Japan’s Hayabusa 2 spacecraft reaches cosmic ‘diamond’

RyuguImage copyright JAXA ET AL.
Image caption Scientists will map Ryugu with a view to choosing the best location to sample

A Japanese spacecraft has arrived at its target – an asteroid shaped like a diamond or, according to some, a spinning top.

Hayabusa 2 has been travelling toward the space rock Ryugu since launching from the Tanegashima spaceport in 2014.

It is on a quest to study the object close-up and deliver rocks and soil from Ryugu to Earth.

It will use explosives to propel a projectile into Ryugu, digging out a fresh sample from beneath the surface.

Dr Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa 2’s mission manager, talked about the plan now that the spacecraft had arrived at its destination.

“At first, we will study very carefully the surface features. Then we will select where to touch down. Touchdown means we get the surface material,” he told me.

A copper projectile, or “impactor” will separate from the spacecraft, floating down to the surface of the asteroid. Once Hayabusa 2 is safely out of the way, an explosive charge will detonate, driving the projectile into the surface.

“We have an impactor which will create a small crater on the surface of Ryugu. Maybe in spring next year, we will try to make a crater… then our spacecraft will try to reach into the crater to get the subsurface material.”

“But this is a very big challenge.”

Hayabusa 2Image copyright JAXA / AKIHIRO IKESHITA
Image caption Hayabusa 2 will use a projectile to excavate fresh material from beneath Ryugu’s surface

Why is this story important?

Scientists study asteroids to gain insights into the origins and evolution of our cosmic neighbourhood, the Solar System.

Asteroids are essentially leftover building materials from the formation of the Solar System 4.6 billion years ago.

It’s also thought they may contain chemical compounds that could have been important for kick-starting life on Earth.

They contain water, organic (carbon-rich) compounds and precious metals. The last of those has tempted several companies to look into the feasibility of asteroid mining.

‘Dumpling’ space rock comes into view


DangoImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption From far away, the asteroid seemed to resemble a Japanese dango dumpling…
Spinning topImage copyright GETTY IMAGES
Image caption…but now we have close-up images, scientists are comparing its shape to that of a spinning top

Dr Yoshikawa, who is an associate professor at Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), said Ryugu’s shape was unexpected.

He said asteroids with this general shape tended to be fast-rotating, completing one revolution every three or four hours. But Ryugu’s spin period is relatively long – about 7.5 hours.

“Many scientists in our project think that in the past the spin period was very short – it rotated very quickly – and the spin period has slowed down. We don’t know why it slowed down, but this is a very interesting topic,” he told BBC News.

Hayabusa 2 will spend about a year and a half surveying the 900m-wide space rock, which is about 290 million km (180 million miles) from Earth.

During this time, it will aim to deploy several landing craft to the surface, including small rovers and a German-built instrument package called Mascot (Mobile Asteroid Surface Scout).

MASCOTImage copyright DLR
Image caption Hayabusa 2 is carrying a German-built lander called MASCOT

Ryugu is a so-called C-type asteroid, a kind that is thought to be relatively primitive. This means it may be rich in organic and hydrated minerals (those combined with water). Studying what Ryugu is made from could provide insights into the molecular mix that contributed to the origin of life on Earth.

The surface of the asteroid is likely to have been weathered – altered by aeons of exposure to the harsh environment of space. That’s why Hayabusa 2’s scientists want to dig down for as fresh a sample as possible.

The onboard Lidar (light detection and ranging) instrument is used partly as a navigation sensor for rendezvous, approach, and touchdown. It illuminates the target with pulsed laser light to measure variable distances between the two objects. On Tuesday, scientists successfully used the Lidar to measure the distance from Hayabusa to the asteroid for the first time.

The mission will depart from Ryugu in December 2019 with the intention of returning to Earth with the asteroid samples in 2020.

The first Hayabusa spacecraft was launched in 2003 and reached the asteroid Itokawa in 2005.

Despite being hit by a series of mishaps, it returned to Earth in 2010 with a small amount of material from the asteroid.

An American asteroid sample return mission, Osiris-Rex, will rendezvous with the object 101955 Bennu in August.

Is it really healthier to live in the countryside?

But evidence-based research that can help us identify the healthiest environments to live is surprisingly scant. As scientists begin to tease apart the links between well-being and the environment, they are finding that many nuances contribute to and detract from the benefits offered by a certain environment – whether it be a metropolis of millions or a deserted beach.

“What we’re trying to do as a group of researchers around the world is not to promote these things willy-nilly, but to find pro and con evidence on how natural environments – and our increasing detachment from them – might be affecting health and well-being,” says Mathew White, an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter Medical School.

White and other researchers are revealing that a seemingly countless number of factors determine how our surroundings influence us. These can include a person’s background and life circumstances, the quality and duration of exposure and the activities performed in it.

Generally speaking, evidence suggests that green spaces are good for those of us who live in urban areas. Those who reside near parks or trees tend to enjoy lower levels of ambient air pollution, reduced manmade noise pollution and more cooling effects (something that will become increasingly useful as the planet warms).

Wellington, New Zealand

The research shows that green spaces are good for urban dwellers, which should be welcome news to residents of Wellington, New Zealand (Credit: Getty Images)

Natural spaces are conducive to physical and social activities – both of which are associated with myriad benefits of their own.

Time in nature has been linked to reduced physical markers of stress. When we are out for a stroll or just sitting beneath the trees, our heart rate and blood pressure both tend to go down. We also release more natural ‘killer cells’: lymphocytes that roam throughout the body, hunting down cancerous and virus-infected cells.

Researchers are still trying to determine why this is so, although they do have a number of hypotheses. “One predominate theory is that natural spaces act as a calming backdrop to the busy stimuli of the city,” says Amber Pearson, a health geographer at Michigan State University. “From an evolutionary perspective, we also associate natural things as key resources for survival, so we favour them.”

This does not necessarily mean that urban denizens should all move to the countryside, however.

City residents tend to suffer from more asthma, allergies and depression – but they also tend to be less obese, at a lower suicide risk and are less likely to get killed in an accident

City residents tend to suffer from higher levels of asthmaallergies and depression. But they also tend to be less obese, at a lower risk of suicide and are less likely to get killed in an accident. They lead happier lives as seniors and live longerin general. (Read more aboutfive of the world’s healthiest cities).

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors

City-dwellers live longer than their countryside counterparts and are happier as seniors (Credit: Getty Images)

Although we tend to associate cities with pollution, crime and stress, living in rural locales may entail certain costs as well. Disease-carrying insects and arachnids can detract from the health factor of that otherwise idyllic cabin in Maine, for example.

In other cases, rural pollution poses a major threat. In India, air pollution contributed to the deaths of 1.1 million citizens in 2015 – with rural residents rather than urban ones accounting for 75% of the victims. This is primarily because countryside dwellers are at greater risk of breathing air that is polluted by burning of agricultural fields, wood or cow dung (used for cooking fuel and heat).

Indonesia’s slash and burn-style land clearing likewise causes a blanket of toxic haze that lasts for months and sometimes affects neighbouring countries, including Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Meanwhile, smoke pollution from fires lit in South America and southern Africa has been known to make its way around the entire southern hemisphere. (That said, the air in the southern hemisphere is generally cleaner than in the northern hemisphere – simply because there are fewer people living there).

Pollution can kill more people in the countryside than the cities

Because of practices like agricultural clearing, pollution can kill more people in the countryside than even in cities (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s not just developing countries, either: wildfires in the western US are wreaking havoc on air quality, while pollution from fertilizers used on farms are detracting from air quality in Europe, Russia, China and the US.

What about the idea of that pure mountain air? It’s true that black carbon aerosols and particulate matter pollution tends to be lower at higher altitudes. But trying to move above air pollution may cause other issues.

While people who live in in places 2,500m or higher seem to have lower mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke and some types of cancers, data indicate that they also seem to be at an elevated risk of death from chronic pulmonary disease and from lower respiratory tract infections. This is likely at least in part because cars and other vehicles operate less efficiently at higher altitudes, emitting greater amounts of hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide – which is made even more harmful by the increased solar radiation in such places. Living at a moderate altitude of 1,500 to 2,500 meters, therefore, may be the healthiest choice.

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place

It’s not always true that the higher the altitude, the healthier the place (Credit: Getty Images)

There is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water

On the other hand, there is a strong argument to be made for living near the sea – or at least near some body of water. Those in the UK who live closer to the ocean, for example, tend to have a better bill of health than those who live inland, taking into account their age and socioeconomic status. This is likely due to a variety of reasons, White says, including the fact that our evolution means we are attracted to the high levels of biodiversity found there (in the past, this would have been a helpful indicator of food sources) and that beaches offer opportunities for daily exercise and vitamin D.

Then there are the psychological benefits. A 2016 study Pearson and her colleagues conducted in Wellington, New Zealand found that residents with ocean views had lower levels of psychological distress. For every 10% increase in how much blue space people could see, the researchers found a one-third point reduction in the population’s average Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (used to predict anxiety and mood disorders), independent of socioeconomic status. Given that finding, Pearson says, “One might expect that a 20 to 30% increase in blue space visibility could shift someone from moderate distress into a lower category.” Pearson found similar results in a follow-up study conducted near the Great Lakes in the US (currently in review), as did White in an upcoming study of Hong Kong residents.

The more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety

Researchers found that the more ‘blue space’ people saw in their everyday life, the less distress and anxiety they experienced (Credit: Getty Images)

Not everyone can live on the coast, however. So Simon Bell, chair of landscape architecture at the Estonian University of Life Sciences and associate director of the OPENspace Centre at the University of Edinburgh, and his colleagues are testing whether restoring neglected bodies of water throughout Europe can help. They are interviewing residents before and after restoration, including at a rundown beach outside of Tallinn, Estonia and an industrial canal near a Soviet bloc-style apartment complex in Tartu, also Estonia, among other places in Spain, Portugal, Sweden and the UK.

The team’s second analysis of nearly 200 recently redeveloped water sites will allow them to tease out how factors such as climate, weather, pollution levels, smells, seasonality, safety and security, accessibility and more, influence a given water body’s appeal. The ultimate goal, Bell says, is to find “what makes a great blue space.” Once the results are in, he and his colleagues will develop a quality assessment tool for those looking to most effectively restore urban canals, overgrown lakes, former docklands, rivers and other neglected blue spaces to make residents’ lives better.

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors

How much we benefit from even a single visit to the coast depends on a variety of factors (Credit: Getty Images)

Still, when it comes to wellbeing, researchers do not know how lakes compare to oceans or how rivers compare to seas. Nor have they compared how beaches in, say, Iceland measure up to those in Florida. What they do know is that complex factors including air and water quality, crowding, temperature and even high and low tides affect how something as seemingly simple as a visit to the beach can influence us.

“There might be a million other important things besides weather and daylight that influence someone in Hawaii versus Finland,” White says.

People who live in less regularly sunny places, like Vermont or Denmark, tend to have higher rates of skin cancer

In terms of health, data also suggest that, counterintuitively, people who live in more intermittently rather than regularly sunny places – Vermont and Minnesota in the US, for example, and Denmark and France – tend to have higher rates of skin cancer, likely because sunscreen is not part of daily routines. (Read more aboutfive countries where people live the longest).

Just as some green and blue spaces may be more beneficial than others, researchers are also coming to realize that the environment’s influence on well-being is not evenly distributed.

People living in lower socioeconomic conditions tend to derive more benefits from natural spaces than wealthy residents, White says. That’s likely because richer people enjoy other health-improving privileges, such as taking holidays and leading generally less stressful lives – a finding with important real-world implications. “Here in the UK, local authorities have a legal obligation to reduce health inequalities. So one way to do that is to improve the park system,” White says. “The poorest will benefit the most.”

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options

A clean, oceanside city like Sydney may be one of the best options (Credit: Getty Images)

It’s also important to point out that simply moving to a relatively pristine coast or forest will not solve all of our problems. Other life circumstances – losing or gaining a job, marrying or divorcing – have a much greater impact on our health. As White puts it, no matter what environment you’re in, “It’s more important to have a house than to be homeless in a park.”

Bell adds that proximity to nature actually tends to rank low on people’s lists of the most important factors for selecting a place to live, after things like safety, quietness and closeness to key locations like schools and work. But while the benefits of green and blue spaces should not be overplayed on an individual level, they are important for the scale at which they work.

And even so, one takeaway seems obvious: those living in a clean, oceanside city with ready access to nature – think Sydney or Wellington – may have struck the jackpot in terms of the healthiest places to live.

By Rachel Nuwer 1 June 2018

Sanxingdui: Discovery of masks and other relics that could be 5,000 years old causes upheaval in archaeological world

Featured image
Photo Credit Nishanshaman – CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chinese archaeologists had always believed that Chinese culture slowly expanded from a point along the Yellow River.  This belief was put into question when two massive sacrificial pits were discovered during a dig near the quiet Chinese village of Sanxingdui, which is situated in the Sichuan province of China. The discovery of these pits has turned the archaeological world on its head.

In 1929, a farmer digging a new well discovered a stash of jade relics, which led Chinese archaeologists to excavate the area around the village. Nothing came of these explorations until 1986, when two enormous sacrificial pits were found. Uncovered from the pits were thousands of pottery, jade, bronze, and gold artifacts that were not seen elsewhere in China before.

This exciting find led to a whole new understanding of the development of Chinese culture. The artifacts were dated as being 3,000 to 5,000 years old, and archaeologists knew they were examining a previously unknown ancient culture that had developed thousands of miles from civilizations of a similar age.

The artifacts showed evidence of having been burned or broken before they were carefully buried; however, this doesn’t detract from the magnificence of the find. The dig uncovered sculptures with animal faces, masks with dragon features, human-style heads with masks on, figurines of animals such as dragons, birds, and snakes all beautifully decorated, as well as a sacrificial altar, a bronze tree, rings, knives, and other decorative items.  The most unusual item found was an eight-foot-tall human figure made of bronze.

The archaeologists were surprised to find numerous bronze masks and human heads that have square faces, huge almond-shaped eyes, long straight noses, and exaggerated ears. These were carbon dated and found to be from the 12th to 11th century BC, and the well developed technology used to create these bronzes astounded the scientists. The ancient Chinese metallurgists knew that adding lead to an amalgam of copper and tin gave them a stronger substance that they could use to create large items such as the human and the tree. One of the masks, the largest ever found anywhere, measured an astounding 1.32 meters wide and 0.72 meters tall. The animal-like ears, protruding eyes, and ornate bodies of these masks demonstrated an artistic style unique from any other found in China.

Unfortunately, no written texts have been located at Sanxingdui to help scientists unravel the mysteries of the city.  This Bronze Age civilization, which is now known as the Sanxingdui Culture, has been associated with the ancient kingdom of Shu; the rich artifacts have been attributed to the legendary kings of Shu. There may be few reliable records that link this civilization to the kingdom of Shu, but the Chronicles of Huayang that were written in the Jin Dynasty, which existed from 265-420 AD, tell of the Shu Kingdom being founded by the Cancong. These people were described as having bulging eyes, a common feature of the artifacts found at Sanxingdui.

This amazing civilization was at its prime around 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, and the city was then completely abandoned. The question that is facing archaeologists now is – why?  A theory has been put forward that a major earthquake hit the region, causing landslides that blocked the water supply to the city, so the residents had to leave their city and move closer to the river. This theory has not been proven.[[[The unearthing of these magnificent items caused a major stir in archaeological circles and will fuel research for many years to come.[

The unearthing of these magnificent items caused a major stir in archaeological circles and will fuel research for many years to come.

[By Ian Harvey

Biography: Tenzing Norgay TIBETAN MOUNTAINEER

Tenzing Norgay, (Nepalese: “Wealthy-Fortunate Follower of Religion”)Norgay also spelled Norkey or Norkay, original name Namgyal Wangdi, (born May 15, 1914, Tshechu, Tibet [now Tibet Autonomous Region, China]—died May 9, 1986, Darjeeling [now Darjiling], West Bengal, India), Tibetan mountaineer who in 1953 became, with Edmund (later Sir Edmund) Hillary of New Zealand, the first person to set foot on the summit of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak (29,035 feet [8,850 metres]; see Researcher’s Note: Height of Mount Everest).

It is not known exactly when, how, or under what conditions the young Namgyal Wangdi came to live in the Khumbu region of Nepal (near Everest), nor is it known when he took the name Tenzing Norgay. Among the ethnic Sherpas, immigrant Tibetans such as Tenzing are known as Khambas and have low status and little or no wealth. Tenzing worked for several years for an affluent family in Khumjung, and, as a teen, he ran away from difficult conditions and settled in Darjeeling, West Bengal, India. At age 19, having married a Sherpa, he was chosen as a porter for his first expedition; in 1935 he accompanied Eric Shipton’s reconnaissance expedition of Everest. In the next few years he took part in more Everest expeditions than any other climber.

Hillary, Sir Edmund; Norgay, TenzingEdmund (later Sir Edmund) Hillary and Tenzing Norgay preparing to depart on their successful summit climb of Mount Everest, May 29, 1953; photograph by W.G. Lowe.The Granger Collection, New York
Tenzing Norgay (right) and Edmund Hillary showing the kit they wore to the top of Mount Everest, June 26, 1953.AP

After World War II he became a sirdar, or organizer of porters, and in this capacity accompanied a number of expeditions. In 1952 the Swiss made two attempts on the southern route up Everest, on both of which Tenzing was sirdar. He went as sirdar of the British Everest expedition of 1953 and formed the second summit pair with Hillary. From a tent at 27,900 feet (8,500 metres) on the Southeast Ridge, they reached the summit at 11:30 AM on May 29. He spent 15 minutes there “taking photographs and eating mint cake,” and, as a devout Buddhist, he left an offering of food.

After his feat he was regarded as a legendary hero by many Nepalese and Indians. His many honours included Britain’s George Medal and the Star of Nepal (Nepal Tara). Man of Everest(1955; also published as Tiger of the Snows), written in collaboration with James Ramsey Ullman, is an autobiography. After Everest (1978), as told to Malcolm Barnes, tells of his travels after the Everest ascent and his directorship of the Field Training Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, which the Indian government established in 1954. Tenzing: Hero of Everest (2003), a biography of Tenzing Norgay by mountaineer and journalist Ed Douglas, is a sensitive appreciation of his life, achievements, and disappointments.

WRITTEN BY: The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

The tiny island with human-sized money

The Micronesian island of Yap has a famously unusual currency: hundreds of giant discs of rocks scattered all over the island, many of them too heavy to move.

Arriving on the tiny Micronesian island of Yap will fill even the most jaded traveller with a sense of awe. The single daily flight comes in over dense forests, taro swamp, shallow lagoons and a web of mangroves, all surrounded by fringing reef. But the real wonderment doesn’t come from the idyllic scenery, nor from the greeting by a Yapese girl in a traditional hibiscus skirt. It’s when you first come face-to-face with a piece of giant stone money.

Hundreds of large stone discs can be found across the Micronesian island of Yap (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Hundreds of large stone discs can be found across the Micronesian island of Yap (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Hundreds of these extraordinary, human-sized discs of rock are scattered all over the island; some outside the island’s few hotels, others in rows close to the beach or deep in the forests. Each village even has a stone money bank where pieces that are too heavy to move are displayed on the malal (dancing grounds).

“My family owns five stone money of a good size,” said Falmed (Yapese just use one name), a taxi driver I flagged down to take me to Mangyol stone money bank in Yap’s eastern province of Gagil.

Five, it turns out, is a good haul, since many islanders don’t own any stones.

The Yapese people have used the rai stones as currency for centuries (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

The Yapese people have used the rai stones as currency for centuries (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

The unique stone currency has been in use here for several centuries, although no-one is quite certain when the concept began. What is known is that each one is different, and they are as heavy with meaning as they are in volume of limestone, carved and voyaged by the Yapese all the way from Palau, an island nation 400km to the south-west. The very first pieces were used as gifts and shaped like a whale – thus named ‘rai’ stones – but they’ve evolved to become currency, including holes carved through the centre to make them more transportable across the oceans.

“My forefather Falmed, he is the one who started to go to Palau first by canoe, and make this connection between Palau and Yap. So I carry his name,” Falmed told me as we hurtled along dirt roads past the sleepy capital of Colonia. Despite his sun-worn T-shirt and rickety car, his lineage is surprisingly significant. His distant forefather Falmed was a high chief powerful enough to commission a boat to Palau where he met with locals and gained access to a quarry site.

“He came back and called a meeting where he told the village to gather tuba, the local alcohol, to trade,” Falmed said. Within a month, he was back in Palau to start carving the stone as money.

The Yapese travelled 400km across the sea to carve the limestone discs from quarries in neighbouring Palau (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

The Yapese travelled 400km across the sea to carve the limestone discs from quarries in neighbouring Palau (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

The issue was that Yap had no durable rock or precious metals with which to make coins. Instead, experienced Yapese sailors, commissioned mostly by wealthy high chiefs, would sail to Palau on bamboo rafts, and eventually, schooners, to load up with limestone from their quarries. Initially small, as techniques and tools improved, the coins became even larger than the people who would painstakingly carve them. When metal tools were introduced by European traders in the late 19th Century, quarrying was made easier, and reports from the 1880s claimed 400 Yapese men could be found working in just one quarry in Koror, Palau – a significant proportion of the population, which would have then been about 7,000 in total.

On their return from Palau, the sailors would give the carved stone money to the high chiefs who would gather from different villages to welcome back the sailors and the stones. The chiefs would keep the larger ones and two fifths of the smaller ones. They would also give names to some stones, usually choosing their own name or that of relatives, and confirm the stones as legitimate by giving a value based on an even older currency system: yar (pearl shell money). The stones could then enter circulation and be bought by anyone.

“If the chief says OK, 50 shell money for each stone money, if I have that I will make the trade and own one,” explained Edmund Pasan, a canoe builder from the northern province of Maap.

Some rai stones measure more than 3m in diameter (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Some rai stones measure more than 3m in diameter (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Today, shell money has been replaced by the almighty US dollar for day-to-day transactions like grocery shopping. But for more conceptual exchanges, like rights or customs, stones remain a vital currency for Yap’s 11,000 residents.

Falmed’s family has only used its money twice, and one was as an apology. “We used it for one of my brothers who made trouble for another family,” Falmed revealed remorsefully. His brother’s marriage had failed. “One of the chiefs, his daughter got one piece of stone money as an apology, and they accepted it. When it comes to high ranks, you have to use stone money.”

When it comes to high ranks, you have to use stone money

The value of stone money has always been fluid, challenging the Western concept that currency value is pre-determined and fixed. The coins are valued by their size – they range from 7cm to 3.6m in diameter – as well as their ornateness and even for the sheer difficulty in obtaining the rock. How much a coin is worth also depends on who you give it to, and what for.

In addition, Yapese factor oral history into each stone’s value, as there’s no written record of what belongs to who. Families rarely move from their villages, and the tribal elders from the around 150 villages pass down information of each piece, meaning they act as a reminder of the past and help to reinforce relationships and transactions that date back to times of warriors and clans. In some cases, the stones have engravings marking battles from more than 200 years ago.

Each village has a stone money bank that displays pieces too large to move (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Each village has a stone money bank that displays pieces too large to move (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Falmed and I finally arrived at the Mangyol stone money bank after a 40-minute drive from Colonia. From large to small, the few dozen stones were lined up in front of a p’ebay, an open structure in the village centre where the community comes together to do their trade, celebrations and sometimes their schooling too.

Falmed explained that the rai are specifically placed, each encoded with secret connections, village relationships, and stories of marriage, conflicts and deep apologies that have seen the stones change hands over centuries. It’s those stories that only the local villagers know that truly determine which is most valuable. There’s no need to make more rai since the island essentially has a permanent number in circulation, and few are ever moved. Even broken ones retain their oral history that give them more value than a new piece. New pieces are occasionally made, though, simply to ensure the skills of past generations are not forgotten.

It’s those stories that only the local villagers know that truly determine which is most valuable

But if the stones are so valuable and so public, I wondered, what’s to stop someone making their own, or simply stealing one?

“Most matters are common knowledge and secrets among local people are rare; thus theft of rai is relatively unknown,” writes Cora Lee C Gilliland of the Smithsonian Institution in her paper The Stone Money of Yap.

Not that some haven’t attempted it. “They tried to do that in Yap, and they laughed about it because they broke,” Pasan later told me with a chuckle. “Then they did it with the stones in Guam, but they are not that strong and are more difficult to get at – it’s much easier to quarry in Palau.”

Each stone’s worth is determined by its size, ornateness and history (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Each stone’s worth is determined by its size, ornateness and history (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

Yap’s neighbours, Guam, Palau and Chuuk, are all heavily affected by European and American colonisation, and all bear conspicuous scars of World War II. Guam remains a US territory with a significant military base on the island that has shaped its culture, while Chuuk Lagoon is home to around 60 sunken wrecks, a result of the devastating Operation Hailstone in 1944.

Yap, though, was largely bypassed by US bombing as the early 20th-Century Japanese occupation came to an end, and the rai stone’s sturdiness and longevity seem to represent the long-lasting authenticity of Yapese culture over the centuries.

“In Yapese culture, if something [important] is going on, and there is nothing else suitable to use, then you use stone money,” said Falmed, who has already ensured the next generation retains his wealth by passing one piece to his son at his first-birthday ceremony.

No matter its location, the Yapese know to whom each stone belongs (Credit: Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

No matter its location, the Yapese know to whom each stone belongs (Credit: Robert Michael Poole)

“When my girlfriend was pregnant, we [came here] from Hawaii,” he explained. “On a child’s first birthday, if a clan is of high rank and has some small stone money, they will cut a chicken and drain the blood on the boy’s head to recognise the moment. It’s a gift, and a lot of people came [to the ceremony].”

Falmed’s son is 12 now and lives in Hawaii. But the stone is in his family house in Yap. And even without written record, everyone already knows whose name is on it.

By Robert Michael Poole 3 May 2018

“The sun began to be darkened”: The strange cloud over much of the world in 536 AD changed history dramatically

Featured image

In the summer of 536, a strange cloud appeared in the skies over much of Southern Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Sometimes referred to as “a veil of dust,” something plunged the Mediterranean region and many other areas of the world into gloomy years of cold and darkness.

This foreboding change was recorded by the Byzantine historian Procopius. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year.” Procopius also wrote of disease and war resulting from the blocking of the sun’s light.

A Syrian scribe described the change as “…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray.” Gaelic Irish records describe a “failure of bread” in the year 536.

For many years, historians and scientists have wondered what may have caused Procopius and others to record notable differences in weather. Modern research has provided some interesting theories.

Much of the rest of the world seems to have been impacted by the cloud as well, at least in the northern hemisphere. Studies of tree rings between 536 and 551 show less tree growth in China, Europe, and North America. Less solar radiation reaching the earth resulted in lower temperatures and abnormal weather patterns. The results for humans included lower food production output, famine, as well as increased social and political disruption.

There were specific events recorded that were likely related to the ominous cloud. A deadly pandemic swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541-542, that became known as the Justinian Plague. Estimates are that up to a third of the population perished during the outbreak. Procopius described some of the horrible symptoms as fever and swelling all over the body.

In 536 China, there was famine and drought with many deaths, as well as reports of “yellow dust that rained down like snow.” At the same time, Korea faced massive storms and flooding. Unusually heavy snowfalls were noted in Mesopotamia.

Scandinavia seems to have been particularly hard hit. Archaeological evidence indicates that almost 75 percent of villages in parts of Sweden were abandoned in these years. One theory is that this displacement of people was a catalyst for later raids by Vikings seeking more fertile land in other parts of Europe and beyond. A Norse poem of the time reads, “The sun turns black, earth sinks in the sea. Down from heaven, stars are whirled.”

The severe weather may have impacted other historical trends. Among them is the migration of Mongolian tribes westward, the fall of the Persian Sassanid Empire, and the rise and rapid expansion of Islam.

Some historians mark these specific changes in weather patterns as contributing to the historic transition from antiquity to the beginning of the era of the Dark and Middle Ages. It certainly emphasizes the impact rapid climate change may have had on human populations.

What could have caused such a sudden and dramatic change in weather? Experts are divided, and we may never know the whole answer. One theory is that the climate around the world changed based on one giant volcanic eruption, possibly from Central America. This could have resulted in a layer of ash and dust covering the skies of much of the planet.

Another suggestion is that there were two large volcano blasts within a couple of years of each other, specifically in 536 and 540, causing darkness and cold around most of the world. Clouds of smoke and debris from massive volcanic fires could have spread rapidly.

Evidence of volcanic eruptions was backed up by material found in both the North and South Poles. In both Antarctica and Greenland, sulfate deposits have been discovered dating back to the mid-6th century.

A third theory contemplates the impact of a comet or meteorite crashing into the Earth. Or the possibility of a near miss from a comet passing by that could have left thick dust clouds of particles in the atmosphere. Experts generally think this explanation is less plausible than that of volcanic eruptions.

Whatever the cause, people living at the time noticed and recorded a rapid change in nature. Human populations around the earth were disrupted and to many it would have felt like the world were coming to an end.

 Mark Shiffer