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Legendary 17th century letter from Satan to a nun finally deciphered

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There is a legend that dates back to the 17th century, about an Italian nun who claimed to have written a number of letters during an episode of demonic possession.

The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione, believed that the Devil himself wrote the letters while attempting to steal her from God. Only one of Sister Maria’s letters has survived.

Nobody at the time could translate the 14 lines of writing because it was apparently written in unknown language.

And for more than three centuries, nobody could decipher the letter. Eventually, academics, cryptographers, and occultists joined forces to decipher it with a code-breaking software found on the Dark Web.

The Dark Web is that place on the Internet where you find anything and everything that might otherwise be forbidden, such as cybercrime, drugs, and other shady matters.

But there are also brilliant applications that can be used for productive aims such as deciphering a 17th-century letter.

Daniele Abate, director of the Ludum science museum in the Metropolitan City of Catania, Sicily, told The Times of London that thanks to an intelligence-grade code-breaking system they could finally learn the meaning of the mysterious jumble of archaic script.

“We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

Sister Maria had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15. She was well known and liked by the other sisters and the abbess.

And then, one August day in 1676 when Sister Maria was 31 years old, she was found on the floor of her quarters, her face covered in ink and the letters clutched in her hands.

When she woke up, the nun claimed that she was possessed by Satan, who made her sign the letters but she resisted and wrote only “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

And although the letter has recently sparked people’s curiosity worldwide, the research team at Ludum science museum hasn’t released the complete text yet, saying that it speaks of the nature of God’s relationship with man.

They have confirmed that the letter says: “God thinks he can free mortals … this system works for no one.” It also speaks about God and Zoroaster as inventions of the people; of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

In Greek mythology, the River Styx separates the world of the living from that of the dead. And it was Charon, the ferryman, who took the souls to the Underworld where they waited to be born again.

Charon was happy to do his job if the dead paid the fee to cross the river. According to the myths, when somebody died, their family buried them with coins laid on their eyes so that the soul of their beloved ones would safely cross Styx.

Abate did try to discover more logical explanations about the nature of the letter. In his opinion, Sister Maria was intelligent and well educated, but she probably suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The mishmash of languages she used to write the letter were ones that she is likely to have learned during her time in the convent. As for her claims that voices spoke to her and told her what to do (write the letters), this supports Abate’s theory that the nun suffered from a form of schizophrenia.

Alex A

Ancient GPS – Viking sunstones

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There is a lot wrong with the popular History Channel series Vikings. There is a lot right with it, too. Much of what you see on screen falls in the middle somewhere.

An example or two of the wrong: If there even was a Ragnar Lothbrok (the series’ main protagonist in its first four seasons, and who some historians consider a conglomeration of many Viking characters), he did not live at the same time as his series’ brother, Rollo.

In the series, the character Rollo (in reality, “Gangr Hrolf,” or “Hrolf the Walker” for his long legs) lived 50 to 75 years before the man was actually born and he received land in France, which became “Normandy,” meaning “Land of the Northmen,” perhaps 100 years after the series begins.

After agreeing to help the King of France repel any further invasions by his brother, Rollo proceeds to use French troops to kill his Viking compatriots who complain. Why then is Rollo needed? Now he is just a lone Viking.

In the Season 5a finale, we see Rollo coming to the aid of his nephews Ivar and Hvitserk at the head of a massive fleet. If the French had a massive fleet capable of reaching Norway, it’s news to virtually everyone, and history would likely have played out much differently than it did.

Those are just a couple of things wrong with the character Rollo and the timeline of the program.

However, the series does get much right. Much of the everyday life of the Vikings depicted in the series is correct, with the popular exception of the semi-Mad Max leather costumes.

We know too that Viking men were frequently tattooed and wore somewhat elaborate hairstyles. We are told this by Arab travelers who documented their visits among the Northmen. Most of the rituals depicted in the series fits outside contemporary accounts as well.

It seems also that Michael Hirst, the shows’ creator and writer, got the idea of female warriors right. While “shield-maidens” had been loosely mentioned in some texts following the Viking era, there had never been definitive proof. We don’t have it now, but it’s beginning to look like some women did take part in Viking warfare, and/or at the very dangerous game of Viking politics.

In 1889, Viking-era remains were found in a grave in Birka, Sweden. 128 years later, they were identified as female through DNA testing. In the grave with the female skeleton were typical warriors goods. Though nothing points directly to her being a warrior–she may have been a high-status warrior’s wife, given his expensive goods as a token of love, or perhaps the high-status female was anticipating joining the Valkyries in the afterlife. We are not 100 percent sure.

However, when taken with tales from the sagas (whose details, not theme, should be taken lightly), we know that women played a significant role in the political world of Iceland.

We know that women in Norway and Iceland enjoyed rights that few other women of the time could even dream of, such as divorce and inheritance.

The series’ first episode revolves around Ragnar Lothbrok and his brother yearning to try their hand at raiding in the west, not around the Baltic Sea as they apparently have for years. This is another of the show’s errors–the Vikings knew full well there was land to the west.

10 Things you may not know about the Vikings

Trade had gone on sporadically for centuries throughout the breadth and length of northwestern Europe, including the British Isles. Still, many British trade goods arrived via Denmark over land from France, and not every Ragnar, Rollo, or Ivar would know how to get there over the open ocean.

Ragnar lets his brother in on a little secret. He has gained a “sunstone” from a wanderer, and this will allow them to successfully navigate even if the sun is obscured with cloud and fog, as is common as dirt in the North Sea.

Here’s the trouble. No one is sure that sunstone (which is the nickname for certain types of feldspar, and other stones, such as calcite and tourmaline) was used in the Viking era, or as early as Ragnar Lothbrok was said to have lived. Icelandic sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries mention “sunstones” but are vague about their use.

Later Christian texts mention them as well, but we do not know whether the Vikings of any era used them for navigation. Until archaeologists find one in a Viking grave or other yet undiscovered site, we may never know for sure.

Recent studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary have shown that it was possible to navigate using a sunstone. As reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science in April 2018, two professors, Dénes Száz and Gábor Horváth, knowing the measurements and traits of Viking-era vessels, weather patterns in the North Sea and currents, ran 36,000 computer simulations of Viking voyages.

They found that if a navigator used a sunstone to monitor the sun’s position at least once every three hours he would reach his target exactly 92-100 percent of the time (and this period includes just before sunrise and just after sunset, as sunstones can magnify the suns light on the horizon before its truly visible to the naked eye).

In one of their simulations, the professors used a different type of sunstone, and departing from Norway in their simulation, found that if they checked their stone for the sun once every four hours instead of three, they would blow past the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, and end up in…Canada.

 Matthew Gaskill


Matthew Gaskill holds an MA in European History and writes on a variety of topics from the Medieval World to WWII to genealogy and more. A former educator, he values curiosity and diligent research. He is the author of many best-selling Kindle works on Amazon.

The future is streamlined locomotives, welcome to the 1930s

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It’s hard to grasp now how much the introduction of railroads and railway services during the late 18th century and early 19th century forever changed the way we commute, travel, and transport our stock and goods.

It was a grand leap of faith into a new future, similarly to how the picture changed decades later with the introduction of commercial flights. In both cases, the world went faster, stronger, better.

Depending on the decade, different combustible resources such as timber, coal, or oil helped power the locomotive machinery.

During the 20th century, the appearance of the first streamliner locomotives, which are now the epitomes of the era, was of utmost importance.

Of the thousands of streamliners that entered services across America, only a small fraction were employed for passenger train operations. Their sound boomed from the one end of the continent to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Streamliner Trains – America’s Beautiful Locomotives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Hudson 4-6-4 locomotive is now recognized as a classic of the New York Central Railroad. (4-6-4 refers to it’s wheel arrangement of four leading wheels, six driving wheels, and four trailing wheels.) Its design was out there by the mid-1920s but the new machine had to wait at least a decade before it officially started operations.

The Hudson model developed because the New York Central was in dire need of a stronger and more powerful steamliner, one which could more efficiently move the ever-growing number of travelers from the east to the west. Devising the Hudson was no mistake by any means and the company added almost 300 in its inventory. They hauled the railroad’s flagship trains including the 20th Century Limited and the Empire State Express.

With the supersonic trains we have today, the Hudson locomotives may seem to be of little use. Except they treat us with their beauty and allow us to muse on everything they symbolized back in the day: progress, faith in technology, civilization, and new journeys.

 

 

 

 

 

Model trains on display at Red Mountain Library

 

 

 

 

 

There were other models that were introduced by the New York Central Railroad after the Hudson, such as the 4-8-2 Mohawk steam locomotive. This one looked as if it were a twin of the 4-6-4 type and it was also initiated.

The Milwaukee Railroad was widely praised when they introduced the first Hiawatha streamliner in the spring of 1935. The Hiawatha became the Milwaukee Railroad’s success story, and dozens of these were employed for its services. The machine was able to maintain an average speed of 80 mph.

The streamliners snaked across the country, fast enough that they are even credited with helping the Allies win World War Two. Their usage continued well after the war.

 Alex .A

Norway’s Medieval Wooden Churches Look Plucked From a Fairy Tale

Starting in the Middle Ages, when Norway became a Christian country, former Vikings-turn-Christians built immense cathedrals and churches to honor the new religion—all made entirely from wood rather than the typical stone construction of the time. Known as “stave” churches, after the wooden “stavers” or corner posts and load-bearing pillars that keep the church from collapsing, these churches range from modest structures to ornate, multi-layer architectural masterpieces.

At one point, more than 1,000 stave churches existed throughout Norway, but many of the original ones fell apart over time or were destroyed. Often, the original stavers were driven directly into the ground, allowing for quick rot; other churches were ravaged by fires or storms. Now, only 28 historical stave churches remain, many of which feature elaborate carvings that mix Christian and Viking symbols.

These are the ten oldest in Norway:

Urnes Stave Church in Luster

Urnes Stave Church
Urnes Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Built about 1130, Urnes is Norway’s oldest stave church and the only one on the Unesco Heritage list. The site, though, is much older, and was home to two earlier churches. Parts of the previous churches, include a door opening, a corner post and several wall planks, were repurposed in the new construction. The northern wall features the most intricately decorated panel found in any existing stave church. The carvings, created in a traditional Viking style, show a snake biting and being bitten by another animal. The carvings combined with the Romanesque basilica layout make the church a fascinating example of the melding of pre-Christian Nordic symbology with Christian medieval influences. The church and cemetery are still in use today.

Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik

Hopperstad Stave Church
Hopperstad Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hopperstad was also built around 1130, but unlike Urnes, much of the interior has been removed and replaced. Over the years, the original construction fell into disrepair and neglect. In the early 1880s, architect Peter Andreas Blix saw the historical significance of the church and offered to restore it free of charge. Blix based his restoration on other existing stave churches, but preserved the church’s original consecration crosses. Thanks to strong Norwegian heritage in the Midwest, there’s an exact replica of Hopperstad in Moorhead, Minnesota.

Kaupanger Stave Church in Sogndal

Kaupanger Stave Church
Kaupanger Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Twenty-two staves support this church, the largest number of all the remaining stave churches in Norway. Kaupanger is also the best preserved and is still the parish church used by the surrounding community today. Two previous churches stood here before the current church was built, one of which was partially burned as a consequence of a farmer’s revolt in 1183 that resulted in the governor Ivan Dape’s murder. The architecture at Kaupanger is fairly different from Norway’s other stave churches—emphasizing height rather than ornate carvings.

Undredal Stave Church in Undredal

Undredal Stave Church
Undredal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From looking at it, one wouldn’t expect this tiny church to be in the same league as the other stave churches dotting Norway. White clapboard siding covers the exterior, making it look like a little chapel rather than a Viking-era relic. Undredal is one of the smallest historic wood churches, seating only about 40 people. A few artifacts are on display inside: the first bell and chandelier, dating back to the Middle Ages; a kneeler from 1647; candleholders from 1702; a 1680 baptismal font; the original wall paintings from the 1600s; and a pulpit from 1696. When the church was first built in 1147, it was called St. Nicholas Chapel.

Høyjord Stave Church in Vestfold

Høyjord Stave Church
Høyjord Stave Church (Creative Commons)

This church is half restoration, half reconstruction. The original layout of the church was built over twice, in the 1600s and the 1800s. In the 1950s, the stave foundation from the original medieval church was discovered, and it was rebuilt to match the original footprint. Originally, the church had a dirt floorand benches only along the sides for the elderly and infirm. Everyone else stood for services. The paintings on the walls inside are recreations, made to match décor on older parts of the church. Høyjord also has a stave supporting the church from the middle of the sanctuary, a feature found in only two stave churches in Norway.

Flesberg Stave Church in Buskerud

Flesberg Stave Church
Flesberg Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Originally, Flesberg was a simple rectangular stave church when it was built in the late 1100s. In the 1730s, it was expanded to a cross shape. The original church stands as the western arm of the cruciform. Church services and concerts are still held in the building in the summer. Flesberg also holds the honor of being the subject of the oldest existing painting of a stave church, a landscape from 1701.

Lom Stave Church in Oppland

Lom Stave Church
Lom Stave Church (Creative Commons)

From the time the church was built in the 1160s until the 1800s, Lom was used as both a church and a resting place for those traveling throughout the country. Remodeling began in the 1600s when the church was deemed too small and was expanded into a cruciform shape. It was expanded again in the 1660s, making it one of the largest stave churches in Norway. The carved dragon heads featured in the eaves are exact modern replicas, installed in 1964, so that the originals could be preserved.

Torpo Stave Church in Hallingdal

Torpo Stave Church
Torpo Stave Church (Creative Commons)

The Torpo church is the oldest building in Hallingdal. Built in the late 1100s, it is well known for a series of 13th-century paintings depicting the the martyrdom of St. Margaret, the saint the church was consecrated to. One of the more unique features in Torpo is an inscription on a chancel rail from the original builder. In runic script, it reads, “Torolf built this church.”

Hedalen Stave Church in Oppdal

Hedalen Stave Church
Hedalen Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Hedalen is yet another stave church that continues to be used as a parish church. It was built around 1163 and is decorated with dragon and vine carvings meant to represent the act of leaving behind evil forces as you enter the church. There’s a bearskin in the sacristy, and legend has it the skin belonged to a bear shot before the altar once the church was rediscovered in the woods after The Plague. The church holds some medieval relics, including a Madonna statue from 1250, a crucifix from 1270, and a font cover from 1250. The church’s prize possession is a copper-gilded wood reliquary, also from 1250. These artifacts are unique and rare throughout Norway as many Catholic objects were destroyed after the Reformation.

Nore Stave Church
Nore Stave Church (Creative Commons)

When Nore was built in the late 1160s, the construction was unique for the time: it was built as a choir church and has balconies, an apse, a choir and cross arms. A large amount of the original building is still standing, though it was remodeled and partially rebuilt in both the 1600s and 1700s. Some of the original decorative paintings can still be seen, as well as a prayer inscription and two crucifixes dating back to the Middle Ages.

Heddal Stave Church in Notodden

Heddal Stave Church
Heddal Stave Church (Creative Commons)

Though not in the top ten oldest stave churches, Heddal is the largest in Norway. It was first built around 1250, and as it’s still in continual use, visitors can see several historical eras reflected in the décor. Some of the prized items inside and on the exterior are rose paintings from the 1600s, runic inscriptions and carvings telling the Viking legend of Sigurd the Dragon-Slayer. There’s also a café, an exhibition about the history of the church, and an open-air historical museum of a farm and buildings from the 1700s and 1800s.

Dinosaur Shocker

Red blood cells (© Science) 

Neatly dressed in blue Capri pants and a sleeveless top, long hair flowing over her bare shoulders, Mary Schweitzer sits at a microscope in a dim lab, her face lit only by a glowing computer screen showing a network of thin, branching vessels. That’s right, blood vessels. From a dinosaur. “Ho-ho-ho, I am excite-e-e-e-d,” she chuckles. “I am, like, really excited.”

After 68 million years in the ground, a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Montana was dug up, its leg bone was broken in pieces, and fragments were dissolved in acid in Schweitzer’s laboratory at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. “Cool beans,” she says, looking at the image on the screen.

It was big news indeed last year when Schweitzer announced she had discovered blood vessels and structures that looked like whole cells inside that T. rex bone—the first observation of its kind. The finding amazed colleagues, who had never imagined that even a trace of still-soft dinosaur tissue could survive. After all, as any textbook will tell you, when an animal dies, soft tissues such as blood vessels, muscle and skin decay and disappear over time, while hard tissues like bone may gradually acquire minerals from the environment and become fossils. Schweitzer, one of the first scientists to use the tools of modern cell biology to study dinosaurs, has upended the conventional wisdom by showing that some rock-hard fossils tens of millions of years old may have remnants of soft tissues hidden away in their interiors. “The reason it hasn’t been discovered before is no right-thinking paleontologist would do what Mary did with her specimens. We don’t go to all this effort to dig this stuff out of the ground to then destroy it in acid,” says dinosaur paleontologist Thomas Holtz Jr., of the University of Maryland. “It’s great science.” The observations could shed new light on how dinosaurs evolved and how their muscles and blood vessels worked. And the new findings might help settle a long-running debate about whether dinosaurs were warmblooded, coldblooded—or both.

Meanwhile, Schweitzer’s research has been hijacked by “young earth” creationists, who insist that dinosaur soft tissue couldn’t possibly survive millions of years. They claim her discoveries support their belief, based on their interpretation of Genesis, that the earth is only a few thousand years old. Of course, it’s not unusual for a paleontologist to differ with creationists. But when creationists misrepresent Schweitzer’s data, she takes it personally: she describes herself as “a complete and total Christian.” On a shelf in her office is a plaque bearing an Old Testament verse: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

It may be that Schweitzer’s unorthodox approach to paleontology can be traced to her roundabout career path. Growing up in Helena, Montana, she went through a phase when, like many kids, she was fascinated by dinosaurs. In fact, at age 5 she announced she was going to be a paleontologist. But first she got a college degree in communicative disorders, married, had three children and briefly taught remedial biology to high schoolers. In 1989, a dozen years after she graduated from college, she sat in on a class at Montana State University taught by paleontologist Jack Horner, of the Museum of the Rockies, now an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. The lectures reignited her passion for dinosaurs. Soon after, she talked her way into a volunteer position in Horner’s lab and began to pursue a doctorate in paleontology.

She initially thought she would study how the microscopic structure of dinosaur bones differs depending on how much the animal weighs. But then came the incident with the red spots.

In 1991, Schweitzer was trying to study thin slices of bones from a 65-million-year-old T. rex. She was having a hard time getting the slices to stick to a glass slide, so she sought help from a molecular biologist at the university. The biologist, Gayle Callis, happened to take the slides to a veterinary conference, where she set up the ancient samples for others to look at. One of the vets went up to Callis and said, “Do you know you have red blood cells in that bone?” Sure enough, under a microscope, it appeared that the bone was filled with red disks. Later, Schweitzer recalls, “I looked at this and I looked at this and I thought, this can’t be. Red blood cells don’t preserve.”
Schweitzer showed the slide to Horner. “When she first found the red-blood-cell-looking structures, I said, Yep, that’s what they look like,” her mentor recalls. He thought it was possible they were red blood cells, but he gave her some advice: “Now see if you can find some evidence to show that that’s not what they are.”

What she found instead was evidence of heme in the bones—additional support for the idea that they were red blood cells. Heme is a part of hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in the blood and gives red blood cells their color. “It got me real curious as to exceptional preservation,” she says. If particles of that one dinosaur were able to hang around for 65 million years, maybe the textbooks were wrong about fossilization.

Schweitzer tends to be self-deprecating, claiming to be hopeless at computers, lab work and talking to strangers. But colleagues admire her, saying she’s determined and hard-working and has mastered a number of complex laboratory techniques that are beyond the skills of most paleontologists. And asking unusual questions took a lot of nerve. “If you point her in a direction and say, don’t go that way, she’s the kind of person who’ll say, Why?—and she goes and tests it herself,” says Gregory Erickson, a paleobiologist at Florida State University. Schweitzer takes risks, says Karen Chin, a University of Colorado paleontologist. “It could be a big payoff or it could just be kind of a ho-hum research project.”

In 2000, Bob Harmon, a field crew chief from the Museum of the Rockies, was eating his lunch in a remote Montana canyon when he looked up and saw a bone sticking out of a rock wall. That bone turned out to be part of what may be the best preserved T. rex in the world. Over the next three summers, workers chipped away at the dinosaur, gradually removing it from the cliff face. They called it B. rex in Harmon’s honor and nicknamed it Bob. In 2001, they encased a section of the dinosaur and the surrounding dirt in plaster to protect it. The package weighed more than 2,000 pounds, which turned out to be just above their helicopter’s capacity, so they split it in half. One of B. rex’s leg bones was broken into two big pieces and several fragments—just what Schweitzer needed for her micro-scale explorations.

It turned out Bob had been misnamed. “It’s a girl and she’s pregnant,” Schweitzer recalls telling her lab technician when she looked at the fragments. On the hollow inside surface of the femur, Schweitzer had found scraps of bone that gave a surprising amount of information about the dinosaur that made them. Bones may seem as steady as stone, but they’re actually constantly in flux. Pregnant women use calcium from their bones to build the skeleton of a developing fetus. Before female birds start to lay eggs, they form a calcium-rich structure called medullary bone on the inside of their leg and other bones; they draw on it during the breeding season to make eggshells. Schweitzer had studied birds, so she knew about medullary bone, and that’s what she figured she was seeing in that T. rex specimen.

Most paleontologists now agree that birds are the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. In fact, they say that birds are dinosaurs—colorful, incredibly diverse, cute little feathered dinosaurs. The theropod of the Jurassic forests lives on in the goldfinch visiting the backyard feeder, the toucans of the tropics and the ostriches loping across the African savanna.

To understand her dinosaur bone, Schweitzer turned to two of the most primitive living birds: ostriches and emus. In the summer of 2004, she asked several ostrich breeders for female bones. A farmer called, months later. “Y’all still need that lady ostrich?” The dead bird had been in the farmer’s backhoe bucket for several days in the North Carolina heat. Schweitzer and two colleagues collected a leg from the fragrant carcass and drove it back to Raleigh.

As far as anyone can tell, Schweitzer was right: Bob the dinosaur really did have a store of medullary bone when she died. A paper published in Science last June presents microscope pictures of medullary bone from ostrich and emu side by side with dinosaur bone, showing near-identical features.

In the course of testing a B. rex bone fragment further, Schweitzer asked her lab technician, Jennifer Wittmeyer, to put it in weak acid, which slowly dissolves bone, including fossilized bone—but not soft tissues. One Friday night in January 2004, Wittmeyer was in the lab as usual. She took out a fossil chip that had been in the acid for three days and put it under the microscope to take a picture. “[The chip] was curved so much, I couldn’t get it in focus,” Wittmeyer recalls. She used forceps to flatten it. “My forceps kind of sunk into it, made a little indentation and it curled back up. I was like, stop it!” Finally, through her irritation, she realized what she had: a fragment of dinosaur soft tissue left behind when the mineral bone around it had dissolved. Suddenly Schweitzer and Wittmeyer were dealing with something no one else had ever seen. For a couple of weeks, Wittmeyer said, it was like Christmas every day.

In the lab, Wittmeyer now takes out a dish with six compartments, each holding a little brown dab of tissue in clear liquid, and puts it under the microscope lens. Inside each specimen is a fine network of almost-clear branching vessels—the tissue of a female Tyrannosaurus rex that strode through the forests 68 million years ago, preparing to lay eggs. Close up, the blood vessels from that T. rex and her ostrich cousins look remarkably alike. Inside the dinosaur vessels are things Schweitzer diplomatically calls “round microstructures” in the journal article, out of an abundance of scientific caution, but they are red and round, and she and other scientists suspect that they are red blood cells.

Of course, what everyone wants to know is whether DNA might be lurking in that tissue. Wittmeyer, from much experience with the press since the discovery, calls this “the awful question”—whether Schweitzer’s work is paving the road to a real-life version of science fiction’s Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs were regenerated from DNA preserved in amber. But DNA, which carries the genetic script for an animal, is a very fragile molecule. It’s also ridiculously hard to study because it is so easily contaminated with modern biological material, such as microbes or skin cells, while buried or after being dug up. Instead, Schweitzer has been testing her dinosaur tissue samples for proteins, which are a bit hardier and more readily distinguished from contaminants. Specifically, she’s been looking for collagen, elastin and hemoglobin. Collagen makes up much of the bone scaffolding, elastin is wrapped around blood vessels and hemoglobin carries oxygen inside red blood cells.

Because the chemical makeup of proteins changes through evolution, scientists can study protein sequences to learn more about how dinosaurs evolved. And because proteins do all the work in the body, studying them could someday help scientists understand dinosaur physiology—how their muscles and blood vessels worked, for example.

Proteins are much too tiny to pick out with a microscope. To look for them, Schweitzer uses antibodies, immune system molecules that recognize and bind to specific sections of proteins. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have been using antibodies to chicken collagen, cow elastin and ostrich hemoglobin to search for similar molecules in the dinosaur tissue. At an October 2005 paleontology conference, Schweitzer presented preliminary evidence that she has detected real dinosaur proteins in her specimens.

Further discoveries in the past year have shown that the discovery of soft tissue in B. rex wasn’t just a fluke. Schweitzer and Wittmeyer have now found probable blood vessels, bone-building cells and connective tissue in another T. rex, in a theropod from Argentina and in a 300,000-year-old woolly mammoth fossil. Schweitzer’s work is “showing us we really don’t understand decay,” Holtz says. “There’s a lot of really basic stuff in nature that people just make assumptions about.”

Young-earth creationists also see Schweitzer’s work as revolutionary, but in an entirely different way. They first seized upon Schweitzer’s work after she wrote an article for the popular science magazine Earth in 1997 about possible red blood cells in her dinosaur specimens. Creation magazine claimed that Schweitzer’s research was “powerful testimony against the whole idea of dinosaurs living millions of years ago. It speaks volumes for the Bible’s account of a recent creation.”

This drives Schweitzer crazy. Geologists have established that the Hell Creek Formation, where B. rex was found, is 68 million years old, and so are the bones buried in it. She’s horrified that some Christians accuse her of hiding the true meaning of her data. “They treat you really bad,” she says. “They twist your words and they manipulate your data.” For her, science and religion represent two different ways of looking at the world; invoking the hand of God to explain natural phenomena breaks the rules of science. After all, she says, what God asks is faith, not evidence. “If you have all this evidence and proof positive that God exists, you don’t need faith. I think he kind of designed it so that we’d never be able to prove his existence. And I think that’s really cool.”

By definition, there is a lot that scientists don’t know, because the whole point of science is to explore the unknown. By being clear that scientists haven’t explained everything, Schweitzer leaves room for other explanations. “I think that we’re always wise to leave certain doors open,” she says.

But schweitzer’s interest in the long-term preservation of molecules and cells does have an otherworldly dimension: she’s collaborating with NASA scientists on the search for evidence of possible past life on Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and other heavenly bodies. (Scientists announced this spring, for instance, that Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus appears to have liquid water, a probable precondition for life.)

Astrobiology is one of the wackier branches of biology, dealing in life that might or might not exist and might or might not take any recognizable form. “For almost everybody who works on NASA stuff, they are just in hog heaven, working on astrobiology questions,” Schweitzer says. Her NASA research involves using antibodies to probe for signs of life in unexpected places. “For me, it’s the means to an end. I really want to know about my dinosaurs.”

To that purpose, Schweitzer, with Wittmeyer, spends hours in front of microscopes in dark rooms. To a fourth-generation Montanan, even the relatively laid-back Raleigh area is a big city. She reminisces wistfully about scouting for field sites on horseback in Montana. “Paleontology by microscope is not that fun,” she says. “I’d much rather be out tromping around.”

“My eyeballs are just absolutely fried,” Schweitzer says after hours of gazing through the microscope’s eyepieces at glowing vessels and blobs. You could call it the price she pays for not being typical.

Cannibalism: Cultures, Cures, Cuisine, and Calories

Human Cannibalism; Johannes Lerii's account of the description of the method the Indians use for "barbecuing" human flesh. Nude Indians barbecuing and eating parts of human bodies; Theodor de Bry.
Theodor de Bry, America, Part 3, 1593/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-45105)

Perhaps nothing inspires as much fascination and repulsion as human cannibalism. Although it is now regarded as one of society’s greatest taboos and is often associated with evil—think Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)—history reveals a practice that is more complex and, surprisingly, sometimes even reverential.

Funereal rituals involving cannibalism have been well documented. The Fore of Papua New Guinea, for example, were known to have eaten the bodies of their deceased. The practice was seen as a sign of love and respect, preventing corpses from rotting or being devoured by insects. In addition, the ritual was thought to protect the body from any dangerous spirits. The Wari of the Brazilian Amazon included cannibalism in their funereal rites into the 1960s, when missionaries precipitated the end of the practice. Also common were religious rituals that featured cannibalism. After making human sacrifices to the gods, the Aztecs reportedly ate the corpses, which they considered sacred.

Eating the body of an enemy was perhaps the ultimate act of revenge. In addition to showing domination and inspiring fear, consuming one’s foe was thought to enable the victor to possess the strength and bravery of the vanquished. Japanese soldiers during World War II consumed POWs, while the Korowai of New Guinea were within their rights to eat men thought to be witches. Ugandan leader Idi Amin, whose regime (1971–79) was noted for brutality, was accused of cannibalizing his opponents, and he responded with a nondenial: “I don’t like human flesh. It’s too salty for me.” The Carib of the Caribbean islands were also thought to have eaten their enemies, and Europeans used claims of cannibalism to justify the murder and enslavement of numerous indigenous people. Though the veracity of the allegations against the Carib is still debated, the term cannibalism derives from a corruption of their name.

Medicinal cannibalism seems to have existed around the world, with nearly every body part ending up in some concoction. Chinese compounds included human organs as well as nails and hair, while, in early Greece, human blood was thought to treat epilepsy. And even as they were decrying cannibals in the New World as savages, Europeans were routinely consuming human parts as medicinal treatment. Followers of 16th-century Swiss physician Paracelsus, for example, sought to cure dysentery with medicines that contained powdered human skulls, and in 17th-century England pulverized mummies were used in treatments for epilepsy and stomachaches. In some cases, not just any mummy would do: one concoction called for the body of a redheaded man who had died from hanging.

And then there is cannibal cuisine. (For the record, human flesh allegedly is similar in taste to veal or pork.) The Batak of Sumatra reportedly sold human flesh in markets, and in China human-based dishes were once considered a luxury. During the Yuan dynasty (13th–14th century), it was noted that “children’s meat was the best food of all in taste.” The country also reported cases of children cutting off various body parts—usually a section of the thigh or upper arm—to use in dishes for their elders as a show of respect.

Despite being relatively widespread—though some scholars believe that many reports of cannibalism are untrue—the practice eventually became taboo. However, there are some instances when it was accepted—or at least tolerated—and these cases typically involved survival. According to a recent study, the average human body contains more than 125,000 calories—a feast to anyone starving. One of the most famous examples of survival cannibalism involved the Donner party. In 1846, 87 pioneers led by George Donner left Independence, Missouri, bound for California. In December they became trapped by heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada. Facing starvation, the people eventually resorted to cannibalism. The story became well known—thanks in part to an eager press. (Somewhat ironically, in 2010 the media misinterpreted a study and suggested that cannibalism had not occurred within the Donner party.)

Another example of survival cannibalism followed a plane crash in the Andes Mountains in 1972. Of the 45 passengers—a number of whom belonged to a Uruguayan rugby team—only 16 survived the 72-day ordeal, which included cannibalism, an act some of those rescued later compared to taking Holy Communion. And at Jamestown Colony in 1609–10—a period known as the Starving Time—desperate American settlers cannibalized their neighbors after first eating rats and shoe leather.

WRITTEN BY:  Amy Tikkanen 

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