If Columbus Used a Different Map, He Would Have Known He Did Not Land in India

10 October 2011

Columbus sailed from Spain in 1492 as a way to discover and establish new trade routes to India. He attempted this as he knew the world was round and wanted a quicker way to get there than going around Africa. When he discovered this new way to ‘India’, he eventually realized that he discovered new territory to explore and conquer as he had discovered the Americas. Now, what does this have to do with ancient history? Well, a lot actually.

Reading McKeown’s book (Sources) I found how Columbus’ voyage might have changed. Today, the known circumference of the earth is slightly more than 24,900 miles. What fascinated me was that Eratosthenes in the 3rd century B.C.E. (Before Common Era, which was about 2300 years ago!) calculated it to be 24,700 miles. How crazy is that! Once I read that I had to learn more about this guy, so I did some searching on the internet and found this awesome site about Eratosthenes (link is in Sources too). This website does a great job of explaining how he used the height of the sun and the distance between two cities to calculate the circumference of the earth. In addition, Eratosthenes is credited with creating the mapping system of latitude and longitude that we currently use today.

So what does this have to do with Columbus? Well, if cartography had not been dominated by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria who totally miscalculated the earth’s circumference to be only 17,800 miles, then Columbus would never have thought that the Caribbean was India. He would have realized right away that he discovered new land and a new culture when he landed in the Caribbean. He might have also been less inclined to always think that his discoveries were close to the East Indies or Asia. There might have been more competition to discover the land and treasures as a good chunk of the earth was still unexplored. Who knows, maybe other people would have tried to beat Columbus to it and we might be saying another explorer’s name instead of Columbus to day in that rhyme.

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Working at the Baths Could Get You in Real Trouble

26 September 2011

This is a replica of a vase that might have held water to be used in the baths. I got this image at freedigitalphotos.net. Click on the image to learn more about the artist.

Not all bath attendants in the ancient world got in too much trouble, but those that enraged guests at the baths sure did. There is a text from Ancient Egypt that dates back to the Ptolemaic rule of Egypt where a Greek working woman was scalded at the baths by a male Egyptian attendant. The attendant poured very hot water over head as she was soaping herself and scalded her belly and left thigh down to her knee. The text then states that she brought the attendant to the local policeman as the bath attendant endangered her life.

This woman was so upset that not only did she hand this man over to the authorities, she sent a petition to “the King” on her behalf to ensure that she receives justice for the incident. Many people in Ancient Egypt petitioned the King to help them receive justice quickly, but in this case the petition went to an official in charge of the district and not the actual king. This woman must have felt that the local authorities might not have taken the case/incident seriously and wrote to the king or high official to make sure he was punished for scalding her. I also think that this text demonstrates the social climate at the time: not all Greeks and Egyptians got along well. Some Greeks thought themselves superior to Egyptians and could be quite cruel. I am not sure if it applies in this case, but it could be why she was determined to getting him in trouble, besides at getting back at him for scalding her body.

Even though the bath attendant was at fault for the incident, he probably received severe punishment for the incident. The ancients did not consider slaves and servants real people. They would (and were) used by owners for anything and everything, that’s why they had them. In addition, if they did something wrong to a guest, it was considered disrespectful towards their master and they were usually punished. I am sure that was the case with this bath attendant. The Greek woman wanted him to suffer as she did as he hurt her and might have cost her her livelihood. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what happened as a result of the incident, but the petition was received and docketed so there might have been a case after all.

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“Woman on Top” Caused the Great Flood

17 September 2011

I thought this picture would portray what the Great Flood would look like today. I got this pic from freedigital photos.net from Danilo Rizzuti. Click on the picture to learn more about him.

While no sex position could actually cause a flood, some individuals during medieval times believed that it did. And yes, the Great Flood refers to the flood in the Bible with Noah and the arc. So which position caused this terrible calamity? It was none other than the commonly performed ‘woman on top’ position. Yes, as crazy as it sounds, medieval people thought that this position brought about disaster to people in the Old Testament. Why? It was because of how they perceived sex and sexual roles.

The Church considered sex a sin, but in the sacred act of marriage it was holy and safe to perform it as long as the goal was to procreate and not for pleasure. They believed that the missionary position was the best way to procreate and that other positions could change the role each person was supposed to play in society. The man was dominate (on top) while the women was submissive (on bottom). So when a woman was placed above the man, it reversed the gender order as the woman was in the dominate position. It was this reversal that medieval people believed caused disorder to society as women were in power over men. As people were wild and full of sin, God created the Great Flood to get rid of the sinful aspects of humanity and start over with Noah.

The ‘woman on top’ was a position that the Church did not want people to perform as it was a bad position for society. It was also considered an inefficient means to produce children. The missionary position was the ‘only’ appropriate way to do it. Even though the Church said no, I have no doubt that people did this anyways. More importantly, this position altered society by placing women in the power position instead of men. This resulted in God creating the Great Flood to destroy most of humanity and some medieval people to believe this could actually happen.

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New Fossil Could Change Human Evolutionary Development

9 September 2011

In 2010, scientists discovered two skeletons in a cave in Malapa, South Africa that belong to the Australopithecus sediba. The two skeletons were found in a pit within the cave among numerous other animal bones. The primates most likely fell into the pit, died, and over time their skeletons were covered and preserved the remains. The scientists just published several studies in the journal Science about these skeletons and how they might be a closer link to us than other early species already known. A. sediba is very interesting as it is almost 2 million years old and contains features that are both similar to humans and apes.

The pelvis of A. sediba is more broad and short like humans, instead of being flatter and flaring like an ape. The pelvis also dashes the theory that humans developed a broad pelvis to accommodate large brain growth during birth. However, A. sediba had a brain case that was shaped like a humans, but had smaller brains (about 440cc which is smaller than Lucy’s brain and she’s older!).  The hands are more human like with a precision grip, which ‘involves the thumb and fingers but not the palm. Other primates are capable of some precision grips, but humans are unique in their ability to apply force with these grips and use them for fine manipulations.’ Even though A. sediba had this precision grip and mostly likely built tools, scientists believe that A. sediba still spent time climbing trees (which is an ape feature). The foot of A. sediba may have contained an arch and a human like ankle joint, but it possessed an ape like heel and lower tibia.

This find is so fascinating as A. sediba could be one of our direct ancestors that started our family tree. The evolution of humans went from Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and then Homo sapiens.  The problem with H. habilis is that it contains some primitive features and might be older. Since A. sediba contains features that are both human and ape like, it may be a more direct ancestor to H. erectus, who is one of our direct ancestors. Meaning that H. habilis might now be a considered a distant cousin to humans, or even a dead end.

Whatever the scientific community decides to make of these findings, there are many gaps in the area of human evolution. Not all species will be found and identified, but we will be able to determine who our ancestors are. The discovery and implications of Australopithecus sediba might be profound and alter our family tree.

Check out articles to read more about this: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/09/110908-apes-humans-evolution-australopithecus-sediba-lee-berger-science/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14824435

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Let the Games Begin!!!

4 September 2011

The Roman Colosseum home to multiple gladiatorial battles. Click on the image to see where I got this image from freedigitalphotos.net. Click on the image to see the author's other work.

So since football season has started I thought I would post something about the Roman gladiatorial games. They were like the football games of today with loud fans, encounters with bodily harm, and deadly consequences (well, maybe in spirit only). Romans in both the city of Rome and across the empire loved watching games. For them, the bloodier the better!

If you have seen the movie Gladiator, which I love and is one of my all-time favorites, then you know it unfortunately contains many historical errors. As awesome as that movie was, not all gladiators fought to the death. That would not make sense. Gladiators were an investment that would make their owner/master very wealthy so they would take care of his gladiators. They were fed well, given medical treatment if necessary, and trained to fight. Even though some did die in battles most lived. There were even referees that watched each fight and declared the winner. Some gladiators fought to music as well.

Gladiators were like professional athletes today and made both their owner/master and themselves wealthy. Most were slaves that could save with their earnings and buy their freedom, but some freemen became gladiators to get out of debt or make money if they were desperate.

Some gladiators became so popular they were like celebrities and women would pay to sleep with them. These top gladiators were able to sell a combination of their sweat, dirt, and olive oil to the public and make a lot of money. These scrapings were used as part of cures for multiple ailments that people would consume.

Life was not always glamorous for gladiators. There was the constant threat of severe bodily harm, poor living conditions, treatment as a slave (which they were), and death was always a possibility. But people became gladiators anyways (a decision they did not always make for themselves) for the glory and riches one could acquire or as a way to become free. Romans loved gladiator battles and the battles continued until 404 CE (Common Era) when they were finally abolished.

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