prof. Soejono and Dr. Morwood. The former is a senior Indonesian prehistorical archaeologist and the latter is an Australian expert of prehistoric cave paintings. The fossils (subfossils) were studied directly by Australian physical anthropologist Dr. Brown and indirectly by English palaeoanthropologist Dr. Stringer, from data sent by Brown.

Their conclusion from one studied specimen is to propose a new species, "Homo floresiensis", which had close affinities with Homo habilis of 3--4Ma (mega-annum, millions of years) which lived in East Africa. In the proposed evolutionary tree, "H. floresiensis" is the direct descendant of H. habilis and underwent evolutionary insular dwarfing, hence its small head, half the size of the chimpanzee brain, and small stature of 1 metre. It is capable of making stone tools in the form of flakes and blades. There are several designations for its antiquity (13Ka, 18Ka, 36Ka, and 95Ka; Ka=kilo-annum, thousands of years), obtained by several dating methods. A lot of experts doubt the reliability of the OSL method.

Therefore it is no surprise that palaeoanthropologists, archaeologists, anatomists, anthropologists and Quarternary geologists were shocked. Creationists, those who were against the theory of evolution and holding on to their literal interpretation of the Bible (Protestant creationists) and the Quran (Islamic creationists) used the opportunity to launch an attack to the evolutionists, whom they consider to interpret the finding by their own whim.

The emerging scepticism is not without reason. There are seven skeletons discovered (probably more, since there are other unprepared bones in the matrix), but the discoverers had only studied one of them to make their conclusions. The LB1 skeleton was designated as the holotype, the hypodigm over which the paradigm stands. Why was it compared against H. habilis specimens that is so far separated from it in time and space? Why not compare it with other findings from Liang Toge, Liang Momer, or Liang Panas (other cave sites in Flores)? Is evolution reversible: can the brain get smaller, and then larger again?

Continue reading...

Jiroft region rocked by massive earthquake


Death toll at 270 with 950 people injured and over 30,000 affected. [link]
Ebu Gogo returned


Two days late, to be sure, but as they say - better late than never. The bones of Ebu Gogo aka the Hobbit aka Homo Floresiensis have finally been returned by Professor Teuku Jacob to the Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta and are now back into the possession of the scientists who found them.

The remaining concern now is the condition of the returned bones and what this may mean in terms of their possible contamination with other genetic material. Analysing the DNA will be crucial in establishing whether Homo Floresiensis really is a completely different species or just a modern human with a growth deformity. However any analysis claiming to prove the latter (i.e. it's a modern human) is likely to challenged on the issue of contamination.

UPDATE: On the strength of an interview given by in December by Richard Roberts, one of the co-discoverers of Ebu Gogo, John Hawks thinks that Jacobs' theory of a growth deformity seems very unlikely.
To Protsch


In the comments to my last post, Tatyana alerted me to the storm currently raging in European paleoanthropology over frauds perpetrated over a thirty year period by Professor Reiner Protsch von Zieten of Frankfurt University. Until his unmasking for consistently falsifying the results of carbon dating tests (in one particularly grievous case dating a skull at 27,400 years old when it was actually only 250 years old "and still smelt") Protsch was considered an authority in the early human migration in Europe. He was only discovered when one of the skulls he had dated was checked by another lab.

Apart from fraud, Protsch activities also included selling off University specimens to private collectors in the US and shredding sensitive papers relating to the Nazi period.

According to John Hawks, as a consequence of Protsch's nefarious activities, there is now no longer any evidence that modern humans lived in Western and Central Europe any earlier than 25,000 years ago. He also mentions that even before this scandal broke, within his field Protsch was already notorious to the extent that his name had become a verb:
We used to have a saying for skulls that had been destroyed in a futile process to date them: they were "Protsched." In other words, Protsch has had a reputation as a bit of a screw-up in paleoanthropology for a long time. How he came to have a relatively powerful position at a German university is part of the legacy of problems in that system over the past thirty years or more. What is unfortunate is that he really did destroy some specimens and damage others, he really did hold back the progress of science in examining the population history of Northern Europe, and he has finally succeeded in giving paleoanthropology a very public shiner.