Cannibals & Their Lightning God

Two things the gringa loves most are science and history. When the two collide I believe I am in Paradise.  Add the spice of controversy and there is simply no going back for the gringa. Archaeologists in Greece have made this dream combination come true for the gringa.

Let us travel back 3,000 years to the bleak mountaintop of Mount Lykaion in southern Greece, which some ancient Greeks believed to be the birthplace of Zeus, rather than Crete. This is the revered resting place of an altar featuring a grisly design of sheep bone construction. This is where the religious leaders of Greece hoped to pacify their god of gods, Zeus himself. Offered up are the bloody sacrifices of what one would expect to be sheep or goats, considering what the altar is made of. Think again dear readers.

For those schooled in literature and philosophy, when Greece is mentioned, you hearken back to the days of Plato and Socrates. You believe these sophisticated thinkers of Greece gave birth to civilized society as we know it. As you cruise about town, passing homes with columned porches, you remind yourself that this bit of architecture was passed down from an exceptionally cultured society. Or not. Not when the skeletal remains of a teenage boy near Zeus’ altar indicates that young, human sacrifices were being bled out on top of a table made from sheep bones in efforts to gain favor with a god that might rain down lightning if he got pissed.

But Mount Lykaion is historically linked to Greek athletic festivals, isn’t it? Isn’t it one of the ancient sites with a stadium and hippodrome, all indicators of a culture that appreciated athletic competitions? The gringa wonders, was death the price for losing or, could it have been the price for winning, or, could it have been the “opening ceremony” after which a priest turns around and commands, “Let the games begin!” Who really knows at this time because this is a recent discovery.

And some scholars are not too happy about revelations of human sacrifice as part of ancient Greek religious ceremonies. I mean, after all, Greece way back then liked to call rival foreign nations nasty names like barbarians and cannibals. But, really, who do they think they are fooling? Remember, Socrates asked Adeimantos if he had heard the latest gossip about religious zealouts feasting on the remains of their human sacrifice. Socrates includes a gruesome description of a terrible recipe of mixing the entrails of different victims which, if ingested by some hapless cannibal, transforms them into a wolf. Considering that Adeimantos had already heard the story, it seems that the nasty religious practices going on atop Mount Lykaion were no big secret among the ancient Greeks. It’s just big news to us.

So what kind of science goes into the decision that the remains of this young man belong to a specific era and culture? Scientists have to analyze the composition of the altar itself. Considered an “ash altar”, the gringa’s depiction of it being constructed in the fashion of, say, a dining room table and made completely out of sheep bones is not an altogether clear picture of what scientists are dealing with. Imagine, if you will, that ancient priests led sheep and goats to a sacred place, slit their throat, then burned the remains. Each sacrifice slaughtered and burned atop the ones that went before. Eventually a mound of ash accumulates and becomes a ritual platform. At Mount Lykaion the mound was almost five feet high.

So, the scientists use their handy-dandy equipment to measure remains of bones to see which animal (or human) they belong to. If human, they measure the pelvis to see if it is male or female. Then they need to determine the age of the remains. The first thing that comes to mind is ye aulde carbon dating technique. But there are other methods that can be used on other objects and archaeological sites to determine age:

  • Stratigraphical: The science of geology comes into play with a method that relies on the accumulation of soil to calculate the passage of time. The premise is that the area where people live results in layers of earth becoming deposited. Gives a whole new meaning to the saying that a particular area sure has “built up”.
  • Astronomical Chronology: Astronomers have used their knowledge to study the fluctuations of solar radiation to calculate when ice ages have occurred. The common argument is that 5 have occurred.
  • Dendrochronology: This science was pioneered in 1904 by A.E. Douglass who created the technique of analyzing tree rings to determine not only the age of a tree but to find indicators of drought, disease and hearty growing seasons.

So, if history, science and drama are appealing to someone you know, remind them that there are still exciting discoveries to be made, particularly in Greece. For young people who long for the curiosities that are found in archaeological digs, remind them that not every ancient puzzle has been solved. Along with history, they should also have a strong foundation in STEM studies.  And lucky for me this archaeological site has its own website keeping fascinated individuals like myself up-to-date on their latest discoveries. Because the gringa really wants to know just went on up there.


Image Source:





Pardon Me, Is That An Asteroid On Your Finger?

The oldest rocks on Earth are zircon crystals. These highly refractive gemstones are often used to imitate diamonds or cubic zirconias in jewelry. Geologists have now announced the results of a study that has determined that zircons are quite possibly remnants of an ancient asteroid collision with Earth.

Other than simply having the pleasure of knowing you may have a bit of outer space asteroid glittering on your finger or about your ears, neck or wrist, what good is this information? Well, for one thing it dispels the previous theory that zircons were created by tectonic plate upheavals. But, more importantly, it helps scientists understand climate change. Yes, you heard the gringa right, climate change. A rock’s origins can often indicate what was going on with water on the planet at the time the rock was formed. Since zircon’s are produced by asteroids, Earthlings can also learn about the part of the cosmos that it originated from.

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) collected crystals from an impact crater that is considered “young”. Scientists wanted to compare the “young” crystals with older crystals from the Sudbury crater in Ontario, Canada. Sudbury is the best preserved impact crater on Earth and is about two billion years old.

The samples were taken to Stockholm’s “Swedish Museum of Natural History”.  Comparisons  concluded that the older crystals were the same as the younger ones. This then disproved the argument that the ancient zircon crystals could not have formed at the time the impact occurred. So, now we know that they could and probably did, making zircons the oldest rocks on Earth, as old as four billion years old which is the age of the oldest impact crater on our planet. The researchers also believe this supports the narrative that early Earth saw many more asteroid impacts than in its later life.

So, what this new determination tells mankind is that about four billion years ago an asteroid slammed into Earth. The crystals were able to form because water was present. Best estimates place the Earth’s age at four and a half billion years old so logic would assume then that it has always been a watery planet.  And what’s the big deal about an old, watery Earth?

Well, for one thing, water was required for life as we know it today to have evolved. But, the new discoveries about the crystals still does not solve the mystery of how life originated on planet Earth in the first place. And there are many theories on this subject that argue their own merits. Here are a few:

Electrified Primordial Soup – This school of thought believes that in the beginning of Earth’s life as a planet there was a life-giving electrical shock to the planet, such as lightning, that interacted with the ammonia, hydrogen and water on the planet. Lightning would deliver more than just a jolting electrical shock. The atmosphere, being filled with ammonia, hydrogen and water, would react with the electricity and create amino acids and sugars. These are the building blocks of microbial life.

Clay – A Scottish chemist has offered the theory that mineral crystals in clay is where all life began. He believes it is possible that clay, possibly at the bottom of the sea, was the perfect surface for molecules to organize themselves into patterns of amino acids and proteins which would later become DNA. Once the DNA evolved independently it no longer needed the clay medium but could organize itself on its own.

Hydrothermal Vents – Even now ocean biologists discover ecosystems surrounding hydrothermal vents deep within the Earth’s oceans that are teeming with life. Concentrations of molecules and minerals exist with the rocks surrounding these vents interacting with the hydrogen rich molecules provided by the vents action.

Panspermia – The hitchhiking life surviving the impact of an asteroid with Earth is yet one more possibility. If this theory is true, then the puzzle of the origins of life is not really to be worked out here on Earth, but to be solved by traveling the cosmos to find where it came from out there.

Although the many theories of how life originate on Earth are quite varied in their ideas, they all have one common thread… water. That would mean if the original microbes that evolved into humans over billions of years originally came from somewhere in outer space, to discover or “home planet”, Earthlings have to study planets that either have water now or had it at some time in their own history. By understanding this, a person then can understand the inspiration behind every space mission and why the space agencies of the world want to travel ever farther. They are not looking for little green men. They are looking for little molecules of water or ice. And one day, we may all call home a rock that exists in another galaxy or solar system.



Image credits: